MAGIC OF JEN KRAMER Is Delightful, Frothy Fun


Award-winning illusionist brings laughter, surprises and boundless charm to Westgate’s Cabaret Theater…

P.T. Barnum has one of the most memorable legacies in entertainment history. His recent resurgence in popularity, thanks to “The Greatest Showman“, reminds us that despite decades of change in entertainment culture, the master of deception had universal ideas:

“The noblest art is that of making others happy”. – P.T. Barnum

In the world of magic shows, there is an extremely familiar collection of illusions that most entertainers fall back on: card tricks, disappearing/reappearing, nail-biting escapes, “mind reading”, audience predictions and the classic saw-a-lady-in-half are all favorites. What makes or breaks these acts is how they are presented….and whether or not the entertainer is indeed a great showman. Or in this case, show person.

Much has been made in other media about the disproportionate amount of male magicians. I won’t belabor the point other than to say that it’s refreshing to see a lovely young lady front and center as the headliner of a magic show. And Jen Kramer has certainly earned her place on a Las Vegas stage.

Magic of Jen Kramer

Already familiar to fans of television shows like Masters of Illusions and Penn and Teller: Fool Us, Ms. Kramer has risen quickly through the ranks of the magical boys club. Think of her as a “Hermoine Granger” to David Goldrake‘s “Harry Potter”. Despite a young age (she graduated from Yale University in 2014), Jen’s already received honors such as the Merlin Award and Female Magician of the Year 2016 by the International Magicians Society.

Ms. Kramer kicked off her new residency at Westgate Las Vegas just last week. I attended on the second evening of what might be considered a soft opening. Despite a couple of minor technical gaffes, it was a fast-moving and altogether enjoyable 70 minutes. The intimate Westgate Cabaret is the ideal location for Jen’s illusions, many of which rely on detailed sleight of hand.

Magic of Jen Kramer

What Magic of Jen Kramer lacks in large production values is made up for with plenty of comedy, audience participation and charm. Kramer brims with enthusiasm for her craft, drawing the audience into her prestidigitation with a magnetism that Criss Angel could only hope to match.

Kramer’s ability to engage her guests is quite noteworthy. I immediately fell for this young performer, despite know nothing about her background or achievements. What followed that evening was indeed a collection of tried-and-true favorites, but delivered with a next-generation spin.

Magic of Jen Kramer

While the show could actually use some theatrical bombast, it’s off to a solid start. I’ll avoid describing individual illusions (nobody likes review spoilers, anyway). Instead, lets boast about the fact that Jen was able to pull off the near-impossible by stunning me with a few tricks that I’d never seen before (the Rubik’s Cube is still haunting me). That in itself makes this production worthy of the admission price.

The family-friendly show is suitable for all ages and an early start time makes it a perfect pairing for dinner at one of Westgate‘s adjacent restaurants (yes, that’s a blatant plug since I’m a known fan of their dining offerings).

Magic of Jen Kramer

Surprise me once and you can consider me a fan. Do it twice and I’ll call you amazing. Jen Kramer astounded me numerous times in her new residency. So I guess you can label me a “groupie”. Being a fan of Vegas magic acts, that can be considered high praise.

Magic of Jen Kramer performs Wednesday through Saturday at 6pm. Tickets start at $19.99 (plus taxes/fees) and can be ordered here or purchased at the Westgate Box Office. 

Photos: Jen Kramer, Westgate Las Vegas, Beckett Studios, Sammasseur

 

 

 

Westgate’s Culinary Superstars: Chef Aaron Losch


Getting to know the big man behind the resort’s food and beverage services…

Last fall I met with one of Westgate Resort‘s executive team to discuss this series on their culinary team. During our luncheon we were unexpectedly joined by a third person. Big, burly, and with a serious expression on his face, this mountain of a man made an imposing first impression. Then he broke into an enormous smile…and everything changed.

Chef Aaron Losch is a fascinating person to watch in action. Omnipresent, he seems to be everywhere at once. Being Director of Culinary Operations over the vast array of Westgate’s food and beverages, that perception surely works to his advantage. His presence is felt even when he’s not around.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                Westgate’s Fresco Italiano’s lounge and bar area…

Now that I’ve covered most of the Westgate dining outlets at this point, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Chef Losch. He’s introduced me to other members of his team, invited me to sample new offerings at The Court and greeted me in passing while going about his day. But we never got to sit down and actually converse in depth until recently.

We started off our interview by getting a little dirty, so to speak. I’d checked out Chef Losch’s Facebook page and was fascinated by posts about him participating in Tough Mudder competitions. The images were a far cry from his usual pristine white attire, so I had to find out how someone gets involved in those extremely dirty endurance events.

“Why not do something insanely stupid?” was his remarkably direct response.  The trendy gauntlet-like courses are usually over ten miles long and test mental as well as physical strengths. “Your first one is a rite of passage. Every first-timer gets an electric shock” he said.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

These courses are made up of several kinds of obstacles, like plunges into ice water, monkey bars slicked with butter…and live wires hanging over a field of mud. “It’s really extreme” he laughed. “People go down from the electric shocks and they don’t get up. It’s really funny to watch”.

My face must have conveyed its own kind of shock, as Chef Aaron continued to laugh. He told me that his nine-year-old daughter participates in Tough Mudder, too. Losch doesn’t worry about coddling her, though. A natural prankster, he has a unique angle on parenting. “I’m the kind of dad who wraps grapes to make them look like chocolate Easter eggs”.

