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October 1, 2014

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New-and-improved Stratosphere is a beacon of noble risk-taking

Image

Leila Navidi

People enjoy the view from the Observation Deck at the Stratosphere on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

Stratosphere Nightlife

Air Bar, located on the 108th floor of the Stratosphere on Thursday, April 5, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Stratosphere Renovations

A view of a renovated room at the Stratosphere, April 5, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Bite

Launch slideshow »

Whenever I’m asked how long I’ve lived in Las Vegas, I usually say I moved here when the Stratosphere opened. It is a handy demarcation of time, using one of the city’s more recognizable landmarks to note when I came to know Las Vegas.

What I remember mostly about that time in April 1996 was being in awe of the towering building itself. Its morning shadow ominously darkened my first apartment on West Sahara Avenue. I’d been told that there were thrill rides at the top and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

It is the city’s quintessential conversation piece and one of its great curiosities. The 1,149-foot design was envisioned by eccentric casino visionary Bob Stupak, whose idea of an elevator in the shape of King Kong scaling up and down the sides of the tower was, sanely or sadly, never realized.

But most every other idea did come to fruition. The explosive Big Shot ride that shoots to the top of the needle, a restaurant and lounge overlooking the city from about 800 feet up. A corridor of shops selling everything from oxygen delivered through plastic piping to cut-rate designer suits. It was all there at the Stratosphere, a testament to one man’s imagination, all at a family-friendly cost.

But over time, the novelty of the high-rising resort would wear thin. Once you’ve peered down at the city from the observation deck, or ridden the Big Shot, Insanity, X-Scream and SkyJump (the descending, bungee drop from the 108th floor that is frightfully ridiculous in concept), there wasn’t much reason to return to the Stratosphere.

Over the past year and a half, however, the hotel has been given a makeover. These renovations have flowered gradually. The upgrades have been as simple as refreshing the guest rooms, changing the name of the bar upstairs from Romance to 107 Lounge. Others are more pronounced. Hiring chef Rick Giffen, with more than a quarter-century of success operating restaurants around the world and in Las Vegas (including Red Square and China Grill at Mandalay Bay) gave Top of the World Restaurant a culinary reputation that matches its lofty perch.

The most brazen move the hotel has made in its image makeover has been in the showroom, where tables have been replaced, its musty carpeting yanked, new booths added and a new sound system installed. This project was largely enacted at the direction of Frankie Moreno, who signed a two-year contract with the hotel in November as its resident headliner.

That move has not been without some acrimony, however. There has been some sniping from the crew at “Bite,” the slap-and-tickle adult revue that has spent six years vamping it up at the hotel, because that show’s start time was bumped back to make room for Moreno. But the upside has been that “Bite” benefits, too, from the upgraded digs.

By now, my support of Moreno’s stage act, which is mind-blowing, and of the hotel’s investment in him and his 10-piece band is well documented. Some say too well documented, especially through my Twitter feed each week when I catch the show. To that, I say: So what.

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Frankie Moreno performs at the Stratosphere on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

In Las Vegas, we live in a regrettable era of entertainers (many of them fiercely talented) leasing rooms from hotels that do little more than collect rent checks and say, “Good luck.” The Stratosphere-Moreno relationship cuts across that trend, a noble effort by a resort willing to pony up the spondulicks and financially back an entertainer on the rise. As I’ve said to anyone who asks about the Moreno show, you could totally hate what he does onstage — though I’ve not yet met the person who actually does — but still wholly support the hotel’s financial commitment that allows the show to be staged.

The performance also has brought in a new order of celebrity customer at the Stratosphere. They come in all shapes and sizes. Just Wednesday night, Paul Shortino (the onetime vocalist for Quiet Riot and Duke Fame in “This Is Spinal Tap") turned up at the hotel. Carrot Top, Zowie Bowie, Pantera founder Vinnie Paul, Joey Fatone of N’Sync (and also “The Price Is Right Live” at Bally’s and the upcoming stage adaptation of “Dancing With the Stars” at Tropicana), violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, former “America’s Got Talent” champ Michael Grimm, magicians Murray Sawchuck and Seth Grabel, Steve Rossi, Geechy Guy, Orel Hershiser, Frank Marino (for whom Moreno has long been confused) and longtime Strip headliner Clint Holmes have hit the Strat since Moreno started.

In invoking the name of Holmes, it is worth noting that the great vocalist and showman was in serious talks with the hotel about performing an extended residency in the showroom in the months before officials turned their attention to Moreno. The concept never quite fit, for a variety of reasons, and Holmes is now headlining monthly at Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center.

As hotel GM Paul Hobson said Thursday afternoon, in that ideal, the hotel would have lured a proven commodity as a way of reinforcing its relevance as a Las Vegas resort destination. Holmes is a recognizable and highly respected figure in the entertainment industry. But with Moreno, officials can now rightfully claim that they are taking a calculated risk with a great, emerging artist who is about to release an album with Sony Records (later this year, is the latest on that). Clearly, there is huge upshot for both sides if the Moreno residency takes hold during the term of his contract at the hotel.

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Diners enjoy the view from the Top of the World Restaurant at the Stratosphere on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

“Our image makeover, a lot of it happened organically,” says Hobson, who 18 months ago moved to the Stratosphere from the Aquarius in Laughlin. “A lot of it was not planned, exactly. What we wanted to do was make sure people knew that the Stratosphere is new, it’s not the same Stratosphere you remember.”

Some elements cannot be changed. The Stratosphere is surrounded largely by a “land moat” on Las Vegas Boulevard, especially after the Sahara closed in May. The neighborhood sitting at the hotel’s backside, the infamous Naked City, is hardly inviting. Across Baltimore Avenue on the hotel’s south side sits a $130-per-week apartment complex connected to the Aztec Inn Casino.

“We are a beacon here,” Hobson says, “and we think that the development around us will only help generate positive business for this end of the Strip.” He points to the recently announced plans for the reopening of the Sahara as one significant development and is still hoping a buyer surfaces for Fontainebleau, to the south of the Stratosphere on the Strip’s west side.

Surely, the hotel has not finished working to revamp its image. But it is trending rightfully, fighting the odds and even conventional wisdom. As Moreno says each night from the stage, “The Stratosphere is a little taller and a little straighter since we got here.”

He means something else, of course, but at today’s Stratosphere, a little risqué is OK.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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