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The Escape

February 13, 2020

Shadow Greg, La Jolla.JPG

They seemed so sure just who I was
And just where the winds would take me
And just what I dreamed when I slept alone
Beneath the willow tree

And that the blossom in a young girl’s eyes
Like a gypsy dream revealed tomorrow
And even the streetcorner saints
Wished me well on the path
I was sure to follow.

And they cleared the road
And swept the dust
But it clouded my vision
And I just saw hands
Grabbing, taking, giving with strings
Dreaming their dreams
In my unsure skin.

On desire’s rickshaw I rattled ahead
Upon their gladly burdened shoulders
And the city of gold glistened before me
And I glimpsed the crown that I would wear
And I turned with a start and tumbled out
And scraped my knee on sandy ground
And wound my way through crowded streets
And disappeared among the unknowns
And at the end of the path, the place I sought:
Before me, green grass, and a place called home.

– Greg Blake Miller, July 23, 1993

From the Archives: A Historic District of the Mind

February 12, 2020

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In 2003, city leaders created Las Vegas’ first official historic district, the John S. Park Neighborhood. It was a step forward for a city whose fondest architectural tradition had seemed, at times, to be the teardown. For a moment, the celebratory implosion and the parade of earthmovers was supplanted by an official acknowledgment that physical structures could be vessels of communal memory. It was a gesture toward our maturity as a city, toward our capacity to understand that as we move headlong into the future, the past has something to teach us—that it whispers of the humanity we share with our civic forebears, in all of their striving, their small joys and disappointments, their successes and  imperfections.

In this essay for Las Vegas Life,“A Historic District of the Mind,” I argued that, while the official designation was important, the future of local history depended first of all on our willingness as citizens to acknowledge that we are a part of history, and history is a part of us. In other words, history begins with our own capacity to make memories and to appreciate the places where memories are made. Civic action begins with individual consciousness; civic wisdom begins with individual willingness to slow down, take a backward glance, and reflect.

Read “A Historic District of the Mind”  here.

Illustration by Steve Brodner for Las Vegas Life, 2003.

A Man of Appetite

February 10, 2020

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In the summer of 2001, as the 35th anniversary of the opening of Caesars Palace approached, I was asked by Las Vegas Life to report and reflect on the life of Caesars founder Jay Sarno. Here is the resulting story, “A Man of Appetite,” from the magazine’s August 5, 2001 issue:

Toward the end, Jay Sarno, father of the Vegas theme resort, was big-bellied, full-cheeked, and insatiably hungry. He was known on occasion to diet, which meant replacing his breakfast salami with filet mignon. He rehabilitated his bum ticker by hoisting an ice-cream cone in each fist. He had philandered his way out of a marriage, gambled his way out of a million and dreamed his way out of the casino business. He hoped to remedy this state of affairs with girls, dice and dreams.

Indulgence, for Sarno, had always been part of a creative process. You want something. You taste it. You re-create it, writ large, for the world. If you want to party like Bachhus, you build the Bacchanal room and serve six-course meals with neck rubs and bottomless wine goblets. “His insights all came from his own appetites,” says Don Williams, Sarno’s right-hand-man at Circus Circus in the late 1960s and early ’70s. “Get prettier girls, build bigger buildings, get better restaurants, have bigger gamblers around. All these things came from his loins, not his brain.”

Sarno was the Freud and Ford of Las Vegas, the first in town to fully realize the link between our dreams and our appetites. The central assumption of his career was that we wanted the same things he did. Once upon a time, Sarno decided that he wanted a palace. So he built one and called it Caesars. That’s plural, no apostrophe. Every guest was an emperor. Sarno knew that we, too, had dreams. We, too, were hungry.

Caesars Palace opened on August 5, 1966, with a three-day party featuring 1,400 well-heeled invitees, an Andy Williams-fronted show and a busty blond Cleopatra as greeter. The Palace wasn’t just a resort, it was a pageant. It was a wild baroque dream of imperial antiquity, and the artifacts of the dream were everywhere, from the come-hither Roman costumes of cocktail girls to the curve of the bathroom faucets. Out front, a statue reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace reached skyward from a great oblong pool—a headless sentry leading you to a place where you, like fiddling Nero, were welcome to lose your head. For the first time, a Vegas hotel was all about storytelling, a suspension of disbelief.

