Friday, February 26, 2010


Anyone who loves Vegas needs to at least go browse the wares for sale at KNPR's online auction, which closes up at noon PT on Saturday. Yes, there's that awesome lunch at Wynn with me and Miles -- currently the second highest bid-on item among the lunches-with behind KVBC owner Jim Rogers and KVBC entertainment queen Alicia Jacobs -- but there's also some remarkable offers of tourist-centric interest.

Here are some examples, reflecting the present high bid as I type right now:

* Dinner with Vegas food critics John Curtas and Max Jacobson: $80
* $50 Downtown Cocktail Room gift card: $31
* $350 Wynn shopping certificate: $175
* Dinner for 4 at Nove and VIP admission to Playboy Club or Moon w/bottle of vodka: $401
* Two Penn & Teller tickets: $50
* Two Peepshow tickets: $53
* Two Rita Rudner tickets: $60
* 1 Night + 2 show tickets at Caesars: $250
* Two Santana tickets: $90
* One night and dinner for 2 at the steakhouse at Flamingo: $120
* Two passes for the Flamingo buffet: $22
* Two passes for the Paris buffet: $36
* $50 gift certificate at Aquaknox at Venetian: $37
* $100 gift certificate for the Sterling Brunch: $70
* $100 gift card for Rao's or any Light Group eatery: $76

Obviously, there's a lot more including tickets to The Lion King, Jubilee!, Donny Clay, Donny and Marie, Jersey Boys, Cher, Phantom, O, Ka, Viva Elvis, Love, Mystere, Terry Fator, George Wallace, Blue Man Group, Lance Burton, Criss Angel Believe, Frank Caliendo and Thunder From Down Under, Chippendales, Zumanity and Le Reve.

Go. Now. Check it out. They're working with NPR stations in CA, AZ and Washington as well, so there's all sorts of travel-related deals to be had in those places as well. All the money goes to superb and vital radio programming.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Maloof: "They're Not Going To Take Over My Company"

I just hung up with George Maloof, who cast doubt on the Financial Times' report that Harrah's has been buying up Palms debt by saying, flat-out: "They're not going to take over my company. It’s so far remote."

Maloof refused to get into any more specifics, repeatedly saying that they're a private company and that they never commented on their financials. I asked whether the Palms had taken a hit during the recession and he answered: "We haven’t been immune to it but we’re doing much better. 2009 was tough for everyone. We’ve been doing much better."

It took a few attempts to get him to react to the report by Jon Berke and Andrew Ragsly before he finally gave me that quote. Then we had this exchange:

Maloof: Have you tried talking to [Harrah's]?

Me: Yeah, they're not commenting.

Maloof: Yeah, so maybe it’s not true.

And, in fact, not even some of my best Harrah's sources, people who know when Celine Dion has a bowel movement, have any knowledge of any new takeover effort. So it's unclear on that side of things. And it seems similarly clear that the Maloof family is not planning to sell out or default anytime soon.


The Financial Times has a frightening piece online indicating that Texas Pacific Group, one of the private equity firms that own Harrah's Entertainment, has been buying up the debt of the Palms. The piece relies on anonymous sources, albeit more than one, and notes that "the investment points toward a systematic strategy by Harrah’s to acquire other casinos through their distressed debt."

You know, like how Harrah's just took over Planet Hollywood. Cue scary music.

The report indicates that the Palms is taking a massive hit from the recession and that "the Palms Place condo-hotel launched in 2008 is a poster child for the recent wave of overambitious casino projects as it had only leased one-third of its condo-hotel units by late 2009."

And this:

"Harrah’s might take a more utilitarian approach with Palms and Planet Hollywood, by toning down some of the glitz and boosting appeal to middle market customers. Then the idea would be to feed those customers to other properties in the Harrah’s portfolio."

Now, I'm no Harrah's basher. They do what they do quite well. But come on, Mr. Loveman, not the Palms. No. Please no. It is a special, unique entity operated by a rare owner-operator (George Maloof) who does not have any evident ambition to take over Asia or Pennsylvania or the Republican Party. He just wants to make his one place a cool, fun place to be. That's all. Is that so wrong?

I've got a call in to George Maloof. I'm hoping he can clarify. A top Harrah's executive source of mine said he/she hasn't heard anything at all and this was one of the first to know about the Planet Hollywood deal. So who knows. But the whole idea just makes me break out in hives.

This Week's LVW Col: President's Pianist

Here's this week's Las Vegas Weekly column. My full interview with David Osborne is found here. Thanks to the Osbornes for this image below. -sf

The Presidential Pianist
David Osborne keeps the politics to a minimum as he keeps Commanders in Chief entertained


David Osborne needed to postpone the conversation for a half hour or so.

"The White House is calling," he says with a trace of giddiness in his voice. "They want to know if I want to come meet the president tomorrow morning at Green Valley High School." Totally understandable. In fact, it fit perfectly into the raison d'etre of any interview with this man, a pianist who plays in bars at the Bellagio five nights a week.

