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October 26, 2014

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A very Vegas New Year’s Eve with Mayor Oscar Goodman

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John Katsilometes

The mayor’s first act of 2009.

It is New Year’s Even in downtown Las Vegas and everything about this scene is set at maximum volume. High above, on the multimillion-dollar Fremont Street Experience canopy, a splash of color accompanies the pulsating Queen anthem, “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.” A crowd estimated at 30,000 seems bent on redefining “revelry.” It is a staggering throng in every respect, and in the midst of the chaos a onetime mob attorney knifes through the real-time mob, managing to maintain both his Cheshire grin and courtroom-capturing swagger.

Everyone wants a piece of Oscar Goodman, the self-dubbed Happiest Mayor in the Universe and, tonight, the rock star of Fremont Street. The nearly 70-year-old Vegas icon is accompanied by a small entourage, including his wife of 47 years, Carolyn; two ever-present showgirls; a quartet of hard-ass yet kindly City of Las Vegas marshals and Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Gary Reese. But it is Goodman they are reaching for. They come in waves. There’s the guy wearing the purple Happy New Year 2009 glasses and strands of emerald-colored beads who nearly dumps a football container of beer while reaching for a handshake. The happily dapper gentleman decked out in what seems to be a brown a snakeskin suit whose name is probably “David Marshall,” as that is what the giant gold necklace hanging from his neck says. They try to toast him by holding aloft 64-ounce souvenir containers of swill as the mayor himself lurches on, smiling, high-fiving, grabbing the outreached palms of his constituents with his own swollen right hand.

“You’re the mayor of the year!” bellows one woman, wearing a pink-feathered boa and those cheap Happy New Year glasses. “I’m the mayor of the year, every year!” Goodman calls back. Carolyn Goodman, dressed to the nines but not for Fremont Street ’09, is close behind, sometimes using her husband as a sort of shield from the flying fluids. “Hey! Mrs. Mayor! We love your husband!” a voice calls to the woman who is the chair of the board of trustees of The Meadows School, and the person shouting at Mrs. Goodman likely does not realize The Meadows is the only school in the state that places 100 percent of its graduates into four-year colleges. Not that the career accomplishments of either Goodman is particularly important, not tonight, because the thousands see Oscar Goodman as Vegas’ own throwback mayor, a man who once defended the indefensible, seems to drink martinis for dinner, and, like the city he serves, can play nice or play rough.

Behind the Scenes: Mayor on New Year's

A behind the scenes look at Mayor Oscar Goodman on New Year's Eve.

Moments later, behind the Third Street Stage where, in 15 minutes he will count Vegas into the new year, I ask Goodman if he ever tires of being the center of the scene. At this moment, everyone around him is about whipped.

“Never!” he says, gesturing with his freshened Bombay Sapphire martini but managing not to spill a drop. “The moment I get tired of this is the moment I step down.”

Then he steps up, toward the stage, to be introduced by sufficiently hyped KOMP 92.3-FM DJ Andy Kaye so he can count in his ninth year as mayor. Oscar Goodman is going back to work.

**

The evening starts sedately enough, also at the Third Street Stage area of Fremont Street, where a rotation of classic-rock bands will perform as part of TributePalooza, apt entertainment for a venue that, in years past, has featured Chicago, Bachman Turner Overdrive and Cheap Trick. It’s 5 p.m., the sun is setting, and Goodman is being hustled from one local TV interview to the next. He’s asked about his new year’s resolutions, who he likes in the NFL playoffs (his hometown Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Chargers), and runs through a weather report with Channel 3’s Kevin Janison, a longtime friend of Goodman’s.

Compared with the huge crowd that would gather over the next several hours, the assembled audience is meager, just a few dozen slightly amused onlookers watch Goodman hustle through his mini-media tour. When the lights hit Goodman’s face, he’s “on,” smiling, quick with a quip. But between takes, it is not all grins. As he waits for his appearance on Channel 3, Goodman gazes up at a monitor placed behind the station’s temporary camera stand. It’s showing the year’s top stories, and Goodman is rapt as footage of O.J. Simpson’s sentencing for his botched memorabilia retrieval operation at the Palace Station in Las Vegas is aired. Goodman squints slightly as he focuses on Simpson’s image, and the mayor’s opinion about this case is something to ask about later.

