weather icon Clear
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper
Queen of clubs
Inside the remarkable career of nightlife impresario Ava Berman
This story first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of rjmagazine, a quarterly published inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The remarkable career of nightlife impresario Ava Berman

Were it not for a narrowly averted bar fight between an A-list Hollywood actor and a couple of foreign intelligence agents, she might not be sitting here right now. Ava Berman is tucked into a booth at the Claim Jumper restaurant at the Golden Nugget, dressed like a heavy metal solar eclipse in a black leather jacket and matching boots. Though she and her husband, fellow nightlife magnate “Big Daddy” Carlos Adley, own a house in Southern Highlands, this is their home away from home, where they reside in a suite that once belonged to Frank Sinatra.

It’s telling that they spend so much time downtown these days: With their Fremont Country Club, Berman and Adley have become synonymous with the renewal of the Fremont East District, which in the last decade, has gone from dime-store dead zone to hipster hot spot.

The popular music venue, which has more than quadrupled in value since opening in 2012, was another success in her Midas-touch career.

Berman’s story is a wild one — ask her about the time she owned a club with Prince or saw the Beastie Boys in drag.

She has worked in film with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott and, in the music industry, with Warren Zevon and Guns N’ Roses. She’s opened over a dozen properties in three cities. Forbes magazine has branded her the longest-tenured woman in the American nightlife industry, at it for more than 30 years.

Currently, Berman and Adley are developing their own online streaming network, planning the next version of their two-day Ocean Aid benefit music festival in Hawaii, and working on their most ambitious project yet, Hotel Indigo/Central Las Vegas, a $100 million boutique hotel to be erected on the property behind the Fremont Country Club.

It’s fitting that Berman has made a home in a gambling city: Her whole life has been a roll of the dice.

Vince Vaughn (The Associated Press)
Vince Vaughn (The Associated Press)

It all began 12 years ago, when Berman and Adley hit the town with their buddy Vince Vaughn.

Fresh off finishing the script for “The Break-Up,” Vaughn was in the mood to party.

Enter Las Vegas.

After recruiting Berman, Adley and other friends for a trip to Las Vegas, Vaughn and company eventually made their way to the Double Down Saloon, where the lanky thespian began exchanging words with a pair of dudes at the bar with foreign accents.

“They ended up being the Mossad,” Berman says of the Israeli special ops unit, her fingers sparkling with aquatic-themed rings as colorful as the story she’s telling.

Berman turned to her husband and uttered a phrase they share when things are about to go down and it’s time to hit the road: “Black Hawk down.”

“Big Daddy walks up, ‘Come on, Vince, let’s get out of here,’ ” she recalls. “We hop in a cab and we end up at Fremont Street.”

Despite having been a Vegas regular for decades, Berman had never been to the area.

Walking around with Vaughn — who spitballed the idea of buying a small casino — and company at 4 a.m., the gears of opportunity began turning in her head. She wanted to be in business down here.

While Vaughn’s idea didn’t come to fruition, Adley and Berman would partner with Binion’s and Four Queens owner Terry Caudill to purchase the city-owned former Sears building at 601 E. Fremont St., urged on by then-Mayor Oscar Goodman.

“He said, ‘I really want you guys to have 601 Fremont because, you mark my words, Ava, that building will be the epicenter of Fremont East,’ ” Berman recalls. “And now it is.”

Fremont Country Club co-owner Ava Berman has opened over a dozen properties in three cities in ...
Fremont Country Club co-owner Ava Berman has opened over a dozen properties in three cities in a 30-year career in the nightlife business. (Chase Stevens)

A decade ago, it all was junk shops, budget eateries, now-shuttered music hang Beauty Bar and little foot traffic other than those coming and going from El Cortez or trekking down to the venerable Atomic Liquors or the old incarnation of The Bunkhouse.

Today, it’s chic tequila joints with jellyfish-luminous lighting, daredevil-themed pizzerias with rattlesnake pies on the menu, flame-belching praying mantis art installations and crowded sidewalks come sundown.

Oh, how the Fremont East District has changed — downtown’s ugly ducking turned lively swan.

Berman positioned herself on the front lines of this transformation, when she and Adley identified a need for a midsize concert club.

“We saw a void in this town for live music venues,” she says. “Either you played in a casino or you played at a (dive). What happened was all these medium-sized acts would just skip the Vegas market because there was nowhere to play.”

In launching Fremont Country Club and Backstage Bar & Billiards, Berman and Adley found a kindred spirit in the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. They became good friends with a shared vision of revitalizing downtown.

“Tony kind of took a shine to us real quick because we were doing what he wanted to create downtown,” Adley recalled in an interview shortly after Hsieh’s death in November. “We told him that any great renaissance starts with music. We started taking meetings nonstop. We became very close.”

