Friday, July 22, 2011

The Roger Thomas ShowS are UP!

I had some sort of bizarre problem with TheStripPodcast.Com just as Amy and I were heading off to Utah to take in some not-Shakespeare at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, so for the moment, the bare minimum is on the site. But I did manage to post the proper episode of The Strip with Roger Thomas as well as a narrated video slideshow of the tour I took of Wynn Design & Development last week.

There's lots of goodies in both, and you can hear by clicking on the links I just provided or save the files by right-clicking to watch/hear later.

Among those goodies, the real headline was Roger's reaction to the earlier leaked photos of the Bellagio room redesign that were posted on VegasTripping.Com. In the past, neither Roger nor Steve Wynn have been willing to critique the design stewardship of their first masterpiece resort, so I sent Thomas the VT pix with the identifying information cut off. I hoped Roger would say, "Holy crud, what is THAT?" but instead he recognized some of the architectural elements that he created for those rooms.

Then he critiqued them anyway. Here's the exchange:

Friess: I think a lot of people when they look at that are really surprised that that is Bellagio.

Roger: I’m not. I think it’s consistent with the design that their management always seems to pursue. It’s almost as if they haven’t noticed that they’re in Bellagio. When you're in a guest room, you can pretty much get away with that. I like our guest rooms to be a natural progression and part of the whole. If you can get away with ignoring where you are in a hotel, you can usually get away with that in a guest room. I don’t think they’ve done that as successfully at Bellagio with the buffet and with several of the restaurants that are kind of a slap in the face of the space they’re in. They don’t feel terribly well integrated to me. [But] when you go through a small door to enter a space, what's within can be a greater change than a very wide opening to another space.

Friess: When you look at these pictures, the Bellagio was such a personal project for you. Does it not rankle you to see what they've done with it?

Roger: No. I get to wake up every morning and make my dreams come true. If someone decides they have a better idea, I just let it go. I'm so busy and focused on creating new and better environments for Wynn Resorts, frankly if someone changes things and I'm not really a fan of what they've done, i just look at it as they've made themselves easier for me to compete with.

Friess: Boy, you're catty this morning.

Roger: It's not catty. Actually, having said that, I think there are some very comfortable things about this room. I notice for one thing that they're now using an intelligent service for the snack service that looks exactly like the way we designed ours with the stepped up presentation. And there are a lot of things, they've got a patterned sheer over a blackout which is, you know, something we started doing. I think there are a lot of things about this room that look very considerate and like they're very aware of what the guests needs. ... I haven't sensed the room 360-degrees, but it looks like they approached it in a fairly sensitive way and that there's good consistency in many of the design decisions that they made in terms of design style. Would I have made any of those decisions? Probably not, but that's besides the point.

Buffet on Twitpic

Friess: You made the comment about the Buffet, and I haven't been in the buffet in quite a long time. They've redesigned it since you folks left?

Roger: They did, and the facade of it is kind of an extreme mismatch for the environment which surrounds it. I think that's intentional. I just don't think it was successful.

There's plenty more, including Roger's praise of Chuck from VegasTripping and the revelation that Jerry Beale, the designer brought in to replace Roger when Roger was supposed to leave the company, has departed for Los Angeles. So check out all the fun stuff.

P.S. I'm going to wait until after this Utah trip to get the 3-minute narrated slideshow up in which Roger explains the artistic significance and intricacies of the $12.8 million vases the company recently bought.

A Bellagio Adventure

Just got inside a newly renovated @BellagioLV room. First pic... on Twitpic

If you followed Twitter and the blogosphere yesterday, you'll know that I was at Bellagio yesterday getting an opportunity thanks to an insider friend to take a look at the recently redesigned rooms. I Tweeted out the first photo and even fielded questions from VegasTripping.Com's Chuck Monster about whether the rooms were actually occupied yet.

