In 1995, Myron Martin—a Texas native who knew at a young age he’d have a career tied to music—was joyously living in New York City, running the concert and artist division for the Baldwin Piano Company by day and soaking up the cultural scene by night. Then the estate for one of his clients—some entertainer named Liberace—begged Martin to move to Las Vegas and look after the late artist’s foundation. “It was a decision I made a number of times,” Martin recalls, “and the answer was always, ‘No, I’m not leaving New York.’”
The foundation, however, wouldn’t accept that answer, and Martin ultimately relented, moving west to a gambling town where the only phrase more foreign than “balmy summers” was “cultural arts.” Jump ahead nearly 17 years, and the 53-year-old Martin—who’s been committed to lifting Las Vegas’ cultural-arts profile since he left the Big Apple—stands on the verge of opening The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, the $470 million donor-fueled architectural wonder that, according to its president and CEO, is already the envy of the performing-arts world.
What was your initial impression of Las Vegas’ cultural-arts community when you got here?
I’m not proud to admit it, but I was one of those people who kind of bought into the notion that I’d moved to a cultural wasteland. Remember, I moved here from New York City, I had an aisle seat at Carnegie Hall, I traveled with 200 of the world’s greatest artists all over the place. Then I came here, and much of what I was used to didn’t exist. … Now thanks to The Smith Center opening, we will be considered a world-class city. All of the things I longed for when I moved from New York we will now have.
Sometimes I still get snickers when somebody introduces me as the arts and culture guy from Las Vegas. But the moment that people learn about The Smith Center, it all goes away, because it truly is one of the world’s greatest performing-arts venues. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s fact.
What’s going to make audiences say “wow” the first time they walk into The Smith Center?
Well, there’s not just one thing. You’re going to enter through one of two entry vestibules, and just as you walk through them, you get this “wow” moment of walking into the grand lobby, where all the floors, all the walls are stone, Italian marble—beautiful marble. … Then you’re going to go into the hall, find your seat, get settled and you’re going to look up at the ceiling, and you will see one of the most breathtaking ceilings in any venue around the world.
There are dozens of “wow” moments scattered throughout, and I can’t wait for people to explore and find them.
What’s the moment you’re most looking forward to?
Let me tell this story: I was in the fourth grade in Houston, and our big field trip was to Jones Hall, the performing-arts center in downtown Houston. I had never been [there] until that point, and as we pulled up to this majestic building, I knew we’d gone someplace special. Our group walked through this grand lobby and into the hall, and I sat eighth-row center in mohair seats. And I remember feeling them on the palms of my hands as the house lights went down and the curtain went up. I got goose bumps all up and down my arms. And it was that day that I got into this business.
So one of the things I look forward to the most is the first day when The Smith Center is surrounded by yellow school buses, and we’ve got kids—whatever grade they’re in—coming into the building, and seeing some of them get goose bumps the exact same way I did.
The Smith Center sits on 61 acres of mostly vacant land, so what type of urban development do you expect to eventually sprout up around you?
Let’s use Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, as an example. When I was at the University of North Texas, Fort Worth was known as Cow Town. It had a downtown, but it wasn’t a place you ever went to at night. Bass Hall changed it overnight, and today there’s a Barnes & Noble across the street, there are lots of restaurants, there are hotels that have cropped up. People now live there.
So there are lots of people already talking about what might surround The Smith Center. And you can expect that [former] Mayor Oscar Goodman’s dream of people living in the downtown, working in the downtown and playing in the downtown will happen, and The Smith Center will play a really important role in making it happen.
What’s the one artist/production you would love to see knock on your door tomorrow and say, “Can I please play The Smith Center?”
They’re all knocking [already]. Recently one of the country-music awards shows was in town, and the local Fox affiliate interviewed Kristin Chenoweth—she was one of the co-hosts, and she was one of the stars in Wicked on Broadway—and the interviewer said, “Any chance we’re going to see you back in Las Vegas for a performance?” And she said, “Well, you have this new performing-arts center, I’ve seen it, it’s extraordinary, and I really hope they invite me to play there.” … This is not BS: The Smith Center is the buzz in the business.
What instrument did you play growing up?
I grew up playing the organ. I studied piano, organ and voice—those were my majors. But here’s my punch line, because there’s another side to me. People talk to me about music, and I tell them I actually played one season for the Texas Rangers baseball team and two for the Atlanta Braves—I played the organ! Music has allowed me to do a lot of great things, including getting to take my fraternity brothers with me for free to Texas Rangers baseball games.
What’s playing on your iPod right now?
There’s jazz, there’s Broadway, there’s things you hear on the radio, there’s classical music. If there’s ever been a mixed-up and confused iPod, it’s mine.
What’s been your reaction to the number and amount of donations The Smith Center has received along the way?
I’m surprised, I’m amazed, I’m humbled. … As we got into this project, the amount of money that was going to [need to be raised] to create a building that would truly be world class was a daunting challenge—all-in, [it was] $470 million. So to be able to work with our board and our great development team and craft a program that would allow us to raise all of the money before we even opened the doors, it’s the most extraordinary feeling I could tell you about. The Legislature did their thing in passing the car-rental tax, the city did their thing, the county did their thing, the Reynolds Foundation made their first gift of $50 million, which was our big lead gift and has since been upped a few times—they’re in at like $200 million today. It’s been a wonderful journey, and it included Democrats and Republicans, Northern Nevadans and Southern Nevadans. … If there’s ever been a nonpartisan, all-hands initiative that everyone agreed with, it was this one.
