Steve Friess

Stories by Steve Friess

  • The Demise of Vegas's Fine-Arts Scene

    It was always an odd combination: Sin City and serious art. A decade ago, Las Vegas was full of brio about becoming the next Miami—a cultural mecca and art-tourism destination. But with the closure of the Las Vegas Museum of Art in February, the desert hotspot is now the biggest city in the U.S. without a public art museum. The LVMA's demise is only the most recent blow. In 2007, hotel magnate Steve Wynn converted his art gallery into a Rolex shop. Last year, the Guggenheim closed its outpost at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. "We were just wrong," says highly regarded art critic Dave Hickey, who moved to Las Vegas in the early 1990s, anticipating a cultural shift.The LVMA had its problems. Located about 10 miles west of the Strip, it was too far for all but the most hardy tourists. The museum greeted just 12,000 visitors a year, or about 30 a day. "And that would've been a really good day," says former executive director Libby Lumpkin, who is Hickey's wife. Also, with Nevada facing...
  • O.J.: No Friends, Not Even In Low Places

    The last time O. J. Simpson was in Las Vegas, he spent his first night at the stylish Palms hotel-casino, and his last in the county jail. He's scheduled to return to Sin City this week for a pretrial hearing on his armed-robbery charges, and this time he might have trouble finding a good place to lay his head. The Palms—usually celebrity-friendly—has already told Simpson he's not welcome, and the town's two biggest resort corporations, Harrah's and MGM Mirage, with 60,000 rooms combined, are also unwilling to host the ex-NFL star and exonerated murder suspect. "We would be unable to accept a hotel reservation from [him] because of the operational challenges that the crush of media would likely present," says MGM Mirage's Alan Feldman, an executive vice president. Harrah's veep Michael Weaver says that the decision to allow a celebrity to check in "depends on whether or not there is any positive public relations to be obtained by it." In this case, Weaver says, the answer is a...
  • Music: Billy Bob Thornton's New Album

    Billy Bob Thornton has a résumé any man would envy—Academy Award-winning American screenwriter, actor, as well as occasional director, playwright and ex-husband of Angelina Jolie. Now add to that list ... rock star?The actor this week released his fourth solo album, "Beautiful Door," and is supporting it with a 26-city, five-week national tour. This fall Thornton, 51, appears on screen opposite Susan Sarandon as the coach from hell in "Mr. Woodcock" and, following the concert tour, heads to Texas to work again with "Monster's Ball" costar Halle Berry, this time in John Singleton's civil-rights drama "Tulia."Thornton recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Steve Friess about his music, his ex-wife and his critics. Excerpts: ...
  • Interview: Mel Brooks at 80

    At 80, Mel Brooks is revered as America's national ham, the class clown who amuses even the most humorless amongst us. Brooks is one of an elite few performers to have won at least one Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy, and lately he's been busy refreshing some of his older material for a new generation. Atop that list is the forthcoming Broadway musical version of “Young Frankenstein,” his Academy Award-nominated 1974 classic, which stars “Desperate Housewives” alum Roger Bart as the grandson of the mad scientist and “Will & Grace” alum Megan Mullally as his fiancée. He's also supervising the development of an animated TV series for the G4 network based on his 1987 “Star Wars” spoof, “Spaceballs.”Brooks spoke exclusively to NEWSWEEK Thursday from his Culver City, Calif., office: ...
  • MUSIC How to Sell Plastic CDs in a Digital Era

    The program looked like "MTV Unplugged." There was Barry Manilow, performing six songs and chatting with an interviewer--for QVC. The TV shopping channel sold 43,000 copies of Manilow's latest album, "The Greatest Songs of the Sixties," along with a QVC-exclusive bonus disc, at $20 apiece. That put Manilow almost halfway to a gold record before the CD is even released--sweet music to a battered record industry seeking unconventional ways to move "real" CDs in a digital era. Physical album sales, in a tailspin for a decade, are off an additional 8.3 percent so far this year, according to Soundscan. "If you can't bring people into music stores, you team up with other retailers," says Tom Corson, executive vice president of J/Arista Records, Mani-low's label. QVC is one of many untraditional routes. Starbucks, aiming for a younger demo, has 20 CDs on sale at any one time. And Olivia Newton-John is now selling 1,000 copies a week of her latest album, "Grace and Gratitude" (along with a...
  • The Internet: Podcast Dissidents

