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Nineteenth-century pioneers on their way to California were glad to leave this part of the country. Still, some did stay - fortune hunters, outlaws, adventurers, merchants and those who provided entertainment. The call of gold and silver had driven people - men, for the most part - to Nevada, to places like Calico, Belmont or Goldfield. These pioneers were willing to take risks. They came to this rough land with high hopes and the will to win: land, silver, gold or money. But not only by working.

Ready to stake everything on one chance - to wager weeks of savings in a single evening of poker. Full house! But what's the other guy got in his hand? Gambling fit in with the wild and disordered life in frontier settlements and became part of the culture of the West.

The camps of the gold prospectors have been long since abandoned and become ghost towns, but more fortune hunters come to Nevada than ever before. Larger-than-life, the Western town of the 20th and 21st century glows like a Fata Morgana in the middle of the desert. About 28 million people a year come to seek adventure in the fantasy worlds of Las Vegas.

The Rio is one of the new mega-hotels. Eleven of the world's largest hotels are located in Las Vegas. The Rio alone has 2563 rooms. Rio Rita is the theme figure - high-spirited, always in a good mood, making sure the guests are having a good time. She embodies the South American feel of the establishment and the program. Everything is aimed at providing the guests with entertainment and comfort. They're supposed to play and forget time. That's why there are neither clocks nor windows in the casino. You can try your luck 24 hours a day.

Backstage, in the basements, preparations for the first show of the day are in progress. Today, 36 dancers and performers out of a staff of 78 are on duty.

Carla has been working in the Rio's Masquerade Show for a year.

Carla: "I can't complain at all. I think it's a wonderful thing to be able to dance and get paid for it and have a good time, but we do work very hard. Most of the other shows are just two one-hour shows, six nights a week. We're doing twelve-hour days, four days a week, so we are working a full-time job."

Carla and her colleague have to hurry up five flights of stairs from the basement to just under the roof. The show is performed over the heads of the spectators.

Louis Feriolo: "My name is Louis Feriolo and I come from Comack, Long Island in New York and I am the head butcher at the Rio Hotel. The shop is open 24 hours a day. We employ thirty butchers in this area. And we do approximately $ 19,000 of meats a day that we cut up. Poultry alone, we do about 2000 pounds a day, which is 8000 pieces of chicken breast a day that we consume in this hotel."

The Carnival World Buffet offers guests from all over the world food from all over the world. For the authentic specialties, of course, an authentic serving staff.

In the casino, the second show is on. Shows with the big stars appearing in the famous hotels, night after night, for weeks at a stretch, are a thing of the past. In the Sixties, Paul Anka was an audience favourite.

As was the case with many western towns, it was the expansion of the railroad that triggered the growth of Las Vegas. An insignificant assortment of houses was chosen as a watering hole for the new Salt Lake City - Los Angeles railroad line.

The train station at the end of Fremont Street, Las Vegas' main street. 90 years later, a hotel stands on the same spot. No more passenger trains arrive here. Across the street, a relic from the old railroad days: the Golden Gate Hotel, one of the few historical buildings that have been preserved in Las Vegas. The owners, Craig and Mark Brandenburg, try to retain the charm of bygone days.

Brandenburg: "We are the oldest hotel in Las Vegas, we were built in 1906. That tradition continues today. So we do give our guests here at the hotel the best of both worlds, because they can sit and eat at an old-style diner. We still have those original rooms from 1906 that provide a more intimate, personal environment, a smaller, more intimate gaming environment. And you don't have to be a high roller to play at our Black Jack tables or our crap tables."

Up until 1931, not much had changed on Fremont Street. But then, the Hoover government made a decision that had a profound influence on the further development of Las Vegas. The Colorado River was to be dammed in the Black Canyon. 5300 men worked on the construction site. They lived in Boulder City, a settlement built especially for them. Here, gambling was forbidden.

The construction of the Hoover Dam attracted not only workers. Tourists came in droves to marvel at this amazing project. Las Vegas profited from this. The workers and the tourists came and spent their money in the clubs on Fremont Street. The State of Nevada had just legalized gambling. The reasoning: the school system was to be financed by the tax revenue.

