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October 26, 2014

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Show producer David Saxe is on a mission to bring vintage Vegas back

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Christopher DeVargas

David Saxe, producer of V - The Ultimate Variety Show and Vegas! The Show.

When David Saxe was a little boy, he’d share in a bowl of cereal with his father every morning and watch his favorite TV show, the kitschy, simplistically imaginative Japanese sci-fi series Ultraman. Saxe was fascinated by the show’s simple production and its heroic central character, a futuristic space alien who battled all variety of otherworldly monsters and menacing figures. The only boy and youngest child in a family of three kids, David was also enamored of his father, something of a heroic figure who always made sure to spend this quality TV time with his son.

Richard Saxe poured milk from glass bottles left on the porch of the family’s Las Vegas home. The two would munch away while watching the inter-galactic spaceman spin his magic. It was a Rockwell-esque setting, if Norman Rockwell were to conceive a slice-of-Americana painting, Vegas-style. What made the scene distinctive was how Richard Saxe was actually dressed. He was not cloaked in a robe, or clad in daddy-jammies. The Saxe family’s man of the house was dressed to the nines.

“My dad would open the front door, and he’d be in his tux, and I remember the bottles of milk would be out there,” Saxe says today. “He would come home after working all night, working all of the lounges. Two, three lounges a night. He worked until sunup, every day. I thought it was the coolest thing ... That was my routine, I thought it was normal that dads came home in tuxes at 6 in the morning, looking beat after working all night.”

Richard Saxe was one of the city’s busiest musicians, a reeds player who mastered the sax (apropos, given the family surname) along with flute, oboe and clarinet. He was a band leader who assembled “relief” bands whenever such backing ensembles were needed to perform gigs for the stars of the Strip, members of the Rat Pack and the like, or provide music for the city’s earliest version of corporate events.

“He put together the band that they would hire for the All-State Insurance convention, or whatever convention was in town,” Saxe recalls. “That’s what he did, how he made a living. To me, it was totally normal. I loved it.”

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Saxe's father, Richard, in his sax-playing days.

Today, metaphorically and in fact, the founder and chief of David Saxe Productions still loves the man in the tux, the genteel and formally attired lounge performer who represents the core of Vegas entertainment history.

The 42-year-old Saxe has a soft spot for sequined showgirls, too, as his mother, Bonnie, was for years a dancer with Folies Bergere at Tropicana. One of Saxe’s favorite stories (at least, one of his favorites about himself) is that his mother’s final performance as a Folies showgirl was in 1968, when she was pregnant with David. Thus, Saxe’s career in Vegas entertainment actually pre-dates his own birth.

Know this about Saxe, too: Because of his strong Las Vegas roots, he feels a rightful ownership of the city’s entertainment history. Two of his shows are steeped-in-tradition productions at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood: V – The Ultimate Variety Show and Vegas! The Show at Saxe Theater, just down the mall a few somersaults from V Theater.

For Saxe, these shows are the anti-Cirque, filled with traditional Vegas-styled entertainment. The decade-old V – The Ultimate Variety Show is the platform for the comeback of Saxe’s illusionist sister, Melinda – First Lady of Magic. Vegas! The Show, launched in 2010, features a bevy of showgirls (genuine, dancing showgirls) and rolls out acts borrowing from Elvis, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Sonny & Cher, and, of course, the Rat Pack.

The music, vocalists, dancing and staging in Vegas! The Show is equal to any show in town, and remains Saxe’s most inspired production to date.

But for Saxe, a man who often works 20-hour days and suffers from adult ADD, simply putting out high-quality entertainment is not enough. Over the past couple of years he has embarked on a quite-public (and often, quite hilarious) campaign against Cirque du Soleil, which is the city’s dominant entertainment company.

In the face of rampant Cirque influence in his hometown, Saxe is positioning himself as the proverbial voice of reason, pushing back against a production company he feels is (at least, by Vegas standards) faceless and foreign.

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Saxe's mother, Bonnie, in her showgirl costume.