From 1965, when construction began, to 1969, when he sold the palace, Sarno worked ceaselessly to create the resort experience he wanted, He kept his hands on as many facets of the operation as possible. While designing the Palace, he traveled to Europe and photographed columns, pilasters, rooftops and flying buttresses. He spared few expenses. He wanted marble sculpture, so he headed to the town where Michelangelo had obtained marble.

The hotel’s theme, in truth, was not Imperial Rome, but Sarno’s vision of it: Faithfulness to that vision was more important than verisimilitude. Sarno had the help of designer Jo Harris, who would often tone down or transform or harmonize his exuberant concepts. But in the end, the place was Sarno’s, and it kept him running … READ MORE from the original magazine layout. Story picks up from here at the end of the first page.

Kobe

January 27, 2020

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Woke up this morning
And, fuck, it’s still true.
In the country of basketball,
Where my soul spent its youth:
All of the flags
At half-mast.

– GBM

At the Gates of Mosfilm, 1993

January 25, 2020

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In the summer of 1993, when I was in my early 20s and already besotted with Russian culture, I had the good fortune to land a job at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow. The history of the studio had captured my imagination from afar, and each day that summer I felt that ghostly feeling one sometimes gets when inhabiting the present of a place whose past one has dreamed about. Whenever there was time, I liked to roam the studio grounds, or rather hover among them, convincing myself I could hear the talking stones. Here was a heavy building of beige brick, neoclassical, built to Stalin’s tastes, its authority softened by volunteer shrubs sprouting from the rooftop balustrade. Alongside it, a graveyard of rusted out baby-blue studio buses, each grill aged to uniqueness, destroyed in its own special way. There was a traffic light in an alley between soundstages; the lights had been removed; you could look right through it and see the sky. The studio had once been one of the world’s great centers of filmmaking. Now on certain days I could walk from one end of the vast grounds to the other without bumping into anything resembling a shoot. For me, a kid from Las Vegas, there was a strangely familiar air to the place—it felt like the hollowed downtown of an American city after the construction of a suburban mall. And the feeling was apt: Russian film fans had gotten their mall—the miles of roadside kiosks hawking cheap pirated copies of Hollywood films, many of them straight-to-video jobs of which I had never seen or heard. Without its once lavish state support, the studio had no way to compete with such masterworks.

My job was to translate, coach dialogue, and occasionally dig holes on the set of what was at the time Mosfilm’s marquee project—a Russian-Italian-American joint venture. Mosfilm buses 3-0025 13We were making a Western. Starring an Italian. Filmed chiefly on a military base an hour outside Moscow. Each morning we all came to the studio, boarded one of the less distressed of the picturesque blue buses, and headed for the set. On my first day of work I had taken the Metro to Kiev Station, caught Trolley 34 to the gates of Mosfilm, and showed my documents to the guard. I’d arrived early. I didn’t know who to look for, where to find them, or quite how to explain my presence. I knew the history of the studio, but its present, and my present, were something of a mystery. The guard waved me through. I wandered onto the grounds. And there I did what one does on a film shoot. I waited.

GBM0Posters at Mosfilm Gate, Summer 1993 (0020 13 copy)