The Losch family lifestyle is all about adventure. Chef Aaron, wife Jamie and children Abbie (9) and Ethan (7) love to travel. Whether it’s zip-lining in Mexico, swimming with dolphins, visiting the Statue of Liberty or dabbling in Harry Potter’s magic at Universal Studios California, the quartet of thrill-seekers always has a blast.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Before marrying Jamie eleven years ago, Losch had already covered a lot of ground in the culinary world. Born in Santa Monica, he grew up in Port Angeles Washington. At nineteen he moved to my area of Portland Oregon to enroll in Western Culinary Institute. The school later became Le Cordon Bleu of Portland before permanently closing its doors in 2017.

Like many of his Westgate colleagues, Chef Aaron got his first taste of kitchen experience at an early age. “My parents told me to get a job while I was in high school. I applied for a dishwashing spot at the family restaurant of a friend. It was one of only two fine-dining restaurants in Port Angeles”.

It wasn’t long before Losch moved from scrubbing plates to working on the line. “After awhile I got to do prep in the kitchen and ended up being at the restaurant for three years. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush!”. That thrill motivated the budding chef to change his career plans from accounting to culinary school.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                             The Mansion at MGM Grand…

Moving to Vegas, Chef Aaron gained experience in several high profile locations. “Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern was my intro to fine dining in Las Vegas”. That famed spot, which was home to the legendary Cable Car Cocktail, shuttered in 2013. His tenure at MGM Grand also included The Mansion, one of the most opulent and revered destinations in the city. Despite the prestige of working in that exclusive location, the pace just wasn’t for him. “I wanted to shoot myself. It was so up-and-down there. I wanted volume!”.

Within those pre-Westgate years were a collection of valuable opportunities and beneficial experiences. One of them was the chance to open a restaurant from the ground up for Piero Selvaggio. “Caffe Giorgio Ristorante at Mandalay Place was the first one that I got to build out. It wasn’t the fit I was looking for either, so I only lasted eight months”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

BOA Steakhouse at Forum Shops of Caesars was more to Losch’s liking. “I walked in, got recognized and was hired on the spot. I went from Sous Chef to Executive Sous Chef and remained there for another year and a half”.

Throughout the ensuing years, quality and prestige went hand-in-hand in the varied establishments that added to Chef Aaron’s portfolio. Renaissance Hotel (home to ENVY Steakhouse), Wynn/Encore, T-Bones Chophouse at Red Rock Resort…all fabulous restaurants recognized for their top-quality dining. While at T-Bones, he received an award for his contributions to the Vegas Food and Wine Festival.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Chef Losch was wooed away from Red Rock by an opportunity to work with famed hotelier/restaurateur Chef Alex Stratta. Stratta is best known to Las Vegans as the name behind Alex and Stratta at Wynn Las Vegas. Hired as Corporate Executive Chef for the Stratta Restaurant group, his time there was a mixed blessing.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                With Chef Alex Stratta (center) at TAPAS…

“The level that Chef Stratta was doing things was at one I’d never seen before”, he told me. Despite those high ambitions, Stratta’s desire to bring Strip-quality fare to outlying areas didn’t quite work out. Efforts such as Tapas at Tivoli Village and an Italian steakhouse at The Gramercy either closed quickly or didn’t happen at all. A partnership with Vegas-based Preferred Restaurant Brands also collapsed.

But such is life in a profession where concepts soar, tastes change and new opportunities lie in wait. For Chef Losch, that next adventure would take place at a legendary destination, itself in the midst of reinvention and elevation.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                          Westgate’s Silk Road Asian Bistro…

Now the new Executive Chef of Sid’s Cafe, Losch worked alongside noteworthy names like Grant MacPherson and Charles Wilson. Last August he accepted a promotion to his current position. “As Director of Culinary Operations, my job is to help the chefs in the room to be creative”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                         With award-winning Pastry Chef Stephen Sullivan…

“I’ve worked with a lot of really good chefs” he continued “but some are not always the best people. I’ve been very lucky with my team here”. That collection includes the chefs that I’ve previously profiled on this site as well as his four assistants. Together they’re the driving force behind the restaurants, events, catering and banquet menus.

Being in charge of so many aspects of a department can be daunting, but out of it comes results. “I want to earn my position…I’m my own worst critic. The pressure comes from wanting to succeed”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                                          Fresco Italiano…

As the resort continues to evolve alongside ever-changing preferences, so do the concepts that Westgate’s culinary team rolls out. “Falling back on ‘What we always do’ never works. If you’re continuously doing the same thing, time after time, but expecting a different result…well, that’s the definition of insanity. You have to change and re-evaluate your approach. Of course, ‘corporate’ has their own ideas, too. You’ve got to integrate that all together. Ultimately, I want my bosses to succeed”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

                                Entrance to Westgate’s “Restaurant Row”…

During our conversation, Chef Losch and I were joined by Gabrielle PerezGeneral Manager of Casual Dining. She and Chef Aaron had previously worked together at Wynn Las Vegas. It was clear from their camaraderie that being at Westgate was a positive and beneficial change of pace. Especially from the corporate mentality at other Vegas resorts.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

