Keeper of the Vision

How Myron Martin—the man behind The Smith Center—became Myron Martin. An inside look at the salesman-performer-promoter-prankster who helped turn an unlikely dream into a smash hit.

smithcenterBig dreamers can start out as little schemers.

You want to one day operate a palace of culture in a globally renowned city? You need some training-wheel deals.

“I was a marketer from 5 years old,” says Myron Martin, his memory rewinding 49 years to the backyards of Houston. “Around the holidays I went around picking up pinecones that had fallen off the pine trees in people’s yards. I’d put a little glitter on them and sell the pinecones that came out of their own trees as holiday décor.”

Writ large, that’s moxie of the sort that, decades hence, helped get a landmark performing arts center built, lending this neon kingdom what it long lacked: artistic glitter.

No project in recent memory has wielded the power to shift the world’s perception of Las Vegas—and the city’s perception of itself—more than The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Leveling the previously gross imbalance between the razzle-dazzle of the Strip and Vegas’ once-modest cultural profile, it puts the lie to that snide attitude of outsiders that the phrase “Las Vegas culture” is an oxymoron.

Constructed at a cost of nearly half-a-billion bucks raised through a partnership of public and private money—as America was enduring its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, with Nevada particularly hard-hit—its completion in March was also something of a financial miracle and testament to determination.

Keeping it aloft day in and day out is Martin, a president and CEO with a rare combination of skills—as businessman, persuasive salesman, savvy marketer, confidant to stars and a performer himself.

“He’s a unique guy in the business,” says his wife, Dana Martin. “He has so much expertise in most every field that comes under that performing arts center umbrella.”

Take in almost any show passing through downtown’s gleaming Smith Center—from the cozy Troesh Studio Theater to the warm, snazzy Cabaret Jazz room to the cavernous elegance of Reynolds Hall—and you’ll spot the relentlessly cheery Martin. Glad-handing and kibitzing. Modestly accepting praise, sometimes politely deflecting it. Repeating his oft-told tale of being a gob-smacked Houston fourth-grader when he first eyed Jones Hall, that city’s performing arts center, his goose bumps rising with the curtain.

Reveling in the creation of a complex that, since its opening in March, has made him one of the most high-profile people in a high-profile city.

“I love my role in what I think will be a transformative period in our community,” Martin says. When he says, “love,” he clearly means it, but it is one of those handy media blurbs you sense he’s said countless times, retrievable at any quote-ready moment.

Beyond that, though, is a person of seeming contradictions who defies easy categorization, as most interesting people do: genteel, articulate, arts-loving—he’s even a voting member of Broadway’s Tony Awards—but, as his wife says, “a true Texan at heart—a guy’s guy.”

Childhood buddy Sandy Knox, a Nashville songwriter and record-label owner, has seen several sides of the man who occasionally accompanied her to the Grammys and Country Music Awards, schmoozing with industry heavyweights. “I see the business side of him at those functions, the very serious side of him, and I say, ‘If they only knew what a goofhead he is,’” she says. “I know the other guy with a towel wrapped around his head doing impressions.”

One whose résumé could read this way:

Musician and administrator. Prankster and promoter. Leader and ladies man. Native Texan-turned-New York sophisticate-turned-Las Vegas cultural force. A guy whose repertoire on the organ stretched from the classics to rock to plunking out da-da-da-daaa-da-daaaaa, so 50,000 baseball fans could yell, “C-H-A-A-A-RGE!”

Just north of the corner of Bonneville Avenue and Grand Central Parkway sits Myron Martin’s career grand slam.

•••••••

Nestled in a leafy cul-de-sac—reachable after driving through two sets of gates in a Henderson development—is his other home, a plush but airy 6,000-plus-square-foot house the 54-year-old shares with the ladies in his life. Dana, his second wife, former Miss Texas and onetime Jubilee! lead singer, is not at home this afternoon, a consequence of having traded feather boas for fractions as a math teacher at Helen C. Cannon Junior High School. Nor is their 9-year-old daughter, Molly, or their college-age children, William and Amelia, from Dana’s previous marriage.

