The Sky Room

1950s_Desert_Inn_SkyRoomThe Sky Room was dead. Just a middle-aged couple holding hands over Manhattans at one table and a wrinkled tourist with a loser’s face at the bar contemplating a flock of empty shot glasses. The small dance floor was scuffed and dusty. An empty cocktail table had an ashtray filled with butts. You wouldn’t have seen that in the old days.

The ceiling was still painted to make it look like a starry night with puffy clouds, but some of the stars weren’t shining. It didn’t matter. Nobody said “Meet me at the Sky Room!” anymore.

The Murray Arnold Quartet — minus three — was providing the entertainment. The aging boy wonder of the piano was a long way from his glory days at the Cocoanut Grove in L.A. or fronting for Freddy Martin and his orchestra. But the old guy looked comfortable in this empty relic from the town’s past, noodling the keys of a scratched baby grand, exploring a subtle syncopation on “More Than You Know.” Heber wasn’t sure if he liked Murray’s interpretation, but he appreciated the effort.

He found a table by the big window overlooking the Strip and sat down. Fingerprints smeared the glass at kid level. He took off his Stetson and used his handkerchief to wipe the sweatband. Setting his hat on the table, he looked out the smudged window and tried to remember the last time he saw a mushroom cloud.

“She could take care of herself…”

He sipped his martini and appreciated how her faded jeans stretched against her haunches as she kneeled to work the fire. He thought about the size of the staff needed for a place like this. A full-time grounds-keeper, for sure. A pool man. Maybe a handyman, too. Housekeeper, definitely, even with auntie in residence. The guys in the truck. It added up.

One thing was certain, somebody filled that ice bucket, somebody put this wood out here, somebody took the covers off these chairs, somebody lit these torches, somebody swept away the desert that would never give up its claim to the land. Maybe she called ahead on that radio-phone in her fancy XKE.

He wondered how long it would be before she mentioned her husband again. Or would he have to bring it up. He knew he should feel guilty, but he didn’t. Mrs. Lyman was a big girl. She could take care of herself. (from “Joey’s Place”)

Historical fiction

Just read an interesting perspective on historical fiction in an article about “Wolf Hall” author, Hilary Mantel in the October 15, 2012, issue of the New Yorker Magazine:
“Historical fiction is a hybrid form, halfway between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws. To some, if it is fiction, anything is permitted. To others, wanton invention when facts are to be found, or, worse, contradiction of well-known acts, is a horror; a violation of an implicit contract with the reader, and a betrayal of the people written about. Ironically, it is when those stricter standards of truth are applied that historical fiction looks most like lying.” (Larissa MacFarquhar)

“Vegas” – a missed opportunity

The opening cattle drive, with “Las Vegas” superimposed over the alleged 1960 setting, should have been a warning. Starring Dennis Quaid as Sheriff (to-be) Ralph Lamb and Michael Chiklis as Vincent Savino, the new boss of the fictional Savoy Casino, the “Vegas” premiere episode quickly reminded me why an animal gnaws off its own foot to escape a trap. Granted, I wasn’t expecting a documentary, but when the lead character is “based upon” a real-life Nevada native and Clark County Sheriff, a little authenticity would be nice.

It all starts with Quaid’s character getting angry because an inbound passenger plane scatters his herd, so he gallops to the airport to complain that they should bring the planes in “from the east, over the casinos.” This reminded me of when I worked at the Desert Inn pool as a kid and tourists would ask, “Does the sun set over there every day?” Note to show’s producers: McCarran is east of the Strip, therefore, east of the casinos that existed in 1960. The subsequent fistfight with the oddly thuggish airport personnel was probably meant to emphasize Lamb’s two-fisted personality, but it came across like bad backyard antics on Youtube. Remember, this was all before the first commercial break.

The historical gaffes continued: no one would have said “interstate” in 1960, they would have called it the LA Highway, Highway 91, or just 91; why is the city mayor involved in selecting who will investigate a murder victim found in the county? why are the road signs for the Stardust and Sahara on the same side of the strip? why does the Fremont Street sidewalk make the Golden Nugget look like it’s in a strip mall? why are there vehicles made after 1960 on the road? Las Vegas has to be one of the most filmed and photographed cities in the world, so I also wonder why no effort was made to utilize actual film, video, and photos in the story-telling.

This is network television, not premium cable like HBO or Showtime. Therefore, the people in charge apparently decided they needed to hook the viewer with a mystery before the first commercial — brutal murder (in the county) that (according to the city’s mayor) must be investigated by maverick rancher (and future sheriff) with the usual suspects (including the rodeo-riding, broken-hearted boyfriend of the victim and a biker gang that seems to have time-warped back from “Sons of Anarchy”), which ultimately leads to a perverse casino exec who attempts to flee in a small plane. When character and context development is done, or attempted, expository dialogue is the device, saving time, I guess, for the on-screen glowers of Quaid, the pro forma Mob violence of Chiklis, and the showdown scenes between them.

Quaid appears to think his glower means he’s “cowboy tough,” but he looks more like a retiree who just discovered that the buffet has run out of vanilla pudding (which is almost comical when he’s carrying a shotgun). Chiklis’s character has been sent by “the boys” to straighten out the badly run Savoy Casino and, unfortunately, he comes across more like Gordon Ramsay forced to manage a Golden Corral. James Russo, the casino exec whose new boss is Chiklis, just looks lost. Maybe more will be done with his character as the characters are developed. If they are developed. The same can be said for Carrie-Anne Moss, assistant district attorney, whose primary purpose seems to be providing a potential romantic interest for Quaid and sarcastically pointing out the apparent corruption of the mayor and district attorney.

When I stopped gnawing and switched off the program, Quaid’s character was stalking down a freshly paved runway, six-gun in hand, apparently determined to have a showdown with a Cessna piloted by the perverse casino exec. The real shame is that Ralph Lamb came from a very interesting (and large) Nevada family and had a very interesting life. See this link from a Review/Journal series noting Las Vegas’s 100th anniversary: So did his brothers, Floyd and Darwin.

Lamb and the department did have memorable showdowns with biker gangs, he was willing to “throw down” when the situation demanded it, he did have a “unique” relationship with the gamblers who ran things (publicly and behind the scenes), and that era was a remarkable time in Las Vegas. Perhaps, with all the on-screen talent involved, there might still be hope for “Vegas.” But its pilot earned it a C- grade. And that’s being generous. Score this show, so far, as a major missed opportunity. Episode #2 is on the DVR, but after reading its breakdown (another crime of the week) it may stay there until it gets automatically deleted.

[Since posting this, I have been “taken to task” by those pointing out “It’s a hit!” My response? “Honey Boo Boo” and “Let’s see for how long.”]