Editor’s note: The final installment of longtime Las Vegas Weekly columnist Steve Friess’ column, The Strip Sense, ran in last week’s issue. In this piece, he circles back to follow up on topics covered over his four-year run—the ones he gets asked about most often—before he heads off to begin a fellowship at the University of Michigan.
Elaine Wynn and Barack Obama
On November 20, 2008, Mrs. Wynn described to me how a lifelong Republican like herself could become a strident supporter—and statewide campaign co-chair—for the Democratic candidate. Her enthusiasm made for awkward discussions at home, as she and her then-husband, Steve Wynn, had “knock-down, drag-out fights” about the campaign. (Both have insisted their 2010 divorce was not related to that dispute.) Elaine loved Obama’s demeanor and intellect and became fast friends with Michelle.
But now it’s nearly three messy years later, with the economy still struggling and the president’s approval ratings in the dumps. Where does Elaine stand? “I’m not making that known just yet,” she says. “I’ll tell you why. I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment until we have a [Republican] candidate for the next election.” Her dream GOP pick is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is actually an independent, but she hasn’t given up on Obama yet. “I’m disappointed by a lot of things, not just the president. I’m not surprised because I understood his style more than a lot of people did. … I suggest that running America is not simple.”
And are she and Michelle still close? Elaine’s had a few invites from the first lady this summer that she hasn’t been able to accept, but “if I were to walk into the White House right now, she would come over and put her arms around me. I have no doubt.”
Stage Door and Caesars
My August 6, 2009 column about this dumpy little casino-cum-convenience store just south of Battista’s Hole in the Wall cracked up many, most notably Peepshow star Holly Madison, who tweeted about it a few times. The place piqued my curiosity because it had this marquee that read, “WE HAVE 21 YEARS LEFT ON OUR LEASE.” Their landlord, it so happened, was the company then known as Harrah’s, and it seemed to be a David vs. Goliath statement in which the joint was telling the casino giant to kiss off if it thinks it can force them out to make way for redevelopment. The trouble was, nobody in the highest levels of the company even knew they owned the property. There was no plan to evict them. So what gives? The owner, who promised to do an interview, backed out, and still won’t return my calls to this day. But the marquee has been updated. There are now 19 years left.
Former Jersey Boys star Erich Bergen and the kid who stole the show at the Michael Jackson tribute benefit concert staged [by Friess and Bergen] in August 2009.
That kid, then-10-year-old Elijah Johnson, burst onstage at the Palms with a charge of energy that was as unexpected as it was electrifying. Both Norm Clarke of the R-J and the Weekly’s John Katsilometes referred to it as a “breakout performance” for the Detroit kid, who was appearing as Young Simba in The Lion King. He left the Vegas cast after a few months and spent 15 months reprising the role on the Disney production’s national tour and on Broadway. Most recently, the 12-year-old was signed for a two-year contract as one of the principal performers in Kidz Bop, a line of annual albums on which young kids perform covers of pop hits (think: pre-teen Glee). He also shot a pilot for a TV sitcom that didn’t get picked up, and this month he released his first single, “Meet Me on the Dance Floor.” He’s also still got the charity bug; he became a national spokesperson for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society after a close friend and Lion King castmate died of leukemia at age 11.
As for Erich, he moved to Los Angeles and appeared in several plays, as well as some episodes of Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives. He also returned to Vegas and released his first album, The Vegas Sessions, in 2010. He appears this fall in A Snow White Christmas with Neil Patrick Harris at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
Ted V. Mikels
In September 2009, I visited with the prolific, Vegas-based, schlock-flick auteur, only to learn he was in dire financial straits. He said he was expecting to be foreclosed upon and that work had dried up. Evidently, those programs to help people stay in their homes work for some people because Mikels, now 82, says he got a mortgage modification and has made three new flicks since then, Demon Haunt, AstroZombies M3 Cloned and AstroZombies M4: Invaders From Cyberspace. When I rang him up this week, he asked if I was calling because I’d seen the big news that he was hired to consult for Vegas-based director Christian Purdie’s first movie, Eight Sixed. I was unaware, but good for him.
The Woo family and Palazzo
In my April 23, 2009 column, I wrote of the Woo family, which closed local-favorite Mayflower Cuisinier, an upscale Chinese joint on the west side, to open Woo at Palazzo. Las Vegas Sands execs forced them to choose between the two locations, they chose the Strip, and then they struggled. My argument was that they could have kept their thriving local business and generated buzz for the Strip spot. Woo closed 14 months after my column. Last week, I caught up with chef Peter Woo, who ran the kitchen with his mother, Ming See. Peter, who opened Nobu and was executive chef when he left to open Woo, is now executive chef at Social House at Crystals. His mom was, until very recently, the sous chef at Red 8 at Wynn, but she left because management was pressuring her to take over as executive chef and she didn’t want to. Theresa Woo is now in real estate. Says Peter of the Woo restaurant arrangement and fate: “The Palazzo wanted exclusivity, and I don’t blame them for that. Not many casinos give you an opportunity if you’re a local. I loved the restaurant, I got to do whatever I wanted. Now I work for somebody else, and that’s not the case.”
Steve’s Vegas bucket list
In late July, in anticipation of moving away, I wrote about the quintessential Vegas experiences I hoped to have before I departed. I made it to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park for a lovely, very funny play and visited charming Ely en route to an assignment in Eureka. And that’s about it. I still don’t know how craps works, I’ve still not bought or sold anything at the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop and I never sang along at Don’t Tell Mama. Forces were at work to get me an interview with Siegfried Fischbacher and a tour of Little Bavaria, but he wasn’t in Vegas and now we’re out of time. I guess I’ll just have to take on the rest of the list as—gasp!—a tourist.