“I enjoy building strong and dynamic teams that are passionate, committed and engaged to making hospitality fun, beautiful and profitable”, she told me. “I love the atmosphere at Westgate. There’s lots of professionalism here. So much of it that I’m continually amazed. But it’s mixed with fun and plenty of creativity”.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

Such positive words coming from a member of his own team must make Chef Aaron feel very proud. Despite the challenges of his field, he wouldn’t be able to enjoy his personal time as much if the culinary team wasn’t a smooth-running machine.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

After our interview, Chef Aaron showed me his office in the depths of the resort’s inner workings. Covering the walls and shelves were memorabilia and mementos. Crests from Game of Thrones. Disney character statues. Bottles of Las Vegas Knights wine. “I LOVE the Knights”, he exclaimed.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

When I mentioned how serene things seemed in his personal space, Chef Aaron chuckled. “It’s not always this way. Sometimes I have a line of people out the door. Situations need to be addressed, emergencies come up, decisions need to be made. But that’s why I’m here”.

With things going so well at Westgate, it’s safe to say that everyone is glad that Chef Aaron is the big man in charge. And that’s why dining at the re-invigorated off-Strip resort is such a satisfying and mouth-watering experience.

Chef Aaron Losch Westgate

For a list of Westgate’s casual and fine dining options, menus and operating hours, click here.

Photos: Sammasseur, Chef Aaron Losch, Jamie Losch, Vegas.com, Vegas Food and Wine Festival, Tough Mudder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot Guys of Vegas: Eye of the Beholder


Checking out the beauty of Sin City’s hunks from both sides of the lens…

For some guys, the camera is like a best friend. It can tell a story, show the world who you are…or allow you to share your vision with others. In this edition of “Hot Guys of Vegas”, I introduce you to professional models and photographers who are just as beautiful.

NICK AYLER – Deejay/model/actor

 

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

                                                          Nick Ayler

Where you’ve seen him – Bond at Cosmopolitan, Abercrombie & Fitch, GQ

Some men make the world look better just by being so handsome. Deejay/actor/model Nick Ayler makes it sound better too. This hot hunk is a nightclub favorite who brings his own take on music to dance spots in Vegas, Los Angeles and around the world.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

I was first introduced to Nick when he was heating up the crowd at Bally’s Liaison Nightclub, a unique experiment in Strip-side gay nightlife by legendary club purveyor Victor Drai. Handsome, chiseled and flashing a boyish smile that kept his simmering sex appeal in balance, the stud from Buffalo NY instantly won me over.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Ayler’s talents have been a favorite at LGBTQ spots like Piranha and the former Share. As you might imagine, having a shirtless, muscular hunk at the turntables tends to draw that type of crowd. But as you can see below, it takes all kinds of revelers to fill Nick’s dance floor.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

In a culture where being a multi-hyphenate is a requirement, Ayler has been racking up stacks of additions to his resume. Actor, model, humanitarian, philosopher, music producer, percussionist and fitness guru are all ingredients in the Nick Ayler cocktail. But even a muscle hunk needs a little junk food sometimes.

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Noteworthy traits – smoldering gaze, electric charisma

 

Preston Thompson – model/dancer/fitness competitor

 

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                                                      Preston Thompson

Where you’ve seen him – romance novel covers, private gigs, photo ops on the Strip

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If you’re a regular reader, you know that I cover the Mr. Olympia Fitness Expo every year. It’s hard to stand out in that type of crowd, but Preston Thompson makes it look easy. He’s earned the right to lift up his shirt in front of that “Muscle and Fitness” banner.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Preston came to Sin City two years ago by way of Atlanta. He grew up in a log house on a farm in Knoxville, TN then moved through five different states before heading for the bright lights of the Strip.

When he arrived, the twenty-six-year-old hunk was determined to take Las Vegas by storm: “Every move I make is calculated” he says. “This isn’t a guessing game”.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Now that he’s here, Preston juggles many different hats…and shirts, costumes and gear. You’ll find him on the cover of romance novels by Vegas-based Wander Aguiar Photography. And he shakes up parties and private events by performing as “Bradley” for Wild Entertainment, the Steve Kim entertainment agency I told you all about right here.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Like Thompson, gal pal Natasha Kirby is a fitness enthusiast. She recently competed in the Salt Lake City Showdown, and the couple hopes to do fitness competitions together soon.

In their spare time, Natasha and Preston like to visit shelters just to spend quality time with the animals. Preston is especially fond of felines. Although having pets isn’t currently permitted where he lives, adopting cats is high on the list of Preston’s goals.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Despite his brawny frame and steely gaze, Preston is a philosopher at heart:

When you figure out in life that everything’s made to be broken….then you’ll truly understand how fragile life is. Just make me a Believer and I’ll follow… no matter the path.