Only the pool guy, with whom Martin confers about a pesky leak, is on premises, plus the writer he takes on a memorabilia tour through the memento-strewn foyer. Past the Steve Jobs bio on the coffee table, past the wall-mounted Texas license plate, past the framed poster carrying words that could define his career—“Fear No Art”—to the photos surrounding the Baldwin piano and Hammond B3 organ, the latter holding a lifetime of memories.

“It’s what I grew up with,” he says. “I won all the school talent shows on that organ and went on tour with bands and hauled it around the country. It’s part of the family.”

Above it hangs the surreal portrait of Billy Joel from his River of Dreams album cover, signed by the artist, Joel’s then-wife, Christie Brinkley. “He was one of my heroes growing up, someone I really enjoyed getting to know,” says Martin, who, as chief of Baldwin Piano’s concert and artist division in the ’80s and ’90s, came into the orbit of many superstars, persuading them to endorse the instrument.

“The first time I went to their home in East Hampton (Long Island), their daughter, Alexa, was 6. Billy and I were in their big living room, and that’s where he had a Baldwin SD-10, a big 9-foot concert grand. Alexa walks in, and Billy says, ‘Come in, honey—this is Myron, he’s the piano man.’ I was just the guy selling the piano, but for a split second it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m the piano man!’ That was 30 years ago. If I ran into Billy on the street today, he’d say, ‘Hi, Myron,’ but Christie wouldn’t remember me.”

Elsewhere on the walls are photos of famous musical folk, including Bruce Hornsby, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Paul Shaffer, Michael Feinstein and a sax player named Bill Clinton, the common figure being Martin, popping up like a show-biz Zelig.

“That is my childhood best friend, Sandy Knox, who is an incredibly successful songwriter,” he says, pointing proudly to another snapshot. “That was the year Reba McEntire won the Country Music Award for one of Sandy’s songs.”

Trace that friendship back to a pair of giggly 12-year-olds in a Houston classroom.

•••••••

Born and raised in Houston with two older brothers, Martin found his BFF in a fellow six-grader at Memorial Junior High School who grew up to create Nashville’s Wrinkled Records, and whose memories of the pal she calls “My” are punctuated by raucous laughter.

“You know that kid you always end up meeting that the teacher wants to separate you from because you were always in trouble or laughing? That was me and My,” Knox says.

Bonded by love of the arts, they performed together in a children’s theater called Studio Seven, as well as in the school choir, which, when they were in the eighth grade, was selected to tour Romania. “But we were very silly, and Myron was a class clown,” she says. “When Mrs. McClendon, our teacher, got irritated with him, she’d say, ‘I’m gonna smack you bald-headed!’ And he was a practical joker.”

Do tell.

“We’d pull up to a McDonald’s, and I would come out with all the food and he would have driven off and left me. But he’d just gone across the street to a parking lot, watching me wondering where he went. And his first car was an orange Volkswagen bug. I’d be drinking my cranberry juice, and he would wait till I was about to take a sip—this was before you had covers on your drinks—and he’d gun the car so the drink would go all over my face. He’s a prankster.”

Prankster on a harmless Beaver Cleaver level, which, Martin says, is appropriate to his upbringing, especially when remembering his mother, Vera, a Louisiana-born homemaker. “I had a Leave It to Beaver childhood,” he says. “Every afternoon when I got home from school she was there to greet me, sometimes she’d bake cookies, have a snack ready. My dad would drive from downtown to the suburbs, and we’d have dinner at 6 like clockwork, every night.”

Dad was Monty Martin, a petroleum geologist and vice president for Texas Gas, “the go-to guy when it came to finding oil and gas and understanding the business of gas reserves,” his son says. “He was the guy called on to testify in Washington, D.C., about oil and gas. Probably the most likable guy I ever knew, and I learned a lot of lessons from him.”

Humility was one of the biggest, his son struck by how, even with his imposing corner office and elevated position, his dad wouldn’t allow subordinates to call him “mister,” insisting they use his first name. Years later, when Martin became a rising young Baldwin executive in charge of nine Houston dealerships, he remembered that.