    China has tried hard to keep Han Dongfang from communicating with the Chinese people. The democracy activist was jailed for 22 months and then forced to leave the mainland for organizing protests associated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. His name has been blocked over the years in Internet searches and his efforts to broadcast via radio have been all but thwarted by technology able to scramble radio waves.Yet earlier this year, podcasts of Han's Hong Kong-based pro-worker commentary began circulating on the Internet, opening a new front in the high-tech battle between China and free-speech activists. In podcasts--audio and video files circulated online--those advocates may have found the ideal medium for breaching what critics call the Great Firewall of China. As yet, nobody's figured out how to scan such material for utterances of those telltale buzzwords that trigger the blocking of Web sites, e-mails and blogs. Filtering audio content is currently impossible, and a...
  • Nuclear Waste: A New 'Joe Camel'?

    Shelly Berkley, a U.S. rep from Nevada, has identified a new Web threat: Yucca Mountain Johnny, a square-jawed cartoon miner created by the Department of Energy to convince the nation's youth that nuclear waste ought to be stored inside Yucca Mountain. Silver State pols have been fighting the nuke dump at Yucca, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, since the 1980s, and Berkley and other project opponents take issue with Johnny's pushing the initiative on children.The cartoon serves as a tour guide for the youth section of the DOE Web site, which, along with jigsaw puzzles and a word search, offers "fascinating information about radioactive waste and the Yucca Mountain Project"; a live-action Johnny has even made appearances at Nevada schools. "There's nothing cute or cuddly about it," says Berkley. "Yucca Mountain Johnny is the Department of Energy's Joe Camel. And the product he's peddling is just as toxic." DOE spokesman Craig Stevens says, "Yucca Johnny teaches hydrology, geology...
  • Subtitles: Deaf to the Problem

    An estimated 31 million Americans are hard of hearing, so it seems intuitive that Apple would provide captions on shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "The Office" that it has started selling online. Yet, in a mystery worthy of "Lost," there aren't subtitles on any of the iTunes video products. "We're just shut out," says Maria Herr of Chicago, who is deaf. "I paid $2 for an episode of 'Commander in Chief' and I have no idea what Geena Davis is saying."Apple declined to comment, but iTunes is refunding the money to those who complain. In an e-mail to one such customer, a rep wrote: "Unfortunately, we face a large challenge incorporating legible text onto the iPod screens in a manner that does not consume the display in a disruptive fashion." But lots of people buying the programs from Apple intend to watch them on their computers or TVs--not on their tiny iPods. And many parts of "Lost" have captions when the characters are speaking in other languages, which show up anyway.It's...
  • ‘It Didn’t Have Spectacle’

    Las Vegas hotel mogul Steve Wynn rarely gets 'em wrong. In the 1980s and ‘90s, the developer of such famed properties as the Mirage and Bellagio made Strip staples out of Siegfried and Roy and Cirque du Soleil. That's why when he said he was ushering in a new Vegas era by bringing the Tony-winning musical "Avenue Q" to his $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas resort last year, many believed he could singlehandedly will Vegas audiences into taking an interest in more thoughtful theater.But after five underwhelming months for “Avenue Q” in Vegas, Wynn announced Wednesday he'll close the bawdy puppet show in May, even though he paid $5 million for the exclusive North American rights outside Broadway. Its theater will be reworked for the arrival of another Broadway hit, "Spamalot," scheduled to open next February. Wynn, who originally had planned to build a separate theater for the Monty Python production, spoke to Steve Friess about "Avenue Q"'s early demise. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: So what happened...
  • Big Roles for a Big Guy

    Last week, stage legend Harvey Fierstein gave up the peasant garb of Tevye in Broadway's "Fiddler on the Roof" to head to Las Vegas. There he'll slip back into the outlandish plus-sized dresses of "Hairspray's mammoth mama Edna Turnblad, the role that in 2002 won him his fourth Tony award. A slimmed-down 90-minute sit-down production of the Best Musical Tony winner opens next month at the Luxor Hotel-Casino with Fierstein and Dick Latessa reprising their original roles for the first 12 weeks. Fierstein, 51, spoke to Steve Friess about the move, his weight loss and "Brokeback Mountain." ...
  • Betting on the Studs