Surprisingly, though, Osborne seemed excited. It's not like he's new at this; he's a regular at the White House. He's played at Christmastime there pretty much every year since late in Bill Clinton's second term, has Jimmy Carter's cell number and e-mail address on his iPhone, and has tickled the ivories at one location or another for six presidents.

"It never gets old," he says later when the arrangements for his Obama meet-and-greet were squared away. "Each and every time, it's so exciting. I can't even really tell you why."

Read the rest at LasVegasWeekly.Com

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

SPJ Event Canceled?

A poster calling himself "Las Vegas Editor" wrote in a comment regarding the off-record political experts panel that the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter planned to host at UNLV this weekend has been canceled.

I'm running out on assignment and don't have time to find out for sure if this is so or why. While I'd love to believe that the folks involved decided it was a bad idea after I blogged it and the popular Romenesko journalism site picked it up, I suspect the real reason is that the best political journalists in Vegas will still be in Carson City dealing with the special legislative session.

Now, whether the event is ever rescheduled in the off-record configuration will, in fact, show if wiser minds are prevailing. But let me say right now that I did not intend to suggest the SPJ folks had nefarious motives. I just thought it was a bad idea.

Wednesday Funnies


I do so love the weekly R-J neighborhood section The View, especially their bizarro approach to health coverage. (Remember this terrifying headline, re: brain cancer and headaches?) This is the art above a piece that questions whether digital rectal prostate exams are helpful. (Wasn't that a clinical way of putting it?) Just LOOK at this glee in this guy's eyes! I'm hopeful those plaques behind him are just props! The best part is that the first paragraph of the piece decries how "thick-headed" men are about going to the doctor for these exams!

I thought I'd lighten up the mid-week mood around here by trotting out the oddities and amusements I collect. Like, for instance, this was sent in from reader Joey R. in New Orleans from a gay dating website.

He wanted to know how many 9-foot guys were signing up. I just wonder if any of them get dates. Lord knows if there were 9-foot gay guys out there, the NBA would be a pride parade.

To answer my own question from last week, no, AT&T cell service was still miserable at Aria when I was trying to cover the president's visit there. And it got to me right when I spotted compromised TV journalist Nina Radetich, whose nickname now is "Nina Lies At 11." She was there in the light of day covering Obama, so I tried to Tweet a photo with a little snark. But it took KLAS's @JonHumbert to look carefully enough to see WHAT I was trying to Tweet:

Speaking of the Obama visit, I was on the job for AOL News. It's a news website. So what choice was I supposed to select on the White House's credentials form?

And since I've been banging around the R-J plenty lately, I found this kinda fun. The Society of Professional Journalists is having its 2010 nation confab here. And look at the speaker getting top billing:

Perhaps the Greenspun Media Group's web guru will talk about how deliberately infusing newsrooms with hubris and conflict is a great way to undermine your operations and waste tons of money?

Finally, this is just weird, funny and bad journalism all in one! Last week, the R-J did a piece about all the little things that cities have had to cut in these tough economic times. And here were the first two paragraphs:

If you want to know how deep local governments must dig for ways to cut costs these days, go ask the folks at the Henderson Senior Center.

Better ask them soon, though, before they get tired and cranky.

Uh wow. Let's stereotype and insult some oldsters! They only account for, oh, 80 percent of our readership! Woo hoo!

Legislature Gunning For Media Now

After I blogged about how the Legislature could find $800,000+ by eliminating its government handout to the likes of small government advocate and publisher Sherman Frederick and free counties from having to print the property tax rolls each year, I heard from State Sen. David Parks.

He wrote me to say he's going to toss the idea into the mix. He tried twice as an assemblyman to eliminate this corporate welfare deal and it made it through both houses in 2009 before Frederick called Gov. Gibbons for a favor, as documented by Jon Ralston last year. Wroth Parks:

"We should put the repeal of property rolls on if we can find a bill that has a nexus. That will be more difficult and it has to be with something that the governor won’t veto."

But wait! There's more! Parks also noted that newspapers in Nevada enjoy a sales tax exemption on ink and newsprint. He'd like to see that undone as well this week as legislators try to scare up $887 million to fill a monster budget gap in the special session.

Now, I'm not so sure I like that. Printing the tax rolls is a completely unnecessary exercise. Ink and paper are important and the media is already in a tough spot financially. One is a gen-u-ine guvment payoff, the other is an effort to help a critical industry do its job and stay solvent. Such sales tax deductions are common; an effort to kill it in Colorado, where it amounted to about $10 million in savings, failed earlier this month. So it's not that much money anyway, seeing how Colorado is double the population and the circulation of its leading paper, the Denver Post, is probably larger than the circulation of all Nevada daily newspapers combined. Our sales tax rate, however, is a lot higher.