Nightlife entrepreneur Ava Berman at Backstage Bar & Billiards, one of the venues she owns with ...
Nightlife entrepreneur Ava Berman at Backstage Bar & Billiards, one of the venues she owns with her husband, Carlos "Big Daddy" Adley, in downtown Las Vegas. (Chase Stevens)

As they were building their venue, Hsieh would drop by, grab a broom and get to work.

“Here’s our billionaire friend sweeping the floors with us,” Adley recalled.

That Berman and Adley chose to launch their first Vegas venture on a largely barren stretch of Fremont Street may have seemed unlikely on the surface, but dig a little deeper, and it fell right in line with a business model that she has successfully employed in Chicago, Los Angeles and now here.

Her approach: Get into a neigh-borhood before the getting gets good — long before. Berman has made a career of building successful enterprises in parts of town where people once feared to tread.

“It’s knowing, ‘Can it get any worse?’ ” she says. “The one thing you can guarantee in life is that things are going to change. They’re either going to change for the worse or the better. But if something is already the worst it can be, where can it go?”

In the case of 601 East Fremont, it’s only gone up, as the venue immediately filled a need downtown.

“To have that capacity space of the 300-400 cap. room to the 800-1,000 cap. room right next door, there’s nothing down in that area that offers that,” says Nevermore Productions’ Danielle O’Hara, who has promoted numerous concerts and events at the property. “Even in the Arts District, with all the new stuff opening, it’s the same thing. They still offer something that nobody else offers in that area.”

Basically, they brought a new dimension to downtown.

“When you think of Los Angeles and the rock ‘n’ roll scene and the community of higher-end, successful artists hanging out and performing, that really never happened in downtown Las Vegas too much,” says Ryan Patrick, guitarist for popular Vegas rockers Otherwise, who have played both rooms numerous times. “And when Ava and Big Daddy Carlos came to town, all of a sudden, there was a scene, almost like the Sunset Strip.

“They’re L.A, music royalty, and that’s what they brought to Las Vegas. It was such a monumental situation for the downtown rock ‘n’ roll scene,” he says.

“I have a million stories. We might be here forever.”

Ava Berman is holding court on a Tuesday afternoon. We meet for lunch. We depart at dinnertime.

During a five-hour conversation, she reveals herself to be a tough-minded businesswoman with a soft heart for animals, a mix of warmth and willfulness, an inviting yet no-nonsense presence akin to a pair of satin-covered brass knuckles.

“It’s a balancing act of being respectfully in control,” she explains. “I never talk down to people. I don’t talk about things I don’t know. But my business, I know.”

She learned on the job.

An Illinois native who majored in marine biology at the University of Illinois as a premed student, Berman thought she would grow up to be a doctor, not a nightlife impresario.

Her circuitous road to the industry dates to childhood and a family friend with whom she came of age, Steve Edelson, whom she considers to be like a brother.

In the late ’80s, he started his own construction business in Chicago, remodeling rundown properties.

One day when Berman was in college, he dropped her a line.

“He called me, ‘I just bought this building and it has this really seedy gangbanger club in the bottom. What do you think, Ava?’ ” Berman recollects. “ ‘You know what? Put $40,000, $50,000 in. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?’ We knew nothing about the club business.”

They named the place Union.It would become one of the most successful nightspots in the city.

Berman helped establish Union while juggling her studies and a part-time career as a model, earning extra money doing catalog work for companies such as Sears, JC Penney and Marshall Field’s.

While still in college, she landed a lucrative modeling gig in New York City, causing her to leave school.

In New York, she fell in love with a music agent and moved with him to Los Angeles, flying back and forth to oversee her and Edelson’s burgeoning club business, which would soon include outdoor venue The Bridge, another hit.

The Beastie Boys (The Associated Press)
The Beastie Boys (The Associated Press)

In L.A., Berman delved into the film industry, working as a produc-tion assistant with Bruckheimer and Scott as they were getting “Top Gun” off the ground. She later explored the music business as a personal assistant for Zevon, Guns N’ Roses and the Beastie Boys, whom she met when they recorded their second album.

She visited them at a rented mansion, where they broke into a closet and donned ladies clothes.

“I’d come in, and they’d all be walking around in evening gowns, all dressed up. It was hilarious,” Berman recalls. “They were the funniest people I ever met.”

An even funnier thing about hanging with rock stars and Holly-wood heavyweights known for living the high life: Berman doesn’t drink.

“I’ve never even smoked a joint. Never did a drug in my life.”

When she got into the club business, she saw so many of her peers and co-workers overindulge. She was determined not to.

“I was like, ‘If I’m not going to be in control, who’s going to be in control?’ ” she explains. “I love watching people party, though.”

Eventually, Berman brought the party to Southern California, moving on from her Chicago venues, to help develop a half-dozen L.A. properties.