All that introspection might be a little heavy at times, so he likes to lighten things up with a little outward inspection. By that I mean lots of selfies through the years…to chart his progress, of course:

On some evenings, you might spot Preston and his beefy friends (they call themselves G.I. Hoes) posing for photographs in front of Planet Hollywood or at the Linq Promenade. While other characters might hide behind padded suits or just stand there for a tip, Preston struts his stuff…and sometimes defies the laws of gravity.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Noteworthy traits – deep blue eyes, action-movie physique

 

Noel Dahl – photographer/humanitarian

 

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

                                                                  Noel Dahl

Where you’ve seen him – charity events, cover of Las Vegas Night Beat

Most photographers like to let their pictures do the talking while they remain in the background. For Noel Dahl, those photos recently put him in the center of a controversy that played out on a Las Vegas television station.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

You might remember Dahl from an expose I penned earlier this year. In it, I described how the highly-respected photographer was having his tasteful work slammed by ABC affiliate KTNV-TV as “lewdness”.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

As always, this man with a generous and forgiving soul moved forward and continued to support the community as he has done for years. From raising fund for AIDS programs to providing food for the needy, Dahl approaches life with dignity and respect for all.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

                         Noel Dahl and friends serving food to the homeless…

Last year Noel created a pin-up calendar featuring all-male subjects and donated 100 percent of the proceeds to charity:

Throughout my years as a photographer, I have had the privilege of shooting countless men for my own portfolio, but I have always striven to find a way of utilizing my photography skills to give back to the Las Vegas community. I hope to bring together local talent, the photographer community, and with the help of a few graciously supportive company sponsorships, I hope to rally support for the HIV/AIDS community and unite the LGBT community in Las Vegas.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

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Noel’s work for traditional family-style landmarks like weddings, engagements and portraits are stunning pieces of art. And his sexy fitness/physique photography draws performers from numerous Las Vegas productions like Aussie Heat, Zumanity, WOW – World of Wonder and Men of Sapphire.

“I love my job but what I love more is working with beautiful souls” said Noel. Those souls include gorgeous animals like his cat Jelly, who recently crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.

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“It’s hard to be alone in my house/studio and not have him. He was always next to me, following me around. I have over thirty-one thousand pics, and almost half of them are of Jelly”.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Hubby Justin Dahl, who’s an events services manager for MGM Resorts, shares Noel’s grief over their lost fellow. But they have several other cats in the family to keep the couple’s hearts warm. As Justin told me “What can I say? I’m a sucker for a cute face”.

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That would explain why he and Noel make for such a photogenic couple. Good thing they’re both as great in front of the camera as Noel is behind it.

Noteworthy traits – love for all creatures, unbeatable personal style

 

Ryan Worley – dancer/model/NPC competitor

 

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                                                            Ryan Worley

Where you’ve seen him – Chippendales, charity events, NeuroLYFT fitness training

Sometimes it’s rough to be the new guy on a team. Not so for Ryan Worley. This twenty-seven year old hunk joined Chippendales last summer and hit the ground running. Ryan immediately became an audience favorite, attracting a legion of fans with his winning smile, shredded physique and fun-loving spirit.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Ryan’s colleagues at Chippendales tell me that they’re smitten by his infectious spirit and outrageous sense of humor. They say he’s unpredictable, spontaneous and wonderfully good-natured. I hear he’s a pretty good guitar player, too.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Those fun-loving qualities undoubtedly help Worley and his cast-mates get through arduous rehearsals, numerous public appearances and a wide variety of charity events.

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Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

It was only last July that the Danville, California native auditioned for Chippendales. Excitedly posting the news on his Facebook page that he was joining the world-famous revue, Ryan packed up and headed for Sin City. He quickly adjusted to a new life of celebrity encounters, calendar shoots and a real highlight: sharing the stage with reknowned dancer/choreographer/philanthropist Tony Dovolani.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

While all of this sudden fame might to go the heads of lesser men, Ryan has remained humble and somewhat awestruck by the experience. He’s earned his place in the spotlight by remaining true to his goals and pushing towards success:

Never stop working toward your dreams regardless of what people think!! People will always try to push their insecurities and fears on you!

Having been raised in the Mormon religion, it must have raised a few eyebrows when Ryan announced he was about to become a sexy performer in Sin City. “It was a crazy transition”, he laughed. Ryan promises to tell me about that journey and lots more for an upcoming profile article. Stay tuned.

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This summer, the fitness enthusiast and NPC competitor will be working even harder to prepare for his next bodybuilding show. Worley will be squaring off against other hard-bodied athletes in the “classic physique” category for the NPC Las Vegas Classic at UNLV‘s campus on November third.

I competed in bodybuilding in the NPC (National Physique Committee) back in 2014. Fitness is a huge passion of mine. It’s been the only constant in my life.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

If that wasn’t already enough to fill Ryan’s slate, he’s teamed up with fellow Chippendale star Matthew Marshall to launch a new fitness brand called NeuroLYFT. The site and service promise an innovative approach to wellness:

Matt and I teach all the hacks to fitness. In addition, we focus on getting your mindset right for you to continue a healthy lifestyle. Meditation, nutrition and training are what we focus on…and in that order.

Most personal trainers only take you through workouts and then you are left on your own with the most important aspects of fitness. That’s why people fail.

At NeuroLYFT, we make the protocol to wellness easier. From life to the kitchen to the gym. We take your goals and reformat your life to show you the easiest, most effective way to transcend you past your fitness goals.

Staying in shape is not only a passion of mine but my career as well. It’s what I love to do. I want to share my passion with others and help them achieve their ideal physique…whatever that may be.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

One look at the above photo proves that Ryan Worley knows how to inspire others. Where do we sign up?

