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Band leader’s legacy lives on at home

He was known as the Maestro.

His dark, bushy moustache curled up on the ends, contrasting sharply with his silver white hair.

Rat Pack-era big band leader Antonio Morelli’s memory is forever etched into the walls of the Morelli House, 861 E. Bridger Ave. The mid-century home was originally at 52 Country Club Drive, in the prestigious Desert Inn Country Club Estates, which overlooked the Desert Inn Golf Course.

The home was relocated and restored as a historical preservation project by the Junior League of Las Vegas in September 2001.

The league moved the house to the corner of Ninth Street and Bridger Avenue in downtown’s historic district to save it from demolition when the Wynn Resort was being built on the original site. It now serves as the group’s administrative headquarters.

The house was designed and built in 1959 by Morelli, who was the Sands’ orchestra conductor and music director, according to the website morellihouse.org.

Morelli, who came to Las Vegas in 1953, helped bring classical music to the area and organized some of the area’s first pop concerts in the early 1960s. As music director for the Sands, he came into contact with the Rat Pack.

Morelli worked with iconic entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton and Dean Martin, among others.

“He started free community concerts for the locals,” said Dedee Nave, who chairs the Junior League’s Morelli House Public Program Committee. “He was loved by the community because he gave the community these light, classical concerts with the musicians from the Strip as well as the musical productions. He was quite a guy.”

Pianist Ron Simone, who played under Morelli’s conducting in the 1960s during his free concerts, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2009, “He was like a P.T. Barnum. He could snow Eskimos, just a marvelous personality.”

Morelli, a Rochester, N.Y., native, grew up in Erie, Pa., and went to school in Italy. He returned to the United States after nine years to travel the country as a pianist. He promoted vaudeville acts, wrote music and arrangements for theater productions and conducted orchestras. He married Helen Collins in 1935.

“He was a very religious Catholic, and because he was a composer, he would put on big liturgical programs like Easter and Christmas programs,” Nave said. “He was loved by the community.”

The house that Morelli built turned 50 years old in 2009. The interior design originally incorporated a gold-accented theme.

“What’s really cool about it is all the original kitchen appliances are in there, except for the dishwasher,” Nave said. “It was state of the art, small but choice — the best that money could buy at the time.”

At the time of her husband’s death in 1974, Helen Morelli said, “Las Vegas has lost a good and dear friend in the musical field. He brought it free to this community, went into his own pocket thousands of dollars to bring music to the people he loved, and they loved him.”

Contact Downtown and North Las Vegas View reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@viewnews.com or 383-0492.

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