At that time, the Strip with today's big hotels and casinos went through nothing but lonely desert. Land was still cheap there. The El Rancho, the first hotel outside of town, done totally in Western style. In the following years, more hotels and casinos with colourful names were built: the Flamingo, which brought a modern building style to Las Vegas, the Dunes, the Sands, the Sahara, the Desert Inn. Hotels which made a cult of the popular music of the Sixties. Dean Martin, with his story-telling style of singing, was also one of the stars.
Just like the shows and the music, the neon lights are also a part of this town. And of course, they're also designed and built here. Every tube is heated and bent by hand, until it matches the blueprint.

The Young Electric Sign Company has had a branch in Las Vegas ever since the gambling began and was involved in the manufacture of many famous neon displays. Eric learned his trade from his father by watching and practising. At the moment he's working on a fish, part of a larger project. Filled with Argon gas, the tube goes for testing.

Las Vegans are only slowly coming to realize that many of these symbols are not only a part of their city's history, but art as well. In Las Vegas, it's the here-and-now that counts. The old or no longer modern is dealt with in a unique way.

The city never sleeps. At daybreak, things look a bit more sober.

It's seven o'clock. Louis Feriolo on the way to work at the Rio Hotel. At the beginning of their work day, all employees pick up fresh work clothes in the cloakroom. 3000 outfits are stored here. The early risers are already sitting at the one-armed bandits and improving their retirement funds.

At the same time, things are humming in the personel office. Up to 2000 applicants a month seek employment here. David is looking for a job as a waiter. That means: fill out an application, take a drug test and hope for an interview with the section head. Smile, David! He's got the job and is now one of about 4600 Rio employees. Pay is by the hour and work hours are flexible - according to demand. Louis was not even particularly looking for a job.

Louis Feriolo: "When I retired, my wife and I decided to move to Las Vegas. We like the weather here, we like the climate. Now I'm starting on my second career. I came here to eat at the buffet and the general manager was coming around and he asked how everything was. And so this friend of mine that was with me, he asks him if they needed any butchers there. And he says, "Yeah. Why? Somebody looking for a job?" And he says, "Well, my friend is, over here", you know. So he says, "Alright, come in tomorrow for an interview." So I did. And here I am. I wasn't really looking for the job, you know, but I figure, "What have I got to lose?" you know? So I did it."

For Carla and her colleagues, the workday begins at 11. They are hired by the company which produces the show.

Carla: "I came from Hawaii when I was about thirteen and a half, fourteen years old and that's when I moved here. And it was the first time that I had come to the, you know, mainland. We had a business there, a tourist business. And when that went under, we went bankrupt with that, we decided that we were going to come to Las Vegas because the job rate was better and the cost of living is a lot cheaper. So as a family, we moved out here. I had a very difficult time accepting Las Vegas. In Hawaii, we're very friendly and family-orientated, kind of with everyone. And out here, it seemed that everyone was more closed-off and it was hard to connect with people, being from a different culture."

Be it dancers, lifeguards or waiters - Las Vegas attracts swarms of people looking for work. The expansion and the job miracle will continue - as long as visitors from all over the world come to Las Vegas.

Michael Caspar, Head of Reception in the Rio; he's German and has been in Las Vegas for two years.

Michael Caspar: "There is something special about this city. I mean, this is the fastest-growing city in the United States and we, as a growing company, we need a lot of more additional employees. So you get a lot of applications and you find a lot of people that have been, let's say, a cocktail server, then they worked at a gas station, then they worked at a hospital. Nobody does an apprenticeship here. You smooth them into the job and they learn, like, the first few things to do and then you, hopefully, you can build them up to a much higher level than that."

Backstage: Carla is busy with final preparations for the third show of the day.

Carla: "I think for me, being that it's my first time, doing this type of dancing, that it's OK, that's it's OK that I start off this way, because you have to slowly learn. I do miss not being the centre of attention. In my other dancing, I was a lead dancer, so I did a lot of things solo and by myself. And now it's like ensemble where I dance with a whole bunch of other people."

Louis has already been at work for eight hours, but he'll probably be checking on things for another two or three hours.

