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December 21, 2014

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Columnist Tom Gorman: How Audra Danzak manages to keep things blooming at the Bellagio’s botanical gardens

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

Maybe it means putting the faded plastic pumpkin from Target back in the garage and fetching the dusty silk poinsettias from Michaels.

It's much more complicated for Audra Danzak, mother of an 8-year-old son.

After dismantling and storing the cider mill used for her autumn display, she's had to cover the chicken-wire frames of three life-size polar bears with 25,000 white carnations, position animated penguins atop big blocks of ice, create cranberry bogs and hang ornaments and lights on a 45-foot fir.

Audra, 39, heads the 140-person staff that designs, installs and maintains the seasonal displays at the Bellagio's Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. Its winter show opens today, so you can judge for yourself just how successful she and her team were.

But it's not like Audra can take a breather.

She's awaiting the arrival of a massive banyan tree from Palm Beach, Fla., which she'll use as the centerpiece for the Chinese New Year show that opens in January. (The tree is dying; to get it here, it will be cut in pieces so it can be loaded onto 12 tractor trailers. It will be reassembled inside the conservatory.)

How does a person end up the keeper of one of Las Vegas' most photographed attractions?

Her love of flowers blossomed as a teenager in Michigan, and by the time she was 19, she was operating her own small flower shop.

In 1993 she married, and the couple moved to Las Vegas to be near his family. (Today her husband, Richard, is a human resources executive at Imperial Palace.) With her skills, she landed a job at a local flower shop.

Within a year, she was hired part-time at the Mirage, designing floral arrangements for weddings. She grew bored by the production-line nature of the job, with pre-selected colors and stem counts.

"It was all about having fast hands. I was doing displays based on wedding package A, B or C. But at least my foot was in the door."

She happily transferred to a full-time job in the Mirage's exterior landscaping department. "I was working my butt off, lugging bags of fertilizer on my shoulder up the volcano -- and loving every minute of it," she said. "I loved being outside, digging in mud and getting sweaty on 110-degree days."

The more she learned about landscaping, the more she wanted to know. She enrolled in community college courses and developed expertise in pest and disease control, turfs, irrigation systems and water management.

Three years after joining the Mirage, she was hired at the Bellagio to help prepare for its 1998 opening. She moved up the ranks like some fast-growing vine, from gardener to manager of water and irrigation, to manager of exterior landscaping, to assistant director of horticulture to the top job she holds today.

She has directed the design, installation and maintenance of the conservatory shows since December 2002.

Audra and her designers travel widely in search of ideas, but some are conjured up at home.

She got the idea to install a larger-than-life flower garden with 12-foot-tall poppies for a spring show after viewing an MTV music video. And for a summer show, a pastoral scene of children fishing was suggested by Richard during a quiet family dinner.

She's now wondering how to incorporate an exhibit of hatching birds after watching quail break out of eggs while traveling in Cancun. For the current show, she decided to expand upon the polar bears that were used last year. That led to the decision to use real ice, which the conservatory is plumbed to produce.

"Then we talked about trees that would come alive. Singing Christmas trees," she said. "But I trust my intuition, and singing Christmas trees don't do it for me. Then someone said, 'Penguins.' And we said, Yes!"

There was still more to decide -- music, dancing waters and lighting. Thousands of flowers needed to be ordered and held in storage at an off-Strip warehouse until needed. (Flowers are changed every two weeks.)

The reward in her work, she said, is watching guests entering the hotel and heading to the conservatory before going into the casino.

But for all of this, Audra pays a price.

The Bellagio's director of horticulture is allergic to pollen.

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