“Here is exactly how I feel,” he says during a conversation at a Las Vegas Starbucks, his iPhone and large latte within reach. “Let’s say I’m Italian, and I’m from New York. Every Italian from New York tells you about how great the pizza is in New York, where to get great pizza. So I kind of feel like, maybe I’m in New York, I’ve got the greatest pizza place, and all of a sudden, Domino’s—Le Cirque Domino’s—just opened up. And everyone is eating it. And I’m going, ‘Are you guys kidding me? That’s Domino’s! That is not pizza!’”

Saxe’s complaint about Cirque is not in the quality of the productions—Cirque is not to entertainment what mass-produced pizza is to fine dining. In keeping with what has become a universal appreciation of Cirque artistry, he says the productions are well conceived, well performed and impressively staged.

However …

“I just think you have too many executives jump on the bandwagon, saying, ‘I got an idea! You know what this town really needs? Another Cirque show!’” Saxe says. “I know, this has happened in the past, with magicians, impressionists, everybody jumping on the bandwagon. I started (the adult dancing school) Stripper 101, and I’ve had one, two, three copycats. It’s the same with Cirque. One worked, and they said, ‘Let’s do another one, and another one!’”

Saxe even recorded a quartet of comparison commercials, doing his own copycat work by copying the theme of the Mac-vs.-PC ad campaign. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, Saxe describes, in a no-frills tone, the qualities of V – The Ultimate Variety Show. Debating him is a hopelessly over-the-top, French-accented, Cirque-fashioned artist referred to as “O.”

Of course, the counterargument is that Saxe’s operation is little more than a wading pool to Cirque’s seemingly boundless sea of shows. Is he envious of the company’s scope and resources, its success and impact?

“No, I’m honestly not,” he says. “I’d be envious if somebody—if MGM Resorts backed a show [similar to] Vegas! The Show, rather than mine. Or grabbed some other producer. Cirque is Cirque. I don’t want to be Cirque. I don’t want to compete with Cirque. I’m not jealous of Cirque, I actually appreciate what they’ve done.”

It’s just not David Saxe.

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Vegas! The Show

As the founder and owner of David Saxe Productions, Saxe has become one of Las Vegas’ more prominent entertainment figures over the past decade. He has actually been building his empire for 25 years, since he was the teenage producer of Melinda’s showcase at Bourbon Street, and today promotes 11 shows (five of which he has produced) at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.

Saxe owns a total of five theaters at the circuitous Miracle Mile mall. Four are housed in the two-story, 40,000-square-foot labyrinth of venues collectively known as V Theater, which sits across the mall walkway from Blondie’s sports bar.

The other venue is the jewel of the Saxe operation, Saxe Theater, which the entertainment entrepreneur did not design or build. But Saxe snapped up the $35-million venue as its original owner, star-crossed magician Steve Wyrick, bolted from Miracle Mile after attempting to compete with Saxe’s fortress of productions just a few hundred paces away.

In all, Saxe fills about 30,000 seats per week, with multiple shows staged throughout the afternoon and evening. He was a pioneer in partnering with ticket brokers, often paying the highest sales commission to fill theaters. He initially offered Las Vegas brokers a $5-per-ticket commission for Melinda’s show, which was a $9.99 ticket that included a prime rib dinner. He still refuses to offer such promotions as 2-for-1 ticket deals for locals, saying to do so cheapens his product. But he does pay high commissions to brokers to help fill all those seats.

Saxe remembers well when just a single ticket broker worked the entire city. Today he says he must boost ticket prices simply to pay brokers’ commissions.

“Ticket prices are high in Vegas because the brokers demand more money and customers demand a discount,” he says. “So, you price it up. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Let’s say the retail price of a ticket is $99. With Groupon, the customer is getting it for 50 percent off, and they want 40 percent of what you get. Everyone wants so much of a piece of the pie. I wish I could just sell to the customer directly. That would be great, but that’s not how the system is.”

Saxe pauses, preparing for his I have-a-family-to-feed reminder. His wife, Alana, is a Las Vegas dentist. They have three children, 10-year-old Camden; 7-year-old Simone; and 4-year-old Tristan.

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Melinda and David Saxe

“If we don’t do this right, if people don’t come to my shows,” he says, “my kids don’t eat. It’s pretty simple.”

