Interview with Steve Wynn
Steve Wynn graduated from The Manlius School, a private boys' school in upstate New York, in 1959. Wynn's father, Michael Weinberg, ran a string of bingo parlors in the eastern United States, and died of complications from heart surgery shortly before Wynn graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963. At college, he studied Cultural Anthropology and English Literature. After college he took over running the family's bingo operation in Maryland. He did well enough at it to accumulate the money to buy a small stake in the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where he and his wife, Elaine, moved in 1967. Wynn managed to parlay his profits from a land deal in the early 1970s (the deal involved two established titans of the Las Vegas casino business, Howard Hughes and Caesars Palace) into a controlling interest in a dusty downtown casino, the Golden Nugget Las Vegas (he also owned The Golden Nugget in Atlantic City). Wynn renovated, revamped and expanded the Golden Nugget with enormous success, in the process attracting a new upscale clientele to downtown Las Vegas'. Steve Wynn literally helped build over half the casinos in Las Vegas and having a road was not good enough for him, in 2005 construction completed on The Wynn hotel.
Q: When was the first time you heard of Elvis Presley?
A: 'Heartbreak Hotel' or 'Hound Dog', the music when I was in high school. He just exploded into everybody's consciousness with 'Hound Dog'. And then Elvis was just part of our world.
There was music and there was Elvis Presley, and there was no such thing as not knowing Elvis, and not knowing his songs. It wasn't even a matter of taste. It just was.
Q: Were you a fan when it first came out?
A: Well, I was in military school. It was a prep school for West Point, and everything was pretty tight there. And all of us in the school fell in love with Elvis Presley because he was so 'against the grain'. It was so non-military, it was so free. I think that was probably true of all kids, so I became a fan right away.
Q: How did you first get to meet Elvis in Las Vegas?
A: I met Joe Esposito when Elvis started doing live performances. I knew Jerry Weintraub, but I first met Joe with my brother Kenny when Elvis were getting ready to start his live performances at the Hilton. I guess the year was 1969. And Joe Esposito were there working on it.
And the first thing I thought of was my brother Kenny because his life was Elvis Presley. I was 27 years old and he was 17 or 18. He was going to Swathmore college, and he was walking Elvis encyclopedia. He knew everything about Elvis before RCA. He could tell you the exact date of release of every single. And I'm talking about the singles that were not 'Hound Dog' and the rest or 'Don't Be Cruel'. The songs that were somewhat obscure by historical standards. He knew everything about Elvis and about Tom Parker, my brother carried on his fingertips. The two things in his life that mattered most were Arnold Palmer and Elvis Presley. I knew Alex Shoofey I was selling the hotel liquor and wine. I said to Alex, 'My brother coming out this summer from college, do you need any help here?' Now, Elvis was going to do his first gig in August. He would come twice a year and do a month each time. And Alex Shoofey said, 'I could use a guy, I need some help with all of the merchandise were gonna sell. Maybe your kid brother can work for us in the Elvis department?' I said, 'he'll think he's died and gone to heaven'. Alex said, 'well, let me think about it and we'll talk to your brother Kenny, and we'll see'.
Kenny came out for spring break and I introduced him to Alex, and Alex was impressed enough because my brother had always worked, and he attached him to Colonel Parker with the specific aspect of representing the hotel and the accounting and all of the coordination of the merchandise sales. Elvis material was sold everywhere in the hotel, in the lobby, outside the showroom, there were numerous outlets, all of which had to be heavily staffed, completely secured, there had to be inventory control. Kenny was given that job. Naturally, it was near and dear to Colonel Parker's heart, so he called Kenny the Sergeant, because Kenny had gone to military school, too. So, all of a sudden my kid brother found himself in the middle of the Elvis world. That meant that he saw Joe Esposito everyday, and he and Joe got friendly, and that led to me.
And then my brother said, 'it's time that you go to see Elvis' show and you meet him. I've arranged with Joe Esposito that you and Elaine, my wife and I, would go to the show, be your guest, we're gonna sit in the front row, center booth'. This is Elvis in his prime. And I remember that I went to the show with Elaine, just the two of us, and then they came to get me after the show and took me downstairs.
