This is Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel’s joint, which first opened in 1946. Most people don’t want to hear that Bugsy bought a two-thirds interest in a project already begun by Billy Wilkerson, owner of the Hollywood Reporter magazine and Ciro’s nightclub in Los Angeles. They prefer to believe that Siegel had a vision and saw Las Vegas rising out of the desert like a mirage.
In the summer of 1946, my brother Monte, who was then ten years old, and a friend got a ride to the new Flamingo resort. Monte walked up to a casino floor man who was a neighbour of ours and asked him if they could go swimming in the brand-new pool. Mr. Siegel was walking by, so the floor man asked him if these two local boys could go for a swim.
Mr. Siegel looked down at my brother and asked, ‘You can swim, can’t you, kid? Cause we don’t want no floaters.’
My brother said that they could both swim like fish. So, Bugsy let my brother and his friend take a swim in the big new pool. Monte, a Vegas kid through and through, already knew that you had to tip the pool boy, and he had tip money at the ready.
In 1963, my friend Gordie, whose father was a casino executive at the Desert Inn Hotel, invited us on to the set of the film Viva Las Vegas. Elvis and Ann-Margret were shooting at the Flamingo pool. Over and over, we watched as Ann-Margret pushed Elvis into the pool, guitar and all.
As I recall, they shot the pool scenes over the course of two full days. I spo ed the gorgeous chanteuse Leslie Uggams si ing pool-side, but I was too shy to ask for her autograph. I got Mitch Miller’s autograph, though, and we saw several other stars and starlets lounging around pool-side. It was quite the scene.
All of that and more went into this vision of Siegel’s fabulous Flamingo Hotel.
The Mojave Desert is a harsh, but very spiritual, place. It’s as much a matrix as anything else in my life has been. Growing up in the desert has a different gestalt than growing up in a temperate zone, with its humidity and rainfall. As children growing up in the Mojave, we chased lizards and snakes, instead of frogs and squirrels. There is an arid openness about it, and a true feeling of being alone, that you don’t get in any other type of environment.
It has occurred to me that when one is raised in the absence of culture – without access to galleries and museums – one has to fill the void. I turned to books, album covers, magazines, slides and prints – anything visually stimulating that I could lay my hands on.
After graduation, I dealt blackjack in Las Vegas to make ends meet. When I wasn’t working, to straighten out my head, I would go out into the desert – up to Red Rock and Pine Creek. I would hike those creek beds and find a comfortable red-sandstone boulder, where I could sit and draw. In those days before cell phones, I could spend hours undisturbed, drawing or painting, with
just my dog, Odin, for company. O entimes, I wouldn’t see another soul. You can’t do that today. Nowadays, there are way too many people hiking around to have much privacy.
The temptation is always to think of Las Vegas as a gambling mecca, the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’. Well, it’s that. But, it’s a lot more than that as well. There are beautiful natural rock formations, rare plants and animals, and even pseudo-alpine regions. Just because you can see for a hundred miles doesn’t mean that there’s nothing there to see, and open desert allows you to see things in a different way. There is nothing to block your view, and nothing to hide behind.
I developed a thirst for great art, but it wasn’t until I was 20 that I finally visited my first museum, the Prado in Madrid. There, in 1968, my interest was caught by the paintings of Luis de Morales, a 16th-century artist from the harsh Extremadura region of Spain.
Morales was a Mannerist, like El Greco or Parmigianino, who painted very graceful figures with long necks and limbs. He did a magnificently smooth sfumato modelling. But the effect that impressed me the most was a fine line that he applied around all of his figures. He didn’t need those illustrative lines, but they really made his figures ‘pop’ off the background.
Living in the desert makes a lot of things very clear. It really gives you an unobstructed view. The severity
of the landscape opens people up to their inner selves. St. Anthony went into the wilderness and was tormented by demons. Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert. In an unexpected way, the Mojave is a very spiritual place.
The gestalt of living in the desert, surrounded by the desert, was a big influence in my life and in the lives of other artists in this community. There are many artists and musicians who grew up as lonely kids in the desert with nothing to do, and who chose to channel their focus inward. In the Mojave Desert, numinous, mystical experiences are not as rare as one might think. The numinous is a part of the whole artistic experience for the desert artist.
The next exhibition of Shimmering Zen will take place in The Studio - Sahara West Library in Las Vegas from 21/09/18. Further info here.