Las Vegas Sun

October 30, 2014

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OFF THE STRIP:

Keeping the dance hall days alive

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Leila Navidi

Deja Vu manager Howie Newman gives it up for the group at Rocks Lounge at Red Rock Resort. The dance band has a steady following of older people at a time when resorts are catering to younger crowds.

Howard Newman is straight out of Damon Runyon — a talkative, streetwise gambler with a profound Brooklyn accent and a confident manner.

When he isn’t working as a pit boss at Hooters, he usually can be found fretting over Deja Vu, the eight-piece dance band he manages.

It is Wednesday night, so the 58-year-old Howie — no one uses his last name — stands at the entry to Rocks Lounge at Red Rock Resort, shaking hands and greeting fans by name. The lounge fills early as fans arrive before the band to make sure they get a seat.

Howie works the crowd. He shoots the breeze in his easy style and buys a drink for someone now and again. He sometimes dances with a fan who can’t find a partner.

When Deja Vu begins to play, the place springs to life. In the din of the evening, relationships are formed as strangers meet, dance and get acquainted.

“Three couples who met here have either married or gotten engaged this year,” Howie says.

Bill Nims, 68, and Chi Lopez, 57, met on the dance floor and got married this month after two years of dating. They still dance three or four nights a week, mostly to Deja Vu.

Ralph Galli and Caroline Woodbury, another couple who met dancing to Deja Vu, plan to get married in October. Galli, 59, is retired. Woodbury, 46, delivers mail, but even after walking for a big part of each day she’s never too tired to dance. The couple go out two or three nights a week.

“I asked her to dance slow with me a couple of times but she said no,” Galli says. “I thought maybe I had body odor.”

“I only slow dance with someone I’m dating,” says Woodbury, a native of Oregon who has lived in Las Vegas for 34 years. “Now we’re engaged.”

Howie talks proudly of the relationships that form in the shadow of the band. “I’ve been the best man at seven weddings.”

The promoter must sell Deja Vu to entertainment directors who don’t see the economic value in providing an evening of entertainment for the older end of the demographic scale. It’s really a sales pitch for an entire generation of fans and for a kind of entertainment fast fading.

“People in this age group want to dance, but there are only two or three places to go,” Howie says.

Ah, for the good old days.

“Nobody starved and everybody had a good time,” Howie says. “Comps flowed. Music was free. Every casino had a lounge. Every casino had something for every demographic. Lounges were full, every lounge at every property. You had your showroom but also you had your lounge with a band — maybe two, maybe three, depending on how big the property was. It was wonderful. Everyone had a great time.

“Now they cater to young people. That’s the way things are now, with the music that no one can understand. We have a great following. When we were at the Suncoast, we had 500 every Tuesday night, but when Boyd Gaming took over, they wanted a younger, drinking crowd and my crowd is not a big drinking crowd. That’s the big knock on us. They may not drink a lot but they eat and they gamble and when their children come to town they bring them to the property to show them where they hang out and show them they’re not just couch potatoes who stay home every night.”

Howie speaks plainly. It comes from his Brooklyn upbringing.

Howie grew up fast at Aqueduct and Belmont racetracks.

“My father taught me how to read the sports page and to handicap horses when I was 6.”

He wanted to be a sportswriter until he heard a radio ad for the New York School of Gambling, which was training students to work in the brand-new Atlantic City casinos. He enrolled in the first class.

But he skipped Atlantic City and moved to Vegas in 1979. He worked craps tables at the Lady Luck, the Fremont, the Plaza and then the Bingo Palace, which became Palace Station, the first in the Station Casinos chain. He taught the Fertitta brothers, Frank and Lorenzo, to play craps. Today Howie works the day shift at Hooters. On breaks he makes calls to promote Deja Vu and other bands, such as the Nite Kings, an oldies R&B group, and the Two Jack Band (“Their two lead singers are named Jack”).

As Brooklyn Howie, he does sports handicapping for sportsmonitor.com.

“Before the big, wonderful sports books in all the casinos, people came to my house Sunday afternoons to watch football games,” Howie says. “I had one of the first satellite dishes in town and I had four TVs hooked up. I had a putting green in the garage. Pinball machines, slot machines. I knew the guys on the sports phones and when we needed a score I dialed direct. I had everything in my head, every pitcher in baseball, every quarterback. I’ve got friends back East who have called me for selections my whole life.”

He stops by the Orleans daily to bet on the horses. He hasn’t played table games in seven years but between races he may be at the slots.

“I gamble every day,” Howie says. “I believe in the adage: You never know if it’s your lucky day if you don’t make a bet.”

On his days off, he plays golf — but doesn’t bet on it. “I’m not that good.”

But he’ll make a wager on pool. “I used to do it one-handed so I could hold a Chivas Regal in the other hand.”

Howie became a band manager by default.

“The first band I managed was back in New York — the Cellar Dwellers,” he says. “I had no musical aptitude but I was a lot of fun to have around. I was always the guy who bought the drinks.”

When he moved to Vegas, his roommate sang with a band and Howie became its manager. The most successful band he managed was the nine-member doowop.com, which was one of the top dance bands in town from 1999 to 2006.

Then the band split into the Goodfellas and Deja Vu, which began playing everything from old-time rock ’n’ roll to disco. His ex-wife, Julie, is a singer with Deja Vu. They’re still friends.

Deja Vu has a big following but still has a hard time landing gigs. It lost its night at Texas Station, and Red Rock cut the band from two nights to one. It plays occasionally at the Rampart.

“It happens whenever there’s a change in management,” Howie says. “They all have their idea about how it should be.”

So does Bill Nims, who has been dancing to Howie’s bands for four or five years.

“I grew up in the ‘happy days,’ the late ’50s,” Nims says. “I’m an old-time rock ’n’ roll fan. I love it. I’ll follow Deja Vu wherever they go.”

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