“I was proud of where I was at that stage of my life, and a lot of people called me Mr. Martin at 25,” he says. “I had lunch with my dad and very quickly changed that. If my dad, who has all this experience and credibility and influence and education, isn’t Mr. Martin, I’m certainly not going to have people call me that.”

•••••••

Neither parent was steeped in the arts, but when Martin was around 8, his father purchased an organ and began taking lessons as a way to decompress after work. Soon, his son was mimicking his dad’s movements on the instrument, playing by ear, discovering a talent for tinkering on the keyboard, and taking his own lessons. Talent-show wins followed.

“Then a funny thing happened,” he says. “Because I had this musical ability, it was much easier to meet girls. There’s a reason to keep going with the lessons.”

Another was the first stirrings of a professional association that would eventually launch him into the path of world-famous musicians and help define his career. At age 13, Martin was hired by the Baldwin Piano dealer in Houston to play organ demonstrations. Two years later, when Baldwin test-marketed “the fun machine,” an organ with automatic accompaniment, he was promised $100 for each one he could sell. In the first month, he peddled 16 of them.

“I loved telling people about it and showing them how it worked and getting them excited about it,” he says. “At that age, to have $1,600, I thought, ‘This is the business for me.’”

Lucrative, yes, but he needed a stage to fulfill his cool quota.

“I had a garage band in high school. I’m sure we were terrible but we got hired for high school dances, and each of us would get $40. Our guitarist was a big Jimi Hendrix fan, so we did some of that. A lot of Santana, [and keyboard-driven] songs from Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.”

While using the keyboard to gain an income, high school rock cred and girls, Martin was simultaneously sowing the other seeds that would serve him as an arts impresario—that of a leader and mediator—as he advanced to the University of North Texas, one of the country’s most prestigious music schools, in 1975.

Among his status positions were heading up the NT40, an assemblage of the top 40 student leaders, and being president of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, as well as leading the campus’ interfraternity council. “Traditionally, fraternities compete—for members, for dates with the sorority girls,” he says. “Finding common ground is what I brought to the fraternity council. At the end of the day, we were all there together.”

Certainly Martin was qualified to discuss campus dating, as the prankster-musician who would later wed a beauty queen developed yet another reputation. “Myron was an incorrigible flirt,” says Knox, who was up on his romantic escapades, having also joined him at college where they both bunked at the coed dorm. “He always had a girlfriend somewhere, they were always very pretty and sometimes they were a little older than him.”

Impressing the ladies might have had something to do with his baseball career—well, sorta.

Searching for an organist, the Texas Rangers phoned the university’s organ department during Martin’s sophomore year, seeking a recommendation, and he nailed the gig. While other organists could, he says, “play rings around me,” they leaned more toward liturgical music, whereas Martin was loosey-goosier, with a rep for playing jazz and pop.

“My friends would say, ‘Our buddy plays for the Texas Rangers,’ and the girls would say, ‘Really?’ Thank God they never asked what position,” he jokes. “It was fun because I love baseball. You could change the 50,000 people in the stands by the music you played. I had to know the timing of when to play ’charge!’ or those musical motifs to get them clapping.”

Occasionally, his non-baseball repertoire came in handy, as when members of the Monkees were in the crowd one day. “There was no such thing as finding it on your iPod; it’s either in your head or it isn’t,” Martin says. “I played ‘Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees’ and I saw Micky Dolenz look up to the organ booth and wave.”

While the job lasted only half a season—the hourlong round-trip between Denton and the stadium in Arlington grew tiresome—Martin hit the keyboards for the Braves for a couple of seasons several years later after moving to Atlanta. There, he became known for welcoming pitcher Steve Bedrosian to the mound with the theme to The Flintstones—you know, the Stone Age couple from a town called Bedrock.

•••••••

Awarded a music degree from the University of North Texas in 1980, and with a brief, yearlong marriage to a college sweetheart behind him, Martin had a decision to make. Credit his subconscious for making it after too many gigs playing cocktail piano at Holiday Inn lounges throughout college.

