Charles Ressler

The First Friday advocate on the importance of giving, acting on Broadway and how the arts community can pave the way to economic diversification

Photo by Lucky Wenzel

Photo by Lucky Wenzel

In March 2011, Charles Ressler packed up the car he had just learned how to drive a month earlier, took one last look at his lifelong home of New York City in his rearview mirror and began the cross-country move to Las Vegas—a place he had never seen nor ever desired to see. “It was the bottom of my list of places to visit,” he says. “Right above that was probably Dubai.” Some 18 months later, Ressler not only still calls Las Vegas home, but he’s thrown himself completely into the downtown revitalization movement, believing the burgeoning arts community at the city’s core is the main piston that will power economic redevelopment. Which is why Ressler recently joined the First Friday Foundation, the charitable arm of the monthly downtown festival that aims to support and advance local artists.

Ressler’s involvement with the foundation is the latest addition to a fascinating résumé that includes Broadway child actor; business science liaise for a two international scientific corporations; public-relations/special-events/marketing manager for Manhattan’s renowned Bergdorf Goodman department store; owner of a music-production/management firm; and Tony Hsieh associate (he works for several of Hsieh’s brands, including helping to launch the Delivering Happiness clothing line)—all by the age of 27. These days, though, Ressler is channeling much of his energy and passion to raising awareness and funds for the First Friday Foundation, which has attracted an unnamed donor who through year’s end will match dollar for dollar all contributions to

You clearly had some preconceived notions of Las Vegas. How quickly were they dispelled?

Ten days. Within 10 days I realized I really belonged here. I just had this [initial] feeling of Las Vegas that probably the majority of people who I know outwardly look at it—as sort of a vacuous city for gaming and debauchery. But the people here are very kind and very welcoming to new [residents]. It really is a city where dreams come true.

What’s your sales pitch to someone who has never experienced First Friday?

You have to go! I have a unique perspective, because I am a New Yorker, and I saw my neighborhood—which is the East Village—start with little arts festivals on Astor Place and grow into one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world, whereas in the ’80s, it was squatters and heroin addicts in parks. So we’re a lot further along [in downtown Las Vegas] than New York was, and I saw that change happen rather rapidly.

Also, we talk a lot about the [economic] pendulum swing of Las Vegas—when real estate is good, Las Vegas is in the top 10 nationally, but when it’s bad, Vegas is one of the very few cities that will swing all the way in the other direction and be at the bottom. Things [like First Friday] stop that from happening. It creates other business.

Where does your philanthropic nature come from?

In a few words, I believe wholeheartedly—and it’s been proven to me time and time again—that you only get to keep what you give away. I just understand that giving is the best way of receiving.

I saw growing up in the ’80s in New York that it was the artists who paved the way for everyone else to figure out that certain neighborhoods were viable. Here, I really see that opportunity where the arts are going to pave the way for major business and technology to come in. My mother always told me that when the gays move into a neighborhood, buy real estate. It’s sort of this idea that art drives creative thinking, which drives cool things just popping up. … Artists are always the first to take over an area. You’ve seen it in Berlin, you’ve seen it in London, you’ve seen it in downtown L.A., you’ve seen it in Minneapolis. If you look at these places, the indicators [for successful economic redevelopment] are, is the philharmonic a top 10 to watch? How many art galleries are opening?

Is this why The Smith Center was so important?

Between The Smith, the [Las Vegas] Philharmonic, the ballet [Nevada Ballet Theatre] and what’s happening with First Friday—all of it kind of comes together. This comes from my science background, but it’s really impossible to break things into parts and then try to understand them. You can’t separate The Smith from the philharmonic from First Friday from the ballet—it’s all kind of congealing and working together. That’s really what it’s about: a common goal.

How would you compare The Smith Center to a performing-arts venue you’d see in New York?

It’s incomparable—it’s apples to oranges. [The Smith Center] is absolutely stunning—it looks like it could be a part of the Lincoln Center buildings. But it’s hard to compare because it’s a very new thing here. … But the idea that I can drive three minutes and go see Yo Yo Ma in Las Vegas—and not in a casino—is pretty unbelievable.

You were a Broadway actor from age 7 to 19. Was there a point where you thought acting would be your career?

Oh, for sure. I thought I’d have a Tony Award before I turned 22—and that’s when I was 8! … But I had a sort of an out-of-body experience while performing once, and I got fired from a show, and it subsequently led to me not getting into Juilliard, which had also been a dream of mine. Michael Kahn, who was the head of Juilliard’s School of Drama, was the director of that play. So [that] really turned me off [to acting]. Also, I really don’t like other actors! There’s a real drama to everything. … Actors tend to make everything much bigger than it is, and I got real tired of that.

Do you have a hobby or interest that might surprise people?

I’m actually learning to be an aerialist, something unique to Las Vegas. Four or five days a week I do silks and hammock, and I’m about to start straps.

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