    Standing on a desolate stretch of property dotted with sagebrush and litter 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas, former Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss surveys the sexual frontier. She's sketching out her vision for Heidi's Stud Farm, the country's first legal brothel serving female customers. This pleasure palace will be shaped like a castle, with a marble-floored great room, a spa, a sex-toy shop and secluded bungalows where 20 Casanovas will spend quality time with the clientele (at $250 an hour).But Fleiss may not be welcome in these parts. As a convicted felon--she served time in prison in the late '90s on charges stemming from her high-priced call-girl operation in L.A.--Fleiss may find it difficult to get a license. And some owners of the state's legal bordellos (where rates range from several hundred to several thousand dol-lars, depending on the activities) worry that Fleiss's business could give Nevada's religious conservatives ammunition to get prostitution outlawed altogether....
  • VEGAS: WHITE-POWER POLITICS

    Do white supremacists have a real chance of running a slate of candidates across Nevada next year? Their new White Peoples Party, a subset of the National Vanguard (formerly National Alliance), a racist and anti-Semitic organization whose lineage can be traced to the American Nazi Party in the '30s, needs just 7,914 signatures by August 2006 to qualify for ballot access. That would make it the nation's only party with an explicitly racist platform, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Getting that many signatures should be "almost effortless," says party founder Michael O'Sullivan, 41, a Las Vegas real-estate broker. "Many minorities agree with us," he tells NEWSWEEK. "They don't want their race mixed with ours." O'Sullivan wouldn't give the number of members in his group, but ADL Nevada director Cynthia Luria says his ranks are growing amid a resurgence of racism in the Southwest. She fears that people will sign O'Sullivan's ballot petition thinking they're opposing illegal...
  • STRIP TEASE: HOOTIE & CO. ARE SO CLOSE -- YET

    Used to be, old acts went to die on the Vegas Strip. Now, in the Celine era, there's not ever room there. So Hootie & the Blowfish are exclusive to... the Silverton? The hunting-lodge-themed casino six miles from Celine's Caesars Palace theater renamed its lounge after Hootie and is marking the August debut of the group's CD "Looking for Lucky" with a special menu. Other falling stars:THE LETTERMEN ...
  • NEVADA: IDENTITY CRISIS

    Nevada brings to mind gambling, atomic testing and, maybe, Hoover Dam. So which image will adorn Nevada's entry into the U.S. Mint's state quarters program? If you picked a casino motif, you'd be wrong: the U.S. Treasury Department said no dice. Atomic testing? Not surprisingly, a Nevada state committee tasked with nominating quarter designs axed that idea. Hoover Dam? It's too far south; the committee wanted images representing the "whole of the state." The 49,000 residents who have cast their votes (balloting ends this week) have had five renderings to choose from--and, in another odd turn, two of them are evocative of the Golden, not Silver, State.In one mock-up on the Nevada State Treasurer's Web site, a petroglyph of a bighorn sheep depicted in an outline of Nevada is actually found on a rock in the desert of south-central California. (Mint artists didn't have specific enough information, says Kathy Besser, chief of staff to the state treasurer; if selected by voters, the...
  • LAS VEGAS: GETTING A REALITY CHECK?

    He's already played versions of himself in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" and on NBC's "Las Vegas," but now Sin City Mayor Oscar Goodman wants a star vehicle of his own. According to Goodman, he's close to inking a deal with an Emmy-winning producer that would make him the first sitting politician to be the focus of a reality series.The outspoken mayor, whose off-camera antics include acting as a Playboy guest photographer and telling an elementary-school class that he'd want gin if stranded on a deserted island, promises to live it up for the camera--but wants editorial control. Critics worry that a show about city business (like homelessness and approvals for high-rise condos) sounds like a commercial--and a boring one at that. "The spontaneity and things that people blurt out when they're under pressure or in unusual circumstances is what makes reality TV," says south Florida Sun-Sentinel TV critic Tom Jicha. "Take that out, you've got nothing." Maybe that's where the gin comes into...
  • SUMO: VEGAS'S NEWEST GAMBLE

    Asashoryu, sumo wrestling's reigning champ, is a hotheaded athlete who dominates so completely and disregards traditions so brazenly that he's the fastest-rising star in the Land of the Rising Sun. Few Americans know much about sumo, but promoters figure they'll be drawn to the plotline of a volatile star the public loves to hate when Asashoryu and 40 others of the sport's biggest wrestlers descend on Las Vegas this October for the first professional sumo tournament held on U.S. soil in 20 years.The Japan Sumo Association, which seldom sends its athletes abroad, accepted the invite from Las Vegas on the occasion of the city's centennial year. (One stipulation: that the athletes travel on two planes so the sport isn't wiped out in the event of a crash.) The Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino is building an authentic dohyo, or ring, and hopes to pack in about 12,000 people per night at $75 a pop and up. Winners in Japan typically take home as much as $100,000; no purse has yet been set...
  • LORD OF THE RINGS