Louis Feriolo: "This is the main kitchen of the hotel and what we do here is, we mainly cook for the Carnival World Buffet. Well, we have 18 restaurants, so we have 18 kitchens. Out of the main kitchen we supply the other, smaller kitchens, that don't have those facilities."

Carla: "I am 27 now. I think they're only going to want me to dance for maybe ten more years. In the shows, they want to see beautiful, young women and when I turn a cer- I don't know what age, because we have a lot of women that are older in our show now because they're wonderful dancers. I have to make sure that I have something to fall back on, so that's why I'm going to school."

In the breaks, Carla practises: she's taking a sign language course at night school.

One-armed bandits, roulette, poker, craps, Black Jack, sparkle, shows, drinks and light music - the visitor is encouraged to challenge his luck, to experience adventure in exotic surroundings, and to land the big coup in the goldrush. The winner is, in any case, the casino. More than half of the Rio's annual profits come from its gambling operations.

The fun is perfectly organized from start to finish - just like in the movies. Hollywood is only four hours away. When the ball is rolling and a win is within reach, then everything else becomes secondary. The only thing that counts is luck. Small pleasures in a regulated world of entertainment with a turnover in the billions.

The great individualists are no longer in fashion as entertainers. Sammy Davis Jr.

The city is expanding out in all directions; new residential areas are being built in the desert. The prognosis is that the city will double its population by the year 2015. Municipal and district authorities can barely expand the infrastructure fast enough to match population growth.

To meet the increasing demand, a second water supply line is under construction from Lake Mead to the north of the city. From 1999 on, 6.3 million gallons of water a day are to flow through this pipeline. The amount of water taken from the lake will double. Water supplies for the city are guaranteed until the year 2010. Then, water supplies from the Colorado River will have to be renegociated. The river renegotiated with seven American states and Mexico. The waterworks at Lake Mead is the sole provider of water for Las Vegas.

The growth has apparently not yet reached its limit. New exclusive hotels are under construction along the Strip. This means even more competition for the hotels downtown, who, however, are facing the challenge, as Mark Brandenburg explains:

Brandenburg: "Downtown and Fremont Street in Las Vegas suffered from a lot of the very similar problems that other big cities in the United States suffered from. There was some general urban decline. A lot of the growth in town was happening out on the Strip or the outer areas. And so the casinos downtown really had not had the ability, because they had limited land area, to grow and expand like the others. And they were just competing, all of a sudden they found themselves competing with 5000-room megaresorts.

Steve Winn revolutionized the casino industry. He wanted to give people more than a gaming environment and a hotel room. He wanted to give them an entire entertainment experience and he set the standards. When he built the Mirage, opening around 1990, and people were able to go out on the Strip and see a volcano in front of a hotel, that was something totally new, totally different. It presented a very serious challenge for downtown and Fremont Street.
And that's when all the hotel owners, all the casino owners on Fremont Street got together and we said to ourselves, "We have to find our volcano. We need a volcano for downtown Las Vegas." We tried a number of different concepts, ranging from what was called "Las Venice" - that was putting tropical landscaping and canals with boats going up and down on Fremont Street. But the one idea that really made sense, that really worked for us, was the Fremont Street Experience."

A ceiling of 2.1 million lights stretches over the pedestrian walkway for four blocks. Several times a night, wild light extravaganzas are shown on this gigantic screen. "Viva Las Vegas". Downtown, the Greats who made the Strip famous are celebrated. Stars like Elvis Presley.

Carla has finished her 12-hour work-day.

Carla: "I choose to live alone, with my daughter. My family owns the condominium, so I pay my mother the rent. With mortgage, my car payment, electricity and phone and everything, it's hard, it's a lot of money, a lot of money. Sometimes we come up short and that's why I do a lot of extra work to make sure that we have money saved up for rainy days or that we can make ends meet. With the opportunities that are offered, the opportunities of businesses and of freedom and everything that we have here in America, I think that struggling's a big part of it, because that's how you make it. I don't mind it."

The spirit of the old days seems unbroken. Go West - albeit, to a no longer quite so wild West - and seek your fortune, whether trough work or play.