“I had a recurring nightmare that I was 50, playing to people who weren’t there to listen to me, eating and drinking and picking up girls. If I was smart about anything, it was knowing that as good as I was as a musician, there were thousands of people who were better than me. It might have been a passion, but translating passion into a career doesn’t always work out so well.”

And yet, Knox adds, “Myron always had a very clear vision that he was going to be in the entertainment industry.”

Answer? Managing and marketing music, rather than making it. Re-enter Baldwin.

Building on a relationship dating to his junior-high years, Martin dropped bait to the company’s marketing chief in Cincinnati and was invited to the company conference in Chicago to discuss possibilities. “I don’t think I ever filled out an application,” says Martin, who embarked, officially, on a 15-year Baldwin career, rising from retail salesman to overseeing the retail division.

Personable and diligent, he impressed co-workers and bosses alike. One was John Tolleson, Baldwin’s divisional vice president for Western sales, when Martin was assigned to Northern California. “He really could communicate with people,” Tolleson says. “They liked him and he was very persuasive when he needed to be.”

Gradually, Martin reached what would be his crowning Baldwin achievement, running the concert and artist division, coaxing major stars to perform on Baldwin pianos. That’s when the gig went glam, as he relocated to New York and scored an office at the renowned Hit Factory, a world-famous recording studio on 54th Street in Manhattan. There he would ride the elevator with the likes of Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Madonna. Rub shoulders with Broadway stars recording cast albums. Shuffle over to tapings of David Letterman’s Late Show and hang backstage thanks to a friendship with Shaffer, Letterman’s bandleader.

“I learned so much about dealing with people,” Martin says. “Had I only been a musician, I would have never been prepared for that. Had I only been a campus leader and president of all that stuff, I wouldn’t have been able to understand what goes on with the star stuff, the egos and personalities and challenges of the music business.”

Yet one crucial credential was missing from his professional résumé, and he knew it. On Baldwin’s dime, Martin enrolled at San Francisco’s Golden Gate University in 1987, earning a master’s degree in business administration in 1989. (Guess who was elected class president. … Yup.)

•••••••

Cool career so far. Living in New York, America’s cultural hotbed. Hobnobbing with top popsters of the ’80s and ’90s. Holding aisle seats at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. And he would abandon it for the cultural nirvana of … Las Vegas? Improbably, yes, after a plea from the Vegas-based Liberace Foundation—the late pianist had been a Martin client at Baldwin—to mosey west and take control. Several times they asked. Several times they were rejected, until he relented in 1995.

“Somebody quoted me back then saying I thought I had moved to a cultural wasteland,” Martin says, shaking his head ruefully. “I do remember saying it and having it repeated back to me. That’s how I felt. To move here and not have everything I had in New York, it was a real void for me.”

So he took the job … why? “The marketer in me enjoyed it. I liked moving it beyond its comfort zone. I negotiated a deal with QVC to do a whole Liberace show, we sold T-shirts and DVDs and Liberace bears.”

Martin moved on to UNLV in 1999 in essentially a warm-up for The Smith Center, as director of the university’s performing arts center. Booking artists including violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Moscow State Radio Symphony, he raised the level of the Charles Vanda Master Series. Bringing a taste of his Big Apple cultural life to Las Vegas, Martin also created the Best of the New York Stage series that has attracted Broadway lights including Mandy Patinkin, Gregory Hines, Kristin Chenoweth and Betty Buckley.

Professionally, his jets were firing. Personally, they were about to. While he dismisses any notion he could be considered—how should we say it?—a player, Martin does admit that his Vegas social life included dating showgirls. Clearly he had gotten into the Vegas swing of things. After all, Martin, owing to his contacts in the talent business, had judged numerous beauty pageants, including Miss America. One assignment in 1999 brought him home to Texas for that state’s contest, where he met fellow judge Dana Rogers, a former Miss Texas herself who was also living in Vegas.

“The judges were sequestered for the week,” Dana Martin recalls. “Being with each other all week long—I mean every meal, all day and all night long—he was so personable, so funny. He could be the life of the party.”