That said, it looks like Sherm Frederick is going to have to hire back on his expensive lobbyists, ask toady Nevada Press Association Executive Director Barry Smith to trot out fresh pile of steaming bullshit and get his pal Gibbons on speed-dial. And when the R-J Editorial Board endorses our Love Guv in the GOP primary, you'll know why! Read between the lines of their blather about how he did his best to "shrink government" and you'll see the invisible words "except when it came to our gravy train, which he graciously kept intact."

Speaking of which, David Parks is running this year for Clark County Commission, so taking on the R-J's government payoff is pretty brave. The R-J editorial board has praised his fiscal discipline many times over the years, but they only meant it when it was cutting somebody else's perks.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Alleged R-J Conflict Of Interest

Got this interesting note from a brave soul called "Anonymous" earlier tonight and I thought it might be worthwhile to dispose of it here as opposed to as a response in the comments section of that post. I'm sure this person is not the only one to wonder what my motivations are regarding the Review-Journal. So here's what was written:

I know you won't put this comment on your blog because you don't want others knowing that you have a chip on your shoulder when it comes to the Review Journal. You really hate the RJ for not hiring you back, don't you? Why don't you disclose this fact when you write about them? That you tried to return to the RJ after you left only they wouldn't hire you. You want to go accusing other journalists of being unethical and yet you don't follow a basic tenet of journalistic ethics, which is to disclose such conflicts. Put the information out so others can decide whether they want to stand behind your criticisms or take them with a grain of salt. You might actually earn some respect then.

There ya are, Anon. Not only will I put it on the blog but I'll make sure as many people as possible see it. Fancy that.

So, let's have at it, shall we?

I worked for the Review-Journal from 1996 to 1999, during which time I covered the education and county government beats. And when I returned to Vegas in late 2002 after stints at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and then in Beijing, China, I never, ever even considered the idea of returning to the Review-Journal. Anyone who suggests otherwise is an out-and-out liar. Not even Sherman Frederick, who has attacked me and suggested nefarious motives on his blog a while back, ever claimed my issues stem from some desire to get back into the womb. (I'll get back to why Simple Sherman thinks I am this way in a moment.)

It just never crossed my mind because I was making far too much money from far too prestigious a set of publications when I returned to Vegas in 2002.

You see, I freelanced for nearly two years in Asia for USA Today, The New York Times and some others. I only returned to Vegas in 2002 because I was hoping to make a very troubled first marriage work and my partner of nearly 10 years was a medical student here. He was only going to remain for another 18 months and then we expected to move on together to Chicago, his hometown. Getting a full-time job wouldn't have made any sense, but more importantly I wanted to keep freelancing and had the contacts to make it work immediately.

My marriage failed anyway and I ended up staying here. But by the time I realized Vegas wasn't a temporary stop for me, I was making more money and enjoyed more freedom than I thought even existed in journalism. Not to mention, after covering something like China for the largest American daily newspaper, you just can't go back to covering a local city council. Or, at least, I couldn't.

The freedom was pretty important, too. When I took off for China, I thought I was done with journalism after jobs in Rockford, Vegas and Florida. But in China I realized it wasn't journalism I disliked, it was beat reporting. When you cover the school district for a local paper and you notice an interesting trend in, say, the gaming business, they make you hand off your idea to the gaming reporter. I always wanted to do it myself and I have prided myself on being extraordinarily versatile. That's what gets me going.

More proof: In the fall of 2003, I turned down a job at the Washington Post in its Montgomery County bureau. It shocked me to do it; a staff post at one of the top dailies had always been my pre-China, pre-Vegas, post-Northwestern dream. But when the chance presented itself, I couldn't see myself as happy doing it. I was helping to set the national media agenda for Vegas; covering a suburb even for the Post seemed so mundane. Also, I'd have had to take a pay cut.

I never have or would consider reapplying to the Review-Journal, but I retain many close friends there and believe that the paper's journalists are, on the whole, excellent. In fact, my broadsides at the Review-Journal's management are largely because it angers me that the journalists they hire are never given the proper tools to reach their potentials and give this community the media it needs and deserves.

My antipathy for the R-J stems directly from the fact that their web operation is a joke that could imperil the entire enterprise in the near future and their publisher consistently makes decisions and says illogical or untrue statements that harm his credibility as well as that of his staff. Any publisher who pretends he's rabidly against big government but personally calls the governor to beg to keep his own gravy train rolling, for instance, is a hypocrite who jeopardizes his own reporters' ability to do their jobs properly.

It's hypocrisy and bad journalism that rankle me, and if you read this blog long enough you'd see I praise loads and loads of R-J stories when they deserve it. You'll also see that when I screw up, I'm pretty loud about that, too. Also, I don't think anyone can claim the Sun gets an easy ride, either, especially lately.

