Mel Shapiro knew Steve Wynn’s dirty laundry.
Elvis Presley’s and Frank Sinatra’s and Don Rickles’, too.
Shapiro gave up a budding career as a stand-up comic to go into business with his brother, Phil. Through their company, Al Phillips-The Cleaner, the two became drycleaners to Las Vegas’ biggest stars from the 1960s to the 1980s. Shapiro retired in 2000, and on Tuesday, he died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Shapiro was 83.
“He was a character by all accounts. So many people thought he was absolutely great,” said brother-in-law Patrick Leibovici. “He was also very generous, and he helped a lot of people.”
Shapiro’s first career laid the foundation for his life as a businessman. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native toured the country’s comedy clubs after winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Award in 1947. He enlisted in the Army and performed at USO shows for troops during the Korean War. But Shapiro soon tired of playing clubs from coast to coast, said his son, David Shapiro. So he teamed up with Phil to buy Al Phillips in 1964. The brothers couldn’t afford to change the marquee in the beginning, so the name stuck.
Times didn’t stay lean for long, thanks in part to Shapiro’s personality.
“He was a comedian at heart. His management style was a lot of fun,” David Shapiro said. “He was very warm with his staff, and he would joke with people constantly. You had this guy who was a bigger-than-life personality, very funny and creative. My uncle was more the back end of the business, while my dad was the marketer and the front end. And you need both sides of that coin to succeed.”
From their lone Commercial Center store on Sahara Avenue, the brothers expanded their operation to eight stores by 1984. In its heyday, Al Phillips drycleaned for 75 percent of Las Vegas, including just about every celebrity that worked the Strip, David Shapiro said. For a while in the 1970s and ’80s, it was the world’s busiest drycleaner, and the first cleaner to pioneer drive-through service and 24-7 hours. The company even hired interior designers to spruce up stores and draw up uniforms for the staff.
“They took their cues from the hotels,” David Shapiro said. “Before my dad, you’d go into a drycleaner’s, and there’d be this chemical smell. It was dirty, and you dealt with people who were not typically very pleasant. It wasn’t a customer-oriented, hospitality-based business. My dad brought all of that into drycleaning, and no one else had done that. As a result, the community really responded.”
The entertainment community especially responded. Luminaries including Sammy Davis Jr., Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett and Sonny King frequented Al Phillips, cut it up with Shapiro and even appeared in the company’s commercials.
The Shapiros sold Al Phillips in 1984 to a public company, but they stayed on to run it for years afterward. Phil died in 1999, also from complications of Parkinson’s. By the time Mel retired in 2000, Al Phillips had about 15 locations.
Mel Shapiro is survived by his wife, Florence; three children, David, Daniel Shapiro and Barbara Owens; daughter-in-law Lisa Holt; sister Florence Sokoloff; brother and sister-in-law Patrick and Tricia Leibovici; two grandchildren; and many nieces, nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews.
Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4512. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.