    In this nation of ever-widening waistlines, it'll come as welcome news to some that there is finally a supersize toilet seat. The Big John is five inches wider than the standard 14-incher, handles more than 1,200 pounds and has a lifetime guarantee. Inventor Aitan Levy's Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based company has sold about 2,000 in six months at more than $100 a pop.The idea came to him as he saw hefty customers browsing the showroom of his bathroom-fixtures branch in Beverly Hills. "These days we have bigger tubs, bigger cars, but we don't have bigger toilet seats?" he asks. Most clients buy the Big John--which comes in cream and white and has no cushioning--for individual homes, but Harrah's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino ordered three last week.Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, applauds the product and thinks more hotels and restaurants will buy it. Still, salespeople are honing their pitch. Gigi Shinn, the showroom manager for a Big...
  • Advertising: Spot For Reyataz Really Speaks To Yo

    In this era of Web pop-up ads, it might seem that marketers can't get more intrusive. Yet in this month's Out magazine, there's an ad for HIV drug Reyataz in which readers hear a phone ring, then a male voice saying, "We're at the beach!" Across the page, two guys play backgammon in the dunes. "They are trying to find ways to literally reach out and grab the attention of the reader," says Ad Age marketing reporter Jon Fine. Jeff Leibowitz of the Laredo Group, a firm that specializes in interactive ads, calls it "the biggest innovation in print advertising since the scent strip." Kathy Baum of Bristol-Myers Squibb, which makes Reyataz, says the ad was an attempt to "break through the clutter" and wasn't much pricier than other inserts, since the technology--a microchip and speaker glued between pages--is cheap and used in greeting cards. The ad generated talk of its own. Blogger Eleanor Brown, on OpinionatedLesbian.com, used it to criticize the happy-go-lucky tone of HIV-drug ads,...
  • VEGAS: BLAST FROM THE PAST

    Rarely do museums blow you away. Yet at the new Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, guests experience a simulation of an aboveground nuclear test--complete with trembling benches, explosive noise and a swoosh of air. After that, the audience watches a film about the history of testing at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas. Those tests were a huge spectator event from 1951 until an international treaty ended aboveground testing in 1962. "This doesn't even do justice to what it was really like: the heat, the light, the intensity," says director Bill Johnson, whose 8,000-square-foot museum is a Smithsonian affiliate.Museum displays include a collection of pop-culture items from the Ike era, like an atomic-themed "Li'l Abner" comic and postcards pushing Vegas as "The Up and Atom City."Anti-nuke protesters and advocates for the thousands of "downwinders" who suffered cancer caused by the radioactive residue are irked that their side of the story is barely mentioned at an institution...
  • DRAMATIC IMPROVEMENT

    For people who have hearing disabilities, live theater is often a frustrating experience. As jokes fly by and lyrics are sung, viewers are forced to ignore what they've missed or pester companions for a play-by-play. But last week, "Wicked" audiences at Broadway's Gershwin Theater became among the first in the nation to have access to a handheld device that provides captions as the show progresses. The I-Caption, a five-ounce Dell Axim Pocket PC, is about the size of a pack of cigarettes.Most theaters on Broadway and elsewhere, and most cinemas, now offer hearing-disabled people devices that either deliver a special audio feed into the ears or transmit a frequency that hearing aids amplify. Both are unreliable. The lot of the theatergoer who's hard of hearing has been to attend special performances at which portable caption boards are hauled in or interpreters sign the show. I-Caption, which cost "Wicked" about $10,000, knows which dialogue to show by picking up wireless prompts...
  • VEGAS: LEACH'S LEGACY

    The Special Collections library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, houses, among other things, an impressive set of Dean Martin memorabilia. "We get many items that other special-collections people would find out of the ordinary," says director Peter Michel. And now it's getting another: more than 400 VHS tapes of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." (The tapes were donated to the journalism school, but the library will house them.) The show's host, rotund Brit Robin Leach, lives in a Vegas mansion once owned by Sacramento Kings owner Gavin Maloof, and continues to shove microphones in the faces of casino-hopping stars for local and national shows at the age of 63; he had the tapes in his vault.Michel is not sure what scholarly value the gift has. "I have to scratch my head," he says, "although this could be considered a documentation of popular culture." Leach, who will be honored at a party with UNLV's president this week, tells NEWSWEEK that he holds an important place in...
  • WINE: BUT DOES IT DO SOLITAIRE?

