LAS VEGAS, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- There was a time when the only clothing stores found in a Vegas casino were what I call Goombah Republics. At a Goombah Republic you could buy checked jackets, maroon ties, baby-blue golf sweaters with the little coat of arms over the pocket, rhinestone cleavage-enhancing gowns for the ladies, and, of course, suede evening shoes.
And then came the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, the first real carriage-trade shopping to be linked to a casino. It was followed by the Bellagio Shops, the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, the Desert Passage shopping area at the Aladdin, not to mention the huge Fashion Show Mall located right smack in the middle of the Strip itself.
Vegas had become Donna Karaned and Armanied to the point where it was almost impossible to find a decent dolphin sculpture or polka-dot bow tie anymore. I mean, there was always Gianni Versace, the man who somehow combined Goombah with Gucci, but he was a special case. You can still find Goombah Republics in Atlantic City, but I thought Vegas had banished them all to some ghetto downtown.
And then I found the mall at Bally's.
Oh, excuse me, I see from the press kit it's called the Bally's Avenue Shoppes. (Is there some reason that all casino shopping malls have an extra consonant and vowel in the name?)
At any rate, Bally's always COULD be counted on for protecting the Old Vegas traditions, and they have it -- an entire Goombah Republic shopping mall!
Now. You've probably never been to the mall at Bally's. You're checking your memory right now, aren't you? You're saying, "There's a mall at Bally's?" Unless you're a patron of the Las Vegas Monorail -- perhaps the LEAST convenient form of mass transit anywhere in the world -- you've never even noticed that the mall exists. Locals know about it because they go down there for the sports book, which is sunk into the ground like a Taliban cave.
The mall is at the very back of the casino, down an escalator, in a concrete tunnel that leads to the pool and the monorail station.
Start from the back of the mall, next to the enormous Bally's outdoor pool area. You know it's gonna be great because the very first thing you see is one of those places where you get your picture made into a cheesy magazine cover.
Across the way is the Celebration Wedding Chapel, then the Regis Nail Salon, then an arcade, then a Harley Davidson Shop (OK, we'll forgive them --it's trendy, but it's trendy in a peculiarly Bally's way), and then the entrance to The Spa at Bally's, which sounds like a contradiction in terms. (OK, I'm kidding. I'm sure it's very nice. But I hope it's the kind of place you go for a rubdown, not an "aromatic salt glow.")
But now we get into the good stuff. A New Orleans-style Hurricane stand! Complete with humongous souvenir glasses and 50- -- that's right, I said FIFTY -- ounce beers! This is all the nutrition you're going to need as you enter the subterranean Sports Book, complete with a bar at the back. The bar is called "BAR," in red neon. There's a white Sony TV at every betting station, and you feel like you're staring down into a mummy's tomb or something. (Devotees of Vegas history will remember it as the movie theater that used to show MGM classic films 24 hours a day when the hotel opened in 1973 as the MGM Grand.)
For atmosphere there's a bank of slots right outside the sports book entrance -- "Wheel of Fortune," OF COURSE.
The dining is Goombah-approved, with places normally only found in Times Square: a take-out sushi place, a Stage Deli, and a Cafe Sbarro. But it doesn't end there. You've got Chocolate Heaven, a humongous T-shirt shop, and an extremely tacky Vegas souvenir joint. You've got gewgaws and knick-knacks for grandma's mantle at a place called Uniquely Crystal. You've got your ceramic pigs at The Country Place. You've got the obligatory jewelry store for hookers with hearts of gold --called, appropriately enough, Le Grand Jewels. You've got one of those incredibly retro art galleries -- and YES, they have dolphin sculptures, but they have something even better: Red Skelton paintings.
And finally, you've got Goombah Heaven. First Bella Scarpa, an establishment evidently selling shoes and accessories to loud oversized women. (It should be called Bella Abzug.) Then Marshall-Rousso, a specialist in animal-print collars, giraffe sweaters and patterned jogging suits. (I've never understood stores that would hang a jogging suit in a window, but Vegas has them.) And finally -- nirvana! -- you have Mort Wallin men's wear. YES, they have silver ties. YES, they have ocean blue parkas normally only seen on Robert Goulet. YES, they have Leroy Neiman sweaters that cry out to be worn to the Friars Club. Yes, yes, YES!
It actually brings a tear to my eye. Bally's is protecting our heritage. Bally's is on the most famous corner of the Strip, surrounded by billion-dollar projects like Bellagio and Paris and Caesars Palace, and if you've been in there at all, you've probably been unimpressed by the long narrow gaming area, the low ceilings, the serried rows of quarter slots, and the fleur-de-lis puke-proof carpet.
If known for anything, it's the long-running show "Jubilee," but even that is classic Old Vegas. That's the classic Donn Arden show that features 100 showgirls, the Sinking of the Titanic, the Destruction of the Temple of Samson, leopards, panthers, white Bengal tigers, and the wizardry of "Dirk Arthur, Master Illusionist."
It's hard to imagine that, when the hotel opened 28 years ago, it was the biggest, most glamorous place in town. It was before the theme era, so it doesn't have any volcanoes or dancing waters or other bells and whistles.
The current owners, Park Place Entertainment, keep monkeying around with the marketing, currently going with a motto of "Classic Elegance" ("For nearly 30 years, Bally's Las Vegas has been the luxurious heart and soul of the neon city that never sleeps").
Last summer they spent $10 million on a new 15-story marquee that uses a mile of neon and definitely does get your attention on the Strip. In 1994 they spent $15 million on redesigning the plaza out front, installing waterfalls and people movers and lighted pylons and 15,000 plants, including palms and pines. And over the years they've managed to establish Bally's Steakhouse as the place to be on Sunday afternoons for the famous champagne-and-caviar Sterling Brunch.
But unfortunately Bally's is mostly known to tourists as the place where they had that terrible fire in the eighties. (It's partly the reason the name was changed.)
And, of course, as the place that has the great shopping. As the press kit says, "Bally's Avenue Shoppes feature world-class boutiques, specialty stores, restaurants and even a wedding chapel. You'll discover designer fashions, gourmet chocolates, fine cigars, unique souvenirs and a million other must-haves."
Well, uh, not really. It's really a Goombah Mall. And I LOVE that.
BALLY'S LAS VEGAS
3645 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Theme: Generic Old Vegas
Total investment: $450 million
Known for: The worst fire in Las Vegas history; the second longest running floor show, "Jubilee"
Marketing niche: Spillover from Paris, budget vacationers, package tours
Gambler's Intensity: Medium
Cocktail speed: Medium
Bosses: Very friendly
Surrounding area: At the southwestern corner of the famous "Four Corners" of Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard, directly across the street from Barbary Coast and Bellagio, caddy-corner from Caesars Palace. Linked by a mall to its swankier sister property, Paris.
Web site: ballyslv.com
Overall rating: 84
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $30 after an hour of Caribbean Stud
Poker: total to date: minus-$20
(E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)