And then, lo and behold, within about an hour of that very query, Chuck posted his own breathless EXCLUSIVE!!! -- and can never again mock Robin Leach, natch! -- of photos from the same room. Obviously, this miffed me, but Chuck privately insisted that it was a total coincidence and that one his contributors happened to be checking in at the very same time I was there. I didn't so much mind being scooped -- OK, I hate that very much -- but it was the nyah-nyah of his original post (which began, simply, "Sorry, Steve!" and was later replaced with something obsequious) that was weird and juvenile and made me happy to be heading out soon. Lord knows, I was the one who taught Chuck never to sit too long on a scoop (See: Twerps, Twitter), so I couldn't really be that upset if he had had this stuff in his arsenal and put it out before me. Check out their material here.

In private, Chuck insisted no snark or sucker-punch was intended and that this was all just a big, fortunate-for-him surprise. And I have no choice but to believe him, despite the fact that he continues to deny me the benefit of the doubt and sticks even now to his accusation that my regretfully laudatory August column on the Twerps was actually a sellout of everything I stand for in the service of acquiring some Twitter followers. (It's hard to follow logic, but hey, whatcha gonna do?)

Any which way, I got to see the rooms, too. The 27th and 28th floors are now done and the 25th and 26th are out of service while they are renovated. And while earlier images showed the green editions of the rooms with hideous wallpaper that I was later told would be discarded, I think we can assume that everything you see here is just green in the green version. I did manage to look in the entrance of the green-decor'd rooms, too, and there's one shot in the slideshow of that.

I'll say this: As much as everyone wants to bash on it, I actually liked it. It was comfortable. I think I'd prefer the blue more than the same in green, but once they got rid of the horrid Golden Girls wallpaper, I think it improved vastly.

You'll be able to hear what Bellagio's original designer, Roger Thomas, thought of all this soon when the podcast episode is up -- he's not charitable -- but, again, it's a matter of opinion. Somehow I suspect some of the Wynn acolytes would be praising the heck out of this if Thomas had created it, just because it's him and whatever Bellagio does is anti-Roger/Steve.

Meanwhile, a few changes afoot in the lobby. First, they're about to open a Hermes and Omega stores.Hermes replaces...well, I think it's just removing some gaming space, and Omega replaces the no-longer-necessary CityCenter sales office.

The summertime Conservatory is nifty, but with Ferris Wheels being all the tacky rage on the Strip these days, this amused me:

Some other Conservatory visions:

That "portrait" above is based on this:

And, finally, I couldn't stay mad at Chuck for too long because, well, I got lucky at Bellagio, too. I started with $3 and..

So there.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The End (And Beginning) Of Yao (And Me)

That, above, is by a large margin my most cherished photo from any story I ever did. Not because I am much of a pro basketball fan or even paid much mind of Yao Ming's career while he played in the NBA, but just because of the bizarre dimensions of the thing and how he grumpy he looks. No, I did not step on his toe.

With Yao announcing in Shanghai the end of his NBA career this week, it seems worthwhile and fun for me to go reminisce on my involvement in its start. That picture was shot on an early April 2001 afternoon in a hotel room in the Chinese carmaking capital of Changchun, where USA Today sent me to chase down Yao at the Chinese Basketball Association's All-Star Game. It was on this assignment that I realized I could be really good at both freelancing about even topics I'm not naturally knowledgeable about and parachuting into foreign lands and finding the news.

In January, I had attended a CBA basketball game in Beijing for two reasons. First, I was curious what it would be like and, secondly, the very first morning after I arrived in Beijing I looked out my 13th-floor apartment window to see the words "NBA" and "I Love Basketball" written in English in the snow on a basketball court. I had gone to China to kick back, take stock and NOT work -- sounds familiar now, doesn't that? -- but great stories slapped me in the face everywhere I turned, the Chinese hankering for hoops being the very first. I soon learned that the Chinese were mad for American basketball and that Chinese TV aired one live NBA game every day overlaid by their own color commentary in Mandarin.

