Saturday, November 7, 2009

CityCenter's CLASSLESS Move

They go and commission the great architect Sir Norman Foster to build a hotel-condo called the Harmon. Then, because of construction defects, bad economic foresight and lax oversight, they chop it in half, lose the condos and delay the opening by a year.

And now they turn it into that crassest and lamest of New Vegas tropes, a billboard?

That was taken by @LVSteven This is just so awful. This is what CEO Jim Murren had in mind when he gathered the world's best architects? Here's another view sent in today from @JeffinOKC:

I aready groaned when thee Mandarin Oriental did this...

...but have been reassured that that draping would be removed by opening day.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pacing Main St W/One O' The Boyds

Last week, I tagged along with Boyd Gaming founder and Executive Chairman Bill Boyd as he walked one of his properties shaking hands with as many employees as he can find. I had heard he does this regularly, so I wanted to shadow him and did so for this week's Las Vegas Weekly column, which is up now.

While this bit of feel-goodism made for a fine column, I was actually almost as fascinated by the property we toured as by the folksy millionaire making nice with the charges: Main Street Station.

This is not one I have given much thought to since I was a reporter at the Review-Journal in the late 1990s and we would frequently grab lunch at the brew pub because it was near the office. Never, in all those visits, did I notice this...

...or this...

or this:

What I'm trying to show is that 400-room Main Street Station, sitting alone at the northwest corner of what most people consider the downtown Vegas cluster of hotels, is a surprisingly -- possibly bizarrely -- fancy facility. It started life as Church Street Station, a Vegas version of a similarly ornate resort in Orlando, and Boyd Gaming bought it once it was in bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. They renamed it Main Street Station and left most of the design features intact.

Its prior owners invested heavily in adornments, woodwork and antiques. But this being a Vegas casino -- and an unimpressive-looking one in a distressed section of the city -- it is easy to assume these are garish knock-offs. Yet the railcar really was used by Buffalo Bill, the street lamps really did come from 1870s Brussels, the chandelier really was brought over from the Figaro Opera House in Paris and this wild boar behind the bar really did once stand sentry at a public fountain in Nice, France:

I didn't get a good shot of it, but even the gaming tables have some beautiful carved-wood bodies and stands. Oh, and yes, that mosaic-colored rock behind these urinals in the men's room off of the casino actually is a part of the Berlin Wall:


Dunno -- don't WANT to know -- what lurks in the ladies room.

One of the sad parts of the place is that some of its more interesting features aren't really used by the public. There's a second floor that's no longer accessible to guests with these gorgeous pool tables just sitting there:

And the economy has shuttered the Pullman Grille, leaving undiscovered such treasures as these doors removed from George Pullman's mansion in Prairie, Ill.:

So it was kind of a treat to wander the place. They even have a printed self-guided tour to all the antiques and such all over the place.

Not to mention, the place seems to have something else that has suddenly become classic: coin-in slot machines. No, really. Check this out:

When was the last time you saw stacks of these in a Vegas casino?

There were a couple of behind-the-scenes bits that didn't make it into the column, of course. I also found the employee break area kind of funny to look at:

Boyd went in the shake hands with the guys and oddly remarked at how nice it was that they had stools upon which to put their feet.

And since Main Street and the California are joined by a pedestrian bridge and the Cal is known as a haven for Hawaiian travelers who fly in on Boyd's charter flights, it is the rule that employees who have any responsibilities at the Cal wear uniforms that include...

...Hawaiian shirts! Love that!

Petcast + The Strip LIVE on Sat w/LILY TOMLIN

OK, OK. Lily Tomlin's only on "The Strip." But it's an awesome interview in which we dig in about her role on West Wing, the possible Desperate Housewives spinoff she may star in, the time she walked off the Dick Cavett show in a semi-huff, why she wishes she hadn't been rude to John Wayne and why she and l0ngtime partner Jane Wagner aren't married.

Lily's playing the MGM Grand from Nov. 10-18, her first Vegas performances. Can you believe that lady is 70?

