When you think of Laughlin, Nevada, you think of: Slots! Blackjack! Dice! Drinks! Action! And Girls! Girls! Girls! But that's not all there is in Laughlin, Nevada; I have two words for you:

American Superstars.
A fake Roy Orbison, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Charlie Daniels, Blues Brothers (not to mention the Lovely American Superstar Dancers), all live onstage twice nightly at the Flamingo Hilton. "The number one stage production in Nevada," according to the Laughlin Preview. Would the Laughlin Preview lie?

I had to find out.
But believe me, this was to be no pleasure trip. I was going to do my damnedest to get to the heart of the American Superstar experience, to try to divine the true meaning of the "tribute show" and its psychosocial place in the vast spectrum of human entertainment. I wanted to observe the nebulous smoke screen between reality and illusion, perhaps even to talk with the stars of the show who faithfully mimic their fellow countrymen, those risen to the rank of "Superstar."

But I was not going alone. In the journalism game, where there are words, there must be pictures, and the person behind the camera at New Times is a man named Tim. We would go to Laughlin, get steeped in superstars, then drive into the woods somewhere near Happy Jack, Arizona, so he could take pictures of nudists. For another article. All in a day's work.

We picked up a rental car the Hertz guy said would be green, but it looked more like light turquoise. It was the kind of sleek Japanese thing you'd see a babe emerging from on a made-for-TV movie about high-class hookers, complete with a gale-force air conditioner. It had the interior frigid all the way from Sky Harbor, way up Highway 89 until I turned off the ignition in the dirt parking lot of a gas station/store in a town called Nothing. A store that is the town of Nothing.

We went in to buy water and got to talking with the grizzled old guy behind the counter. He was thin, his hair was sticking up, he had something like three teeth and one of his eyes kept looking somewhere else. He was a friendly sort, name of Brucha. "I just work here a couple days a week. Live over there in the miner's shack," he said, gesturing over there. "I'm an artist, I'm getting a gallery started next door."

An artist? A gallery? We bit, and he led us into a dilapidated structure filled with his work. Paintings, sculptures, mixed-media collages--and not half bad. I found two things I liked and offered $25.

Brucha thought about it for a while and countered with, "How bout $22?"
Another old guy came in with a WWII Vet hat angled on his head, knocking back what he said were aspirin with a can of Bud. His name--no lie--was Les Payne.

Les was no art connoisseur, but Brucha's work had opened his eyes. "When I used to go to a museum, I'd head right for the stuffed animals. I never understood why people in museums stood there like this looking at paintings," he said, cocking an elbow and tilting his skull. "But I love this stuff, now I get it!"

We loaded up the sex machine with Brucha originals and peeled onto the blacktop again; we had a date with some American Superstars to keep.

@body:Finally, the majestic vision of Laughlin loomed up out of the desert, a monument to man's ability to just, well, build something in the middle of nowhere. Drive down the main drag in this town and one thing becomes apparent real fast--there's nothing here but casinos. I didn't even see any bail-bond offices. But there was a bigger shock in store. American Superstars was not the only tribute show in town! Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, lots of hotels had em. Right next to the Flamingo I saw a marquee advertising "The Mop Tops as the Fab Four." And those guys weren't even American.

Now, I know you've all been in gambling resorts before; we've all tasted the swingin' life at Vegas, Reno or Tahoe, the places where paychecks go to die. But there's no denying the wonderful, sick rush you get when the huge revolving lobby doors swish you from the boring, ugly world of God's own desert and into the glitzy neon miasma that is a casino!

It was like walking through Night of the Living Losers, blank zombie faces dripping cigarettes drifted by in search of the magic slot or the lucky table; others were perched on stools in front of machines, like stuffed icons to protruding stomachs and polyester clothing.

Standing there surrounded by colored lights, suffering the noise of jackpot bells and one-armed bandits regurgitating quarters, I was overwhelmed by the whole sad, pathetic and sickening scene. In disgust, I slotted a quarter, pulled the lever, waited for Tim to finish checking in. And then: BAR-JOKER-BAR-BAR came up and 50 cents came out.

What had I been thinking! A 100 percent profit, the first time out! Instantly, I realized what a great place this was, surrounded by winners like myself and plenty of money, there for the taking.

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