Noteworthy traits – minimal body-fat level, maximum heartthrob appeal

 

Patrick Rivera – photographer/model/musician

 

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

                                                          Patrick Rivera

Where you’ve seen him – wherever gorgeous people are to be found

Apparently it’s not that unusual for professional photographers to look fantastic in front the lens, too. Such is the case for Patrick Rivera, a highly-respected camera-jockey whose services are sought after by many of the movers and shakers of Sin City.

Patrick’s gorgeous wife Mariah Nieslanik Rivera, dance captain and performer in FANTASY at Luxor, was behind the camera for this portrait shot above. But as she joked later, “He did the settings and everything… I just clicked the button”.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Having covered lots of red carpet events, I know that lugging camera equipment around can be quite a workout. In Patrick’s case, those efforts have paid off in spades. This mountain of imposing muscle looks fierce, especially when he’s relieved of his shirt. Whatever is in that camera case is working.

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Patrick’s work is everywhere in Sin City….on billboards, in nightclubs, on magazine covers and in performer portfolios. His commercial clients cover the gamut from Chippendales to skin care lines and fitness services.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

While Patrick enjoys the lighthearted aspects of his career, he’s quick to point out the seriousness of a picture’s lasting impression. He believes that one photograph has the ability to shape the way you feel and bring you into the moment with just one look.

To fully capture the spirit of an artistic subject, it is essential that the photographer embodies the lived experiences of many…having to dwell in darkness to dance in the light.

Art captures the intersection and interpretation of life’s saints and serpents, life’s triumphs and  tragedies…reflecting the close calls, the soulful escapes, the beauty and raw emotion of our kindred spirit.

Hot Guys of Vegas Eye of the Beholder

Patrick and Mariah share an entertaining and heartwarming view of Las Vegas. They’ve even hosted their own show on WCOBM.TV called “All About It! with Pat & Mariah“.

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The fun-loving couple are currently enjoying some well-deserved sunshine on the sands of Hawaii. While they’re relaxing, Patrick’s latest project has been stirring up some excitement in the media. It’s a session with gifted singer/actress Ruby Lewis, who’s about to light up the Strip in her forthcoming production MARILYN – The New Musical. Enjoy!

 

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                                     Patrick with MARILYN star Ruby Lewis

Noteworthy traits – muscles and tattoos, ability to make stars shine brighter

 

Photos: Nick Ayler/Preston Thompson/Noel Dahl/Justin Dahl/Patrick Rivera/Ryan Worley via Facebook, Gelena Vainblat, Wander Aguir Photography, Noel Dahl Photo Studio, Patrick Rivera Studio. Cover photo by Jean N. Young

Hidden Vegas: Aladdin’s Desert Passage


Looking skyward for the next entry in my series…

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Finding remnants from the bygone days of Vegas is always a treat. I’ve been scouring the mezzanines, peering under tarps and poking a camera through keyholes to add to my Hidden Vegas series. In the previous installment, I even flew overhead to photograph massive construction projects that are hidden from the average tourist’s point of view.

Recently I looked to the skies once more…from the inside of Miracle Mile Shops of Planet Hollywood. And there I found remains of the formerly Arabian-themed Desert Passage Shops.

Desert Passage

I started coming to Las Vegas in 2005, and had only been through the Aladdin Resort once or twice. At that time, the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain was in deep trouble, with closures taking place around the country.

Desert Passage

The announcement that Aladdin would be re-branded as Planet Hollywood Hotel Casino seemed very foolhardy. Sure, the movement to de-theme Strip resorts was in full swing, and Middle-eastern-flavored places like Aladdin and Sahara had fallen out of fashion in a post-9/11 world. But Planet Hollywood??? That decision seemed as out-of-touch as renaming it after dying restaurant chains like Chi-Chi’s or Kenny Roger’s Roasters.

Shows how much I knew, as Planet Hollywood Hotel is now a hip, popular middle-tier destination, with stars like Jennifer Lopez and Gwen Stefani on the marquee. Somehow their biggest draw was Britney Spears, proving that there’s still plenty of dried-up cheese on the Planet Hollywood menu.

Desert Passage

The existing hotel is the second Aladdin to be built on this part of the Strip. The original opened in 1966 and was imploded in 1998. A new Aladdin was rebuilt from the ground up and opened its doors in 2000. Seven years later it officially became Planet Hollywood Resort.

Desert Passage

The Arabian motif was gradually stripped from both the hotel and adjoining Desert Passage Shops, which received a new frontage and glossy modern exterior. Inside, the corridors got a top-to-bottom makeover. Most of the ceiling was painted into a matte-gray finish, discouraging shoppers from gazing upward at the former faux skies.

However, not everything was taken away. There are two distinct areas within the mall where the original decor survives. One surrounds the V Theater complex and fountain show.

Desert Passage

Desert Passage

Desert Passage

The other is nestled under the indoor rainstorm.

Desert Passage

Desert Passage

Desert Passage

Desert Passage

Perhaps it’s telling that the domes, citadels and faux village structures that comprise the Desert Passage remnants exist where other attractions demand your attention…and offer a convenient distraction. You’ll find be hard-pressed to find any mention of them on the glitzy, contemporary Miracle Mile website.

Desert Passage

The Arabian architecture of Desert Passage is clearly…and hilariously…out-of-sync with the rest of the Mile.

