Since the Michael Jackson Estate’s partnership with Cirque du Soleil was announced, and its first touring show launched (in 2011), Las Vegas has become a destination on every visit I’ve made to the US. I love the Cirque shows, I love the themed hotels, and I love the buzz and vibrancy of the place. My visits in the 70s and 80s belong to a different era, and returning to Vegas for the first time since then in December 2011 to see Cirque’s Michael Jackson the Immortal World Tour, was like visiting a new world.
Even now, from year to year there are always changes and new installations to check out. On my first night in town this year (2016), I visited the Michael Jackson HIStory statue which had been installed that August in the lobby at Mandalay Bay, which is also, of course, the home of Cirque du Soleil’s resident “Michael Jackson ONE” show – the second production resulting from the MJ Estate/Cirque partnership.
“There’s a reason why Michael Jackson’s spirit still lives on,” according to Jerry Nadal, Senior Vice President, Resident Shows Division at Cirque du Soleil in a statement released at the time of the statue’s unveiling. “It’s the passion and love behind every song he created. It’s the soundtrack he delivered to an entire generation and beyond. We certainly see this every night at Michael Jackson ONE as thousands of Michael Jackson, Cirque and music and dance fans of all ages and backgrounds collide to experience their favorite Michael Jackson songs in a new and innovative way. Now, this incredible statue stands with us as a testament to his legacy.” 
I was duly impressed – it dominated the hotel entrance and featured non-stop MJ video clips from the HIStory album on two sides of the block-shaped pedestal. The spot lighting played over the face and figure of the statue dramatically. Being December, the installation currently had a backdrop of Christmas wreaths and a giant decorated tree surrounded by big faux presents.
Whilst at Mandalay Bay I also visited the MJ One Boutique and played the latest edition Michael Jackson slot machine, especially enjoying the “Black or White” special feature, and the resulting win!
But at night the place to be in Vegas is out on the street enjoying the play of neon lights on the hotels, casinos and public spaces – like The Park, on Park Ave, between New York, New York and the Monte Carlo and adjacent to the T-Mobile Arena. This is a dazzling place with a mosaic of plantings and public seating that needs to be seen at night to be truly appreciated. Combined with New York, New York’s fantastic street frontage, it forms a continuous pedestrian thoroughfare full of places to dine or drink. (Although my preference is to retire to the Noodle Shop off Mandalay Bay’s casino floor.)
In addition to seeing Michael Jackson ONE again, this year’s “must do” wish list included a day trip to the Valley of Fire State Park, which I’d first visited in 1977. Back then I was shooting Ektachrome 35 mm slide film to achieve the best results. Sadly the exposed roll of film from that excursion to the Valley was accidentally destroyed when being processed by Kodak. I was sent replacement film by way of compensation. Needless to say, I felt cheated out of a photographic record of the experience – and promptly switched to the Fuji brand.
In 1977, hiring a car and driving off into the desert was an adventure for myself and the friends from home who were travelling with me. In later years, and still today, picking up a rental car for the duration of my trip is the first thing I do after walking out of LAX with luggage in tow. So, why had it taken me so long to get back to the Valley? Too busy seeing Cirque shows, exploring the Strip and doing other things in or near town, I guess.
Valley of Fire State Park lies approximately 58 miles north-east of the Las Vegas Strip. Driving time is a little over an hour, assuming you don’t run into traffic before you get out of downtown. It’s not the closest natural recreation area to Vegas (Red Rock Canyon is just 16 miles west of the Strip), but it’s one of the most dramatic. I often wonder how many short-term visitors to the city take time to appreciate the beauty of the desert landscape that surrounds it. 
The Valley of Fire was Nevada’s first State Park and is a popular film location given the drama and vivid colors of its landscape. The 1966 movie The Professionals (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Claudia Cardinale) was shot here, plus the Martian exteriors in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall (1990), and Kirk’s final scene in Star Trek Generations (1994) among others.
There are a lot of detours from the main route through the park where visitors can pull off and hike the trails or enjoy the views. Trying to do all of them in half a day was petty exhausting, so I settled for the most scenically appealing. These included the Beehives (sandstone rock formations), Seven Sisters, The Cabins (built for travelers by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s) and Elephant Rock – probably the most famous of the park’s landmarks.
Back in town that night, we headed off to Mandalay Bay again to see MJ One  after dinner at the House of Blues (where you get discount if you show your ticket stub for the show). Inside the theatre I came face to face for the first time with Michael’s original Smooth Criminal costume (from the Moonwalker movie) which is encased in glass against the wall in the theatre lounge. Like the HIStory tour statue in the hotel lobby, this item was on loan from the MJ Estate, and was an impressive artifact to see and photograph up close and in person.
Despite the number of times I’d seen the show, this time MJ One had been shortened slightly, but performed with heightened energy that made the night simply fly to its conclusion. The few changes that had been made to tweak the show since last I’d seen it had managed to improve it, as impossible as that seemed. The performance even finished on a higher note than usual with little MJ being hugged by two of the dancers from the cast who had come up into the audience for the joyous “Black or White” finale. Fortunately I was able to grab a photo of the moment on my phone.
By comparison, the following day was taken up with low-key sightseeing around town – to the Hard Rock Hotel off the Strip to re-visit their MJ collectables and have lunch at Fu’s Chinese Kitchen (an old favorite), then on to the Venetian back on the Strip to enjoy the shops, particularly the Regis Galerie where Michael Jackson had shopped in person, and finally to Madame Tussauds  to see Michael’s wax figure, which is currently dressed in a Smooth Criminal outfit.
It was around this time that I’d realized I was going to run out of available credit to fund the rest of my itinerary, hence the photograph taken of me at M.Tussauds holding a sign displaying the hashtag #SENDMONEY against a backdrop of Vegas signs. Little Mike held, appropriately, a cheeky smiley face cut-out. (After all, I was the one paying all “our” expenses!)
Just as well, then, that we were leaving next day to return to California, beyond temptation’s reach.
All photos copyright (c) Kerry Hennigan 2016