Los Angeles Times - - Sunday Calendar - Richard Abowitz re­port­ing from las ve­gas cal­en­dar@latimes.com

At 2 a.m. Sept. 12, a Sun­day morn­ing, the Bel­la­gio ropes off the re­sort’s im­mensely pop­u­lar gar­den. For the next week, about 115 peo­ple work in shifts, 24/7, to trans­form the 7,300 square feet of plant­ing area from the sum­mer show to the fall dis­play. By Thurs­day, things are tak­ing shape, with three gi­gan­tic fake trees al­ready in­stalled and crates full of flow­ers and gi­gan­tic pump­kins be­ing un­packed and dis­bursed. Tourists gather be­hind the vel­vet rope to pho­to­graph the changeover and ogle renderings of the fin­ished de­sign.

In the mid­dle of the room, di­rect­ing, ad­vis­ing and ad­mir­ing it all, is An­dres Gar­cia, Bel­la­gio’s di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture.

If slightly less well known than Bel­la­gio’s jet­ting wa­ters out front, Gar­cia still equates the gar­den, lo­cated near the elab­o­rate Dale Chi­huly in the lobby, to the famed foun­tains. “The wow fac­tor of the foun­tains out­side has to be matched by some­thing as ex­cit­ing as the gar­den in­side,” Gar­cia says.

Five times a year, Gar­cia over­seas the changeover of what is of­fi­cially if not ac­cu­rately called Bel­la­gio’s Con­ser­va­tory & Botan­i­cal Gar­den. The free at­trac­tion of­fers the four sea­sonal dis­plays, aug­mented by an elab­o­rate Chi­nese New Year dis­play in def­er­ence to the large num­ber of Chi­nese high-rollers who pack the Bel­la­gio each year to test their luck. By the Bel­la­gio’s mea­sure­ment, the gar­den shows at­tract about 18,000 tourists ev­ery day.

Gar­cia cheer­fully over­sees an in­stal­la­tion team that in­cludes flo­ral de­sign­ers, ir­ri­ga­tors, en­gi­neers, la­bor­ers and artists. His is a press re­lease ver­sion of the Ve­gas suc­cess story. One of 17 sib­lings, Gar­cia em­i­grated from El Sal­vador to the United States, orig­i­nally park­ing cars in Bev­erly Hills be­fore mov­ing to Las Ve­gas in 1986 to take a job as a man­ual la­borer for a land­scap­ing com­pany.

“The first day it felt like 150 de­grees, and I was dig­ging and mow­ing and want­ing to quit. But I didn’t,” he says. Now, many years later, Gar­cia knows as much as any­one about help­ing plants and flow­ers sur­vive desert re­al­i­ties.

Of course, de­spite his ex­pe­ri­ence, things go wrong. The sum­mer show that just wrapped up, for ex­am­ple, had a prob­lem with bromeli­ads, a flower that had worked well in a pre­vi­ous Chi­nese New Year show. “The plant was so hardy they lasted the whole hol­i­day show with just a lit­tle bit of wa­ter,” Gar­cia re­calls. “But in the sum­mer show, the sun was up all day. We lost them.”

This be­ing the Bel­la­gio, it would not do for vis­i­tors to see dead flow­ers. And, in­deed, Gar­cia re­ports, “our guests never no­ticed.” The rea­son: All sum­mer long, Gar­cia sent a team of 12 em­ploy­ees ev­ery day at 4 a.m. to change out all the dy­ing bromeli­ads with healthy ones. “By break­fast time the gar­den looks per­fect,” Gar­cia says.

While this was an ex­treme case, each show stays fresh via a sub­stan­tial ro­ta­tion of flow­ers. The fall show dis­plays about 9,500 flow­ers at any given time; Gar­cia ex­pects to go through about 50,000 to keep that fresh blos­som­ing look be­fore the next con­ver­sion at the end of Novem­ber.

Of course, Bel­la­gio’s gar­den dis­plays of­fer more than art­fully ar­ranged sea­sonal flow­ers. Sub­stan­tial props are cre­ated, then stored in a 24,000-square-foot ware­house un­til reused. Jas­mine Amigud, a Seat­tle artist, has made five trips to Ve­gas to touch up a pa­pier-mâché vi­sion of a tree Ent that she says she mod­eled from the “Lord of the Rings” be­ings. The Ent, she says, was cre­ated by vol­un­teers years ago for a pa­rade in Seat­tle and then, to Amigud’s sur­prise, was pur­chased by the Bel­la­gio. Though she has since sold an­other sculp­ture to Gar­cia, she ad­mits to still be­ing amazed to find her whim­si­cal crea­ture part of a casino dis­play.

Fan­tasy trees

The eye-catcher of the new show is a set of three gi­gan­tic tree sculp­tures — each about 25 feet tall and weigh­ing roughly 3,300 pounds, made of tightly wo­ven wil­low stretched over metal — cre­ated by English artist Tom Hare.

In the midst of a re­ces­sion, gar­den dis­plays with gi­gan­tic fake trees and the like would seem to be an ob­vi­ous place for the Bel­la­gio to make bud­get cuts. And Gar­cia ad­mits his team has had to learn to be more ef­fi­cient. He also notes: “My ven­dors have ad­justed to the times.” Yet the gar­den es­sen­tially con­tin­ues as over­the-top Ve­gas op­u­lence. Gar­cia points out the ob­vi­ous: “I have to keep the brand. The Bel­la­gio can­not use plas­tic flow­ers.”

So he keeps look­ing for new op­por­tu­ni­ties. One ex­am­ple in the new show came from a flier Gar­cia saw by chance for an orchid con­ven­tion in Cal­i­for­nia. There he dis­cov­ered Santa Bar­bara Orchid Es­tate, whose sam­ples im­pressed him enough that he went to visit. Alice Gripp, one of the own­ers, re­calls her sur­prise at get­ting a call from the Bel­la­gio’s di­rec­tor of hor­ti­cul­ture. “We didn’t know they had plants in Las Ve­gas. But he walked around our nurs­ery and he was re­ally pleased.” Gar­cia has ded­i­cated a green­house to dis­play 100 va­ri­eties of their or­chids in the show.

By Fri­day night, ev­ery­thing is ready, a day early, and the ropes are re­moved. The pub­lic is al­lowed in to ad­mire the “fan­tasy” trees, gi­gan­tic pump­kins, 9,500 flow­ers and the spe­cial col­lec­tion of or­chids.

“Of all the shows, I can hon­estly say this one is my fa­vorite,” Gar­cia says.


Elaine J. Cross­man

One of three tree sculp­tures cre­ated by Tom Hare for the Bel­la­gio’s botan­i­cal gar­den.

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