That's from 5-6 pm PT at LVRocks.Com on Saturday. And we'll have an hour of "The Petcast" preceding that from 4-5 p.m. PT with Emily Richmond and guest host Dayvid Figler. (I'll be covering the WSOP Final Table and can only step away from that for an hour for "The Strip.")

Listen live at LVRocks.Com and join in in the chat room. Or just hear the stream via your iPhone or whatever other mobile device you've got that's smart enough to do that. As always, you can grab the podcast when it's available, too. So many ways, no excuses!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bye Bette + Buffet! Hi, Viva Elvis!

Some comings and goings today.

* Bette Midler announced today she's done with the Colosseum after two years. Her last show is Jan. 31. Her statement was peculiar in scrambled backhanded slaps at Las Vegas and inscrutable explanation of her future plans:

"What a fabulous two years this has been, and I thank AEG and Caesars Palace for the best partnership a showgirl could imagine. Who knows? These legs have had such a great run in the desert -- it may be time to haul them to places with more humidity and fewer slot machines. But first I need to finish recording my album of the sexiest new love songs that only a showgirl could sing."

Huh? First, what does that "Who knows?" mean? What is that in response to? Was someone asking her a question? Is it "Who knows, I may end up at the Wynn by Labor Day?" Second, really, she had to observe the humidity and slots? Is this news to her? Was she here THAT much that it grated on her? And, third, when she says, "But first" before the shameless plug for her new album, does that mean she has to record the album BEFORE she vacates the effing-arid den of gambling? Couldn't she have come up with anything more clear and graceful?

* Someone who is always clear and graceful? Richard Abowitz. I'm so sorry to report that Richard's "Movable Buffet" blog on the L.A. Times' website has been halted. This comes a year after my weekly celebrity interview pieces for the L.A. Times were halted because the section I was writing was eliminated. So these are tough times for that newspaper, to be sure, but it did seem that every time the L.A. Times does a significant piece on Las Vegas, those pieces rank high on their most-read lists. Hopefully Vegas-obsessed Los Angelinos will find their fill elsewhere, but the more voices the better and this change is really a shame.

* There's good news, though, too. Cirque du Soleil finally unveiled the name of the new show at Aria. It is -- wait for it -- Viva Elvis. What's that? Oh, yeah. That's right. I broke that two months ago. But, still, they're making a big to-do about it. They posted this utterly idiotic video, too, of the cast shouting the name. Here's hoping their dance movements are in better synch:

Here's an interesting tidbit from my CityCenter tour the other day, though. The directional signage inside Aria just reads "Elvis Theater." Kind of silly of Cirque to go to such lengths to keep a non-secret under wraps to the point of not even having the show's name on the signage, especially when that video seems to show that the cast recorded that moment in June in Graceland.

Also, something that would send Steve Wynn through the roof: Scalpers have already set up shop! Check it out! This is the third entry when you Google "Viva Elvis" right now and tickets haven't even gone on sale yet!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bravo to Top Chef Tasting Menus!

Having spanked the city for not doing anything interesting with its Top Chef moment, I have to send out kudos to the folks at Wynn Las Vegas' Bartolotta and Mandalay Bay's RM Seafood.

Last week, as I wrote here, James Beard award winner Paul Bartolotta of Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare hosted a small, privaet viewing party to celebrate his turn as guest judge on the show. At the end of the evening, I asked Bartolotta if he'd be creating a tasting menu and he said he doubted it because the challenge he had to judge involved the chef'testants doing some spin on TV dinners based on classic TV shows and, really, that isn't what he does.

Imagine my surprise, then, when today I learned that not only did Bartolotta create a Top Chef tasting menu but that, at $175 a head, it's already a fairly significant success. On Tuesday night, for instance, Bartolotta sold 40 of them or about 13 percent of the 300ish covers. "It's the most expensive menu I've ever merchandised," he told me today. "It just tells you the power of this show. People really want that experience."