One of the most unforgettable moments, my first time with Elvis. A guy said, 'Right there, Mr Wynn'. So, I knock on the door of the dressing room. I figure there's going to be a whole group in there. Door opens, and there's Elvis in an open-collar white shirt and a pair of grey slacks. I said, 'Well, hello, I'm Steve Wynn'. He said, 'I'm really glad to meet ya, I'm a real good friend of your brother, Kenny. He's my buddy, and I'm awful glad to meet you, Steve, come on in'. 'This is my wife, Elaine'. 'Well, Elaine, it's a real honor to meet you, maam. This is my wife Priscilla. Priscilla look here, here's Steve Wynn, Kenny's brother and his wife Elaine'. Just him and his wife in the dressing room that night. And there I am with this young man, who's seven years older than me. But, when you're in your 20's and he's in his early 30's, it seems like you're the same. But he was the most gentle and polite and terrific guy. We had an hour and a half in there. Elaine and Priscilla got friendly, and that relationship has survived. They're friendly to this day, our whole family.
Elvis asked me how I liked the show and I said, 'In particular, I really like when you finished 'Kentucky Rain' and you do that karate stuff'. He said, "You like karate, Steve? Have you ever done any?" And I said, 'No, I've never had a chance to do it. But it sure is fun to watch especially with somebody who knows what they're doing'. And he said, 'Well, I love it. I've been doing it for quite awhile, it's my favorite thing'. Next thing you know, we're standing in the middle of the living room, the girls were on the couch. Elvis drops down on the floor and he's these maneuvers, these exercises ... and the legs were flying. You know, he was in such great shape, he was agile like a gymnast. And I didn't know what to do with my hands. I thought wholly-molly, this is great but, you know ... Elvis Presley in person ... I've seen so much stuff about Elvis on television. And people talk about him in strange ways, but that's going to be great! I hope it comes across because he was the warmest, most twinkling. He made you feel comfortable and at ease, which was amazing.
He did not have any of that stuff where 'it's all about me'. He was a perfect gentleman. And he made you feel comfortable right away, at least he did with me.
I'd go further and say that Elvis was clearly a guy with a rural or country attitude about life. He had that simple kinda point of view that said you stand up, you're polite to people. In spite of the money and the Cadillacs and all that, it was he and his pals, he never changed. And you could see that the minute he said hello to you. He was not a guy that would talk to you and look over your shoulder to see who else was in the room. Elvis Presley had a genuineness that was very noticeable and quite impressive the first time I met him. And Elaine and I went home really liking him and thinking 'what a terrific guy'. And everytime I saw him after that, he remembered everything. He was always gracious and complimentary to people. It wasn't easy to get to see him, I mean, he had a very limited circle of friends. But when you did get in his company it was a real pleasure.
Q: When was the first time you met Colonel Tom Parker?
A: With Alex Shoofey, about a month before the first gig. He was in Las Vegas to set up all of the events for the initial engagement. And he was busy organizing everything and he was having lunch with Alex Shoofey in the coffee shop. Alex being the president of the International Hotel at the time. And I came walking in because Shoofey wanted to see me about something, I got the message. And I saw him sitting with a man with his back to me, I didn't know who he was. There was a hat on the head, but you couldn't see the face. And I started to turn around and he went waving. And I come over and he said, 'Steve Wynn, say hello to Tom Parker. Colonel Parker, this is Steve Wynn, our liquor supplier'. And, of course, five seconds later you might have well have known him all of your life. He was carrying on. He was an ultimate showman, and he was also a fabulously entertaining personality. He had style, he knew it. He flaunted it.
Q: Did he ask for any booze?
A: No, he didn't try and promote me for any free liquor that night. That was the beginning of a long and happy relationship. My brother, Kenny, became very close to Tom Parker. Our dad had died when I was a senior in college, so when I was in my late-twenties, my brother was a teenager in college. Our father had been gone for 8 or 9 years. And Kenny latched on to Colonel Parker, and Colonel Parker sort of liked Kenny. And there was a sort-of a relationship there, it was sort of a father/son kinda thing. My brother became very close to Colonel Parker and stayed that way until his death, Kenny was one of the guys at his eulogy for Tom when he died. With Jerry Weintraub and a few other guys. And because of my brother's relationship, and the Colonel living in Las Vegas with Loanne, he was constantly calling me on the telephone and giving me advice at the Golden Nugget, at the Mirage, Treasure Island. He never made it to Bellagio.