Here's how I described the game in a weekly e-mail missive I'd send to my friends and family from China in the era before blogs:

We found a thumping, pulsating arena -- site of 2008 Olympic badminton, perhaps? -- where we were lucky to get seats together and many fans happily stood in the aisles and along the railings to cheer as the team played beneath a massive Chinese flag. Scalpers lurked outside, a guy in a duck suit roamed the room as Beijing's mascot and the loudspeakers blared Ricky Martin and the Backstreet Boys as a dozen cheerleaders in black tights and shimmering butterfly vests danced about the court during time-outs. I noted there seemed to be few families in the audience, but then realized that under China's One Child policy, there aren't as many children so you're not going to bump into a the irksome broods that make outings at professional sports in America so much fun.

It didn't take long for me to learn about the Chinese stars who wanted to come to the U.S. and the NBA's desperate desire to expand and exploit this mammoth new market. In fact, that basketball game was the first time I saw any non-tourist black people in China; they were NBA rejects. Each Chinese team was allowed to hire two foreign players.

It seems obvious now that the U.S. was about to have a Chinese NBA invasion, but Americans had not heard much of a peep about this when I landed. Sports Illustrated had written something about Yao and another Chinese player named Wang Zhizhi, but they hadn't interviewed them and their story was at least two years old.

Timing and drama conspired in my favor. The Chinese didn't want Yao to come to the U.S. yet because his team, the Shanghai Sharks, hoped he'd help them win their first national title first. Also, Chinese culture demanded that the older, 23-year-old Wang go first, and Yao couldn't enter the NBA draft on his own anyway at that point because he was under 21. In the end, Wang came that year, and this was how I wrote about his entry into the draft on the front of USA Today's sports section in March 2001:

BEIJING -- He's a basketball player, so he's supposed to be tall.

But when 7-foot Wang Zhizhi strides through a Beijing restaurant en route to a private karaoke lounge to conduct an interview, it's hard not to be stunned by how close his head comes to the ceiling.

The Chinese gape because Wang, 23, is one of the most famous basketball players in China. American tourists stare, too, wondering who the giant might be.

They'll likely find out soon enough. Wang is in the final stages of securing a release from the top military basketball team in China to sign with the Dallas Mavericks, which could occur as early as Thursday. He's likely to be followed this year or next by 7-6 center Yao Ming, 20, as the first two Asian players in the NBA.

After that, though, I kept hearing how openly displeased Yao was with his forced deferral, and I convinced my editors at USA Today to let me track him down in Changchun. I don't even remember how I did it; I worked a circuit of translators and NBA sources but I swear there was also a little hotel camping-out involved.

What I got was this:

CHANGCHUN, China — Yao Ming doesn't want to be here anymore.

The potential No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft isn't interested in putting on slam-dunk performances for the Chinese masses at their All-Star Game here. He absolutely loathes having to sit for questions from the Western media about his future. And he cringes at the growing likelihood that he may be forced to skip this year's draft to stay in China another year or two and continue to play for the Shanghai Sharks.

The mind of this anxious 20-year-old with almost no say in his own destiny is an ocean way, in a land where scouts are buzzing about his vast potential and where his compatriot, Wang Zhizhi, suited up Thursday night as a Dallas Maverick. Yao says he wants to enter the draft this year if he is permitted to make himself eligible, which he called "almost a sure thing."

This was an important piece for a few reasons. First, it was a thorough introduction of this monumental figure to the United States audience on page 1A of the largest-circulation newspaper in the nation. And second, it actually showed Westerners that Chinese people can, under very specific circumstances, get away with criticizing the government and official decisions. This circumstance was that this was an extraordinarily gifted athlete and potential cash cow, not a grunt. Later, the Chinese authorities would confiscate a fairly sizeable chunk of his NBA earnings.

