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July 31, 2014

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20 at 20: The Rio, born a locals’ casino, celebrates landmark anniversary

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Courtesy Photo

Rio headliners Penn & Teller cake it up with Rio President Gary Selesner, Rio Rita and General Manager Gerry Tuthill.

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A packed Penn and Teller Theater watches the final table of the 2009 World Series of Poker Saturday, November 7, 2009 at the Rio.

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Penn Jillette, a one-man Show in the Sky at the Rio.

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Corey Haim hosts Halloween night at The Rio's Voodoo Lounge on Oct. 31, 2009.

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Chip Lightman and Danny Gans.

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Earl Turner, shown during his days at The Rio's RioBamba Cabaret.

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Tony Marnell

NYE Firework Command Center

New Year's Eve on top of the Rio with Fireworks by Grucci.

I remember hearing about the opening of a club in Las Vegas, more than a decade ago. A friend told me its dark décor featured glowing neon artwork inside, and a spectacular view of Las Vegas outside.

VooDoo Lounge, it was called. It was the new club at the Rio, and for a time a bunch of us practically lived there, if you can call what we were doing there "living."

It's still a favorite, the club and resort, which is where I spent New Year's Eve 2009, on the roof looking down on creation as the team of firebrands from Fireworks by Grucci illuminated the Vegas night sky.

The Rio turns 20 this weekend. Let's recall comments by then-Rio chief Bob Maxey, who in a story published Jan. 15, 2000, told the Sun: "Basically, the message is that we are building a gambling joint here," Maxey said. "It's about 35 percent owned by Marcor (Development Co. Inc.), but this will not be corporate run, will not have a corporate environment. This place is going to have personality, just a Las Vegas gambling joint."

He continued: "We are not on the Las Vegas Strip. What is the Las Vegas Strip? A piece of asphalt five miles long, 80 feet wide. A long, narrow parking lot on Friday and Saturday," he said. "We are closer to the center, to four corners (Flamingo Road and the Strip) than 70 percent of other Strip properties. "Customers coming from Los Angeles (on I-15) to Flamingo will look right and see a sea of taillights, look to the left and see the Rio's neon. There is no more perfect customer than the person who comes off that ramp."

Having set the table, following are 20 people, places and things to celebrate as the Rio trumpets its anniversary:

20. Popular pianist/vocalist Jimmy Hopper, who for a time was one of the best free shows in town at VooDoo Lounge — until the club started charging $10 for his shows.

19. The original Copacabana Showroom stage, which was operated by some sort of pneumatic lift and crapped out on at least one occasion, leaving several hundred Danny Gans fans to reschedule their plans for the night.

18. Don Marrandino, the one of the executives who anticipated the value of Club Rio as a place where celebs would gather and draw attention to the resort.

17. Dennis Rodman, one of the first celebrities ever sighted at Club Rio, much to Marrandino's delight.

16. Ringo Starr and the All-Star Band, whose 2002 show at Rio Pavilion featured a fan climbing onstage who was not me attempting to grab Ringo's foot, only to be kicked by famed bassist Greg Lake.

15. The early, color-splashed uniforms worn by cocktail servers, which were cut highly in the back, cut lowly in the front, and for a time some of the most revealing in the entire city.

14. "At the Copa," the strange-yet-fascinating stage show at the Copacabana Showroom starring David Cassidy and Sheena Easton, in which Cassidy and Easton starred as a version of themselves named — for real — Johnny Flamingo and Ruby Bombay. Johnny and Ruby sang many classics and quasi-classics, including "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" and "Morning Train," regardless of whether they had anything to do with the show's plot.

13. The resulting rumored feud between Cassidy and Easton, which widely was reported but denied repeatedly by both stars, who enjoyed each other about as much as any two business partners who were never friends.

12. The $99 show ticket for a Vegas headliner, which made its debut for Gans' show at the Copacabana.

11. The resulting feud between Gans and his manager, Chip Lightman, with Rio management because of that price. If this saga had been brought to the stage, it would have blown away "At the Copa."

10. Tireless R&B performer Earl Turner, who drew overflow crowds to the RioBamba Lounge but who has not, yet, parlayed that fervent locals following into a steady engagement in Vegas.

9. Former Gov. Bob Miller, who cut the ribbon opening the hotel 20 years ago.

8. Penn.

7. Teller.

6. Anthony Marnell II (or, if you will, A.M.-Squared), whose Marnell Carrao Associates designed the original tri-sided, all-suite tower.

5. The giant, animatronic peacock once featured in the Masquerade Village Show in the Sky production. (I once took a Sun job candidate to see the Show in the Sky performance, and he was so unnerved by the giant, animatronic peacock I think that was the reason he refused to even consider a move to Vegas.)

4. The old Sapphire Pool, serving all your aquatic and non-aquatic needs.

3. Beaded necklaces tossed aloft from performers in the Show in the Sky ... and the tourists who scuffle over them.

2. The World Series of Poker, which has given the Rio invaluable national exposure, thanks in large part such figures as Chris Moneymaker, Phil Ivey and the little camera that reveals the hole cards.

1. Prince, whose all-too-brief residency at the hotel was one of the high-water marks in Vegas entertainment history. The night I saw him in April 2007 he performed for nearly three hours, starting after midnight, then moved to his since-shuttered 3121 club to perform until dawn. A manic, inspired performance on surreal night at an oft-surreal place.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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