As We See It

Steve Friess says goodbye, but his love for Vegas endures

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After more than 400 columns in the Weekly, Friess is moving on.

A friend texted a link last week to an article about the Las Vegas City Council blocking any new licenses to sell package liquor while it studies “whether parts of the city are oversaturated with alcohol retailers.”

Five years ago, I would’ve known about this story long before she did, and pitched it to one of my national media clients. Two years ago, I would have been grateful for the intel and lampooned it for the Weekly as the sort of absurd, non-self-aware civic inquiry that makes Vegas so easy to mock. But last week, I just replied with an insincere, “Hah.” I finally read the article days later and shrugged. Something, as Elphaba sings in Wicked, had changed within me.

This is a long way of saying you are reading my final regular column here. My editor and I came to a mutual conclusion that it was time to wrap it up, and though a freelancer never likes giving up a standing gig, it’s probably the right decision.

It is not that I’ve stopped caring about the city that gave me so much career momentum, where I met the love of my life and my best friends. When ex-Review-Journal scribe Corey Levitan claimed on Facebook recently—using me as one example—that writers who leave Vegas don’t ever look back, I felt the same indignation I so often expressed in these columns. I care deeply. I look back often, albeit mainly to keep watch on the big picture. But Vegas is amazing for journalists precisely because change is constant. New players show up every day, and old players do wacky things that beckon coverage. Staying abreast of it all is a full-time job. You must want to do it.

As my happy, productive life in Michigan has taken root, I’ve lost that will. I’ve been in Vegas six times over the past year for assignments, and every bit of spare time has belonged to the people I love there. I keep planning to check out the Mob Museum, the Linq, the Smith Center, whoever’s residing at the Colosseum. But when the choice is doing any of that or having a long chat over a nice meal with dear friends I rarely see, the latter almost always prevails.

For the past few years I’ve written these pieces from afar, offering off-site insights into national issues that impact Vegas and describing how and why the city is viewed as it is elsewhere. The usefulness of that perspective has a limit.

There is unfinished business, though. In March, I asked for reader help in resolving three Vegas mysteries: why the tile in a Paradise Palms house rented by a friend was imprinted with the original Tropicana’s fountain logo; why I found a box of 40 matchbooks from the long-forgotten Savoy Motel in a cabinet at the estate sale of late Howard Hughes associate Bob Maheu; and what the thinking was behind an ad in a 1976 Sports Illustrated for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority that made the town seem fancy and elegant in the age of Polyester Elvis.

The first two remain unsolved. Some offered leads I’d already found to be dead-ends; others just really wanted free matchbooks. But one response to the third dovetails well with why this column is ending. That ad and its dressed-up couple having a toast fascinated me because it was years before the powerhouse ad firm R&R Partners began its decades-long lock on promoting Las Vegas. Turns out, another firm, Kelly Reber Advertising, was the city’s pre-Reagan image-maker.

Some writers gently advised me of this history, of how Elvis-in-jumpsuits was not all Vegas had in the mid-1970s. But old-time publicist Terry Shonkwiler schooled me. “I can tell by your photo and your friends’ comments that you both have not been in Las Vegas for very many years,” he wrote. “Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Dean and other stars of the era still headlined in Las Vegas at that time. Las Vegas was marketing itself against other ‘class’ destinations in 1976 that included New York, LA, Miami and, of course, Washington, D.C. The ads, according to Mr. Kelly, were very successful. By the way, the couple in the photo are holding Champagne glasses and not wine goblets.”

Other than one quibble—what does my photo have to do with anything?—I can’t argue that Mr. Shonkwiler felt something about me seemed out of touch. And being out of touch, whether real or imagined, is unbecoming any columnist.

So here we are. I first came to Vegas in 1996, lived and worked there for 13 of the next 15 years. I will, no doubt, continue to tap the expertise I’ve earned for future pieces, perhaps even for the Weekly. The magazine has graciously provided me a voice for nearly a decade and more than 400 columns. But this is Vegas and nothing lasts forever.

Thanks for reading. It’s been swell.

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