Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Lou Ruvo Brain Institute
- Aiming to revolutionize dementia research (1-7-2009)
- Brain institute thinking big (12-24-3008)
- Six-figure donation to be used to fight brain diseased (1-28-2008)
- Where I Stand — Guest columnist Larry Ruvo: Defeating Alzheimer’s (8-26-2005)
- Renowned architect will design Alzheimer’s center (3-2-2008)
Don’t tell Larry Ruvo he can’t do the impossible.
He was 8 years old when his father, Lou — a New York limo driver who had just moved his family to Las Vegas — announced: “We just rented a restaurant.”
His wife was incredulous.
“You can’t do that!” Angie Ruvo exclaimed. “What do you know about running a restaurant?”
Nothing, he told her. But you can cook. Don’t tell me I can’t do it, because I’ve got you.
It turns out, Lou was right. Angie’s cooking was a hit, and The Venetian Restaurant became a Las Vegas mainstay for 43 years.
Lou Ruvo’s confidence and belief in his wife proved to Larry that with the right people around him, nothing is impossible.
“I believe that if my wife (Camille) is at my side, and I’ve got my family and friends, then there’s nothing I can’t do,” Ruvo says.
And that confidence has come to play as Ruvo shepherds one of Nevada’s most ambitious health care endeavors: the creation of the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute.
The institute is unique in its bold mission: Establish the international gold standard in the treatment of patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s and in supporting their caregivers. Its ambition is nothing less than to cure the disease.
The brain institute’s stature in the realms of clinical care and brain research will be elevated with the announcement today of a partnership with the renowned Cleveland Clinic. It’s a triumph that enables the institute to instantly inherit best practices and develop a sustainable model of health care that will improve medicine in Las Vegas and be replicated worldwide. The new institution will be called the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
The partnership reflects Ruvo’s business acumen, ability to build relationships and commitment to a vision.
After being raised in Las Vegas and learning the ins and outs of the restaurant business with his parents, Ruvo worked at the Sahara and Caesars Palace. He began at the Frontier as a night manager and eventually ran the entire hotel. At the Frontier, Ruvo began his lifelong friendship with Steve Wynn, who was early in his own career. The two started a liquor distribution company in 1970 and a couple of years later, after Wynn got out of the business, Ruvo sold the majority of it to Southern Wine & Spirits, the nation’s largest liquor distributor. Ruvo maintained a minority stake and stayed on as its senior managing director, running every aspect of the Nevada business.
Ruvo’s company controls the liquor distribution market with clients including major grocery chains and the largest hotels and casinos on the Strip. In the 35 years that Ruvo has been the dominant liquor distributor in a state known for alcohol consumption, he has perfected a sales strategy based on educating the masses and skillfully marketing the product. It’s a talent that would serve him well later.
At his headquarters, master mixologists and sommeliers teach retail buyers, bartenders and waitresses how to mix, pour and present drinks to customers, and a chef prepares meals so customers can better understand wine pairings.
Harvey Chaplin, who founded Southern Wine & Spirits and then bought the majority of Ruvo’s business in 1972, says Ruvo is unique in the business for going to such lengths to promote his products.
Ruvo said he realized the importance of education on a hot August day more than 35 years ago when a woman went to a liquor store with a complaint: The corks in the case of wine she had purchased earlier in the day had all popped in her trunk.
The store owner called Ruvo, his supplier.
Yes he would replace the wine, Ruvo said, but first he had a question for the woman who put the wine in her trunk: “Would you have done that with ice cream?” Ruvo’s point: Extreme heat and fine wine do not mix.
The incident motivated Ruvo to start UNLVino, which is now the nation’s largest one-day wine tasting and education event (and a fundraiser for UNLV students).
As Ruvo amassed a fortune, he grew active in political fundraising ventures. He hosted George W. Bush at his Lake Tahoe home before Bush was elected president in 2000 and was finance director for Bush-Cheney ’04 in Nevada.
Ruvo also feels a sense of responsibility to be philanthropic: “I think that you have an obligation in life to not just be comfortable and exist and live. You have to help others.”
It’s an ethic, he says, he learned from his parents, who donated to their Catholic parish even while the family was struggling financially. “We’ll be OK; God will take care of us,” he recalls his mother saying at the time.
As his career flourished, Ruvo says, his father was his “best friend in life.”
“He was a friend that I could confide in and talk to about anything,” he says.
By 1992 the family had noticed that Lou Ruvo’s brain was skipping beats, though like many who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it took many months for them to realize the symptoms were caused by disease. It started with Lou being unable to remember Camille’s name, even writing it down to remind himself. It reached a crisis when Lou became confused while driving in rush-hour traffic on Maryland Parkway and thought his car had broken down. Police found the car in working order, with the keys in the ignition. The incident made clear to the family that something was wrong.
It took about 18 months of frustration and misdiagnoses in Las Vegas before Lou Ruvo was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He died of the disease in 1994.
“You know, I miss him more every day,” Larry Ruvo said.
After Lou’s death, Angie, who was her husband’s primary caregiver, needed back surgery because she ruptured two discs lifting him. She says that although her son called her every day to check on her, she didn’t want him to worry so she never told him the extent of her hardship. Today she can barely walk.
His mother’s experience drove Ruvo to find a way to help the people who care for patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
About a year after Lou Ruvo’s death, a small group of about 40 of Larry Ruvo’s friends gathered for a dinner upstairs at Spago, to drink wine and tell stories about Lou. They were enjoying the evening when John Paul DeJoria, one of the founders of Paul Mitchell hair products and a friend of Larry’s, came into the restaurant and heard about the gathering.
