“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos . . . but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space.”
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
When I toured the Vegas Strip in August/September 2010, I didn’t make it to the north end of the Strip. I saw Fremont Street, and visited nearly every casino from the Mirage south to Mandalay Bay, but I missed the Wynn, the Sahara, the Riviera, and one other. Upon my return in August 2011, my must-do list began with one item: to visit Circus Circus. I was very sad to have missed it the first time – from the exterior, Circus Circus has all the appeal of a roadside attraction, where the proprietors may or may not have a stack of lye-powdered bodies stacked in the crawlspace. The concept of a casino with trapeze artists flying over the heads of blue-haired ladies as they pull slots handles is enticing, and I had a few vivid memories from the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing, which involved an angry badger, to further motivate me.
While I can’t say that I personally saw anything that made me think Third Reich, and I was free of any perception-altering drugs save for a couple of gin-and-tonics, I can say honestly that Circus Circus is one of the most uncomfortable places I have ever been – and not in the sense that the temperature was off, or the seating was unpleasant, or anything of the sort. It was uncomfortable in the way Lovecraft describes the city of R’lyeh, built from some strange and foreign geometry that made me unsettled almost from the moment I walked through the front door.
Not to mention that I was utterly disappointed by one fact: yes, there are trapeze, but they are not above the heads of the slots players. In my mind, Circus Circus was a cavernous space in which the slots and table games existed on the floor while dozens of trapeze artists and tightrope walkers flew in perpetual motion just above their heads, with perhaps a net to protect them. Instead, the slots are banished beneath a low ceiling, and there is a single set of trapeze positioned above a small stage, which is suspended in a bizarre limbo cavity at the heart of the building. Above the stage is the midway – which appears to be like any carnival midway, except that the games run in a circle around the third-story perimeter of this unnatural place. To one side is the carousel, situated on the second floor above a bank of slots, which when rotating gives the impression that the walls of the building have somehow begun to slither.
The whole place is painted dark purple, and when performers are on stage the stark stage lighting casts spectral shadows on the darkened ceiling. Add to this that the performances Liz and I caught – a rope act, followed by a pair of quick-change artists (see video below – and take special note of the band members, who may or may not be high priests of Shub-Niggurath) made me feel as if we had somehow fallen through a portal into some 1980’s Soviet republic, and I would not have been the least surprised if that stage hosted a black mass, or perhaps a public hanging. Liz and I beat it the hell out of Circus Circus about as fast as we could go. We didn’t even make it to Adventuredome, the recently-added domed amusement park behind the Casino, where I have to assume two man enter, one man leave.
With all that said, I have to admit to a certain affection for the place. There are precious few remnants of Vegas’s tacky 1970s past remaining on the Strip – they’ve all been replaced by colossal 1990s resorts that are only beginning to come across as tacky – and there are very few places on Earth where a human can feel so instinctively out of proportion. I plan to go back on my next trip, assuming some wretched dark thing from the beyond has not by then revealed the true purpose behind the building’s dark geometry, torn its way up through the desert beneath, and claimed Las Vegas as the seat from which it will rule over all of humanity.