Quickly she tumbled for the fellow Texan, as he remembers: “By Wednesday night, she said to the group of judges, ‘Myron and I are going to get married.’ We hadn’t talked about it, we’d been seeing each other for four days. But we hit it off immediately.”

Having joined Jubilee! in 1993, she remained with the production show until 2002, while he continued raising his profile, putting the choirs together for Barbra Streisand’s millennium concert at the MGM Grand and producing a 9/11 benefit concert for the USO. Success wasn’t a constant, though, evidenced by the failure of the Vegas version of Hairspray that he co-produced at Luxor, which flamed out in 2006, burning a lot of cash along the way.

“I spent some time right afterward looking back and attaching blame and saying if this or that happened, you know,” Martin says. “Like many Broadway shows, it opened in Las Vegas, it had a successful [four-month] run, then it closed. I’m OK with that.”

Broadway musicals flop as often as they succeed in Vegas, but the fast fadeout of Hairspray nixed him getting a foothold as a Strip presence. While he praises the people he worked with on the musical, one of them—co-producer and Broadway veteran Michael Gill—declined to comment on the show or his relationship with Martin.

However, by that point, Martin was well into what would become his most celebrated accomplishment to date, helping to create The Smith Center. Every talent he nurtured in himself—as artist, marketer, salesman and businessman—coalesced at this career crossroad.

Yet rather than leaping to the fore of the developing project, his involvement grew in stages, dating to 1999 and an affiliation with the Las Vegas Performing Arts Center Foundation. “We had already established the structure for the performing arts center foundation,” says Dr. Keith Boman, who was its vice chairman under board chairman Don Snyder.

“He wasn’t available until he left the university, so he did some volunteer work and some research for us. Then we paid him as a consultant for a number of years until we established the full-time position. … He shared the same passion for the idea we were already promoting,”

Becoming foundation president in 2003, Martin was the proverbial soldier on the ground: cajoling, wheedling and persuading public officials and potential donors, spearheading the fundraising, negotiating with designers and architects, co-writing the business plan and guiding the cultural programming. Spanning the artistic spectrum, it included touring Broadway musicals, iconic pop, jazz and rock performers, specialty acts, the Nevada Ballet and Las Vegas Philharmonic, artist lectures and educational initiatives, including a partnership between the Clark County School District and the Kennedy Center.

“He communicates thoughtfully,” Boman says. “He really thinks through a process, sometimes overthinks it, before he makes a decision. I wouldn’t call him compulsive; I would call him careful. During the first few years that we worked on this project, we may have had some difference of opinion, but it never got in the way of my respect for him.”

While accepting all the accolades that have poured over him like champagne since the center’s debut, Martin characteristically hands over kudos to others. Among several he credits is Fred W. Smith, the center’s namesake along with his late wife, Mary, and chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the largest private donor, kicking in $150 million. Another is Snyder, the former gaming exec and foundation chairman—now chairman of The Smith Center’s board of directors—whom he calls “the hero, the most extraordinary community leader I’ve known my entire life.”

Yet it was Martin who, along the journey, picked up the “Keeper of the Vision” moniker. “That meant that I would apply The Smith Center’s vision to be recognized as a leading performing arts center in America, and I would use that vision in every decision we made,” Martin says.

“Sometimes it made me the bad guy. I had many arguments with design team members and spent a lot of time at City Hall saying why something had to be a certain way. It wasn’t an easy ride all along the way. It took standing up for what’s right for our community, even if it’s different than you might do in Nashville or Fort Worth.”

Combining compromise and backbone turned out to be the successful formula. “It’s not about your ego,” he says. “When you look back, you know every heated discussion you had, every decision you had, was for a reason. It’s better to be effective than to be right. That’s the biggest lesson I learned.”

Ultimately, what “the Keeper of the Vision” envisioned was a place where Las Vegas could banish the notion of a cultural wasteland and refashion it as a cultural wonderland.

Finally, with Myron Martin at the helm, Las Vegans see the vision realized. So, now, does the world.

Thanks, My.

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