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In Las Vegas, Some Stunts Are Strictly for Publicity

Media: Birds getting hitched. A car stuffed with high heels. 'Anything and everything' that might get coverage is hyped.


In the hall of fame for all-time weirdest publicity gimmicks, it's tough to beat the strange, sordid saga of the bronze butt sculpture.

Modeled on the glutei maximi of seven Las Vegas showgirls, the 1-ton statue has been offered to the Smithsonian, advertised to Al Gore and linked with space aliens.

And that's just one example of Sin City's marketing madness. Although big-name marquee acts hog most of the media spotlight, there is another, quirkier side to Las Vegas' PR machine:

Valet horse parking. Birds getting married. A car stuffed with high-heeled shoes. And a hotel "kitchen artist" who spent a month carving a giant dump truck out of Styrofoam.

"Anything and everything" that might get ink or TV coverage is written up, says Larry Houck, publicist at the Imperial Palace Hotel & Casino.

It's all part of the relentless wrestling match over Las Vegas' 29 million annual tourists, a third of them from California. And although it's hard to imagine anyone actually patronizing a casino or hotel because of this stuff, the ever-optimistic publicists still try.

Some of the stories they hype--via phone, fax and mail--are real; others are staged. Either way, the press releases can be downright peculiar.

Consider the case of the Flamingo Hilton ice sculptor.

Working in an un-air-conditioned basement 12 hours a day, six days a week, Benildo Baet created a 500-pound replica of a Caterpillar mining truck using 13,760 square feet of Styrofoam, 8 gallons of Elmer's glue, 17 gallons of paint and a tube of Ben-Gay (so he could bend his stiffening fingers).

This was on top of his normal duties carving ice sculptures and watermelons for the hotel.

A strange undertaking to be sure, but hotel publicist Lynn Berk, a former Southern California journalist, got some print coverage in Vegas with a press release and photo.

Berk also has publicized a coffee-cart cashier (the media yawned at that one), African penguins (from the hotel's wildlife habitat), slot machine jackpot winners (standard PR fare) and odd things that guests have left behind (surfboards, crutches).

She laments missing a "Star Trek" costume wedding at the hotel chapel, but "nobody told me about it." Then again, weird weddings are so commonplace in Las Vegas that some publicists resort to fabricating fresh angles.

Tropicana PR man Ira David Sternberg, who is writing a book about casino publicity tricks, says he once ordered up a Valentine's Day marriage for two birds, complete with "best bird and bird of honor" and a golf-cart limo to whisk the creatures to their honeymoon.

On another occasion, he had Nevada's lieutenant governor, who is also a brain surgeon, visit the hotel to lop off the head of a tiki god statue that was being dismantled.

"You have to be pretty inventive," explains Wayne Bernath, who handles publicity for the Riviera Hotel and occasionally appears on tabloid TV shows as the "Las Vegas insider."

Bernath is in charge of publicizing the Crazy Girls, a topless--and borderline bottomless--showgirl revue. The Crazy Girls are perhaps best known in Las Vegas for displaying their scantily clad rumps on a controversial billboard.

Capitalizing on that, the Riviera announced it would immortalize the daredevil derrieres with a brass statue. Bernath shipped out press releases breathlessly announcing a nationwide "butt artist" search.

Calls poured in and the Riviera finally settled on New Mexico sculptor Michael Conine. Then the publicity push turned even more bizarre.

First, Bernath notified the media about an Emory University professor who claims an underground Martian colony exists just a few miles from the artist's foundry.

"If Martians are living underground . . . the sculpture will certainly bring them to the surface," the press release predicted.

Then the Riviera said it would offer the butt sculpture to the Smithsonian Institution as a "unique piece of art that is historically reflective of Las Vegas' pseudo-culture."

That press statement noted, "Vice President Al Gore was recently in Las Vegas and sits on the Smithsonian board. Surely he will see the value of our offer."


Adding to the fun were some hard-to-swallow quotes, such as this one from Crazy Girl dancer (and history professor?) Kim Barranco: "The casting [for the statue] was a lot of fun. I've never been covered with plaster before. Life sculpturing is an interesting form of art that goes back 4,000 years to the Egyptian culture."

Bernath concedes, "You have to improvise with the quotes sometimes to make the stories interesting."


Of course, Las Vegas PR types have always had a creative streak.

In the 1950s, a Sands publicist floated a craps table in the hotel pool, surrounded it with gambling swimmers and scored a photo in Life magazine, says Mike Donahue of the Las Vegas News Bureau.

Another PR man fabricated a "Miss Atomic Bomb" pageant, put a picture of the "winner" on the wires, and newspapers around the country took the bait, Donahue says.

Cheesecake photos were also a media hit.

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