I could have kept waiting all day. There, just inside the gate, was a long row of displays encased in scratched and fogged Lucite—posters of the majestic movies of Mosfilm’s past.  Poster for Letyat Zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying), Mosfilm, 1993 (0016 14 copy)Here was Grigorii Chukhrai’s 1959 classic Ballad of a Soldier. Over there—Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 masterpiece The Cranes Are Flying. Eight-thousand miles and eleven time zones from home, I found myself longing for a lost time and place, but it was not a time or place in which I or any of my ancestors had ever lived. In the third year of the bewildering Muscovite 90s, in the heart of the world’s first attempt at a post-Socialist society, I found myself missing a Russia where the chocolate came not from M & M Mars but from the Red October Chocolate Factory, where the soundtrack of the times emitted from the voice box of Vladimir Vysotsky rather than the synthesizers of a Scandinavian globo-pop outfit called Ace of Base, and where the Shock Worker movie theatre on the embankment of the Moscow River was showing The Cranes Are Flying. This fantastic daydream made no sense: I had studied the Soviet century, its deprivations, its brutalities both grandiose and audaciously petty. I could not possibly “miss” the Soviet Union. And yet, on that day, in that peculiar way, what could I say but that I missed the place? Continue: Read the full introduction to “Reentry Shock.” (The essay picks up from here on page four.)

Greg at St. Basil's, Moscow, Summer 1993 (0029 8 copy)

That’s me, back then. Had fun. Time flew.

 

From the Archives: Russia, Ukraine and the Battle of Yesterday

January 4, 2020

image.pngSix years ago, those of us who had studied Russian and East European history and culture already understood that the emerging conflict between Russia and Ukraine would shake the world, but we could not have predicted the strange ways in which its tremors have rattled internal politics across Europe, North America and beyond. In early 2014, Ukraine, placed once again on the balance beam between East and West, deposed its leader and attempted a westward tilt. Russia responded swiftly, exploiting Ukraine’s cultural rifts and historical peculiarities to annex Crimea and stoke a civil war in eastern Ukraine. Western sanctions followed, which were in turn followed by an accelerated Russian information (and disinformation) campaign to undermine faith in the kind of Western political structures Ukraine had wanted to join and emulate: Liberal democracy would seem far less enticing if it could be demonstrated that it worked poorly and led to chaos.

Today, with the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union, illiberalism on the rise in Central Europe, and transnational bodies of liberal governance ridiculed across the West as feckless and out of touch, it’s hard to envision a world in which, just a few years ago, Ukrainians risked everything to take a step toward an EU that seemed the guarantor of stability. It also remains difficult, after six years of political and geopolitical repercussions, for Westerners to understand what Ukraine’s choice that fateful winter meant to Russians (and many Ukrainians) who considered the histories of the two countries inextricably bound. In March 2014, I wrote a short essay introducing those complicated histories to the readers of Vegas Seven. (Even in the age of the global Web, it’s important to have thoughtful local discourse on international matters.)  After years of political posturing in which interested parties try to simplify and spin the conflict to their advantage, it seems worthwhile to post this little primer once more: “Russia, Ukraine and the Battle of Yesterday.”

Greg Blake Miller is a former staff writer for The Moscow Times. He holds a doctorate in international communication from the University of Oregon and earned his master’s in Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

Wilshire and Citrus

December 24, 2019
Grandma-Vegas Seven-Wilshire and Citrus Illustration

Illustration by Chris B. Murray for Vegas Seven.

A man, his dog, and a Great Depression

By Greg Blake Miller

(This story originally appeared in Vegas Seven, August 9, 2012.)

On a scorching Sunday in late June 2012, my 11-year-old son and I finished a baseball workout, stopped at Thrifty Ice Cream on Las Vegas’ Pecos Road, bought a chocolate milkshake and took it to my 100-year-old grandmother, Lillian Lorand Dubin. She peppered us with questions about our changing little world—a new baseball team, a new home, a new dog. Most of all, she wanted to know about the dog. Then she repaid us with a dog story of her own.

My great-grandfather Erno, she told us, had a dog, a honey-colored chow named Mickey. Mickey belonged to Erno the way only certain dogs belong to certain people—for better, for worse, and forever.

Erno had come to the United States from Budapest around 1910 and settled in Cleveland’s burgeoning Hungarian community. He had been a handsome young stage actor and singer; his parents owned a prosperous lumber business in Szeged and considered acting an unworthy profession. He didn’t want to shame them, but he wanted to keep acting, so he changed his name from Laszter to Lorand. I have in my photo album a shot of Erno posing rakishly among his fellow performers; it’s a sharp crew, Budapest’s most eligible bachelors. They’re standing on a busy city street, in the back of what appears to be a wagon, ready for an audience. Among Erno’s friends was S.Z. Sakall, who would later grow portly, earn the name “Cuddles” and play Carl the waiter at Rick’s Café in Casablanca.