He always knew what was going on. He once called me up and said, 'Steve, I want you to take out a pencil. You know I don't give you any bad steers, I can spot somebody when their coming'. I said, 'Sure, I know that Colonel'. He says, 'Well, I'm gonna tell you one. Now, you mark this down. It's a girl. First name Celine. C-E-L-I-N-E. Last name Dion. D-I-O-N. Like the singer. Now, this girl's from Canada. Got a voice like the Empire State Building. She's going to be a giant star. I fixed her up with David Foster. Trust me, she's going to be a giant star. You can count on it. I'm gonna give you some people to call. I want you to figure out how to make a connection and get this girl to work at the Mirage'. I couldn't quite convince him that I had Siegfried and Roy there. You know, I couldn't just push them out. But the Colonel ... this is before anybody knew who that girl was. He said, 'I tried to explain that to these Hilton people, but they don't want to listen'. And Hilton could have used her in those days. They had a big, big showroom where Elvis worked and Barbra Streisand worked. And that was the kind of thing ... the Colonel would come over all the time ... it was our habit, my brother and I, to have him over for lunch. Once every two months, he would come over with Loanne. We would go to one of the restaurants at the Mirage, or wherever it was at the time, and the Colonel would bring me up to date on all of this stuff. Another character of giant proportions.
Q: A lot of people don't realize that side of the Colonel. People always try to find the bad side?
A: Did you talk to Jerry Weintraub? Did he tell the story of the split of the money? ...
After they had been doing the concert tour, and Jerry had gone from being pennyless to being a wealthy guy, he met the colonel out west. And the tour had been going on for six months or five months, and Jerry had a million dollars in the bank for his part, and he was standing back stage and Elvis was on and the Colonel was there. The Colonel says, 'Hey, I want to talk to you, I got something for you'. They were backstage, 'What is it?' 'Come on in here', and they ducked into a backstage proproom or something and the Colonel says, 'I got two briefcases'. He opened them up and they were filled with money. Money. Jammed with money. He said, 'This is the money from the sale of those novelties. Listen, you're our partner. When we're partners we're partners. One's mine and Elvis' and one's yours. Which one do you want? Take your pick'. Jerry says, 'But Colonel, I've already been treated generously on the concert tour. The tour operators don't generally have anything to do with the sales of the novelties'. He says, 'A partner's a partner. Jerry, which one do you want? You decide'. Colonel took his cane and hit one of them, closed the other one and said, 'That's yours'. Jerry Weintraub said that's the single greatest moment of his life.
How about the time when he was trying to talk him into the tour? He said, 'Bring a million dollars'. He finagles a check and it was from Danny Kaye. It turned out to be Danny Kaye, he found out years later. And then, when the tour was successful, Colonel Parker took out the check. He had never cashed it. He said, 'This is yours'. Jerry thought it was a prepayment. The Colonel was a good faith. He never cashed it! He handed him back the same piece of paper. Oh, I mean, you know ... they changed the world and normal people can't do that.
Q: You stayed with Priscilla after Elvis' death, didn't you?
A: Yes, she and her husband come over to visit Kenny, and I always get a chance to say 'Hi', and sometimes to join them for dinner. She's a lovely and a good mom, I guess. Under the circumstances, I guess there was a lot to overcome there with all the publicity and the lifestyle. And she comes from a plain and much more low-keyed background. When you look at celebrities like Elvis that have that almost galactic fame, you know, it's not national anymore, it's global. There is no place they can go, there is nobody that desn't know them on earth. Those forces don't attack the lives of the rest of us, but they whither and break people. And how a family holds together under all that is a mystery to me.
Q: Where were you when you heard Elvis died?
A: I was at home and my brother called, crying. 'Steve, Elvis is gone'. 'What do you mean 'gone'?' 'He was found at home. Joe Esposito found him. He's dead'. He was all shook up.
Q: Why do you think 25 years later, Elvis is still so popular?
A: Great question. We've lived thru a lot of celebrities in our life. Great fame has become much more easy to accomplish because of a proliferation of worldwide telecommunications and the media outlets that have proliferated on cable and magazines that make everybody read and hear about everybody else. Realizing that when Elvis did it, the channels of communication with the rest of the world were a fraction of what they are today. That it took a hundred times more energy and talent to fill everybody's mind around the world the way he did than it would today. A gal like Britney Spears and other young kids get to be known everywhere because of the media. When Elvis did it, these channels didn't exist. He jumped the ocean before you could watch CNN around the world, or MTV existed. Let's face it. Elvis had a great singing voice that fooled everybody. He had great range and he could sing. It wasn't a gimmick. He had a style that was extraordinarily unique. But he could also flat-out sing a song. So, we take this talent. We take physical beauty. He was the most stunning guy that anybody ever saw, and every man noticed that in his prime. And that pixie-ish, self-effacing manner. He said, 'I do this because I like the sound of the music but I don't take that seriously, you know ... ' With that grin on his face, that crooked smile. Elvis Presley was just a combination of ingredients, so unusual, so one-off that he generated an energy that was totally unreasonable, totally irrational that you get to ask a question like the one you did. How could a guy keep this kind of presence after his life had ended, for now a generation? How is that possible? I think it's in direct relation of the energy while he was alive.
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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever.
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