Clint Holmes, seen here at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz, is idolized by local entertainers.

That's Entertainment
We were a new rat pack of Vegas entertainers—until our peers became too famous for the hang.

by Clint Holmes, as told to John Katsilometes

Ten years ago felt like the dawn of another golden era of entertainers in Las Vegas, at least in terms of the Rat Pack time. There was a group of us: Danny Gans, Lance Burton, the Scintas, Mac King, Gordie Brown, Bob Anderson, and Earl Turner, with Wayne Newton certainly at the top of the food chain. I am even thinking in terms of Siegfried & Roy.

In that period, we would get together once a month to meet and tell lies. We would sit at Ruth’s Chris Steak House until 1 in the morning and talk. It was a new kind of Rat Pack of individual entertainers.

I got all of this support when I went to Harrah’s in 2000. Nobody knew me here, certainly not as a headliner. I started at Golden Nugget, and they put me on cab tops and billboards, and we started to build a little recognition. They gave me time to grow.

In the beginning, Harrah’s executive Gary Loveman would sit in the back of the room on a slow night and he would say to me, “I don’t want you to worry. You’re giving us the show we want. Now it’s up to us to get the room full.”

It took a lot of pressure off. Six or eight months into it, things started to really happen as the show built momentum. But you don’t get that kind of support now, I don’t think. Frankie Moreno is the only one I really know right now—and I may be missing somebody—who is really being supported as a “newcomer” by the hotel. He’s building his reputation, like Gans did and like I did.

This town is a flow of people who come in and then leave. So you are famous for that period of time, unless you are famous forever—unless you’re Donny and Marie. They are famous because they’re famous; Celine Dion is famous because she is famous. People coming in from Des Moines will know who Donny and Marie are, and the guy coming in from England knows who Donny and Marie are. Then they see Clint Holmes on a billboard and say, “Who is that?” Or “I’m going to see him because I’ve got a twofor- one.” You build from that. But it’s harder today to build that following, to start a residency here without being a big name in the world first.

You ask yourself, Where do entertainers learn? What happens to the 25-year-olds who want to be Vegas headliners? What if they are not like Taylor Hicks and get that big break on American Idol? It’s hard. Years ago I was working Lake Tahoe, 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and they would open the curtain and there would be two people sitting in the back corner, a bartender and a waitress. And you had to do 50 minutes.

In looking at Cirque’s influence, I want to see a show where I can relate to somebody or something. When I go see Frankie, Donny and Marie, I feel like I’ve spent an evening with people. That’s the legacy of Sinatra, Sammy, those guys, the tradition they left behind. If you like that tradition, I think Cirque is a negative for the city. For quality entertainment, for the most part it’s a positive. Spectaclewise, I admire and respect what Cirque does.

Personally, I really long for the evenings of one-on-one individual entertainment, where the entertainer lets you into his heart and gut a little bit. The sense of community among entertainers has changed because there aren’t that many—Celine and Elton John are probably not going to hang out until 1 am at Ruth’s Chris with the other entertainers. Before, the peers all felt like we were doing the best we could. We have good nights and bad nights, and we talk about them. Now the peers are too big to hang.

One of my favorite stories is when Bob Anderson was playing the Desert Inn and I was at Harrah’s. We were doing our usual Fridaynight after-the-show hang. We happened to show up at Ruth’s Chris at the same time and were walking up the stairs together. I had a really slow Friday night and said to Bob, “How was your night?” and he said, “It was great, man. It was fantastic. How was yours?” I said, “It was kinda slow.” And he said, “Yeah, me too.”

That was the hang, you know? We were all fighting—together, like gladiators, trying to survive in Las Vegas.

 

Stretch limo service is the norm for VIP guests at Vegas casino resorts.

Luxe Life
As the strip's top resorts tried to one-up each other, it was a great decade to be a VIP.

by Aaron Rasmussen

As Vegas has always been a city of extremes, and the way it treats its VIPs is no exception. But over the last 10 years, the city’s establishments have found even bigger and better ways to pamper the crème de la crème. For VIPs, that means the white-glove treatment starts on their way into town. If a high roller isn’t flying in on a casino’s jet, it’s now in vogue to hop on a private charter. “Las Vegas has reliably been a top 10 destination for XOJET,” says Stephen Lambright, XOJET’s senior VP of marketing and business development. Ten years ago, a casino’s limo picked up preferred guests; today, Wynn has upgraded to Rolls-Royce.

Once they arrive at the exclusive properties, big gamblers and celebrities are afforded separate entrances away from the hoi polloi. Their over-the-top mega-lodgings usually can’t be rented by anyone for any amount of money. One example: a sprawling suite at Cosmopolitan with a waterfall that cascades from the ceiling. A fur hammock hangs in front of a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, and there’s a theater room equipped with a giant screen (UFC viewing parties are hot right now). Another plush Cosmo suite has giant prisms suspended from the ceiling that cast brilliant rainbows around the room, but only when the light hits them just right during one month of the year. The suite is so exclusive, it’s been available to paying guests only once, when Twitter execs rented it for $20,000.