Bartolotta said Wynn culinary PR queen Amy Rossetti had already nudged him to do something to extend the Top Chef moment. Then I asked him last week, so he conferred with his wife, who suggested he recreate the menu he whipped up for the Top Chef contestants, a meal seen and drooled over in living rooms across America during the episode.

You might be wondering what you get for $175, which is specifically branded the "Bravo Top Chef Menu" alongside the two other prix fixe meals he already offered. Here's the rundown:


frittura di paranz (assorted fried Mediterranean seafood)
aquadelle (fried tiny silver fish)
gamberi rossi (imperial red shrimp)
calamaretti (tiny baby calamari)
totoni (flying squid)
moleche (Soft shell crabs from the lagoon of Venice)
mazzancole (Caramotte prawns)

Antipasti di Mare

cicala imperiale alla griglia (grilled slipper lobster)
ricciola alla griglia di carbone con salsa acciughe (charcoal-grilled Sicilian amberjack with anchovy sauce)
saute di vongole (clams with tomato and white wine)
triglia alla Ponentina (Ligurian red mullet, Taggiasche olives, roasted peppers)
piovra alla Ligure (Ligurian octopus salad, olive oil, lemon)


risotto nero (seafood risotto with cuttlefish ink)
penne con ragu di crostacei (penne pasta, lobster, shrimp, langoustines, crab, white wine, tomato)
ravioli di ricotta con caciotta e agnolotti del plin (sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli, pecorino cheese, Marsala wine glaze and classic Piemontese meat ravioli)

Secondi di Mare

branzino in crosta di sale profumato (sea bass in aromatic salt crust with Sicilian citrus sauce)

Sinfonia di dessert

Assortment of plated desserts, gelati, granite and sorbetti

Yum, huh? Yes, extravagant, too. Even in their English translations, I have no idea what half of that is. But he's selling them like whatever hotcakes would be in Italian. Bartolotta figured he'd sell a few, a curiosity. He's as knocked over as anyone that people will/can pay that price in this economy.

I should also note that Rick Moonen, who was a Top Chef Masters contestant this spring and whose RM Seafood and Restaurant RM at Mandalay Bay were the scene of the Restaurant Wars episode that aired Oct. 21, has also added some show-related items to his menus. In Moonen's episode of Top Chef Masters, he ran out of time making a twist on a corn dog that involved shrimp puree and did not serve it to the judges, so he now offers the completed dish on his menu as the Top Chef Moon Doggie.

These are great ways to tie in with the show. Congrats.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

An Important Tweak in Wynn Scalping Policy

Back when I first got on the soapbox about the potential disaster that is the Wynn-Garth Brooks anti-scalper crusade, I wrote this:

I thought of a partial solution, but these rules don't allow for it: Wynn should accept refunds less, say, 10 percent. They know they can resell them, so at least that solves the problem of what people can do if their circumstances change at the last minute, if they get sick or snowed out or whatever.

Well, today I learned from Wynn spokeswoman Jennifer Dunne that, in fact, they have directed all their ticket agents to provide full refunds to anyone at any point prior to the show. Period.

Yes, this is in direct contradiction to the printed rules, but the Wynn folks have decided to provide a release valve to let out some of the pressure. They'll have a standby line for people hoping to buy tickets -- and face value -- on the day of the shows.

Dunne did say that she's not sure whether they'll continue with this return policy beyond the first 20 Garth Brooks shows for which Wynn sold seats last month, but it cannot be understated how important and groundbreaking a concept this is. So far as I know, there are no other shows anywhere in Vegas -- or elsewhere, for that matter -- that provide this sort of flexibility for customers. Now if you're sick or you can't get to Vegas or whatever, you can at least recoup your costs and you don't have to rely on a third-party to help.

I still expect a nightmare on the night of that first Garth Brooks show if, as planned, they invalidate any tickets bought through ticket brokers. People will have spent a lot of money for those tickets and will be enraged when they can't see the show.