Her first club there, Vertigo, was such a smash that one of music’s biggest stars ponied up millions to buy into it.

“Vertigo was like the Studio 54 of L.A.” she says. “It was downtown. No one had clubs downtown. Then Prince became our partner.”

With that, Vertigo became Glam Slam. Ultimately, it didn’t go well.

Turns out, Prince was a better musician than businessman.

“He had this show he was doing. It was an interactive dance show, where he put up all these plexiglass stages in the middle of the club and lowered our capacity from 1,500 to 600,” Berman says. “He was selling maybe 20 tickets a day. We lost our (shirt). That went on for like six weeks.”

Though the partnership would end after that, there was an ancillary benefit for Berman: marriage.

It was a trio of dudes smoking weed that prefaced the wedding bells.

At one of Prince’s surprise Glam Slam concerts in the mid-’90s, Adley became smitten with Berman after seeing her handle some guys sharing a little reefer in the club.

Oscar-winning rock singer Prince. (The Associated Press)
Oscar-winning rock singer Prince. (The Associated Press)

Big no-no.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, you gotta put that out. Now,” she says. “Then I turned around, and they light up again.

“I went off on them,” she says. “And while I’m screaming and kicking them out, Big Daddy’s standing right there. He said, ‘When I saw you do that, I heard angel music.’ He’s like, ‘You and I, we’re going to get married.’ ”

In 2000, they did just that, forming their own company, F.O.M.M. Corporation. Adley was a successful nightclub entrepreneur in his own right, a well-known DJ who helped Johnny Depp build the Viper Room in addition to running a popular after-hours spot, among other ventures.

They bought property in — stop us if you’ve heard this one before — a really rundown neighborhood, snatching up a block of real estate on the corner of Cahuenga Boulevard and Yucca Street.

“Cahuenga was the worst street in Hollywood,” Berman says. “Yucca, at the time, was the third-most-dangerous street in L.A. County.”

Neverthess, she struck gold again, with the site becoming the home of their high-end Mexican restaurant, Velvet Margarita Cantina, along with a tattoo parlor and other businesses.

As for the division of labor between Berman and Adley?

She’s the operator, a more behind-the-scenes presence. He’s the man out front, the creative face of the business with a steady artistic vision.

To put it in movie terms: She’s the producer and he’s the director.

“We both came from nothing. We’re different sides of the same coin,” Adley says. “We finish each other’s sentences, we finish each other’s thoughts. … it allows us to be free, not have to worry about anything and focus on each other’s own wheelhouse, which together, creates our symbiotic big picture.”

“We know what we like. We do what we like,” Berman explains matter-of-factly. “If you walk into an audition and you ask the director what he wants to see, you’ve already lost the part. It’s about conviction.”

In addition to nightlife, Berman and Adley are big on philanthropic endeavors, feeding and clothing thousands annually at their Gobble Gobble Give Thanksgiving dinner in downtown Vegas, launching the biannual Ocean Aid benefit concert in 2017 to help remove plastics from oceans, and hosting a celebrity poker tournament every Cinco de Mayo at the Velvet Margarita to benefit an orphanage in Mexico, where they’ve installed a new kitchen and purchased a passenger van to transport students, among other contributions.

Now the couple are working on building their own entertainment streaming network, which they focused on with added intensity in 2020 after COVID-19 closed their music venue, streaming concerts by punk veterans T.S.O.L. and ska troupe Save Ferris, to name just a few.

“The first streams we did, we were reaching 100,000 people,” Berman says, citing a recent Goldman Sachs report predicting that streaming would be a $175 billion-a-year business by 2030. “That’s going to be the new market economy.”

As Berman notes on multiple occasions during our conversation, nothing stays the same forever.

Neither does she.

“You just have to try things,” Berman says. “Did I ever think I would own a whole city block, be building a $100 million hotel, doing these things? But I was never scared to try it.

“Anything can happen,” she notes. “Look at me.”

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
More rjmagazine
23 Las Vegas breakthroughs for 2023

Fearless predictions, wistful ideas and wishful thinking for the new year

An elegy for lost homelands

After living and flourishing in Las Vegas for a decade, writer Soni Brown returned to Jamaica, where she’d spent the first 20 years of her life.

The Voice in Winter: Dick Calvert drops the mic

For more than 50 years, Dick Calvert’s signature voice has embodied UNLV athletics, most notably booming from the Thomas Mack Center speakers.

Beyond the bullying, a life remodeled

When model and adult entertainer Annalee Belle fell in love with HGTV personality J.D. Scott, online trolls shattered her peace of mind. She’s spent years taking it back.

Revealing Las Vegas’ deep history, one map at a time

A review of Joe Weber’s new book, “Mapping Historical Las Vegas” — and a meditation on the meaning of the not-so-humble, often world-transforming and sometimes deeply personal map.