Here was the money line from Yao, who spoke through an interpreter because he was years away from speaking English:

"I appreciate the CBA and I am happy playing here. But now I am ready. I want to be with the best."

The next year, after Wang broke us in over here, he got his wish. He was drafted No. 1, and I covered the machinations of that, too. After that, the story was the province of sports writers, not folks like me more interested in the geopolitical and fiscal implications than on-court action.

Years later, a university student in America contacted me. He was doing a piece on people faking photos on the Internet. He was sure the shot above was bogus. I assure him -- and you -- it was not. It was an awesome moment in time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Strip IS Live on Wed w/Roger Thomas!

As we wind down The Strip Podcast, we're visiting with several of the most popular guests we've had over the years, and one who never fails to fascinate is Wynn Resorts uber-designer Roger Thomas. This interview took place in two parts, the first in person following a tour of the new Wynn Design & Development digs on Friday, the second by phone on Sunday. We'll play both starting at 8 p.m. PT on Wednesday at this UStream channel.

I'll also be putting together a slideshow video episode from the tour, and I hope to have it all available by this weekend, but I'm also swamped with deadlines and have every intention of taking a trip with Amy to the Utah Shakespeare Festival on Friday and to Zion National Park on Saturday.

So, if you want to be first hear what Roger does with his iPad, his reaction to the Bellagio room redesign, what's being designed these days for Vegas and a lot about his approach to the Wynn Cotai project -- and you know you do -- join us. We'll play the Roger chats and then get to the proper parts of our show when Miles gets in from work.

Or don't. But you'll have to wait and get it when it's all in the feed via iTunes or Zune and is posted here and on TheStripPodcast.Com. And lest you think it's too late to be bothered to subscribe, I'm fairly sure there will be quite a few specials and extras over the next few weeks because there are lots of people I want one last crack at, but we're not only doing proper shows once a week.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Yes, Miles is coming, too

We opted not to make that big a deal of this, but since I've been asked countless times in recent weeks -- and four times today -- what my spouse, Miles, will be doing when I head to Ann Arbor for my Knight-Wallace Fellowship, it is a relief to now be able to say that he'll be coming, too. He disclosed on this week's show that he had given his notice he'll leave his job at KSNV, the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas, where he's been responsible for overseeing the news operations since 2007.

It wasn't an easy decision, of course, but the fellowship provides spouses with the same opportunities that the fellows receive. Miles also gets to take whatever classes he wants at UM, is covered on my health insurance, gets to participate in all fellowship seminars and gets to come along for a pretty small fee on our big trips to South America and Turkey. We've got enough savings and other income from investments, work I'm finishing now as well as my fellowship stipend that Miles won't have to work at least for the first half of the adventure.

This is a unique opportunity for him as a fellow journalist and for us as a couple. Neither of us has any idea what we or one another are like without the constant, intense pressures of work. Particularly in recent years, he's been on call almost all the time and putting in 10-to-12-hour days routinely. And even when we go on vacation, I'm off finding stories about cat-fur clothing, reindeer au poivre and Haitian earthquake victims.

So, yeah, this fellowship is causing all sorts of ripples and dramatic changes in the Vegas media universe. And that's as it should be. I've been asked many times who will replace my voice as media critic, Vegas observer and credible provocateur, and I've no doubt someone will. Of course I think KSNV will suffer for Miles' departure, but the news will air without missing a beat and others will fill his shoes in their own ways. That's how these things always go.

Meanwhile, we get to do something most couples dream of: Stop. Look around. Learn. Observe. Relate. Relax. Brainstorm. Plan. How could that pass it up?

Media Muddle: Terry Lanni Edition

When someone like ex-MGM Grand/Mirage CEO Terry Lanni dies, it ought to be a fairly major news event. Here is someone who had his hand at the helm of two of the most significant corporations in the history of an industry, oversaw the two important mergers in the business, brought Wall Street respect to a Mob-tainted business, personally helped elect numerous key Nevada politicos and was pivotal to adding high-end shopping and dining to the Vegas menu. He's also a contemporary figure, with countless people still around who knew him, who owe their careers to him, whose city and state have been transformed by him. We're not even talking about someone long removed from his legacy; he only left the business in late 2008.