But one of the biggest additions to the scene—hidden even from the majority of a hotel’s staff—is private VIP casinos near the nicest suites. Encore has five of these secluded salons on the uppermost floors. There, a high roller has access to his own table games, dealer, cocktail waitress, and bodyguard, so he can comfortably and privately wager millions. Meanwhile, as at all the Strip’s top resorts, VIP butlers are on hand 24/7 in case that particular whale has a craving for a favorite food or needs a sparkler with which to propose. Not available in Vegas? No problem. The casinos will fly a private jet anywhere in the world to secure anything desired. Less romantic are the errands VIPs need doing. “We once had a request to smog a Ferrari that was registered in California,” says Keith Salwoski, executive director of PR at Venetian and Palazzo. “So we drove it over the state line, smogged it, and drove it back.” Special treatment for nightlife aficionados has also been increased. “My team and I meet weekly to discuss better ways to take care of VIPs,” says Norman Ly, Light Group’s VP of customer development. He recalls a time when clubs like The Bank had one bouncer “you didn’t want to get into it with” at the entrance. Now several staffers man special entrances to welcome A-listers. Inside, hulking bodyguards keep watch over tables to keep away unwanted visitors and clear a path when their charges need to use the restroom.

Clubs are hot, but food is what really feeds the VIP realm. Ten years ago, the local fine-dining scene was struggling to get started. Now highcaliber options abound, and the proliferation of multiple restaurants owned by a single company means kitchens can better cater to VIP diners’ whims. “A guest once came into Fix and asked for 15 ounces of beluga caviar,” says Brian Massie, corporate executive chef for the Light Group. He didn’t have any on hand, but “I got it to him within five minutes,” he says, “because I have a caviar restaurant at Mandalay Bay.”

Now that preferential treatment has reached such extremes, notables are feeling so spoiled and just plain pampered that they’re putting down roots by buying second, third, or even fourth homes here. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a big fish in a little—but very fabulous—pond?

Former mayor Oscar Goodman’s memoir, Being Oscar, is out May 21st.

Making it Happen
"Betting man" Oscar Goodman, mayor for 12 years until passing baton to his wife in 2011, reflects on a decade of innovation, renovation, and all things worthy of celebration.

As told to John Katsilometes

I have said this before, and have concluded in Las Vegas, that great cities have to have three things: great culture, great medicine, and a major league sports team. Over the past decade we have achieved two of those goals on one 61-acre parcel. We haven’t accomplished the third goal yet, but I’m a betting man. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when and where.

I hate the word “iconic,” but there’s no other way to describe it: The unique structure designed by Frank Gehry for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has become a tourist attraction in and of itself. There, one man’s misfortune becomes another man’s fortune. After Larry Ruvo’s father, Lou, passed away, Larry was the devoted son who, with the help of his associates, was able to create this building and establish the center. Whenever you drive by there, you see people standing on the corner with their cameras out taking pictures of the outside. But on the inside, of course, the research taking place there is extraordinary. The research on Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases is, no pun intended, mind-boggling.

There were certain people who became critical to that success—a couple of city managers in Doug Selby and Betsy Fretwell, who have worked very closely with Dan Van Epp, who was the president of the Howard Hughes Corporation, to make this happen. It was with their assistance that the City of Las Vegas acquired the 61 acres that we now call Symphony Park. A vision was created by these people and with others, like Myron Martin and Don Snyder, executives with the new Smith Center, and Larry Ruvo. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation contributed the basic funding for what would turn out to be a world-class performing arts center, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

The third goal, of course, inspired our efforts to become a major league sports city. We’ve had hiccups along the way, and the economy certainly hasn’t helped us, but I know the mayor is working on a daily basis to accomplish that goal, because she knew that was one of my dreams, too. One of the reasons she ran for mayor was to make sure that what we had set out to do, we got done.

We’ve been able to change the NBA’s attitude toward our open sports books, which is a big deal in acquiring a franchise. We have, within the 61 acres at Symphony Park, land set aside for The Cordish Company to develop the project. There are continuing and continuous discussions with them, and with people who are associated with the ownership of various franchises, as to that being the place. Everything comes down to dollars.

One thing from this past decade that I am especially proud of, because I had to fight for it, is the Mob Museum. People wanted to lynch me for proposing it. They wanted to string me up and tar and feather me. I know I said 800,000 and then 600,000 were the visitor estimates for the first year, because that’s how many I was told there would be. But to have 200-some thousand people visit a museum in the first year is extraordinary.