Goodman's New Year's Eve

Oscar Goodman and Kevin Janison, just a couple of weather guys. Launch slideshow »

But not now. Moments later, after he does his weather shtick, Goodman is approached by a little girl accompanied by her father. She flips open a hardbound notebook and asks Goodman for an autograph. He happily obliges, scrawling, “Happy New Year,” into the pad and wishing the father and daughter the same. Finally finished, at least for this round, he announces, “Time for dinner!” Dinner, and, for the mayor, a few more martinis.

**

Salvatore’s at Sun Coast would seem a curious spot for the mayor of Las Vegas to spend his New Year’s Eve dinner, given that the Sun Coast is actually located in Summerlin, in unincorporated Clark County, a long hike from downtown on New Year’s Eve or any other eve. But the reason Goodman chose this spot can be explained singularly: Fellini’s. Or, by the mention of two names: Bob Harry and Jimmy Girard. Bob and Jimmy are longtime friends of the Goodmans. In 1997 they opened the original Fellini’s on West Charleston Boulevard, which was one of Goodman’s favorite restaurants, and launched the new restaurant at Sun Coast a couple of months ago. So it’s the old West Charleston crew, including singing Chef Chaz LaPorte and most of the staff, on hand at the new location. It’s a target-rich environment for unexpected newsmakers – playing piano and crooning the standards is Phil Baker, best known as one of the Fabulous Baker Boys of film lore. He was brought out three years ago by Steve Wynn to open Wynn Las Vegas, and has since been plucked by Harry and Girard to add some authentic ambience to their great Italian restaurant. Also in the house, making a quick lap, is Boyd Gaming head and one of Las Vegas’ more unassuming (and in public, unnoticed) legends, Boyd Gaming head Bill Boyd. Boyd meets up briefly with Goodman, wishes Bob and Jimmy a happy new year and melts away. Even many of Boyd’s employees don’t realize that he makes a trip to each Boyd hotel-casino on New Year’s Eve – including all the downtown properties, the Eldorado in Henderson and even Joker’s Wild on Boulder Highway. “I do it every year,” Boyd says with a grin.

Goodman is doing another of his laps, stopping at every table. His act is tireless –- and he insists it’s not an act. If anything, he’s wary of overstaying his welcome as his constituents eat dinner. “You have to gauge just how long you stay, and if they get sick of you it’s time to move on,” he says.

Over the course of dinner, where the Goodman party is seated just about in the middle of the dining room, the mayor offers his customarily peppered ruminations:

Of his own sense of celebrity, the mayor says, “It’s like Barack Obama, in a sense. He’s the only politician I’ve seen who has this type of response. I don’t want to make this sound arrogant and don’t use it that way, but he has that type of celebrity … and Ed Rendell, when he was mayor (of Philadelphia), brought a lot of happiness to his constituency. In many ways we are similar. We both like sports. He was a big fan of the Eagles and Phillies, I’m hoping someday to have the equivalent of the Eagles and Phillies here. I just think it’s part of the mayor’s job to be the people’s mayor.”

On the many personal appearances he makes as mayor, I ask if the mayor has ever turned down any offer based on principle. “No. To the contrary, I’ve done some things that are very unpopular.” Has he made any controversial statements that now, looking back, he regrets? “Not one. Not one,” he says. “I don’t regret one day I’ve had as the mayor. I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the road, but none that were irrevocable, none that couldn’t be corrected. I’ve learned a very important lesson and I’m trying to teach it to my counsel – if there is an issue that’s bothering you, take a deep breath and give it a day, and it usually resolves itself.

On the possibility of running for governor, Goodman smiles at the thought and says, “I’ve taken a poll, and it was very positive. It was very favorable to me, but I don’t want to disclose it for a lot of different reasons. I want to go through the next Legislative session, being able to help the city, and all the assistance I can in elected office. But if I can’t get what I think the city is entitled to, I’ll have to resort to other means.” He then stops as a woman, probably at least 10 years his senior says, “Mayor, you cleaned up the city, now clean up the f-ing state and run for governor.”

Gotta love those Summerlinians.