You’ve already exceeded your ticket-sales goal, so clearly there’s a demand out there. Does that mean Las Vegas has been ready for this for a long time?
Our goal was to open our building on par with the Dallas performing-arts center—it’s called the AT&T Center now. It opened two years ago with about 6,000 Broadway season-ticket subscribers. And I thought, “Dallas is a much bigger city than Las Vegas. But if we can get to 6,000 subscribers, that’ll be a nice place to be.” And today we’re over 10,000 subscribers—which means it’s 10,000 people agreeing to buy tickets for every Broadway show! Some people don’t believe me when I tell them that.
I attribute it to pent-up demand. Back when I produced Hairspray at Luxor, the first three weeks were soft-opening weeks that were really geared toward locals, and all three weeks were packed—every single show. So way back then, I got this idea that there are a lot of people in Las Vegas who want to see first-run touring Broadway. So if we could translate that into a world-class facility where we get the first-run tours—the same ones that go to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Denver—that there’s an audience here for it. And boy has this community proven that they’re ready.
The other thing I attribute it to is, unlike our colleagues who operate entertainment venues on the Strip, The Smith Center is built for those of us who live here. And so for us to offer even a Broadway ticket starting as low as $24 says that we took that business very seriously. Because we could’ve charged a lot more than $24 for The Color Purple or Mary Poppins. But because we want this to be the living room for Las Vegas—we want this to be a place that’s not [just] for the rich and famous, but for everybody in Las Vegas—[offering affordable tickets] is a commitment we made a long time ago, and we’re sticking to it.
What’s the toughest moment you’ve had trying to make the performing-arts center happen?
There have been a number of challenges as we’ve launched this incredible ship, starting with helping people understand the difference between an entertainment venue—a showroom on the Strip—and a performing-arts center. One of the things we talk about is making sure we can celebrate cultures from around the world, that we can bring attractions to Las Vegas that don’t make money on purpose, but they serve a much greater purpose by inspiring our kids, by creating opportunities for what I call goose bumps. That’s not the goal if you’re running an entertainment venue in a hotel-casino. It’s getting people in and making money and turning people out into the restaurants and casino.
So for us to be able to do things that are educationally based—for us to be able to, before we’ve even opened, partner with the Kennedy Center on K-12 programs and the Wolf Trap Institute on pre-K programs—those are the things that make this really cool.
Then there are the challenges of people saying, ‘Well, do we need a performing-arts center if we’re already the Entertainment Capital of the World? And we have Broadway shows.’ True, but they’re cut down to 90 minutes and don’t have an intermission, and they’re not the same thing that you would see on Broadway or in a big city. Take Bass Hall. They do things in Fort Worth that we don’t do in Las Vegas. They bring entertainment that inspires. They send people like Wynton Marsalis into the schools to get kids inspired to get involved in music. So when you see what a performing-arts center can do in a community, both on the goose-bump side and on the downtown redevelopment side, it’s something that truly makes a difference between a good city and a great city.
After the curtain closes on opening night, what’s going to be your most important task from that point forward?
Well, it’s not easy to open one of these buildings. But it’s not easy to sustain one, either. So thanks to the Reynolds Foundation, part of their gift was a $50 million endowment, which helps us sustain the operation. But we’re constantly going to be involved in fundraising. And we’re constantly going to be looking for the next big show. We’re always going to be in the booking business and looking for unique things that will make people in Las Vegas say, “Ah, wow, I’ve never seen that before. I want to go see that!”
How will New Yorkers react to The Smith Center?
New York is like an onion. There are layers and layers of New Yorkers. So our group of producing partners in New York are already saying thank you to The Smith Center, because now we finally have an appropriate venue in Las Vegas that major touring shows like Wicked can perform in. There are the classical musicians who have longed for an acoustically great hall in this part of the country to come and perform. They will have that.
As for the public in New York, I think their perception of Las Vegas as a city will change. Because let’s face it, if you ask a New Yorker today to describe Las Vegas, it’s gambling, it’s hotels, it’s restaurants, it’s shopping—it’s tourist-based things. Well, this is a game-changer; this says that we take not only arts and culture seriously, but we take our community seriously. So I think New Yorkers and people across the country and around the world will have a much different perception of our city.
Every time we’ve had someone important come take a hard-hat tour, I hear this over and over again: “I knew this was going to be spectacular. But I had no idea it was this spectacular.” The architectural detail in the building is so deep and so rich that you’ll have to come back multiple times to take it all in. … I’m not sure people in Las Vegas have quite grasped how important this building is, how the architecture is so exceptional, and how deeply it’s going to touch the community over generations of time.
When and how did you first get exposed to music?
My dad was a big music fan, so from the youngest age I can remember, he would take me to hear music. I remember hearing the great vibraphonist Lionel Hampton when I must’ve been in second grade. So my dad exposed me to a lot of great music, and that led me to wanting to play music, and that led me to getting a degree in music. So music has been in my life since I was born.
If you weren’t in the performing-arts business, what would be your dream job?
I’m living my dream, full stop.