In Cleveland, Erno set to work making suits and courting a young woman, Lenke Marton, the second of 17 children from the Hungarian village of Szamosújvár. He married Lenke. He dreamed of making his way to Hollywood and onto the big screen. A girl was born, and then a boy.

In 1929, he and Lenke set off for Los Angeles in a brand-new Essex with their 17-year-old daughter, Lillian, 14-year-old son, Joe, and Mickey, the honey-colored chow. The car broke down in Lawrence, Kansas; there was no money for repairs, so they left Joe’s violin for collateral. They arrived in L.A. and ransomed the fiddle. Movies spoke by that time, and they did not speak with a Hungarian accent. Erno remained a tailor. With his brother-in-law, he started a clothing business. Dreams were still possible—just different ones. Within months, the stock market crashed.

Erno was a proud man, who loved his family fiercely and raised his daughter strictly. He was a cosmopolitan Jew, non-dogmatic but filled with faith in the sanctity of doing things right; he embraced America for everything America believed itself to be. He believed in culture and the beauty of language and the importance of practicing the piano. The Depression did not suit him.

What suited him was Mickey the honey-colored chow, who did not care whether he was a tailor or an actor or a man deeply wounded by the fallen economy. Mickey was by Erno’s side through work’s endless hours—fabrics were chosen, clients were measured, patterns were cut, books were kept.

When the work dried up, Mickey did not leave Erno’s side. When the stomach infection set in, Mickey did not leave the bedside.

Erno died in 1932 at the age of 43.

The day of the funeral, Lenke, Lillian and Joe sat down in the car and began that longest of rides, and Mickey took off running behind the wheels. He chased the car down the street, around the corner, through the crowded avenues of Boyle Heights. He ran and ran, and finally they stopped and Mickey climbed in and went to his master’s funeral. After that, he followed Lenke wherever she went. In their bond, Erno survived—his authority, his embrace, his fierce and unyielding dreaminess.

The Lorands moved from Boyle Heights to an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard and Citrus Avenue. Lillian supported the family on the $25 a week she made as a secretary at Occidental Life Insurance. She was a champion typist; she took dictation from A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America. Mickey, meanwhile, was Lenke’s constant companion; he knew Wilshire well, and Wilshire knew him, a dog about town. One day a year after Erno’s death, Lenke and her sister-in-law went shopping on Wilshire. As always, they brought Mickey; as always, they tied his leash to a post outside the store.
When they came back outside, he was gone. They walked for blocks, looking down every street and alley. They went home. Mickey did not follow them.

A year later, Lenke and her sister-in-law emerged from the same store and heard wild but muffled barking. They spotted the source, behind the passenger-side window of a Packard. The dog leapt and howled and whimpered. It pressed its nose against the window. It scratched at the glass with its paws. Lenke waited for the car’s owner to return. He arrived, he opened the door, the dog jumped out and ran to Lenke.

“This is our dog,” she told the man.

“No, it’s not,” the man said. “He’s mine. I bought him right here a year ago.”

The dog jumped up on Lenke; it practically embraced her with his paws. Lenke looked the man in the eye.

“Look at him,” she said. “Don’t you think he’s my dog?”

The man hesitated, looked, drew his breath in and let it out slowly.

Mickey went home with Lenke.

There are things dogs know and things they don’t know. Some people say it’s all just instinct. Maybe so, but Mickey had an instinct for family— and he knew this one was his.

Years later, when Lenke became too ill to take care of Mickey, she gave him to a home for elderly Jews, where he kept everyone company. He was kind to them all—and they loved him back. But sometimes Lenke would come visit, and all the old folks—no strangers to the way a feeling could endure through pretty much anything—could see that no matter where Mickey lived, he knew exactly where home really was.