I can’t think of any project that has generated as much publicity and excitement in terms of development happening in a particular location as the relocation of Zappos to the old City Hall building. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and his people saw that there was the opportunity for creativity and success in an otherwise decrepit Downtown Las Vegas. This has coincided with all of the activity in the Fremont East Entertainment District, and a lot of great renovation happening at hotels on Fremont Street and in the district, like the D, Golden Nugget, Plaza (where my restaurant, Oscar’s, is located), El Cortez, even Gold Spike. Millions of dollars have been invested.

Now, this is not a pat on my back, but sometimes I shake my head in bewilderment that I’ve been out of office for only a year and a half and it’s as though people have forgotten that all of this happened—they think Zappos sort of came down in a parachute. But it all took a lot of work and a lot of vision. What the people got when they bought the Goodmans is tenacity. Once we have an idea and we think it’s the right thing for the city, we really don’t worry about our critics.

Well-deserved: Jason Strauss relaxes at Marquee, his newest Strip hot spot.
Jacket, Brunello Cucinelli (price on request). Crystals, CityCenter, 702-527-7766; brunellocucinelli.com
Grooming: Megan Mulligan Wunder, Platinum Entourage

Nightlife With Nerve
TAO Group partner Jason Strauss reflects on the gamble he took 10 years ago to pioneer what is now a record moneymaking, envelope-pushing nightlife spectacle like no other in the world.

by Jon Warech

Security escorts past the velvet ropes, busboys catering to guests’ every need, waitresses in barely-there uniforms delivering sparkler-enhanced bottles of top-shelf liquor—it’s all pretty common these days. But there was a time in Las Vegas when drinking was for drowning one’s sorrows after a busted blackjack hand and dinner at the cheap buffet.

That all changed in 2003, when Jason Strauss, Noah Tepperberg, Marc Packer, Richard Wolf, and Louis Abin signed a lease at Venetian to open Tao, a 44,000-square-foot offshoot of a world-class eatery that just happened to be one of the highest-grossing restaurants in Manhattan.

The guys were shifting into high gear for their opening at a time when bottle service was still in its infancy on the Strip. Some VIP hosts were going rogue and finding ways to offer it at places like Babys, and Light had debuted in 2001 with a (gasp!) dress code that forbade Vegas staples like shorts and flip-flops, followed in 2004 by competitor Body English, which opened in the old Babys location. But Tao Group had even grander plans: to spend big money to mix upscale dining with a massive high-end nightclub for the complete no-need-to-leave venue. It would be a hybrid of their New York City hits: the restaurant Tao and the nightclub Marquee.

“There was a lot of apprehension and a lot of fear that we were going to have no idea what we were doing in Vegas,” Strauss says. “Luckily we made some really good hires and learned the market quickly. When we landed, we left our New York hats back on the East Coast and walked into the market pretty humble. Like a sponge, we listened to how it works in a casino, how staff management works out here, and the needs of the customer from the Midwest. The beginning was really just a lot of learning.”

They picked Venetian for their mega-venue because of its heavy weekday flow of convention traffic. But to appease the transient crowd, they’d have to take an unorthodox approach and treat every night like a new grand opening. So they ditched the niche they’d carved out in New York, while hanging on to their East Coast marketing strategies, celebrity relationships, and first-class professionalism.

“The Venetian never had nightlife, so educating everyone in this building on what we did was important,” Strauss says. “We brought all of their staff to the venue to experience bottle service, experience the nightclub, and we hosted educational experience events.”

When it came time for Tao’s grand opening in 2005, Vegas was expecting big things. Strauss and company had hosted private preopening events for local tastemakers, and it was at these—with a mere 500 people in the 3,000-person club—that he knew the place would work. On opening night, 45 male models escorted celebrities like Janet Jackson, Usher, and Josh Duhamel down a 60-yard red carpet, and the partners’ top customers flew in from LA and NYC. The whole world knew that Tao was here to stay.

“It was glitz; it was Vegas,” Strauss says. “It made a lot of noise. Venetian did a study of press that came out of that grand opening party, and it was some amazing number, like $10 million worth of press hits if you equated it to advertising eyeballs. It was a shot heard across the world.”

Since then, Tao Group has continued its Vegas success with Tao Beach, the first dayclub in Vegas; Marquee, the first electronic music–only club in town, and its dayclub; and Lavo, an Italian restaurant and club that was the first Vegas-born nightlife venue to spin off somewhere else (New York). Now the group is focusing on the September opening of Manhattan’s Tao Downtown, which will bring everything full circle.

“We took cues from the bells and whistles that we’ve been able to create in Vegas,” Strauss says. “There will be a restaurantlounge, but there will also be a private lounge as its own venue within the restaurant.” Like the debut of its Vegas counterpart, it’s safe to assume that the opening in Manhattan will be, as Strauss would say, “dramatic.”

Looking Back on 10 Fabulous Years

| May 1, 2013 | Home Page

As Vegas magazine celebrates 10 years of covering our town's top nightlife, gaming, fine dining, parties, local leaders, and celebrities, Las Vegas icons reflect on some of the city's most memorable aspects.

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