Now, Sherm Frederick believes I am a disgruntled former employee. He gets this because at one point on this blog, I noted that in the late 1990s, when Jon Ralston was still at the paper and starting up his daily e-mail blasts, R-J reporters were forced to contribute without any compensation. This is intuitive now -- in fact, I advocate that journalists participate in all sorts of media and I do so myself without additional pay as a regular matter of course -- but back then this seemed like an unfair burden. So, in silent protest, I would forward the email blasts to some of my sources and friends to save them the money of subscribing. I'm not proud of this, it was juvenile, shortsighted and unprofessional, but the only reason anyone even knows is because I apologized to Jon on this blog! That I remain embittered over something so ridiculous 12 years later is absurd, but a lot of what Simple Sherman writes is absurd, so whatcha gonna do?

Yet the question now becomes, where does an anonymous poster who flings baseless accusations without any evidence or even a shred of logic on his/her side get off suggesting who deserves respect and who doesn't? Agree or don't agree with me, but at least I sign my name on every last view I air, every last accusation I assert. That, it seems to me, is where respect and credibility arise. Being right and arguing a good case, too, helps.

So, no, Anonymous, you won't get another shot on this blog unless you identify yourself, even in private and off-record via email. But here's what I'll do. I'm going to put a little link up in the left rail of this blog to this very post. And so from here forward, it will be easy for people to know what my history is with the Review-Journal and decide what my conflicts, if anyone can call it that, may be. MmmK?

Is NinaGate Now DarcyGate?

Nevada' Deputy Attorney General Robert Giunta today dropped the state's lawsuit against the auto repair shop TireWorks, which was the subject of some scathing reports by KTNV's Darcy Spears. This was the case in which Spears' colleague and anchor Nina Radetich was caught on a recording recommending her boyfriend's damage-control public-relations expertise in advance of Spears' reports.

It turns out, Nina may have been something of a red herring. Giunta's statement was surprisingly blunt and a serious indictment of a suspect form of journalism in which reporters and authorities collaborate:

"The complaints against Tire Works represented only a tiny fraction of the automotive complaints received by the State and represented a miniscule number of cases relative to the total number of customers that Tire Works has served. The Consumer Affairs Division's decision to permit the news media to accompany them on the compliance checks was the reason the case was so exaggerated and received so much publicity. The net effect was that the allegations were made to appear much larger than they were."

The Consumer Affairs Division no longer exists because the Legislature killed it the last time they were scrounging around for budgetary nickels. What they had done was take a car to three different TireWorks locations and received three different repair estimates, then sued over deception. They also sold the car before TireWorks could re-examine it as evidence in the suit against them.

The case became famous because of Radetich's outrageous actions, for which there is no question she should no longer be a working journalist. But Giunta makes an important point that is more important because anchorette influence peddling is not nearly as common as what Spears did here.

TireWorks, he's saying, was simply unlucky to have been the target when the Consumer Affairs Division allowed Spears along for the ride. This, of course, is the problem with all "journalism" of this ilk, made glamorous by Chris Hansen of MSNBC. It's portrayed disproportionately just because a journalist has been given access.

Yet in retrospect, this wasn't Spears as investigative journalist. It was Spears as stenographer. She didn't do any investigatin', she just made a really, really big deal out what the investigators said they had found when she was on hand. Investigators file charges and lawsuits every day that don't lead the news; this one did because Spears had video. She didn't get anything because she's a crack reporter, she got it because, I'm betting, someone at this agency decided that a little sensationalism could bolster the case for the Legislature to not put them out of business. Any which way, it's clear now that authorities were ginning up the drama to get on the teevee.

Unsurprisingly, KTNV General Manager Jim Prather defended his staff even as they exhibit shoddy journalistic practices. No, in order to lose one's job over there, you have to be a well-liked 25-year veteran who gets a minor traffic citation that is later dropped.

[Hat tip to Mike Spadoni for the alert on this.]

$800,000 For The NV Legislature

Hey Nevada Legislators!

The Review-Journal heartily advocates spending reductions to solve the $887 million budget hole that forced all of you to Carson City for a special session. Why not take them at their word, then, and cut off Sherman Frederick's totally unnecessary nanny-state guvmint handout? It's only worth about $800,000, but that's good for five or six school-district administrators, right?

How? Gosh, it's so easy! Stop requiring the counties to publish the property tax rolls that are already easily available for free on the Internet. Voila! It can even be cast as a "green" initiative, too! In Clark County, that was 576 pages per home subscriber in December and Clark County by law had to pay the Review-Journal $555,000 for the honor. Here's what it looked like:

Now, now, Tom Mitchell and Sherman Frederick. Don't get all dewy-eyed about the unwired and underprivileged now! You sure as hell don't give a damn when they have to take a few extra steps on their own, and I thought you were champions of people's can-do spirit? Anybody can go to the Clark County Public Library and have a librarian help them look it up if they don't have a pooter or can't figure out a website that's a lot easier to navigate than, uh, ReviewJournal.Com!

Not to mention, the Internet version is so much more user-friendly. You can easily pivot to your neighbors' parcels to compare and contrast if you wish! In the dead-tree version, you have to know the names of your neighbors and who the hell knows that anymore?