But this is certainly a great first step. Let's hope some more common sense prevails here.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wynn Atty Writes To VegasTripping


Irony -- and parody -- may be dead in Vegas.

The fine folks at VegasTripping.Com were working on a funny little parody website, WynnCore.Com. This is all that there is right now...

...but that's also pretty funny -- and deliberately so -- because the WynnLasVegas.Com site is notorious for being inexplicably slow to load.

Well, the Wynn peeps aren't amused and they sent this nastygram (click to enlarge if necessary) to Chuck at VegasTripping.Com:

Basically, they're telling Chuck of VegasTripping: We own it, take it down, give us the keys, thanks a ton, love ya.

Except there is this thing known as parody, it's why Sarah Palin can't sue Tina Fey and it has legal standards. Chuck was the one who coined the merged term "Wynncore" for the Siamese-sister "world famous resort, hotel, casino complexes." That shorn term is now in wide use across the Vegas-centric Web. (Speaking of which, we never hear much of MEGACENTER(tm) anymore, do we, LVS?)

That said, Wynn's lawyers -- taking a much-deserved break from their effort to make it impossible for Grandma to stuff Garth Brooks tickets into Junior's stocking this Christmas -- have deep pockets. Chuck was surprised by the letter and is considering his options.

"The whole thing is just preposterous," he told me tonight. "The artist in me says that we should defend ourselves but the banker in me says we can't afford to. Spending a lot of money to defend a half-baked gag for something with limited appeal that was intended to amuse about 15 people doesn't make any sense, but it is a parody website. What we're doing here is not all that different than what Andy Warhol did with Campbell's soup can."

I think he underestimates the humor potential. The Wynn site, like the man himself, is eccentric and unique, forcing users to wait and having Wynn's dulcetto narrating things as though he's cooing to a lover. The possibilities are endless.

Chuck said he's likely to remove the content but that he isn't planning to just fork over the domain name.

Meanwhile, this incident brought out an absolutely charming bit of Vegasacana from Hunter Hillegas of RateVegas.Com. Back in 2003, he received this gem:

Is that not the greatest thing since Ted Stevens' Series of Tubes? Oddly, there's no secretarial notation, so is it really possible Wynn himself typed this? And how is it Hunter didn't remember this back when Robert Earl was making it his life's work to bring him down?

Hunter said on his Twitter (get it?): "I wrote back saying, thanks for your concern but 'sorry, no dice'. Asking for no coverage was a non-starter."

P.S. to Hunter: How about scanning in the whole letterhead? I'm dying to see what the logo looked like back then. That's just FUG. I'm sure Roger Thomas would disavow.

[Full disclosure/Gratuitous Brag: I was VegasTripping.Com's Person of the Year for 2007, the very apex of my career.]

A Mini Podcast-a-Palooza for Monday

We didn't have a new episode of The Strip this past week because there was no engineer available at LVRocks.Com on Saturday which turned out to be just as well given that I had a mammoth neckache and was given some remarkable meds. But I did sober up long enough to catch up on posting both the latest of The Strip and of my other program, The Petcast.

Firstly, I encourage you to watch our Special Petcast Video show from the SuperZoo convention this fall at Mandalay Bay. We provided video commentary, interviews and product demonstrations. That included Pet Top, the Amazing Treat Machine, Pink Poodle Gourmet & Designs, The Port-A-Poo, the remote-control cat toy, the crazy creative grooming competition and much more! Don't miss the montage of fun photos at the end, too!

I also posted Episode No. 216 in which Emily and I discuss the problems of wild pets being released into the Everglades with Jenny Novak Tinnell of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. You can subscribe to The Petcast via iTunes, of course, to get all the episodes when they're released.