Walking through Saxe’s maze of theaters is like a trek through his mind. Direction dissolves as you cut though hallways that seem to lead nowhere and everywhere. But it’s all connected, in spirit at least. Open a door and, as if in a Disney movie, you happen upon the ballroom of Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding. In the main V Theater showroom, Melinda is about to vanish in a glass box. At the same moment, at Saxe Theater, Eric Jordan Young is performing as the custodian Ernie, waxing nostalgic about the Sands and the Dunes and the days when Sinatra presided over the Strip.

Saxe’s attention to detail is evident at every stop. He’s a self-described perfectionist who micromanages his 350 employees (he just let go of five staffers at the end of the holidays) and says he wishes he applied the same tenacity to vetting potential hires as he does to making notes of his own shows.

He is a voracious note-taker, too. In just 20 minutes at the V performance, Saxe observes that a dozen LED lights in the theater’s video panels have burned out. The glass boxes used by Melinda are smudged and have not been wiped down between shows. Swords used in the act show handprints, and the flat screens on either side of the stage need cleaning. The performers “marks” onstage are taped where they should be noted in grease pencil. The smoke machine at the back of the theater is activated several seconds too long, a waste of resources.

An usher is reminded to smile, even as he seats dozens of guests in just a few minutes.

Those who work for Saxe say his demands are high. That is a consistent theme. Some say unreasonably so.

“If you’re talking to somebody I shouldn’t have hired, who shouldn’t be in the position they are in, they probably say I’m a micromanaging, ball-busting cowboy,” he says. “If it’s somebody who does what they are supposed to and we have a meeting of the minds, they’ll probably say the guy’s got tenacity and is a risk-taker and I admire him for what he does and what he has accomplished.”

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Melinda - First Lady of Magic

Saxe says he was not pushed into the entertainment industry by his family, that his interest is purely environmental. He did not want to perform, cursed with stage fright that precludes him from appearing in front of an audience for any reason other than to speak. Saxe did learn to play the trumpet very well as a teenager, but was dissuaded from entering show business as a performer by his father, who at the time was battling to save the Las Vegas musicians’ union during the strike that wracked the organization in the late-1980s.

Saxe loved the art of putting on a show, though. His first foray into show production helped boost his own career, and that of his sister, Melinda – First Lady of Magic. Those who have happened upon the Strip entertainment scene in the past decade likely don’t appreciate the fame of Melinda, who for two decades was one of the more popular entertainers of any type in Vegas and one of the best-known magicians, male or female, in the country.

Melinda left the stage to start a family and is returning after a nine-year absence. Partnering with her brother was the first, and only, option. As Melinda has been away, Saxe has become the more familiar figure in Vegas. In one somewhat awkward moment, photographers at the opening of Vegas! The Show in 2010 asked Melinda to move away from her brother, out of the shot, so the star of the night could stand alone. The illusionist and older sister just rolls with it.

“Back when we first started out, as a family business, I was not sure how far he would want to go,” Melinda says. “But then, as he started sprouting wings, I saw the desire in him. Even when he was young he was already producing and doing great stuff. For many years I have watched him grow. He has so much on his plate, and it has not been easy, but he has become so successful, and I am so proud of him.”

Saxe had long been known as “Melinda’s brother,” a title that long ago was dropped for some version of “Las Vegas show producer.”

He may add to his résumé, too. For Saxe, who has never stopped seeking new projects and frontiers, there must be some higher level of achievement than his Miracle Mile fortress.

“Before I die, I want to make a movie,” he says. “You ever have something that is just burning in your soul, that you know would work? For me, it’s a movie. I don’t care if I make a dollar. I want to make a movie because I know I can make it great.”

Saxe smiles. “The older I’m getting the more Dad teaches me,” he says. “He’s been dead for 10 years now, but he still teaches me, every day. He used to say, ‘Enjoy the journey. Don’t say you’ve reached an end goal, because you’ll always be on to something else.’

“I think of all the things he said that didn’t make any sense at the time, but do now.”

At that, you swear you can hear the faint notes of a sax solo, played in a far-off Vegas lounge.

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