My Weekend with Ellen

The Hard Rock Café was still really cool to most. The iconic T-shirts from their locations around the world, the pins, the whole deal. When Hard Rock announced the brand was expanding to a Vegas casino—and that they were gonna do it old-school style—there was a palpable excitement in the air. This was about a year before the movie Swingers came out, a harbinger of the neo-lounge “money” movement. Finally, the A-list (circa 1995 anyway) was going to embrace Las Vegas again, like in the Rat Pack glory days.

They were all invited, and they were coming, hundreds of bona fide 1995 celebrities: Nicholson, Cage, Costner, Spike Jonze and Sophia Coppola, Kelsey Grammer, Brendan Fraser, Tommy Lee and Pam, etc. etc. The inaugural lineup at The Joint was Duran Duran, Weezer, Billy Idol, Iggy Pop, the Eagles, Sheryl Crow and the Reverend Al Green. The opening-weekend Hard Rock was a labyrinth of velvet ropes; large chunks of the casino and restaurants were reserved for VIPs. The hoi polloi were relegated to gawking from the fringes.

My cousin Saundra was a friend of the people who ran the L.A. production company putting the weekend together for the Hard Rock. One project for this company was to staff “production assistants” for the celebrities—in other words, someone to act as shepherd and slave for the fancy people. And while most of the PAs came from L.A., there were a few of us who came from the local ranks. Despite being a lawyer, I always ventured into the fun world of celebrity excursion whenever my cousin called. Saundra controlled the assignment list, so naturally my sister and I got our pick. I decided to avoid the super biggies (who probably had their own people) and go for the more obscure but interesting folks, preferably funny people.

I chose an up-and-coming comedian whom I greatly enjoyed, Ellen DeGeneres. 1995 Ellen. Pre-Lebanese. Pre-icon. Her sitcom had just come out, but it was called something other than Ellen at the time. Our first assignment was to pick up “our celebrity” from McCarran in a Hard Rock limo. Ellen was waiting with Melissa Etheridge and her then-girlfriend Julie Cypher, Lou Diamond Phillips’ ex. The three gals seemed to be really hitting it off. They decided to forgo separate cars, and everyone piled in my limo. I introduced myself as a Vegas local and told them if there was anything they needed, that’s what I was here for.

When we arrived at the Hard Rock opening, it was all royal purple carpet and paparazzi. Wearing my original Hard Rock Hotel tee, I hustled my femme posse past the ropes. They wanted to see the accommodations first, so we headed up. On the way, Melissa said we should stop by the singer Seal’s room. He opened the door in nothing but a very tiny hand towel barely around his waist. Melissa asked him, “How are the rooms?” Seal answered, “Great, except they don’t have a lot of towels.” Ellen chimed in, “Maybe they thought you were an actual seal—no towels necessary.” I, alone, laughed.

After Ellen and Melissa and Julie spent a little alone time in their rooms, my pager rang. They were ready to hit the blackjack tables, although none of them knew how to play. No problem, I’d teach them. We worked our way to a table already occupied by Stephen Baldwin. The Hard Rock had provided everyone with “play money,” and we were having fun. The fans were screaming. One young woman made her way to Melissa to get an autograph. She was happy to get it but seemed slightly disappointed.

“Oh, I thought you were Jodie Foster.”

“I get that more than you’d think,” Melissa whispered to us.

Baldwin kept calling pretty girls behind the ropes to come over. “Are you a model?” he’d ask.

“I’m not,” a comely girl said, “but my boyfriend’s a huge fan of 8 Seconds. Can he come over, too?” “No, he can’t,” Baldwin said.

Don’t believe any of this happened? Well, perhaps you should check out the March 27, 1995, issue of People, where Ellen, Stephen and an unidentified guy in a classic Hard Rock Hotel shirt appear around a blackjack table.

All too soon, it was winding down. I hugged Melissa and Julie goodbye and walked Ellen to the limo. She had been nicer than any celebrity assistant could expect a celebrity to be. For whatever reason, I decided to give her a copy of my self-published poetry chapbook, but the second it came out, I knew it was the wrong move. It was as though I had tried to hand her a carafe of goat bile. She nervously said something like, “I can’t take this, lawyers don’t let me, you’re nice, sorry, gotta run. Thanks.”

“No,” I said. “It’s OK, I’m a lawyer.” Of course, this totally freaked her out, and she hurriedly jumped into the car and sped away. I doubt I’ll ever be famous, but if somehow I make it onto her show, she’ll be taking that damn book, whether she wants it or not.

I’m a lawyer, and I know where she works.