Desert Passage

Until very recently, the south-facing exterior of the mall along Harmon Avenue still carried the Aladdin facade. The removal of Krave nightclub and eventual opening of Buffalo Wild Wings and another Nacho Daddy finally jump-started the finishing of that section.

Hidden Vegas

Desert Passage

It’s uncertain if the remaining Arabic interior will eventually get stripped out and de-themed. But for the time being, it’s another chapter in my book of Vegas curiosities.

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been revised with updated information.

Images: Sammasseur with additional stills from Miracle Mile Shops via Facebork, wishuwerehere.com and Greg C.

Hidden Vegas: Man-made Wonders from the Sky


I do a fly-over of the Valley to reveal more unusual structures….

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I’ve had a great time bringing you our series of “Hidden Vegas” oddities…things that are sometimes right under your nose. Like the abandoned Rocket Ship Ride at Circus Circus. A cleverly-hidden unfinished St. Regis Tower at Venetian. The massive phallic erection inside Shops at Crystals. Today’s entries aren’t on the Strip, but if you’ve flown into the city a few times, you’ve no doubt seen one or more.

First up is Ascaya, a failed luxury housing project. This massive abandoned development in the Henderson area is etched into the side of the McCullough mountain range. It’s easy to spot from the sky, southeast of the Strip and not far (when viewing from a plane seat, that is) from the M Resort.

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The Ascaya project was intended to provide 331 lots for high-end mansions. It was shut down and barricaded in 2009, after more than $200 million was spent on blasting into the mountainside to construct housing pads and connecting roadways.

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My buddy, photographer Greg C. offered these memories:

I recall shooting some pics up there in the foothills near that development back in 2009. I biked up there a number of times from the Anthem housing area where my parents used to live. Got a rude shock one day when an accidental blasting charge went off in open air as they were working in another zone near that area.

I was actually facing in that direction and could see the distortion of the shock wave hit me about a half-mile away. The shock wave shattered windows in nearby completed homes. I have been to eleven hotel implosions and this shock wave exceeded anything I ever felt at those…..

I dug up one pic from 2009 showing my bike out there in the foothills behind that area…..you can see the Strip in the distance… Used to go up there all the time…..

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“You can also see where some of the work was going on cutting into the hills.” Greg C.

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“You can see the Ascaya terraces here from behind. The city is beyond the ridge”. 

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“The homes on the little hill knob were the ones that took blast damage in 2005. (photo from 2011)

According to VegasInc, the site was re-opened in August of 2014 to sell off parcels of land in phases. The article also described plans for a clubhouse to lure prospective builders, with an intended summer 2015 start date. I can see no evidence of it in my aerial photos taken in July 2016 .

The official Ascaya website had you believing that everything in the project is going according to plans of its creator, Hong Kong billionaire Henry Cheng. Panoramic motion photography sweeps over the gigantic corpse layout and invites you to envision the gorgeous community that awaits. Good luck with that…even the site itself appears to be dead these days, although a dedicated Facebook page is (somewhat) alive.

Only time will tell if the Ascaya Luxury Community ever lives up to the promises of its designers. Until then, much like the Fontainebleau behemoth on the north Strip, Ascaya will be a shrine…and a testament….to over-reaching ambition.

Once your eyes have finished taking in the Ascaya debacle, allow them to drift in a southeasterly direction. There you should be able to spot another massive project, albeit a very successful one.

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The Nevada Solar One plant lies in the Eldorado Valley, south of the region between Las Vegas and Boulder City. If you’ve ever taken a day trip to Laughlin, you’re sure to have seen this massive solar power plant. After all, it covers 400 acres of prime sun-fed Nevada desert.

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Nevada Solar One took sixteen months to construct and went online in June of 2007. Unlike the Ascaya project, which literally blew away fifteen million cubic yards of mountain rock, the Solar One plant’s 760 parabolic trough concentrators follow the natural terrain of the desert floor.

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The silent and somewhat aesthetic complex generates about 136 million kilowatt-hours annually. And according to Wikipedia, the amount of carbon emissions it reduces by creating clean energy is the equivalent of removing 20,000 automobiles from the road each year.

A different kind of power plant…hydro-electric…is just a short drive from Nevada Solar One. Of course, I’m talking about Hoover Dam. This man-made wonder continues to generate enormous amounts of electricity for Arizona, California, and Nevada. That’s despite the fact that continually-dropping water levels have dramatically changed the appearance of Lake Mead.

Man-made Lake Mead has shrunken in both depth and width, with shorelines crawling far inward throughout the past several years. The entire Lake Mead Marina had to be relocated in 2008 as water disappeared. It was floated two miles downstream to join Las Vegas Marina. This was a huge effort that moved hundreds of boats, slips, a restaurant, and store at the pace of 1 mph.

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Lake Mead Marina was only one of several dock and marina relocations required due to the drop in depth. Flying overhead, you can clearly see what remains of this dwindling body of water…and where the shoreline once was. It’s a sad, extreme example of the impact of climate change.

Just a little farther north of Lake Mead, you may spot another debacle to rival Ascaya. But at least this one actually was completed before falling apart. Lake Las Vegas Resort is a never-was destination of hotels, residences, golf courses, shops, restaurants and a casino.

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The centerpiece of this resort community is a 320-acre artificial lake that was built atop the Las Vegas Wash. The wash feeds contaminated…and radioactive…run-off from the Vegas valley into Lake Mead (keep that in mind if you’re ever planning a boating or swimming excursion there). Filling of the new lake began in 1990, and over 3,500 acres of land surrounding it were made available for retail and housing development.

