Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2014

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Steve Friess’ final sentiment: Vegas, I love you

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On my first night in Las Vegas, I was really hungry. I had spent the day job-interviewing at the Review-Journal and was a bit too jumpy and anxious to eat when the poor reporter tasked with showing me around took me to Metro Pizza for supper. She even took me to Binion’s Horseshoe, as it was then known, to demonstrate a skill I’d never use again—how to play video Keno. Then she left and I headed to my room.

By 10 p.m., I was ravenous. So this is what I did: Nothing. There were no minibars full of snacks in the rooms back in 1996 and I sure couldn’t afford room service. “Well, I guess it’s too late,” I told myself. “I’m sure everything downstairs is closed.” I went to the top floor, took a dunk in the swimming pool in the still-99-degree heat of mid-August and went to sleep.

That was just how Vegas stupid I was then. I was only 23 and a bit of a rube, and somehow I missed the basic premise of this city, that everything is available whenever you want it. Or, at least, some things, and most certainly a burger and fries.

Fifteen years later, as I take my leave for a fellowship at the University of Michigan and then parts unknown, I can marvel and mock myself for what I didn’t know then.

But I’m also pleased to recall what I did instantly understand about this strange city, what made me know the day I set foot here that I would take the job despite the presumed “lifestyle” being so vastly different than my own. Las Vegas was thrilling, unique, intensely beautiful, important to the popular culture and bursting with grand possibilities. It was a burgeoning place, but still very much a small town, a modernizing place still shrugging off its tacky stink, a very young place where someone creative and hard-working of any age could have a dramatic impact. Even then, there weren’t many big American cities left as raw, open and rapidly developing as this. Today, I suspect, there aren’t any.

I was hired to cover education, but I quickly learned that even something so innocent was mixed up in the main business of Las Vegas when I received the press release touting the first of countless new school openings I’d cover. Sure, it spoke of pretty new facilities and a well-credentialed principal and the relief the building would provide to nearby, overcrowded schools. But there was also a line in there bragging about “fabulous views of the Strip from the playground.” Stereotype much?

This was a lifetime ago for both the city and me. For months when I first arrived, the Statue of Liberty stood on the corner at New York-New York without her head. When it was affixed, local news crews covered it like a Papal visit. Months later, I stood in the middle of the Strip near Russell Road to watch the New Year’s Eve implosion of the Hacienda, which made way for Mandalay Bay. It cracked me up both that it took place at 9 p.m. so it could compete on TV with the ball-drop in Times Square in New York and that the newer tower didn’t collapse. (It ended up being destroyed by wrecking balls in the next few days.) That was Vegas in a nutshell, always striving to be something, wanting attention but not always getting the right sort.

I remained in a Vegas fog for years. I was promoted to covering county government, but somehow I was too green to really understand the multimillion-dollar implications of what I was chronicling. Steve Wynn came to explain the revolution that would be his Bellagio as he appeared for the board’s blessing to open, and I thought he was such a blowhard. (He was and is, but he also was dead on about the importance of his endeavor.) The commission debated for months about how to realign Harmon Avenue—one serious proposal involved curvy tunnels under the Strip—because the folks who were planning the new Aladdin were concerned about how cars and people would get in, and I thought it was all a lot of whining. (Ingress-egress problems dog that property, now Planet Hollywood, even today.) And I recall thinking I was in culinary heaven at the opening gala for the D Gate at McCarran in 1998, an event that involved the most awesomely lavish buffet I’d ever witnessed. (I would later see better.)

I probably didn’t really pay that much attention to the whys and wherefores of all that swirled around me then because I was a striver myself at the time. The R-J was my second job out of journalism school, and I had been programmed by my profession to believe I needed to move on within a respectable amount of time to a bigger paper, so I started looking for my next job about a year after I arrived. I became obsessed with getting to New York—I grew up on Long Island, where my grandmother was dying—and sent out resumes to every crappy job available. In 1998, I went for a hot, sticky summer week of job interviews and found myself suddenly not just hating the Gotham grime but utterly bored by the publications I thought I’d be willing to work at in order to live there. I should have known Vegas was getting under my skin because I had this epiphany sitting in a stopped cab: Every window in those NYC skyscrapers represented someone’s office, but whatever business they were conducting in those rooms could not possibly be as fascinating as the business of Las Vegas.

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Friess carries Peepshow star and Playboy model Holly Madison over scary carpet. What a gentleman.

Nonetheless, ambition is powerful, and I left the R-J in 1999 anyway to “advance” to the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida. God, how I hated it there. I covered growth and development, but very little grew or developed, at least not at the pace I had become accustomed to in Vegas. I was so unhappy—my first marriage was crumbling, too, and that didn’t help—that I decided I didn’t like journalism anymore and took a weird gig as a copy editor for an English-language paper published by the Chinese government in Beijing.

I went abroad to take a break from my troubled relationship with my husband and my writing, and there I found both the strength to break up with him and my professional calling as a freelancer. In China, I saw amazing story ideas everywhere and learned how to land work for the world’s biggest newspapers and magazines. It turned out I didn’t hate journalism; I just wanted autonomy.

Returning to Vegas after that year, then, made perfect sense. What I’d learned from China was to plop myself somewhere that is of great interest to the national and international press but where there were precious few freelancers to cover it. That formula not only worked but rather quickly turned me into a significant media player here, capable of setting the national agenda on what’s important about Vegas via work for USA Today, Newsweek, the New York Times and others.

As I recalled when I sorted through nine years of press kits and mailings in my office over the past few weeks, I covered anything that interested me and more than a few trade shows that did not but paid well. One day about six months along, I called my father to proudly tell him I couldn’t take all the jobs I was being offered. “It’s like this city is made of trees of $1,000 bills, and I just have to drive around grabbing as many of them as I can,” I told him.