Oh, and I also managed to get "The Strip" updated, too. You can subscribe to that in iTunes, too, or in Zune. So here's that one:

Oct.31: The Top Chef Effect
w/Hubert Keller

Four years ago, a San Francisco chef took a gamble and opened up his San Francisco kitchen to the first challenge of a new Bravo TV show called “Top Chef.” At the time, Hubert Keller came across as tough and grouchy but the show was a hit and his Fleur de Lys in California became a place of intrigue for its fans. Fast forward to this year when warmer, cuddlier Keller appeared first on Top Chef Masters and then in an episode of the current, Las Vegas-set season of the show. Business at Fleur de Lys – long an underperformer at Mandalay Bay – is booming. Keller speaks this hour about that, about what it smelled like to grow up above his family’s bakery in Alsace, France, and about how a Frenchman became one of the biggest things ever in the burger cuisine. Plus, as usual, Steve asked Keller about his food guilty pleasures.

In Banter: Ticket scalping issues, Barry Manilow, the Podcast-a-Palooza, Harrah's dumb iPhone app, DB leaves Wynn, DB opening at Sands in Singapore and who is the Maori Hi Five?

Links to stuff discussed:

Top Chef Vegas
Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas
The Strip Sense column that included Hubert Keller
Our Vegas Podcast-a-Palooza episode
Harrah’s lame iPhone app
Steve Wynn’s gotten political
Jan Jones and others defend Obama
Steve’s column about Obama and Elaine Wynn
A YouTube clip of Lady Elaine from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Steve’s Las Vegas Weekly cover story on the D Gate murals
John Curtas of EatingLV.Com breaks news of Daniel Boulud’s Wynn exit
Las Vegas Walk of Stars

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Big Fat IRS Audit: The Details

As many of you know, Uncle Sam gave me a financial colonic this week. And on Saturday, just four days later, I received this heavily redacted (for my own privacy and security as well as that of my IRS agent) but incredibly gratifying letter:

Here's the part that matters:

Yup! I came through with flying colors. "No change!"

That doesn't mean it wasn't a traumatic experience. When the letter came in late July, somehow I had no reaction whatsoever. They wanted to check out my 2007 returns, come on down. Since I began freelancing and requiring the assistance of an accountant a decade ago -- I was doing pieces for US News & World Report and the Advocate, among others, as far back as when I worked at the Review-Journal -- I have retained a gazillion scraps of receipts, driving logs, the works. Come on down.

For some reason, that was about the last thought I gave it for a while. I informed my dad and my accountant, both of whom said it wasn't a surprise given that I work at home for myself and take lots of deductions. Sooner or later, it would happen, they reassured. I set up a date for the IRS agent to come to the house as she requested for Oct. 28 and I moved on to focus on the matters immediately at hand.

And then, last Friday, it dawned on me: This is serious! So when I got to work on getting all the materials organized and making sure everything made sense, Miles asked me on Saturday whether I was nervous and I shrugged him off.

By Sunday, I was confused and frightened and by Monday I was in near-tears in my accountant's office worried about this receipt that I couldn't find or that trip that might have -- but didn't -- result in a story. Since so much of what I do requires me to do research for which I am not paid or ever reimbursed and since a lot of journalism is deciding when there's NOT a story as much as when there is one, I began to see trap doors all over the place that an IRS investigator, should she be so inclined, could fall down.

I could justify every last thing, but how was I to know that my explanations would be accepted? I'm also toiling in a new frontier for the IRS, how to deal with deductions taken for things that bloggers and podcasters do that seem personal but that provide fodder. When your personal and professional lives are so impossible to separate, will the IRS do it for you to your maximum disappointment? It's not a coincidence or an irony that I wrote a piece precisely about that conundrum for Wired.Com in April 2008 -- exactly when I was filing the 2007 returns that the IRS wanted to audit. How many great story ideas have I turned into articles based on personal experiences? And what about the potential stories that editors didn't bite on?

This is crazy-making and, indeed, I went nuts. Literally, I became physically sick. My longtime accountant, Alecia Dewsnup, was amazing, calming me down and showing me exactly what I needed to do, step by step, to illustrate for the IRS that the figures I had provided were accurate. I became so intimately re-familiar with my 2007 life -- the spending, the investments, the pieces I wrote -- that it was all I could think about to write about for this week's Las Vegas Weekly column.