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Since then, Lake Las Vegas Resort has had a depressing history of closures, lawsuits, and massive debt. Hotels have been closed, re-opened by other owners and then closed again. Empty storefronts spread out across the retail “Village” area and abandoned golf courses eventually turned from green to brown (they have recently sprung back). The Monte Lago Casino ceased operations twice before being relaunched as a barely-used events center.

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Lake Las Vegas Resort, surrounded by unfinished construction projects.

As with Ascaya, the official Lake Las Vegas website is full of gorgeous photos depicting a successful and glamorous destination. But one look from above will tell you that it’s anything but.

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated and expanded.

Photos: Sammasseur (aerial), Greg C.

Hidden Vegas: Into “The Vortex” at Linq Hotel


Another elusive treasure that’s yours to discover…perhaps for only a short time longer…

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If you’re a frequent traveler to Las Vegas, you might think that you know the city pretty well.  It is, after all, one of the most visitor-friendly cities in the world.  And yet, there’s a separate side to Vegas that you may not ever see.  It’s vast, exists on many levels, and some of them are right under your nose (like the never-completed St. Regis Tower at Venetian, hidden behind a canvas facade).

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Vegas photographer Greg C. and I are what he likes to call  “urban explorers.”  We get a certain thrill from finding our way to the balconies, closed-off corridors, rooftops and recesses of Vegas structures. And we’ve decided to share our discoveries with a series we’re calling “Hidden Vegas.”

My fascination with this city’s secrets was ignited back in 2007 when I lost some memory cards in front of the Mirage volcano.  Hours later I was escorted to the casino’s Lost and Found department to claim them. Luckily, that office was deep within the bowels of the Mirage.

The stroll back there seemed to take forever, and I was amazed at the enormous amount of activity that most folks would never lay their eyes on.  It was like stumbling upon a forgotten city…dazzling and unforgettable.

The Strip isn’t the only place where you can go treasure hunting. Downtown Las Vegas is a veritable goldmine for the urban explorer. There are catacombs inside just about every hotel on Fremont Street, especially at places like Binions and the now-destroyed Las Vegas Club, where closed-off hotel rooms and shuttered restaurants are just begging to be rediscovered.

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While we don’t encourage doing anything illegal, it’s hard to resist the urge to peer behind a rarely-open door, especially when you have a camera or phone with you. My  buddy Scott Roeben, that cool dude at VitalVegas, has become fond of regularly posting his own “security breaches”. Perhaps it’s the reporter in us, ever-present, that hopes to catch a glimpse of the newest venue rising up behind construction barricades. Even so, if you explore, do so wisely and at your own risk.

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I’m 2015, while searching for a less-crowded restroom at the premiere of Mat Franco – Magic Reinvented Nightly, I headed to the fifth floor of Linq Hotel, which was once a collection of Imperial Palace restaurants. These days it has been named the “Bloq Room” and was a temporary home to Divas Las Vegas as their theater was undergoing renovations.

On the far side of Bloq Room, a pair of open doors beckoned me towards a not-quite-finished escalator that led towards a vast outdoor space. And beyond that was…(cue the drum roll)…THE VORTEX!!!!

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The Vortex might seem eerily familiar to Star Trek fans. Perhaps that’s due to its resemblance to the God-like artificial intelligence known as V’Ger from the 1979 theatrical movie STAR TREK: The Motion Picture.

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                The Enterprise encounters “V’Ger” in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)…

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You have no doubt noticed this incredible light show, which beckons visitors away from the Strip and into the pedestrian mall that now shares the Linq name with the former Quad Hotel. The colorful swirl of lights is an eye-catcher from the ground, but standing underneath it is absolutely surreal.  The dizzying, ever-changing digital tornado could easily give you a feeling of vertigo, especially if you’re prone to motion sickness. Epileptics, don’t even think about prowling around up here.

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But what exactly is this space and why isn’t it being utilized? Ask the show performers and employees at Linq, and the most common response is “I heard it’s going to be a nightclub”.  So why isn’t it yet? Pure Nightclub at Caesars Palace became Omnia in less time that Vortexhas been sitting here, virtually forgotten.

Press releases stated that the renovation of Linq Theater was the final step in Linq Hotel‘s conversion.  But I wasn’t so sure of that, as my explorations also came across the former third-floor bar/food court/sportsbook, walled off and awaiting renovations.

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I do know that the Vortex Deck has been used for special events, as a Fourth of July fireworks viewing party was held there that summer for Linq VIP customers. And, we spotted a small stage during our exploration that appeared to have been recently used.

According to the Vortex information page on Caesars Entertainment website, this massive space and light show can be yours…for a price. The entire deck is available for parties, catered events, concerts, weddings etc.  Prices aren’t mentioned anywhere, but we guess it would cost a pretty penny to have such a sprawling venue – with an incredible view – all to yourselves.

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For us that evening, the space, the solitude, the silence…and the view…were absolutely free. And totally priceless. But with the  recent announcement of both a zip line and the bizzare Kind Heaven project, the future of this spot seems uncertain.

So, the next time you’re in Sin City, consider putting on your hiking shoes and setting out to find your own “Hidden Vegas”. But be sure to share those photos!