    Some restaurant experts thought sommelier Andrew Bradbury was sipping too much vino a decade ago when he predicted he could make wine lists less intimidating by allowing diners to browse them at the table on a portable computer. Nobody's doubting him now: Bradbury's unveiling the second generation of his eWinebook this month at Aureole in Las Vegas, where he presides over a 50,000-bottle wine collection. The debut coincides with a $1 million ad campaign by Hewlett-Packard that touts the eWinebook as an unorthodox and innovative use of HP's tablet PCs.Bradbury debuted Aureole's eWinebook on an HP tablet PC in 2002 and watched wine sales climb $750,000. The new tablet PC is faster and sleeker, but still reduces an imposing 8-pound, 150-page printed wine list to a 3-pound, 8-by-10-inch tablet. Customers can browse wines by price, varietal, region and year--and match them with menu offerings based on descriptions written by Bradbury and his staff. (Two Aureole sister eateries also use...
  • MEMORY: REMEMBER IT RIGHT?

    It's well documented that President George W. Bush was in a Florida classroom on 9/11 when chief of staff Andrew Card told him a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. But how did Bush learn about the first crash? Two of his recollections are similar, but factually impossible. On Dec. 4, 2001, and Jan. 5, 2002, Bush told audiences he saw the first plane hit the tower on TV before he entered the classroom. But he couldn't have seen it; nobody saw it live on TV. Between those recountings, on Dec. 20, Bush told The Washington Post that Karl Rove told him. This isn't to say the president is a fabulist. He's just exhibiting a prominent example of a common memory glitch, says UCLA psychology fellow Dan Greenberg, who published a paper this summer in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology called "President Bush's False Flashbulb Memory of 9/11/01." Greenberg says this is more evidence that "flashbulb memories"--major events people remember "like it was yesterday"--are not as...
  • WATER NOT FROM VEGAS'S TAP

    Las Vegas is in the grips of a five-year drought. So how do the fountains at the ultratony Boca Park shopping center, about eight miles northwest of the Strip, keep dancing? Creative thinking. The center's staff has gotten around drought restrictions by trucking in water from Utah, Oregon and Canada--for about $13,000 a month. Signs on the four fountains explain, the water in this fountain is not from the state of Nevada or the Colorado river basin, where the region gets most of its H2O.The folks at the Southern Nevada Water Authority aren't impressed. Boca Park is technically within legal bounds, says SNWA conservation manager Doug Bennett, but running the fountains--regardless of where the water comes from--sends the wrong message to local residents. "That's defying your environment," Bennett explains. "It's desert denial." (Boca Park's not the only one in denial. The megaresorts on the Strip are exempt from the fountain ban because most of the water is treated and returned to the...
  • MISSING: THE PELICAN BRIEF

    How do you lose 30,000 birds? Aviary experts at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in central North Dakota don't know. But the continent's largest breeding ground for American white pelicans is virtually vacant. The birds returned this spring in their usual droves to the refuge about 60 miles east of Bismarck from their winter home on the Gulf of Mexico. They even began a normal mating season, as evidenced by scores of abandoned chicks and never-to-hatch eggs. Now they've disappeared, and there's no littering of carcasses to suggest disease outbreak or predator decimation. Chase Lake contains a normal level of fish and reptiles, so there apparently isn't a problem with the food supply, says wildlife refuge project leader Kim Hanson. Human causes have been largely ruled out; the area's been off-limits to hunters and most tourists since Teddy Roosevelt made it a refuge in 1908. Hanson says, "this may just be a natural correction, nature's way of dispersing them." That's a loss...
  • Water: Teed Off At Courses

    Tiger's drought isn't the only one that golf fans should be worried about. Record water lows in the West and Midwest are pitting neighbors against H2O-guzzling golf resorts. "Golf courses are pretty easy targets when water starts getting tight," says Keith Carter, managing editor of Crittenden magazine, a golf-course trade publication.The exclusive Montreux Golf and Country Club outside Reno, Nev., home of the Reno-Tahoe Open, a PGA match, has become the latest front in the water wars. In the likely event that there's not enough water to go around, Nevada is considering OK'ing a deal that would give the Montreux--a major tourist attraction--its water before nearby ranchers and homeowners get theirs. Outraged locals, who have had to sell off livestock in past summers because the water supply evaporated, are asking the state to cut back on the amount of water the course already gets. Montreux officials say they use their water efficiently and are being scapegoated.

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