“That sums it up in one statement,” Goodman says, laughing. I ask about attempting a statewide run as a mob lawyer from Vegas. How would his act play in, say, Winnemucca? Goodman looks at the state as a giant jury, and says, “The toughest case I ever had was representing an oral surgeon charged with sexually harassing patients, seven of them. This was in Carson City. Not guilty. So I can win cases, and I can win elections, in small towns.” At the moment the mayor dressed in attorney-wear, a deep blue pinstriped suit with a white shirt gold tie, not exactly a fashion statement for rural Nevada. “But I’ve got no problem with it. I would not change the way I do business. When I ran for mayor, I was told, ‘Take off your pinstripes and roll up your sleeves and wear khakis,’ things like that. But that’s not me. I knock on doors and little old ladies up in Summerlin say, ‘Hey, it’s the mafia lawyer! Come on in and have some cookies and milk!’ I love it!”

On the O.J. Simpson verdict in Vegas, Goodman says, “The truth of the matter is, if he weren’t O.J., when this became the kind of offense it was, it would have been probation. You know it and I know it. It was payback. (The jury) felt he got away with murder and wanted to even it up.” I asked the man who represented such nefarious figures as Tony “The Ant’ Spilotro, Meyer Lansky, Lefty Rosenthal, Nicky Scarfo, Jimmy Chagra and “Fat Herbie” Blitstein if he would have entertained defending O.J. Simpson. Goodman’s eyebrows arch. “The truth is, during the murder case, I was in Boston representing a client (Vinny Ferrara, in this case) up there and Howard Weitzman, who represented (John) DeLorean, got the first phone call from O.J.’s agent (Mike Gilbert) when O.J. was being chased in the white Bronco along the highway. For reasons that Weitzman only knows, he said he wasn’t interested. The second phone call was to me in Boston. My wife and myself were in the hotel room in Boston, watching the chase, and we got a phone call from O.J.’s agent asking me to come back and represent him. They were going to email me or fax me, or whatever (an agreement) of $25,000 as an initial retainer. I said, ‘Look, I have my own issues here, I can’t take on more than I can handle,’ and the next call went to Bob Shapiro.” Who is yet another longtime friend of Goodman’s.

On the reports that the Star Trek Experience will move into Neonopolis, Goodman says, “I spoke to CBS and they have licensing to Star Trek, and they really believe it’s going to happen down there. They’ll start with the museum and the restaurant, and the rides will in afterward, but they are ready to put in a real commitment there. I think that it’s going to happen. Scott Adams, our business development director, went back to New York and spoke to the same people I did who came out to Las Vegas, and I know the attorney who represents CBS on licensing from Philadelphia, knew her family from the old days, and it’s the real deal.”

On Goodman’s long-held feeling that an NBA franchise will move to Vegas, the mayor says, “It is true that if we had an arena, a team would move here. … (but) we’re not going to have a franchise here unless we build an arena, and the question is whether we’re going to build an arena. That’s why I really want, with the movement back in Washington to infuse money into Main Street, I want three projects to get the money: The Performing Arts Center, the Mob Museum and the City Hall project. Be able to do those, have money left aside and we can build an arena and have a team here overnight. The problem is, everything has been put on, at least, psychological hold, but I have not stopped working. Every single day I am talking with potential developers of an arena, and with the NBA ownership. It’s going to happen. I’m going to make it happen.”

Near the end of dinner, Goodman is handed another martini. How many martinis are enough? “Infinity,” he says. “I’m almost 70 and I’ve got more energy than anyone I’ve ever seen. I’m on fire. After I turn 70, martinis shall be drunk more than ever before! There are no ill effects – it has had a great effect on me!” There is laughter, and Goodman adds that his endorsement contract with Bombay Sapphire, which has netted him $100,000 (which he has donated to charity, including The Meadows School and the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute’s Keep Memory Alive Foundation), is currently “in negotiations.”

**

On the Third Street Stage, at what has been announced as midnight but is actually (according to my own fail-proof timepiece) about three minutes to midnight, the Goodmans clamber onstage and are met with a full-throated roar. The new year is counted in, a rowdy toast for 30,000 is proposed, and widespread necking unfolds.

After a few moments, the Goodmans turn from the crowd for yet another New Year’s Eve buss. We scramble off stage so someone who greatly resembles a small Freddy Mercury can belt out some more faux-Queen, and Goodman, finally, seems to have had it. The suit’s a little rumpled, his face slightly flushed. I ask one of the marshals, Roger McMenamy, a stout guy with a flattop on his head and a pinch between his cheek and gums, “What now?”

“Home,” he says.

Everyone parts for the night. The defense rests.

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