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated and expanded.

Photos: Sammasseur, Greg C.

Hidden Vegas: Structures Hiding In Plain Sight


Look closer…not everything is as obvious as it appears…

Welcome to “Hidden Vegas”, teasing your brain with questions like “How did I miss that?”. I’ll take a close look at structures that are more than meets the eye…and others which have been repurposed into something fresh and new.

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Let’s start off with the St. Regis Tower. As seen above, the unfinished structure between Venetian and Palazzo resorts was once planned to be a condominium tower. An economic collapse and financial trouble for Sands Corporation froze the $600 million project in 2008. Thus, it joined a list of rusting eye sores that suddenly littered the Strip and surrounding areas.

Sands Corporation forked over a million dollars for a custom tarp, meant to cleverly disguise the skeleton while the powers-that-be decided what to do with it (the market for Strip residences isn’t what it was when the first blueprints for St. Regis were being drawn).

Whether it ends up being dismantled, completed for a timeshare operation or used as an additional tower for Venetian/Palazzo is anyone’s guess. But for now, St. Regis continues to exist as a genuine mirage – a building that isn’t really there…in a land of make-believe.

Now, if only someone could toss an invisibility cloak over the unfinished Fontainebleau. At least that monstrosity now has a new name (The Drew), new owners (Witkoff\Marriott) and a projected  opening date of 2020. Call me “skeptical”.

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Planet Hollywood began life as a chain of celebrity-fueled restaurants. Then it became a casino resort that was once the Aladdin Hotel. And the Aladdin Hotel was once known as…the Aladdin Hotel.

Don’t be confused. The original Aladdin began life as the English-themed Tally-Ho. It opened in 1963, but was rechristened a year later as King’s Crown…which promptly failed. A few years and several million dollars later, the Aladdin Hotel Casino opened up on the same spot.

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During the summer of 1976, Neil Diamond became the first performer at the new Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts, constructed on what was once a golf course. The huge venue, boasting a glass ceiling, was the only thing standing when the Aladdin was leveled in 1998.

A new Aladdin went up around the free-standing building, this time integrating it into the casino design….and forever hiding the exterior view from the naked eye (unless you’re on a rooftop, like Greg C. was for this recent photo).

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This past February 2018, the AXIS Powered By Monster Theater (we aren’t making that up) which replaced “Art” with a tart (Britney Spears, natch) was once again renamed as Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood.

That gorgeous open ceiling was covered by a non-transparent dome years ago. It’s current seating capacity is greatly downsized from the original 7,500 monster (see what we did?) to 4,600 for residency shows. Even so, Zappos remains one of the largest venues on the Strip, and the largest of its kind in the United States.

Anyone who has walked the full length of MGM Grand Resort will vouch for its enormous footprint. The sprawling property is even larger when including Signature at MGM Grand. That three-tower annex sits on land that was once home to MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park. The main building, though, has a secret that few current visitors are aware of: the west wing once stood alone as the Marina Hotel.

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Marina Hotel opened in 1975, had 714 guest rooms and its own casino. It was closed in 1990 to become part of the new location for MGM Grand, the original name for the current Bally’s (did you follow that?). Instead of leveling Marina, it was cleverly integrated into the new, Oz-themed structure, which opened right before Christmas in 1993.

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MGM Grand’s “West Wing” rooms are smaller and less expensive than those in the newer portions of the resort. However, they’re sleek, stylish, and still a favorite for solo travelers…and those who enjoy easy access to the Strip.

The Shops at Crystals might be touted as a world-class shopping destination, but for some of us it’s more like a mausoleum or an echo chamber. Highly regarded premium designers have locations here, so if you have thousands for impulse purchases, Crystals is your place.

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                (Photo by Scott Roeben, VitalVegas.com)

For the rest of us, one thing alone makes the lengthy walk into the Simon Corporation mall worthwhile: gawking and chuckling at that giant wooden penis. A perfect example of “What were they thinking?” , the  multi-story shaft and scrotum are home to Mastros Ocean Club aka “Treehouse”. I’ll just leave this here:

Our final entry sits at the opposite end of the Strip, directly in the shadow of the aforementioned Fontainebleau Resort carcass. It’s an industrial-looking tower next to Circus Circus.

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The family-friendly Circus Circus resort boasts Adventuredome, a glass-enclosed amusement park that opened its doors (and attractions) in 1993. Before that, thrill-seekers had to go outside to get their pulses racing. And they probably bypassed the sedate-looking merry-go-round for a shot at the Rocket Ship Ride.

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This earth-bound cousin to Stratosphere‘s sky-high “Big Shot” attraction took travelers up a 210-foot tower, which undoubtedly offered a terrific view of the Riviera Hotelacross the street.

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In 1992, the tower was repurposed as a bungee-jumping attraction, utilizing an elevator that, according to bungee.com, is the tallest single-stage lift in the world.  A reflecting pool was added to allow jumpers to witness their own descent.

These days, the pool has been filled in and seemingly forgotten. The rocket itself sits earthbound, too, as shown in this photo by Greg C. It was taken on January 2015…from the base of Stratosphere’s “Big Shot” ride.

This article previously appeared on another site. It has been updated and expanded.

Photos: Greg C., UNLV Digital Library, bungee.com, Flickr.com, Scott Roeben via VitalVegas