Last year, the Legislature actually passed a bill to do away with this but the high-minded, libertarian and super-duper ethical Sherman Frederick himself called Gov. Jim Gibbons to plead for the veto that killed it according to a report by Jon Ralston. Y'see, Frederick doesn't believe in government handouts unless it's his.

During that session, Nevada Press Association Executive Director Barry Smith told lawmakers that printing the rolls provides "third-party accountability." Smith, in this instance, is a liar and knows it. The R-J doesn't expend an ounce of journalistic effort fact-checking or reviewing the tax rolls they print. It's advertising and is treated as such.

So there's some $800,000 across the state that can be returned to county coffers and, in turn, could be kept by the state. It's easy. It's completely unnecessary. And how awesome will it be to watch Sherman Frederick betray everything he writes to keep his own welfare check coming in?

Covering (Up) The Election

As you can see, the campaign managers for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid and two of the Republicans seeking to unseat him this year, Sue Lowden and Danny Tarkanian, were getting together to chat about media coverage of campaigns. Cool, right? Except then there's this part:

Let's see if I get this straight. The Society of Professional Journalists, protectors of press freedoms and openness, is holding an event with three major political figures and they've granted a blanket of privacy to them? And the acting dean of the UNLV journalism school is not just endorsing but presiding over this?

I'm not the only one who finds this weird and unsavory. Two of my favorite experts from the Poynter Institute, a highly regarded journalism think-tank in Florida where I've won two scholarships in my career to attend sessions, agree. Kelly McBride wrote back succinctly: "I think it's BS for such an event to be off the record." And her colleague, Bob Steele, wrote me: "I can't think of any good reason I would agree to those terms for this type of session, but I'd like to know what they mean by that term in this case, and I would like to know WHY they've agreed to such a standard."

Right. WHY. Why would these people get such a significant promise? I asked Charlie Zobell, the managing editor at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, longtime instructor at the UNLV j-school and coordinator of this event. (Disclosure: He was also my boss from 1996-99.) His response:

It is our standard practice to have all SPJ meetings "on the record." In this case, however, the panelists were convincing in their request that the discussion be off the record.

After many previous elections, we have invited political consultants and campaign managers to critique local coverage. This is the first time we have asked them to give us their views at the beginning of the election cycle. We definitely thought they would be more forthcoming and the discussion would be of greater value to us if the meeting itself were not covered as a news event.

I discussed their request with other members of our local chapter before agreeing to the arrangement. Anyone who attends is free to try to interview the panelists after the meeting.

Yeah, I figured this was the logic, that the participants "would be more forthcoming." Except what does that mean? These are seasoned political professionals. One of them is the political director for the most powerful Democrat in Congress. They're also competing. What kind of information could or would they impart? And what awkwardness is this going to create should they actually say something of value?

Try this. Suppose Harry Reid's guy says, "We know the R-J is out to get us and so we're going to only give interviews to the Sun." Wars between major politicians and major news outlets is news and if you don't believe me, see Obama v Fox. The public needs to know that! But nobody can report it? And later, when it comes to be an evident strategy, the reporters who were there are in the awful situation of still not being allowed to observe it because maybe they wouldn't have had anything more than a hunch but for the fact that the strategy was essentially confirmed at this session?

The promise of "off the record" is supposed to be very special. It's something that journalists are really only supposed to agree to when they think they might get some important information that is crucial to the public that advances a story. We usually let sources we know go there more than we should, but that's because of long-term relationships. Typically, if information provided off-record can be confirmed by other sources, it can be published but not attributed.

In this case, however, it's being used precisely in the opposite manner. It's being granted to highly trained political hands who are the savviest in the state at dealing with journalists. And whatever they say is actually supposed to be locked away in a vault.

This is very, very bad role-modeling for UNLV students. Like Steele, I find it hard to imagine what information would be imparted that would be worth this bargain. And it's terrible precedent for SPJ, which will now have to explain to future panelists why they, too, don't get the deal.

Also, as longtime UNLV journalism professor Mary Hausch noted to me today, it's unenforceable. She wonders if SPJ will make attendees sign something or swear an oath. Would a journalist organization actually forcibly remove someone who refused to agree to these terms? Can you imagine? And the rest of the "journalists" there wouldn't report THAT?

"It is highly unusual to have a meeting that is off-the-record in its entirety and, from a practical standpoint, I'm not sure how you can guarantee that to the speakers," Hausch said.

You can't. Someone can Tweet it or put it on YouTube or post it to a blog anonymously or send the information to someone unemcumbered by the promise made on their behalf, like me. Then, if it's really newsworthy, the rest of the participants will either have to cover it or be derelict reporters.

And you know who knows that better than anyone? The three political dudes who negotiated this awesome arrangement. While Zobell says that they're now being provided a space to be more candid and open, these guys know there's no such thing. They're never going to tell even a roomful of sworn-to-secrecy-journalists what they'd tell one another over drinks or what they'd advise their clients. And they're sure as sugar never going to say anything useful that their opponents' strategists can use.