It's a huge, important story with many facets. Just imagine what the Seattle papers will do when Bill Gates dies. Or even, I would expect, what sort of feeding frenzy would be set off here when Steve Wynn or Oscar Goodman passes. A one-day story for either of them? Uh, no. It would be team coverage, the sort of thing that requires tearing up the front page for at least a day or two and sending journalists out to flesh out and document a singular force of history.

Yet, bizarrely, thus far both Vegas newspapers have treated Lanni's death as a one-day affair and, to add to the indignity, we're talking about a one-day affair on a Saturday, the least-read paper of the week. I'm sure there'll be more to come as he is memorialized, but I was looking forward to the Sunday or even Monday take-outs that would add color and shading to the legacy of this key figure. Instead, all I got from the mainstream media was an appropriate, if boring, Jon Ralston column on Sunday. Nothing at all today, not even a letter to the editor.

What surprised me most, though, was how tepid the Review-Journal's effort was for Saturday. Liz Benston of the Las Vegas Sun wrote an extensive obituary with additional reporting from Amanda Finnegan and Rick Velotta. It was well-written, comprehensive and multi-faceted, and it provided some terrific detail. That was a good start, appropriate for the first day. I'm still waiting for the rest, though.

The R-J? They burdened already-swamped Howard Stutz, who has been putting in hundreds of hours tracking the World Series of Poker and keeping tabs on every move in the MGM-Perini tussle over The Harmon, with also handling probably the most significant local obituary of the year. And the results are what you would expect from someone with barely enough time to blink, a formulaic and dull piece that largely strings together quotes from the statements issued by luminaries across the gaming universe.

(Aside: It's clear the R-J didn't have a pre-written obituary ready to roll, knowing Lanni was ailing. It's standard practice as most newspapers to have something available in the event of the death of most major local figures whether they're ill or not.)

There were real problems with the R-J's Lanni piece, too. It's written in such a way that it's not indicated that most of the quotes came from media statements, instead leaving readers to believe that Stutz had actually interviewed Kirk Kerkorian, Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson. It's unclear if he spoke to Caesars chief Gary Loveman, as those remarks were not found in other stories or on other sites. Intriguingly, I see the Associated Press' Oskar Garcia did the same thing. When exactly did it become OK for reporters to let their readers believe they had spoken to people while quoting from, essentially press releases? Seeing how reclusive Kerkorian never gives interviews, for him to step out to honor Lanni would have been a pretty big deal. He didn't.

What's worse, the editing of the R-J story was shockingly abysmal, too. It's MGM Resorts, not MGM Resort, R-J copy folk. Thus, it would be MGM Resorts', not MGM Resort's. They made this error twice, too. It wasn't even corrected on the Web. Sloppy. Yuck.

Mostly I'm disturbed that the R-J did not feel the need to get Stutz some help. Could it have to do with the fact that the paper's new editor, Michael Hengel, and new business editor, Jim Wright, have been in Las Vegas for a combined 18 months? I'm quite certain former editor Thomas Mitchell, with all his institutional knowledge of Lanni's long and monumental Vegas career, would have peeled a few writers off of whatever they were doing to get some more material for Stutz. How longtime managing editor Charlie Zobell didn't step in to command more resources and coverage is beyond me, but maybe he was too busy simply explaining to Hengel and Wright who Lanni was in the first place.

Meanwhile, a few more Lanni bits to take stock of or check out:

* Wall Street Journal: Pulitzer winner Alexandra Berzon did something novel; she actually did her own interview with Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the American Gaming Association. The R-J, the Sun, the AP and Ralston couldn't be bothered. Also, the WSJ put a second reporter on the story to help Berzon. Weirdly, though, the WSJ obit did not reference the scandal that accompanied Lanni's departure from MGM Mirage regarding his dishonest resume, a story the WSJ broke.

