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December 21, 2014

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Staging a comeback

Arizona Charlie’s plans to revive its showroom — once a proving ground for young artists

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The wall behind Arizona Charlie's Decatur General Manager Ron Lurie hides a stage that soon will reemerge. The Palace Grand Showroom hosted many young and new artists on their way to fame.

Like the Phantom of the Opera, ghosts lurk behind the false wall in the 24-hour bingo parlor on the second floor of Arizona Charlie’s on Decatur.

The wall hides a dark and dusty stage, crammed with lights, sound equipment and sets. For seven years, the old rostrum has led a lonely existence, waiting patiently for a return to its glory days.

When it was the Palace Grand Showroom, it hosted Toby Keith, the Dixie Chicks, Tito Puente, Dave Koz, Leon Russell, Dr. Hook, Chuck Mangione, the Little River Band, Eddie Raven, David Benoit, the Bobby Blue Bland and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

The stage’s patience may pay off soon.

New owners purchased Arizona Charlie’s Decatur along with its sister properties, Arizona Charlie’s Boulder, the Stratosphere and the Aquarius Casino Resort in Laughlin. Goldman, Sachs & Co.’s Whitehall Street Real Estate Fund wants to add a state-of-the art bingo room and a parking garage to the Decatur Boulevard property.

That means the old stage will come out of hiding.

“It’s just a matter of time,” General Manager Ron Lurie says. “We’ve retained architects and they’re doing drawings and concepts and plans for our new owners to review. We’re transforming this room back to the way it was.

“Once we get back on track we will compete with all the other locals casinos. It’s important that we provide an entertainment venue for the guests. We’ve done it in the past and we get a lot of requests to bring back the entertainment we used to have.”

Arizona Charlie’s is haunted by the ghosts of performances by young artists who entertained at this locals casino before they achieved stardom.

A poster in the hallway leading to the executive offices announces Keith’s show at the Palace Grand on Sept. 14, 1993. Tickets were $10.

The Dixie Chicks hadn’t hatched their award-winning career when they performed there about that time. Nor were they feuding with Keith, a conflict that erupted in 2003 when the Chicks criticized Keith’s single “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American).”

They were part of a diverse roster of headliners who played the Palace Grand.

“We kind of set the standard for entertainment in those days,” Lurie says. “When we got out of entertainment, everyone else picked it up. You can see how the local properties are doing now — they’re all bringing in all these acts that we used to have.”

Lurie has been around to see all the changes.

As mayor of Las Vegas, he cut the ribbon when Becker Enterprises opened Arizona Charlie’s in 1988. Four years later he went to work for Becker as marketing director. He became general manager in 1999 when American Casino & Entertainment Properties bought the place.

Arizona Charlie’s had a 20th anniversary celebration a week or so ago. Mayor Oscar Goodman cut a ribbon as part of the celebration.

When Arizona Charlie’s opened, its only entertainment was the 125-seat Naughty Ladies Saloon, home to “The Naughty Ladies Revue,” a burlesque-like show that starred Penny France and was produced by her husband, Joe Guercio. The show closed in 2000.

Guercio was a conductor for Elvis Presley for several years and became entertainment director at the Las Vegas Hilton and then Arizona Charlie’s. He’s credited with bringing in all of the great performers — some who had names, some who were in the process of building their careers.

“He knew all the artists and the people managing the acts,” Lurie says.

Today, the Naughty Ladies Saloon features performers who have local followings, including Jerry Tiffe, Lon Bronson, Denise Clemente, Lena Prima and Sidro’s Armada. Sweet Louie and the Checkmates were fixtures in the lounge for decades, until Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith died last year.

“They had a great following,” Lurie says. “I was shocked when Sweet Louie passed away. To show you how far back I go, I remember when they played at the Pussy Cat A-Go-Go back in the ’60’s. I met my wife there.”

Until the showroom is up and running again, Naughty Ladies is receiving the entertainment attention. Lurie and Chris Marcoux, vice president of marketing, are scouring the lounges looking for the entertainers with the biggest followings who can help reestablish Arizona Charlie’s as a happening place.

“We are asking the customers what group would they like to bring here to the property,” Marcoux says.

Lurie says when bingo moves into its new digs and the Palace Grand is reborn, there will be headline entertainment once a month. Boxing, once was a mainstay at Arizona Charlie’s, might come back, too.

“We used to broadcast some fights on ESPN,” Lurie says. “Remember the old Silver Slipper? It had boxing there all the time, like a fight club. It was a good draw. We’re talking about something like that. I’d like to reintroduce boxing at this property along with the entertainment.”

Once the bigger bingo parlor is built, he says it will take about 45 days to bring the showroom back to life.

“We’ll knock down the wall, do some construction and we’ll be ready,” Lurie says.

And the fans will be ready.

Just don’t expect to see Toby Keith for $10.

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