Front-Row Seat

From Elvis’ ghost to the bronzed bottoms of the Crazy Girls, 40 years in the belly of the Vegas entertainment beast

My wife and I had just gotten married when we came to town in a lime-green Plymouth Duster. It was New Year’s Day, 1973. We’d decided to move from Baldwin City, Kan., to Las Vegas upon advice I had gotten while interviewing Walter Cronkite at the Kansas City Press Club. He said, “Go west, young man.” An old fraternity brother had set us up with a month at the Brookman Apartments just south of Fremont Street on Casino Center. It was a studio apartment with maid service. We had $800 between us; the apartment cost $200. We were off to a good start.

With a journalism degree and high hopes, I went to the Las Vegas Review-Journal to ask for work. They needed a copy editor; the job paid $133.60 a week. I really wanted it. But 10 days passed with no answer from the R-J, so I decided to take another job I had applied for: narcotics detective at $225 a week. I was ready to start my six weeks of training when the phone rang one day.

I’d gotten the newspaper job.

* * *

Las Vegas was the most colorful young city on the planet. The mob ran the hotels, the police were all ex-Vietnam veterans and there was no such thing as a female cop. McCarran Airport was a shadow of what it is now, and you could go to the Flight Deck Lounge for cocktails and watch the planes come and go. A buffet was $1.39 at the Silver Slipper, and El Cortez had a 16-ounce Porterhouse for $3.95. Any beer you wanted at the Horseshoe was 25 cents. These were the days when you could call Mayor Oran Gragson at home after hours (and I did) only to be told by his wife, “He’s on the can.” They were from Arkansas.

In February 1975, when I was 23, I was promoted to assistant news editor, which included full authority over the Sunday newspaper. My first assignment was to make sure a color photo always appeared on the front page of the Sunday paper. The first week, I contacted the MGM Grand Hotel and set up a shot of Siegfried & Roy and their lion. They were a 10-minute act and drove that lion around in a van. My photo was to come out on March 1—the theme was March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. I got hold of a shepherd in Mesquite and had a lamb brought in. The MGM built a 9-by-9-foot calendar, and we stuck the animals’ heads through the holes. The lion got a sniff of the lamb and all hell broke loose. The security guard rushed the lamb into a closet while Roy and his trainer tried to restrain the lion. Roy called up to the kitchen and a girl with a bucket of meatballs came down right away and the lion lapped them up. We got the photo.

In 1986, I went to work for Hank Greenspun and Mike O’Callaghan at the Las Vegas Sun. Hank was the nicest man. He pulled my wife aside at a Christmas party at the Tropicana and told her that it was because of me he slept well at night. I worked as his night news editor and he would always call in from DiMartino’s to check on what was happening. 48 Hours did a hatchet job on Las Vegas while he was trying to develop Green Valley, and I wrote the bulldog headline “48 Hours 60 Minutes Too Long.” O’Callaghan once called up with his Irish temper and yelled, and I asked him, “Why do you yell at me?” He said, “It’s because you’re the only one in my newsroom with a brain.”

In 1989, Sun transferred me to Showbiz Magazine. The magazine’s founder, Dick Maurice, was gravely ill with AIDS, and I became the editor. I interviewed about 500 entertainers in three years. The two worst interviews were Mike Tyson, who walked out the first two times, and Pia Zadora, who kept me waiting for two hours while she took a bath.

One of my assignments was meeting with Siegfried & Roy’s manager once a week for three years to come up with a story. We were invited to their New Year’s Eve party in their backstage penthouse and stayed until 5 a.m. It was incredible. Siegfried just stayed to himself drinking beer while Roy mingled and celebrated. They had violinists and balloons and lots of champagne. It was a night that I will never forget.

In those days, Showbiz had a circulation of 150,000 (75,000 in the Sunday Sun and 75,000 in the hotel rooms), and the National Enquirer soon found out I was in a position to help them. I was assigned to cover Zsa Zsa Gabor’s one-night appearance at Bob Stupak’s Vegas World after she had gained notoriety by slapping a cop. It was the beginning of a six-year odyssey into the world of tabloid journalism, during which I wrote hundreds of gossip items for Mike Walker’s column in the Enquirer, the Star, the Globe and the National Examiner. I wrote about Magic Johnson being at the Riviera hanging out with the Crazy Girls. When Oprah put on weight, I broke the news. I slept in Elvis’ honeymoon suite, waiting for ghosts.  They were strange times. Soon it was time for something different.

* * *

I left the news business on a Friday and went into PR on a Monday, working for a show called Cabaret Circus at the Lady Luck. Soon I was doing publicity there for Melinda: The First Lady of Magic. Melinda was an overnight success. She had The King Charles Troupe and juggler Anthony Gatto in the show. It was only $17.95, but I came up with an upgrade for $5 more and photos and autographed posters after the show for $5 each.

Meanwhile, I was also working for Crazy Girls and got Gregg Reiter to photograph the girls from behind. This won best advertisement of the year and was called “No ifs, ands or …” It adorned taxicabs and billboards across the Valley. Next I went through the corporate red tape and got three estimates for a bronze statue of the likeness. I did a press release and got a computer programmer who was a sculptor to do it for free. He brought his family from Santa Fe, N.M., and we comped them to food and a suite at the Riviera. I got an artist to recommend a place on East Sahara Avenue with a swamp cooler and it was July. One of the girls fainted during the three days of making the plaster molds. I called three foundries and they were all about $70,000 for a 1,700-pound bronze statue and 300-pound sign, which still adorns the front of the Riviera casino. I came up with the idea that you rub the butts for good luck. That’s why they’re shinier than the rest of the statue.

They say you have to go to hell to reach heaven. It finally happened when Lance Burton gave me a call and told me that as his career grew, my salary would grow. He was true to his word. He was my dream client for 15 years. I started with him at the Hacienda, but he later got a 13-year deal with the Monte Carlo. He is the nicest entertainer of them all; he did an enormous amount of charity work. It made me want to work three times as hard for him, and we accomplished a lot. On opening night, 750 magicians attended the after-party; he was a God in the magic world.

Those years were magical for me, too. I suppose it was the kind of carpet ride you only get to take once. Things change; the city changes. I have few clients now. Not long ago, I was close to landing a good gig. But at the last minute the producer told me I was too nice for the job.

Funny, nice has always worked for me in the past.

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