Doug Ward in Las Vegas
In the summer of 1999 I took Doug to Las Vegas, Nevada for the first time. It came about this way… After years of recording our conversations on audio tape I decided that it would be great to get him on video tape telling me all the things we had spoken about before. Because by that time I had a few friends, former students mostly, who had the technical ability to help me get it done. And who knows, perhaps in the future I might be able to make a documentary or education tape out of the whole thing. But that remained to be seen. Right now the task was to get Doug out here to Tempe, Arizona and get the ball rolling. So I called and told him what I had in mind. He liked the idea and said sure. I would pay is way, put him up in a hotel and we would hang out together. As an added incentive I said that after the week of taping we would go to Las Vegas for a few days. He said; “Sure, I don’t mind.”
Now Doug had visited me here in Arizona a few times. All of it related in one way or another to my tenure as a faculty member in the Theatre Department at Arizona State University (ASU) since I started here in 1986. Twice he directed plays on our main stage and twice he was here to sit on panels of some conference or another. So coming to Arizona was no novelty for him.
My reasons for picking Las Vegas were multiple. First off it was close, exactly one hour by plane from Phoenix. Another reason is because I love the place. It is possibly my favorite city in the US. Now when I say that to most people immediately I get that knowing smile as if to say; “I understand . You don’t have to say anymore. The gambling, the shows, the liquor and all that sex, right?” And just about every time I let them go on thinking it because I learned a long time ago that it does no good to protest or explain anything. People are going to believe what they want to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. But the truth is I hardly drink and I’m not much of a gambler either. For one I don’t know how to play any of the board games. And second, I hate to lose. I get irritated and mad when I do. So generally when I go there I will budget fifty to a hundred dollars as playing money and spread it out over the time that I’m there. Usually I play the quarter slots and if I win twenty dollars or more I run like a thief. And if I lose ten dollars in any sitting I quit for the day. The other thing about Las Vegas and me is I can’t stand to be in the place after three or four days at the most. After that I get bored and want to go back to my own life….So why do I love the place? First off, I love the look of it. The topography. All the fake architectural replicas, the Statue of Liberty, the Eifel Tower, the Medieval Castle, the black pyramid, the stratosphere needle and all those indoor malls. The Parisian street, the Monte Carlo market place, Caesar’s Palace where Atlantis sinks into the ocean every day on the appointed hour, San Marco’s Square and the gondolas at the Venetian. The simulated wonders go on and on… Another thing I love is all the buffet deals and the great variety of food they offer. I also like walking the street looking at all that neon and all those people going to and fro. So all together I see the place as a Disneyland for adults where I can mentally lose myself in its absurdity for a few days. And I was hoping that perhaps Doug might find it as amusing and restful as I did.
My final reason for wanting to take him there was somewhat sentimental. Doug had produced my first play The Offering (1977). Not only did he produce the play he directed and acted in it as well. That production started my career in the theatre and changed the course of my life. If he hadn’t done that who knows, I might still be waiting tables or tending bar in some restaurant or bar. Instead I (with only my High School diploma) was a tenured professor at a major university. So I had a lot to be grateful to Doug for…There is a moment in my play The Offering where the old man (Doug’s character) says: “Vegas. That place always seemed like a magic land to me. Never really believed it was there…Always wanted to go to Las Vegas. Always… When I wrote those lines I hadn’t been to Vegas either . But now more than fifteen years later I had been there several times and wanted to share it with him.
Now I wasn’t sure if Doug would like Vegas. If it was his cup of tea even. I knew that politically he was of a Marxist/ socialist persuasion so the ostentatious display of material excess and splendor that Vegas flaunts so shamelessly might be anathema to his philosophical sensibility. Nevertheless, I took the chance anyway.
We got there on a Sunday morning and right away he was taken by the sheer size and scale of everything. We were staying at the Golden Nugget which is in downtown Vegas. He liked the area because it is what they call “Old Vegas” and looks very much like Vegas from the old movies. We went to the various buffets and spent sometimes 4 to 5 hours eating slowly and talking about everything under the sun. Because that’s what we do whenever we get together, talk and talk and then we talk some more. Other times we would walk the streets or visit the various malls until he got tired. Then we would retire to our rooms, take a nap and meet up later for dinner and drinks. Sometimes we would gamble a little but not much.
Doug’s idea of Vegas prior to going there was the one most people who haven’t been there have. That is the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack ring-a-ding Vegas of “Broads, booze and dice”. But the city has changed, changed a lot… One afternoon we were sitting outside the Monte Carlo Hotel just watching the crowds go by. I said to him; “Look at those people, what do you see?” He got it right away. Most of the people we saw passing by were around our age and grey haired. I reminded him of the scene near the end of Scorsese’s film Casino (1995) where Ace Rothstein (played by Robert DeNiro) narrates how Las Vegas had changed. Then the Panavision screen fills up with senior citizens moving forward toward the camera. That’s what we were seeing right there in front of us and it was great because we were seniors too. I was 60, Doug was 69. They were having a good time and so were we.
Anyway, somewhere in the middle of all this eating and sightseeing we did take time out to shoot a video interview with Doug. A section of it can be seen on YouTube.
One last note. Doug absolutely loved Las Vegas. He was amused by, as he puts it; “The sheer scale of everything.” And also by the unabashed, unashamed vulgarity of its material display. He calls Vegas “The Cathedral of Capitalism.” because the place is strictly about money and isn’t afraid to shout it to the world. There’s honesty in its vulgarity and he admires that honesty. And since that time we have been to Las Vegas on three other occasions and each visit was more fun than the time before.