I knew I had shrugged off my need to journalistically “climb” early in 2003 when the Washington Post invited me to interview for a job in a Maryland bureau. I declined—and those words shocked me even as I said them—but told them I could make a case for why they could use a full-timer strategically situated in Vegas. They didn’t bite, and today major papers are closing regional bureaus, but at the time it seemed like a no-brainer that this city, for its location and transportation convenience, was the best starting point for covering the Southwest.

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A lot of things have come and gone since Friess started writing about Vegas (but we hope he still has that T-shirt).

I didn’t care, though. Vegas was my home, and to prove it to a community accustomed to journalists coming and going, I bought a house. Then I met a great guy, we got a couple of dogs, had a wedding and started a weekly celebrity-interview podcast that will end its run this coming weekend after six years.

That was all wonderful and important, but I also wanted a voice in my community, so I was delighted when the Weekly asked me first to write a weekly web piece and then a printed column. A prominent publicist was baffled over why I would want to do that, considering it a step down from my national work, but I didn’t think any of that was all that important if local Las Vegans didn’t know where I was coming from. And over these years, I’ve probably overshared about my failed real estate investments, my charitable interests, my weight loss and much more. Through it all, I had smart editors who steadfastly insisted on my ability to both write for the Weekly and critique other Greenspun Media publications and personalities on my blog. That takes guts and journalistic integrity, and I’m intensely grateful.

The major stories were too numerous to count, of course. The first big one was Roy Horn being attacked on stage by his tiger, Montecore. There were Comdexes and C.E.S.’s, courthouse shootings and missing children, national elections and an allegedly boozy mayor and the indictments of a quorum of the county commissioners I had covered in the 1990s. O.J. Simpson was finally put away and adventurer Steve Fossett’s remains finally found. And I combined my Vegas-China knowledge by covering the openings of the Sands Macau and Wynn Macau.

I took a fake Liza Minnelli whom I met at the Celebrity Impersonators Convention to a 2 a.m. show by the real Liza at the Luxor. I covered rock-paper-scissors and Monopoly championships. I walked around the pre-opened Encore, Palazzo, Aria, Red Rock, M and Cosmo as well as the pre-imploded Stardust and Frontier. Conde Nast Traveler paid for me to stay at the top resorts and eat at the top restaurants for a special Vegas pullout section, and I wrote full-service guidebooks geared towards gays, NASCAR fans and the French. My Little Brother (from Big Brothers Big Sisters) and I snuck into all the pools on the Strip and graded them for the Los Angeles Times.

Steve Wynn screamed at me on the phone while I was enjoying his Encore spa because he was livid that a feature I’d written for Vegas magazine on the recently deceased “f*cking asshole” Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal appeared opposite an ad for one of his hotels. I attended the opening night gala for Zumanity that took place on the top floor of the New York-New York parking garage, which Cirque du Soleil had carpeted, a party most notable because at 2 a.m. a construction crane dangled a human mobile of Cirque performers over our heads. A few times, my stories generated jokes for NPR’s Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me!, including news I broke in USA Today from a medical convention where doctors learned that it may soon be possible to do full-head hair transplants using the scalps of cadavers.

Through it all, one thing that never ceased to amaze me was how often I got to interview fascinating, important figures whom one would never have expected to have any relationship to Las Vegas. Among them: Frank Gehry, Harvey Fierstein, Maya Lin, Dominick Dunne, Olivia Harrison and Twyla Tharp.

Now it’s time to go. The fellowship I’ve earned is an opportunity too monumental to pass up, and I need this jumpstart because I’ve grown complacent in my writing. I’ve been so caught up in paying bills, especially on a house that may not recover its value in the span of my career, that I forgot about the bigger projects I want to take on. I’ve also spent so much time taking on sacred cows in this magazine and elsewhere that I’ve come to feel less and less welcome. Someone else will have to do that now, but be advised it is lonely, thankless work.

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Too bad Friess can't take Binion's fat stacks with him to "parts unknown."

I sit on the back deck right now of the couple my column readers have come to know as The Olds, an elderly gay couple who embraced me as a grandson. They, along with a couple of friends and my Little Brother, his mom and grandparents, provided a makeshift family unit that kept me safe and my ego in check. My actual family is so scattered—my three sisters and parents live in five different states—that these are the people who let me come for dinner unannounced, listened to the details of my reporting adventures and loved me even when I’d made some terrible error in judgment that adversely affected my work or my life.

I’m going to have to leave soon, to get in the car and drive to my next thing, and that is breaking my heart. I’ll continue to write about Vegas, no doubt, but I don’t expect to live here again—and even if I do, it won’t be the same. If it is, this fellowship and all of the effort surrounding it will have failed to move me on to some other phase of life and work.

A few weeks ago, another prominent local journalist suggested I use this space as a “total bridge-burner” to take parting shots at all those who deserve them. But I don’t wish to go in a huff. I took my shots openly and stridently for all of these years and in more than 220 columns for this publication. For the moment, I’m done.

I’d much rather make sure it’s clear how deeply I love Las Vegas, how much I’ll miss the sky and mountains and that weird thought that passes through my mind when I cross the Strip at Trop or Flamingo that I’m casually zipping through intersections that billions of people crave to visit. I look up and down the Strip and I know the stories of those buildings and everything it took to put them there. I couldn’t be prouder of my life here.

But, yeah, I gotta go now. And if all this seems overwrought and excessive to some, that’s appropriate, too, because Vegas is nothing if not overwrought and excessive. The rest of the world mistakes all that for phony, and that’s where they’ve got us exactly wrong. This is by far the most honest place in the world, unapologetically brash and self-important, kitschy, unironic, genuine and emotive.

It is what I love about it. And what I’ll miss the most.

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