I shut out the whole world. I stopped answering the phone or email, stopped blogging, delayed editing the podcast. There was nothing in my universe beyond the fear that I might be unprepared for some curveball from the IRS agent. The thing that worried me most was that she had also asked for me to have my 2006 and 2008 returns ready and I didn't have the time or emotional ability to be as thorough with those years.

Then it was Wednesday. This is what the kitchen table looked like at 8:30 a.m. when she arrived...

My kitchen table waiting for my IRS agent to arrive: on Twitpic

...and then about an hour into the visit:

Auditor at work. Going quite well, though I wouldn't recommen... on Twitpic

I was going to call it an "ordeal" rather than a "visit," but it was extremely pleasant. Really. Other than the fact that she couldn't accept coffee or even water from me because of IRS regulations, it was almost a social experience. She was very kind, thanking me for being hospitable and friendly and providing her with some comfortable space to work. Shockingly, some people are rude and difficult and try to make it harder for the taxwoman to do her work. Can you imagine?

The first 20 minutes, in fact, was her explaining why she was there and what she was looking for and almost apologizing for the inconvenience. When I mentioned I had told an editor I couldn't take an assignment at 1 pm, she told me to call him and tell him I could, that she was not there to interfere with my ability to make a living. That was almost a direct quote. I did end up handling that assignment, about the would-be Michael Jackson museum in Gary, Ind.

As it turned out, the reason for this audit was that I had taken a significantly higher travel expense deduction in 2007 versus 2006 and 2008. There happened to be a pretty great explanation for that: I wrote two travel guidebooks in 2007, "Gay Vegas" and the map-intensive one for Random House. Hard to write a travel book without traveling, I always say. And I had included in those deductions a variety of expenses for Vegas hotels, show tickets, meals and other activities.

My IRS agent not only believed me, but she began to very nearly make a case for why I should have written off more. Where, she wondered, was the cost of cab fares and tips that I surely had to pay out? Yes, the IRS lady was concerned I'd short-changed myself. Wow, huh?

We spent a lot of time talking about how I do my work. At one point, strolling through my driving records, she asked about some notations that I had covered a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament. That was good for a laugh. I showed her the piece I'd done for The New York Times.

I was surprised to hear her ask, unbidden, about the podcasts. It was clear she had Googled me -- I had Googled her, too, and asked about a prior job to show her so -- which made my accountant's forewarning that maybe I ought to play down the same-sex live-in partner thing a bit irrelevant since she had read about Miles on the blog and knew I had written "Gay Vegas." (My accountant, it should be said, is in business with her gay son and is a champion of gay rights. She just didn't want me to be unfairly discriminated against should I get a real SOB of an agent. About three hours in, I asked my agent about this concern and my agent AGREED that some of her colleagues could have issues with it.)

My agent spent most of her time calculating my income from my bank statements and determining that they accurately reflected what I had declared for my income. And by the time my agent was ready to pack up, she was clearly very satisfied. In fact, she was really embarrassed when I told her about an incident in 2007 when the IRS spontaneously sent me a check for about $1,200 and then, a few days later, wrote to say I owed them the same amount plus penalties. I'd resolved that odd glitch in my favor, but it was one of the reasons why, when she was leaving, she said, "I'm going to go back and tell them to leave this guy alone."

And so that was that. She promised me I'd be getting that letter above and, sure enough, I did.

While it wasn't fun, I did learn something: I've got a rock star of an accountant. My IRS agent could not sing more praises for Alecia's preparation, comparing the returns I presented with those of others she's seen. They were organized and easily readable. "That automatically ups your credibility dramatically," the agent told me. So if you're in need, call her at 702-435-5117 or email accountable[at]

You know what else got me through? Miles, of course. And...

The dog and the audit: on Twitpic

That's Black, sitting in my lap the whole time. Jack snoozed on through, but I'm sure he meant well.