That is precisely WHY these events are more useful in post-mortem and not in the thick of a developing story when participants still have so much to gain or lose. And if this is a good time to do this because it's right when it's all ramping up, then go get the strategists of the LAST election, who can be honest and sober and uncompromised.

So SPJ has given away the journalist's most precious negotiating card, set a terrible precedent for itself and set a very bad example for the students for ... nothing. That's really a shame.

* * *

P.S. It's not clear it matters anyway. The event is Saturday and all of the top political journalists in Nevada are likely to still be in Carson City covering the Nevada Legislature's special session. But even if they weren't, which one of them worth their salt would attend such an event and risk being compromised as I've described?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Show is UP: The Presidential Podcast

It's quite a presidential week here in Vegas, so the podcast reflects that with a fascinating chat with Bellagio pianist David Osborne as well as a brief, strangely contentious one with our old pal George Maloof. Fun stuff. Click on the date below to make it play or right-click to save it and listen at your leisure. You can subscribe, too, (it's free!) in iTunes or in Zune.

Feb. 15: A Presidential Podcast

What’s it like to host the president in your home? What’s it like to play the piano for the president at his home, that big white mansion in Washington D.C.? We’re about to answer both those questions, Vegas style. Palms owner George Maloof explains how he came to know President Obama and describes the hoopla around hosting him Thursday night for a Democratic fundraiser. Then Bellagio’s pianist David Osbourne talks about performing for six U.S. presidents including the last three at the White House. And while presidents are interesting, Osbourne’s story about the last vice president, Dick Cheney, is particularly bizarre.

In Banter: Harrah's gets P-Ho, Vegas gets Obama love, CityCenter does NOT get Obama love, another Lake Las Vegas closure, Chinese New Year is fun, the Viva Elvis party was not fun and why red ketchup is the new blue tape.

Links to stuff discussed:

Guest host Amy and Bay’s podcast, Grits to Glitz
David Osborne’s website where you can buy his music
YouTube channel for David Osborne work
Planet Hollywood is now part of Harrah's
The R-J’s piece on Robert Earl’s future
A photo of the psychadelic-looking Beijing Noodle No. 9
Articles about Casino Montelago, Hawaiian Tropic, Steve Wyrick and Krave problems
Greenspun v Station Casinos, per the Wall Street Journal
VegasMate, the iPhone app, from RateVegas.Com
Steve’s column about his VegasMate experience
The AP on the proposed McCarran liquor store plan
Steve’s AOLNews.Com and blog post on Chinese New Year
A summary of Viva Elvis reviews and Steve’s review
The classic shot of Gene Simmons pawing Amy’s hair
Steve’s AOLNews.Com piece on Obama’s visit and VegasHappensHere.Com posts on the Bellagio suite and Murren’s hopes


Yes, both of us. I somehow snookered the reclusive Mr. Miles Smith into being part of the deal this year. So you can go to this link and bid. Wynn Las Vegas is graciously donating lunch at the choices listed in the item description.

The item was only posted today, so go check it out. The auction closes on Feb. 27.

This is part of a massive online auction that KNPR is doing this year along with an alliance of other stations across the West. Anyone interested in Vegas from anywhere in the world needs to get thee to the site and browse the hundreds of listings for books, hotel stays, meals, tickets, bar tabs and lunches or dinners with many notables including Elaine Wynn, food critics John Curtas and Max Jacobson (together!), ace political pundit Jon Ralston and KVBC entertainment queen Alicia Jacobs.

The readers of this blog have a long history of supporting this event and I hope you all do it again. Last year, KNPR General Manager Flo Rogers told me that VegasHappensHere.Com was responsible for the third highest number of referral hits. So go do it again AND save a load on all sorts of neat stuff!

The Vegas Poll That Went Awry

I noticed on Dave McKee's blog that he was touting the fact that he's been "short-listed" for best Vegas blog by the folks at Las Vegas CityLife in their annual reader survey. He's a regular contributor and didn't disclose that in that blog item, but OK. Anyhow, I was curious, of course, to see if this blog had received a similar honor, so I headed to the site on Saturday to check it out.

Sadly, the site accused me of trying to double-vote, see?

Uh, no. I have not. My memory's bad, but it's not THAT bad. So I tried again on other computers, tried cleaning out the cookies, tried other browsers. Alas, still no luck. Then I went to Twitter and asked others to try it and everyone else who did had the same problem.

Now this poll had been up for MORE THAN A WEEK (according to McKee's post) and has had a full-page ad in the print edition promoting it, so I was a little surprised when CityLife editor Steve Sebelius Tweeted back that he'd "check" on the problem. That meant that a major Vegas publication had had a broken poll for ages and nobody bothered to tell anyone? Nobody over there even noticed? When there's a broken link on this blog, I get a half-dozen emails on it within an hour. But OK.

Anyhow, just now, I tried again. And voila, I got in. Sort of. I answered the first 50 questions but, when I tried to advance to the next part, it froze. In fact, it's been 20 minutes now and the site is STILL saying:

Fascinating. I suspect this is the work of the crack Stephens Media tech staff that brought us search bars that, a week into the fab Review-Journal redesign, still don't show the user what he/she is typing. Try it yourself! See?