* The Los Angeles Times: Despite Lanni being a local who died in Pasadena, Ashley Powers got just this little bit of ink in which she drew from Murren's press statement and dug back into archives for a quote from Gary Loveman. At least she didn't mislead her readers into thinking she personally spoke to Murren.

* Jeff Simpson at RateVegas.Com:
A thorough and personal essay about Lanni from a major Vegas business journalist veteran that included discussion of Simpson's own role in pressuring MGM Grand/Mirage/Resorts to be transparent in its diversity initiatives.

* David McKee:
Over at Stiffs & Georges, McKee indicates that he favors Stutz's R-J obit over the Sun's. We disagree, obviously.

* New York Times:
A perfunctory effort, but there it is.

Chatted with Stutz this morning. The audio isn't online yet, but when it is, it'll be here.

* VegasTripping.Com:
Referred to Jon Ralston merely as "a local blogger," a very enjoyable slight to a media figure whose stock-in-trade is slights. Nice.

* TheStripPodcast.Com: In case you missed it -- and judging from the robust download data, few of you did -- we reposted our April 2008 conversation with Lanni. Check it out.

The Show is UP: Fluff LeCoque's Jubilee!

For some reason, this was a particularly laborious editing experience. It may have been because I had to remove the outtakes of Miles being lewd and crude and making hilarious voices, which is great for our final outtakes show but perhaps not so great for me working through the audio. Either way, here's what we did. Enjoy. Click on the date below to play or right-click to save the show. Or you subscribe -- for free -- in iTunes or Zune and you'll always get it first. -sf

July 15: Fluff LeCoque's Jubilee!

EXTRA: Jubilee!'s most successful alum, Tina Walsh

Thirty years is a blink of the eye in most places, but it’s an eternity for the every-changing Las Vegas. This summer, the venerable, historic Jubilee! celebrates the start of its fourth decade at Bally’s, so we chatted with the 88-year-old firecracker who has ruled the land of massive headdresses and sequined skivvies with an iron fist for all this time. Fluff LeCoque talks to Steve about bruised thighs, chubby guys, fake boobs and so much more this hour. Also, we’ll hear an excerpt from our conversation with Jubilee’s most successful alumna, Tina Walsh, who was a principle singer for the show in the 1980s and is presently appearing as Madame Giry in Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular. The entire conversation with Walsh will be posted as an extra edition into the feed and on the website.

In Banter: Miles makes HIS big announcement, Steve has a WSOP adventure, several Vegas closures afoot, the Plaza has some odd new things coming, more MGM misfortune and a Titanically bad restaurant idea.

Open & Banter: Start to 41ish
Fluff LaCoque Part I: 41-103ish
Trivia/Poll/Letters: 104ish-1:13
Fluff LaCoque Part II: 1:14-1:33ish
TSTToTW: 1:34ish-end

Links to stuff discussed

Get tickets for Jubilee! and the backstage tour
Tina Walsh’s Phantom bio
Steve’s essay for The Daily about his WSOP adventure
A piece on the “bubble” bursting at the 2011 WSOP
A feature about Michael Stevens, the quadriplegic who lasted to Day 3 of the WSOP
Steve’s piece on The Daily about Paul Pierce’s WSOP playing
A piece on Phil Hellmuth’s Day 2 drama
News on Rosemary’s and Carluccio’s closing
That weird Titanic dinner at Bernard’s
The questionable news outlet known as Las Vegas Entertainment News
Howard Stutz’s latest on the Perini-MGM scrum over The Harmon
The Plaza’s plan for a sexy salon and the Swingers Club
Legionnaire’s Disease drama at Aria
Project Linq is coming, supposedly
Steve and Jamie’s piece for the L.A. Times on the topless shows in Vegas