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Gaming great Houssels remembered with song and dance

As her guests smiled and sipped from mint juleps, Nancy Houssels said of her late husband, “I wish you’d have known him. He was quite a man. He was a little bit shy, but pretty great, too.”

A man of modesty yet great consequence, John Kell “J.K.” Houssels Jr. died April 9 at age 94 after a lengthy battle with dementia. The gaming giant life was celebrated Saturday at Reynolds Hall at the Smith Center. Mint juleps were served as a nod to Houssels’ great fondness for race horses and Derby Day, the running of the Kentucky Derby, which also took place Saturday.

Pastor James Houston of Grace Presbyterian Church led the ceremony, which featured tributes from Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, former Mayor Oscar Goodman, UNLV Professor of History Michael Green, and Houssels’s children Josh, Kelly and Eric Houssels.

Several speakers described how Houssels touched all facets of Las Vegas in its formative years. In 1931, his father took over the Smoke Shop downtown and developed it as the Las Vegas Club, famously earning the second gambling license ever issued in the state.

The younger Houssels grew as a captain of industry, employing tens of thousands at hotel-casinos such as Tropicana, Showboat (late renamed Castaways), and Union Plaza (today the Plaza). His mark on the city’s culture is undeniable: He brought “Folies Bergere” to the Trop for its 49-year run. Houssels also worked with venerable entertainment producer Maynard Sloate to book The Blue Room at the Trop. Headliners in that rocking venue included Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, the Count Basie Orchestra, Marlene Dietrich, Roger Williams, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Dave Brubeck.

Houssels, of course, was an original founder of Nevada Ballet Theatre in 1972; Nancy continues on as the company’s chairwoman. Houssels topped the short list of pioneers who built the entertainment community in Las Vegas, and it was fitting that the program showcased performance by NBT dancers Christina Ghiardi and Sergio Alvarez.

The Boulevard Big Band, led by the fine Vegas trumpeter Gary Cordell, opened and closed the ceremony. Following Larry Ransom’s moving rendition of “Taps,” honoring Houssels’ military years at West Point, the band played “It Had To Be You” and “You Were Meant for Me.”

The music was a warm and wonderful sendoff.

“He would have been a little embarrassed today at all the attention, but he deserved it,” Nancy said. “He grew up a gambler’s son who loved the business, but he also loved staying in the background. He was a quiet man who had a lot of noise around him — that was me and all the children. But he went out smiling, and he went out happy.”

Mizuya scene

Capping the appearance by Rita Wilson at “Nashville Unplugged” on Friday night: Wilson’s appearance packed Mizuya lounge for the weekly, no-cover country music showcase. She and her husband, Tom Hanks, dined afterward with “NU” front man Aaron Benward at Mizuya, and expect her to return ASAP. It was a tough show to miss; blame Canelo Alvarez

A full DeCar

Lannie Counts packed Ron DeCar’s Events Center on Saturday for the debut of his “Cooke” tribute to Sam Cooke. One account was that Counts made every single person in the room happy.

The venue’s schedule is filled with all sorts of great, old-school acts. Before DeCar took control of the room, it had been latent for many years, since it was the setting for some of the restaurant scenes in “Casino.” And when you walk in, you do feel like you are in a scene from that movie.

LVA alumni to reunite

Alumni from the first five years of Las Vegas Academy, 1994-‘99, are reassembling 7 p.m. June 2 to perform “Las Vegas Academy: The Spark that Started It all,” which is a night of dance, music, theater and art. The show is set for LVA’s Performing Arts Center on 955 E. Clark Ave. in Las Vegas. The renowned arts institution has produced many professional performers in Las Vegas and across the country. General admission tickets are $15, with funds going to the LVA Scholarship Fund.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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