Saddest part is once CityLife actually fixes its poll problems, I betcha a deck of Chippendales playing cards it's going to remember my IP address and tell me...

P.S. How does Dave McKee know he's short-listed for best blog if the poll's not in the print edition and nobody can get to that part of the poll online? (I still don't know if this blog has been nominated.)

P.P.S. I'll have more to say about the poll once I can actually take all of it, but I'm already perturbed. Some of the items short-listed aren't even open anymore and there's no opportunity to write-in a choice. The latter makes the entire poll, already simply a promotional exercise, even more irrelevant and gamed.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Summary of Judgment: Viva Elvis

Cirque du Soleil must've been feeling mighty fine last week after that unequivocal, utterly puzzling super-duper thumbs up from Richard Corliss of Time Magazine,
who declared "Viva Elvis" as "an experience that's both symphonic and in every way fantastic" and said "no tribute show can touch this one in its level of sophistication and its power of evocation."

But now here comes the real critics, the ones who don't necessary matter as much for a quote in an ad in Conde Nast Traveler but whose ability to assess this against not just Cirque's ouevre but what else is on stage in Las Vegas makes them far more useful to your travel preparations.

These commentaries are so consistent and fit precisely with my own views that it makes you wonder if Corliss was positioning for some special access to Cirque's New York show, Banana Shpeel or looking ahead to their Kodak Theatre show. Or maybe he just actually thought it was that good.

Here's a summary:

* Mike Weatherford of the Review Journal gave the show a lukewarm B. "Isn't it supposed to aim just a bit higher?" he asks of the production's ambition. He's baffled by the fiery-rope-twirling sequence and sees in it an effete-Canada-v-white-trash-Deep-South back story. It is "a genuine "Huh?" moment, one cynics might see as Cirque wandering adrift in its first journey to the red states, uncomfortable and pandering to strangers." His summary may be this line: "'Viva Elvis' is indeed a happy mess. It's loud and joyful and full of surprises, even if they stem from jarring in­consistency."

* Dave McKee of Las Vegas CityLife says it's "a noisy, incoherent mess." The superhero trampoline sequence to "Got a Lot O' Livin' To Do" is "just long, shapeless and ultimately pointless." Echoing my own concerns about the acoustical system in the theater and the treatment of the music itself, McKee writes: "Erich van Tourneau has dumped the original recordings into a gumbo of backing tracks, and live vocals and instrumentals, then puréed them into incomprehensibility. The theater’s sound system, which sounds like being trapped inside a cheap stereo speaker, only makes things worse." But how could that BE? Cirque CEO Daniel Lamarre told me it was as sophisticated as Love!

* John Katsilometes of the Las Vegas Sun also wonders about the trampoline scene. "You're wondering what is the point of all these costumed characters bounding around the stage other than to take a segment of Elvis' personality and expand upon it simply because costumed characters jumping on trampolines is a Cirque hallmark." Of a flaming-rope-twirling scene, he writes, "It's terrific fun, but when we think of Elvis, is a cowpoke spinning a flaming lasso something that springs to mind?" Also, "The production does present several moments when you're unconvinced about the strength of the link between what you're watching to the life and career of the King."

* Joe Brown of the Las Vegas Weekly and Sun pulls a bait and switch in his commentary, declaring up top the show is "likely to be lucky number seven for Cirque du Soleil." So the Montreal Mafia thinks, "Whew." But then Brown gets his digs in. "Viva Elvis" is probably good enough to crowd-please, but that doesn't mean it's any good, he says. "[I]t delivers exactly what many — most, probably — want from a Vegas show. Which would be vivid image after eye-sizzling sensation. Cirque is at its peak technically here — nobody (except maybe China) can top the Canadian spectacle factory’s powers when it comes to creating visceral images. But the flaw of this show, the missed opportunity, is that something so stylish is so insubstantial. ... The directors and designers have taken the all-too-familiar iconography of Elvis, dipped it in cheese, deep-fried it, sprayed a hard candy coating over it and dished it up on a stick. Eighteen-hundred served, twice nightly. Next!" And, finally: "Watching "Viva Elvis" is an oddly inert and passive experience, like watching a movie."

* Ubiquitous travel freelancer Eric Gladstone, on his Orbitz.Com blog reviewing all seven Cirque shows in Vegas, draws similar conclusions and makes the inevitable and deadly comparison to Love as in "unlike Love, Viva Elvis is an oddly disjointed, sloppy set of postcards caricaturing episodes in The King’s life." Like me, he likes some bits a lot but wonders what it all adds up to. He also praises the theater, which I find boring. In fact, the school-bus-bench-style seats with no arm rests are just irksome.

My own conflicted review is here.

Viva Elvis: B-; Viva Elvis Party: F

Throughout the hourish that I stuck around at the shockingly lame "Viva Elvis" premiere party, I was confronted countless times with a reasonable but strangely irksome question: "What's you think of the show?" It's expected, obviously, but it made me uncomfortable.