What’s going on? DeJoria asked after entering the room.
We’re telling Lou Ruvo stories.
Well, I want to give $5,000 to Alzheimer’s research, DeJoria replied.
Other friends started pitching in and by the end of the night, Ruvo had about $40,000 in pledges.
And that got Ruvo thinking: That was pretty easy. What if we do a fundraiser?
Wolfgang Puck closed Spago for the event, which seated about 250, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa prepared an exquisite meal around miso cod, one of his hallmark dishes.
After the silent auction items had disappeared, DeJoria grabbed the microphone and announced he wanted to spontaneously offer an item up to bid: “nothing.” The auction winner’s reward would be the positive feelings of helping a worthy cause. Bidding would start at $10,000, he said.
After several bids, “nothing” was purchased for $25,000.
That’s when Elaine Wynn suggested that if they sold one “nothing,” then she’d like to buy another. She made one more $25,000 contribution and eventually three “nothings” were sold at the price. The evening’s groundswell of generosity raised about $375,000.
The dinner was the birth of Keep Memory Alive, the nonprofit organization that raises money for the brain institute. Its next gala is Feb. 28 at the Bellagio.
Ruvo credits donors who have funded the organization with giving wings to his dream. He and his wife have contributed $415,000 of the $65 million in cash and pledges raised to date.
The donations were testimony to the trust that community leaders had in her husband, Camille Ruvo says. Ruvo has never made a promise he could not keep, she says, and the community knew he would do good with the money.
Ruvo found himself in the curious position of having money for a plan that was still in the development stage.
An early plan was to build a care facility in Las Vegas, but after consulting with Dr. Leon Thal, his father’s doctor in California, he ambitiously decided he wanted to provide clinical care for patients and support for their families, while raising money and conducting research.
By 2004, Ruvo had raised about $35 million and enlisted a local architect to draw up preliminary plans. But the vision wasn’t drawing the interest of philanthropists or members of the medical and research community.
One day, while he was attending his daughter’s volleyball game — sitting on the floor, leaning against a wall — he mulled over the project. He needed a marketing hook, as with the bottles of vodka in his warehouse, he said. There are dozens of brands, but only a few best-sellers. What sets them apart? Packaging.
If this vision is going to be sold, he told himself, it needs to be branded with unusual packaging.
Ruvo called an architect friend and asked: “Which architect gives my vision the most cache?”
The answer was Frank Gehry, whose daring designs for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and a host of others has earned him worldwide acclaim — and raised eyebrows.
A Gehry design would distinguish the brain institute and draw international attention to the cause. Ruvo would fly to Santa Monica to discuss the project with Gehry.
Ruvo got an appointment with the architect, but his friends doubted he would land Gehry. The night before, Ruvo had dinner with Terry Lanni, who was then chairman and chief executive of MGM Mirage.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Lanni said. “Because he said no to me. He said no to Steve Wynn and he said no to Sheldon Adelson. He doesn’t want to build a building in Las Vegas.”
The next day in Gehry’s office, even before exchanging hellos, the architect pronounced: “I’m not going to build a building in Las Vegas.”
Ruvo said he leaned in close and replied: “Then you are either a rude individual or just a nasty man. You have got to listen to my pitch. I was told I have 45 minutes and I’d like to sit down with you.”
Forty-five minutes turned into three hours. Two weeks later Ruvo returned to Santa Monica, bringing Camille to seal the deal.
“Are we going to have a building in Las Vegas designed by you?” Camille asked the architect.
She remembers Gehry’s response: “When I first met your husband I wasn’t so sure I wanted to build in Las Vegas, but after we talked it was like playing in the back yard with your best friend making mud pies. I want to work with your husband. But if it wasn’t for your husband, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Gehry said in a recent interview that he has come to love Ruvo.
“He’s great. He’s got energy. He’s relentless,” Gehry said. “He even had me designing doghouses (for fundraising). I gotta watch out — I’m afraid to talk to him because every time I do I have to do something.”
Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, who has been known as the “father of Alzheimer’s research” and served as the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute’s president and chief executive, said the Gehry building is an instant icon for the research of brain disorders. Gehry lent his reputation to the cause and, combined with Ruvo’s drive, the facility has brought international attention to the brain institute’s mission, Khachaturian said. For the past two years top researchers have attended the Ruvo institute’s annual symposium, and at least one international summit is planned for the coming year.
If Gehry’s involvement helped catapult Larry Ruvo’s dream, the Cleveland Clinic partnership delivers immediate credibility on the clinical and research side of the brain institute’s mission.
Cleveland Clinic officials said they chose to partner with Ruvo because of the community support he had nurtured, and his passion for the cause.
David Strand, the Cleveland Clinic’s chief operating officer, said he remembers asking Ruvo how long he would stay committed to his efforts to fight brain disorders.
“ ‘Either until they find a cure for Alzheimer’s or I die,’ ” Strand said Ruvo responded. “That’s the kind of passion and commitment I look for in a partner.”
So what does Ruvo get out of all of this? He said his payoff comes in knowing that he could be one of the people behind the next Jonas Salk, the researcher who developed the vaccine for polio. Ruvo wants the infrastructure he’s creating to do the same for the researcher who may one day cure Alzheimer’s and dementia.
“Nobody knows the people behind Jonas Salk except the people,” Ruvo said. “It’s the personal satisfaction that … we can be part of this bigger dream.”