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Even with warts,Vegas likes its story on PBS

Originally published in Current, Sept. 19, 2005
By Theodore Fischer

To characterize the characterization of Las Vegas in a forthcoming American Experience documentary as “warts and all” barely scratches the surface: warts, entry wounds, mug shots, indictments and congressional investigations is more like it. Nevertheless, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History offers a decidedly positive slant on a city it depicts as the best place in America for naughty pleasures and decent jobs.

"I was struck by the way Las Vegas embodies a great deal of what’s going on in American culture—for better or for worse,” says Stephen Ives, the director and co-producer (with Amanda Pollak). “It’s also part of a powerful myth—maybe the most powerful myth in America—which is the sense of moving West and discovering freedom of opportunity and the chance to strike it rich.”

Scheduled by PBS to air Nov. 14-15, the two 90-minute segments, “Sin City” and “American Mecca,” chart the city’s evolution from a railroad whistle-stop incorporated in 1905 to a destination for 37 million visitors a year. The producers intersperse archival footage with commentary by Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith, author Nick Pileggi (Wise Guys, Casino), journalist Marc Cooper, resort magnates Steve and Elaine Wynn and media mogul Brian Greenspun.

But viewers glimpse the soul of the city through innovative self-narrated profiles of 10 unidentified regular people at work, at home and at play. “I felt that the historical documentary form, which I’ve been part of now for 15 years, needed to be turned on its head a little bit,” says Ives, who directed and co-produced Seabiscuit and The West for PBS. “I had an image of people saying, ‘If anyone can make a boring film about Las Vegas, it’s public television.’ I was dead set—even if we fell flat on our face—to infuse the form with energy.”

Most of the vignettes spin only-in-Vegas success stories: a hotel maid who’s just purchased a three-bedroom home, a minister who has performed some 37,000 weddings, a showgirl who expects to work steadily well into her 40s. But there’s also a single mom from California who came to work but wound up on welfare and a compulsive gambler who turned to bank robbing.

Tourism officials in most cities would ignore or dispute such a broadcast, but the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority, which has of late conceded families to the Disney empire and homed in on the what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas crowd, partially underwrote the program and named it the official documentary of the city’s yearlong centennial celebration.

"We are what we are, and people know what our history is,” says Terry Jicinski, senior v.p. of marketing. “Any time someone feels they have a little bit of knowledge other people might not have, it bonds the person to Las Vegas and actually works in our favor.”

Ives insists that the tourism agency’s support didn’t compromise his editorial independence. “It’s always a fine line; public television makes judgment calls about this kind of thing every day,” says Ives. “The Illinois Department of Tourism underwrote the American Experience on Chicago, and the LVCVA obviously had no editorial control or input. If Steve Wynn had tried to give us money—and he would have—we couldn’t take it. He did give us money for promotion only, but he’s not allowed [by PBS guidelines] to give us money to underwrite the actual film.”

As for any notion that public television and Las Vegas make strange bedfellows, “it speaks volumes that the PBS annual meeting was in Las Vegas in April, at the MGM Grand,” says Ives. “We had the mayor there with a couple of his showgirls, a martini in his hand. When Vegas can win over public television for their annual convention, that says a lot about why the city is where it is today.”

Web page posted Nov. 3, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Female dancer wearing  bangles and very large pink exotic hat

Ives was deadset against making a boring film about Las Vegas. Pictured: 1950s performer. (Photo: University of Nevada.)


With The West, Stephen Ives unreeled a complex saga of glory, shame and all the rest, 1996.

WGBH's American Experience began its series of city biographies with New York in 1999, followed by Chicago in 2003 and Las Vegas in 2005. Ives will helm a New Orleans profile in 2006.


American Experience pages about its city bios New York: A Documentary Film, Chicago: City of the Century and Las Vegas: An Unconventional History.

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