Why? Because days later, I'm still not sure. Would I recommend it to die-hard Elvis fans? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to Cirque fans who have seen everything else in Vegas? Sure. Would I recommend it to people who love watching dance? Yes, if they've already seen "Love."

So that's a lot of recommendations. But then there was director/creator Vince Paterson standing outside the theater after the premiere performance openly criticizing pieces of the show that had been moved, changed or shortened. That's just never happened to me before.

There is something perplexing about Viva Elvis, something that Dave McKee of Las Vegas CityLife may have clarified when he pointed out that there are six choreographers and two artistic directors credited. The result is a show with parts that were very enjoyable, parts that were idiotic and almost nothing in between.

A few random thoughts:

* Some of the tableaux were really cool. I still love the hanging guitar acrobatic duo, still love the American flag made out in underwear, still love the bit where a singer stands atop a gigantic wedding dress, home movies of Elvis and Priscilla projected on it. I enjoyed the energy and the showgirl iconography of Viva Las Vegas, too.

* A somewhat violent sequence in which a male dancer is throwing his female partner all over the place made me bust out laughing because her eyes kept popping out of her head as she was thrust about. Similarly, there is a fire-rope-twirling sequence. In both cases, I turned to my companion and whispered: "That's a Roy-and-the-tiger moment waiting to happen."

* The segment where superheros are bouncing about for "Got A Lot o' Livin' To Do" has grown on me after being horrified by it at December's media preview. That said, the notion of scrawling a piece of lyric across the set piece seemed like a bankruptcy of imagination. The show is already only a few steps removed from a very elaborate karaoke performance.

* After the tender wedding scene, something weird happens. These two yellow beds appear on the stage, one with a man and one with a woman laying on it. From the ceiling descends two giant male and female wedding rings, heading for those yellow beds. In each ring was an acrobat of the opposing gender of whoever was laying on the bed. The two couples become physical. My read: After the wedding, the bride and the groom went off to bang other people.

* Many critics have baffled over the awful delivery of the actor who plays cliche-spewing, cigar-chomping Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' manager. My confusion is why he's the guy at all. As I understand it, Parker was one of the key forces in Elvis' destruction, driving him to keep performing to help cover Parker's debts. Would anyone ever consider having a jolly Joe Jackson as loving narrator of a Michael Jackson tribute? No. Well Parker, like Jackson, was a significant reason for the star's untimely demise.

I've summarized the other major Vegas critics in a separate post. But my ultimate conclusion is that I have no conclusion. And that's not good because it means that Viva Elvis is going to blend into the backdrop of the Vegas entertainment scene. People aren't going to care about it one way or the other. And in that way, it will be unique among Cirque's work on the Strip.

* * *

OK, so the party. Memo to Murren and Laliberte: WTF?

Please let me stress that it is NOT that I feel we in the press, the VIPs and the celebrities on hand were owed anything. We're not. But Cirque du Soleil has a reputation when it comes to its post-debut parties and this one was by far and away the limpest, lamest effort by Cirque or any other Vegas standard.

After the show ended, invitees were ushered to Haze, a subterranean nightclub at Aria. There they offered an open bar and some passed hors d'oeuvres. And that was it.

OK, so compare and contrast. For the opening of "Zumanity" they carpeted the top level of the NY-NY parking garage and held an all-night rave. At 2 a.m., in fact, a crane dangled overhead with a dozen or so Cirque performers twirling about over us. It was surreal. Ka (in the Grand Garden Arena) , Love (in a Mirage ballroom) and Believe (at the Luxor pool) were also huge events with dozens of food stations, cool set pieces, the works.

At Haze, there were celebrities around, but they were sequestered in an upstairs area of the club. So the best shot at star-gazing was the Blue Carpet (which I missed to appear on Nevada Week in Review) and after the show when I spotted Taye Diggs, Gene Simmons and Neil Patrick Harris. Actually, a fire alarm about 5 minutes into the show stopped it for about 10 minutes, so I did spy Holly Madison, Ryan Seacrest, Rita Rudner and Lisa Marie Presley then.

Mostly, though, the party baffled me because Aria and CityCenter actually needed this opportunity to show off its new dining options to a large, prestigious crowd of taste-makers. Having been in the conference center at Aria earlier in the day for the Obama speech, I can attest it's gorgeous and plenty spacious for them to have done this back there.

While I get that times are tough, this was a special, concentrated audience of the city and the country's political, business and media leaders. And it's ELVIS. There's a whole food culture, an era, involved here. For "Jersey Boys" at Palazzo, for example, they rolled in all these classic cars and had all this 50s and 60s iconography everywhere. Elvis got cheese puffs and some green liquid sludge in a little glass.

Why does it matter? Well, this was the final shot, the last big CityCenter-related opening. The cycle is over, the complex now settles into whatever its place in the Vegas pecking order it will be.