Clubs pay for quick success

The media event to launch the Sapphire Pool was not to be missed, but proved entirely unrevealing. Literally and figuratively.

I was part of an unusually large Review-Journal contingent on that windy evening last summer. We all left pretty early. Regardless of our individual feelings about the lack of nudity, it was clear the press preview wasn’t going to tell us much about what might happen when the pool opened for regular business the next day.

How would this pioneering concept — a topless club leasing out a casino pool — really play out?

“This is major. This could be the drawbridge,” Las Vegas Advisor publisher Anthony Curtis observed that night. He was talking about the oft-debated notion of when topless clubs might follow the nightclubs onto casino property.

But I also had been staring at a guy with slicked-back hair and a shiny aqua-gray sports jacket. He looked like a “Miami Vice” villain from the ’80s. Before I left, he was revealed as part of Sapphire’s management team. Big surprise. “This is who Harrah’s is in business with,” I remember thinking.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Jason Bracelin encountered another gent with bold sartorial tastes — a scarf was involved, he recalls — while doing a preview piece on Planet Hollywood’s Privé club in late 2007. He was impressed by the man’s arrogance, as though poor Jason just couldn’t possibly understand such an important operation.

What does it now tell us that both clubs were closed by authorities within days of each other? (Privé for allegations of lewd behavior, drugs and sexual assault. Sapphire for prostitution and drug arrests.) That R-J guys just don’t understand Miami fashion?

It brought me back to the way nightclubs first came under casino doors and the ties to Las Vegas’ small-town power structure. One of the early big investments, Ra at Luxor, was spearheaded by Billy Richardson, son of then-Circus Circus development executive Bill Richardson.

Years later, the Pure group came to dominate the local casino scene. One of the partners, Robert Frey, is the stepson of influential developer Irwin Molasky. That surely helped secure the confidence of casino executives more than Frey’s partner with club experience, the decidedly less-corporate Steve “Stevie D” Davidovici.

The line outside a nightclub never will be confused with a Mormon church on Sunday. I’m sure the casino industry figures those with a like-minded aesthetic can better separate young club-hoppers from their money.

But the club business got too big too fast, the ripples expanding too far beyond the inner circle. It’s looking more and more like casino executives also found it convenient to use their third-party operators as a blind-eye to the goings-on inside.

Now it appears casinos never will see the scenario one executive floated a few years ago: a topless club run by a casino, where all admission charges and lap dances would be documented for the IRS. One where the dancers might even have a 401k plan.

But something else happened this year, in a different area of the Rio. For a new nightclub venture, the club operator was a tenant as usual. But the security team — including those who manned the box office and line out front — worked for the Rio.

That club already is gone. Rio officials say the means of collecting the door charge had nothing to do with the closure. Too bad that experiment didn’t have more time to play out. But something tells me that down the road, it will serve as more a model than what was happening outside at the pool.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at or 702-383-0288.

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