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Getting (and sometimes making) her props

Emily Jillette doesn’t need the money—note the famous last name—but she’s still working her ass off on a super-risky venture: helping open shows in this economy

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Terrence Williams, Emily Jillette, Larry Linehan
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Last Saturday morning was the first performance of Schoolhouse Rock in the theater at Town Square. This first show went well, with something close to 100 in attendance on no advertising. (That should start in a few weeks.) More important than the day’s attendance is that the basic idea behind the show was tested and passed: Parents who knew the music from the popular ’70s educational animated series brought their kids to be educated and entertained—and to share the experience they remember from Saturday mornings long ago. A lot of them sang along.

The three producers—Larry Linehan (who handles much of the business end and designed the theater), Terrance Williams (the hands-on director) and Emily Jillette (the last to join the team)—were visibly relieved. This, after all, was Plan B for a theater built and originally named after Shear Madness, a show known for running for decades in other cities. “I am from Boston, where the show has played for over 20 years,” Linehan says, “and we thought it was a can’t-miss thing. But we missed. Our revenue was well below the flight path to maintain the show. We were not going to get there in time to break even.” It did not last three months.

What was originally called the Shear Madness Theater is on Las Vegas Boulevard, close to the Strip, and, like the rest of Town Square, was built with tourists in mind. But in the new economy, Linehan now emphasizes the distance between the congested Strip and the more local crowd that has found its way to Town Square. “We did expect it to be tourists originally. We were relying on some of the early research for the shopping center generally. It just wasn’t right. We have to live with reality. The reality is that locals come here and not a lot of tourists. We are now averaging 80 percent locals,” he says. A large part of this is families. The outdoor mall has a playground area with a maze made of bushes, jets that squirt water out of the ground and other child-engaging activities to bring parents and kids together to shop. Those families are who Schoolhouse Rock is clearly aimed at. And while attendance was good, that was only the first show. The plan is to do two shows every Saturday. Nothing is a sure thing right now. So the theatre—now renamed Stage Door—has Schoolhouse Rock each Saturday, along with an improv comedy night on Friday.

It was through the improv night that Linehan and Williams met Emily Jillette, who had her own ideas and a willingness to commit to the theater equal to the other two. Linehan and Williams quickly made a decision. “We opened the door to produce other things, and that is how Emily came to us, and ultimately it is a people business, and we get along famously.” It probably didn’t hurt that Jillette arrived with extensive experience in television and film production, budgeting, a willingness to work endlessly on anything and an iPhone packed with contacts, some of whom she knew through her famous husband, Penn Jillette. So when Jillette asked for the chance to help the struggling theater’s projects—as well as produce her own shows there—she found immediate encouragement from the duo, who had invested so much hope in the already deleted Shear Madness.

Still, even with Jillette on board, the initial failure of Shear Madness was not a small matter. The theater has monthly bills that Jillette likes to refer to as the “nut,” by which she means the basic expenses that must be met to keep everything going. The degree to which the economy in Vegas now leaves no room for error meant, Linehan points out, that getting this second chance was only possible thanks to the understanding of everyone involved, from the builders to the landlord. The new Stage Door signs aren’t up yet. But again, in the current climate, businesses must adapt quickly without the luxury of waiting for new signage to arrive. The fewer shows running and the fewer tickets sold, the less money coming in to make the nut. And while the situation was grim, the one thing going for the young theater was that the bad times were widespread.

For one thing, there probably weren’t many other entrepreneurs pushing the landlord for the tiny, 300-seat space. For another, even in the good times, it’s hard for freestanding venues to compete with casino-underwritten shows. For an independent venue, during this recession, it seemed, only the brave or foolish would enter the market. Still, Jillette wanted to act quickly to get revenue coming in and establish herself. She first proposed Celebrity Tarot, in which an improv comedy group reenacts the tarot-card readings for a series of celebrity guests. Jillette lined up an impressive list of celebrities, including Carrot Top, author Neil Gaiman and her husband’s partner, Teller (who entertained on a theater stage using his voice for the first time in 35 years, a tribute to Jillette’s persuasiveness). Linehan says, “Very quickly, Emily produced that show with a celebrity lineup, and it was a success.”

Celebrity Tarot proved the biggest and one of the first commercial winners for the theater. Jillette has scheduled the show to return to Stage Door in October and hopes to eventually give it a regular run. But unlike her partners, she sees the opening run as a more qualified success. “I made some mistakes the first time,” she says. “I should have started earlier, and there should have been more targeted marketing. I should have had a waiting list to get in. There were mistakes I made that will never happen again.” She also is planning another show she isn’t ready to announce, but hopes to have that going by the end of the year.

Jillette then surprised and delighted her partners by jumping into their planned Schoolhouse Rock production with just as much gusto as she brought to her own projects.

“The minute I knew they were doing Schoolhouse Rock,” she says, “I wanted to be involved. You can put something family-friendly like this on by day and then something like improv at night that is for a more adult audience, and this theater is perfect for that. There is no gambling here [at Town Square], and it is great for kids, but with enough nightlife to bring in adults in the evenings.”

According to Williams, who had been involved in other productions of the Schoolhouse Rock musical and is a veteran of local theater, he and Linehan were both taken aback by how thoroughly Jillette dedicated herself to the project. Williams says: “To give you one example, if we are looking for the best price on a prop, she is checking with 20 different sources. And then she calls them back and sees if she can talk them down some more.” If that doesn’t work, she is also willing to make props with her hands. “And, when it comes to butts in the seats,” Williams says, “Emily is not above anything. She’ll decide we need 20 more people in here, and she will take fliers for the show and she will go out and walk right up to people and say, ‘This is the show you need to see,’ and sure enough, those people will come.”

A rehearsal for Schoolhouse Rock at Town Square's Stage Door.

Williams points out Jillette also brought to Stage Door skills exceptionally rare in the local theater community and one in particular the young theater is in desperate need of during these times. “She is a very sharp businesswoman. She knows how to negotiate. She is vibrant and determined and brings a huge background in production. Theater attracts a lot of people who want to act or want to produce, but especially around here very few people who actually know how to do things. Emily brings that.”

Jillette has lived a varied life that included spending much of her twenties as a roving hippie. At one point she was living in her car in front of a guest house in Beverly Hills. Her benefactors would feed the sweet homeless hippie girl, gently asking her things with their donated meal, like, “Would you like cilantro on that?” Eventually she moved into the adult world via the accounting department in the film industry, where she eventually scouted and arranged locations for shoots. She switched to television, where she found a niche making golf infomercials in Florida.

It was on a September 2002 business trip to Vegas, at around 2 a.m. at the Venetian, that she first approached the man she would eventually marry. But before she got to him, she overheard her future husband explain to another guy the secret to his success with gorgeous women: “That’s what happens when you have a big cock and a lot of money.”

“I did a 180 and walked away,” she says. “I did not want to see that guy again in my entire life. Who would want to know that man?” By the next year, when they were virtually living together—drawn to each other in part by their shared involvement with the skeptics community—after Jillette had convinced her boss to let her set her golf infomercials in Vegas, where an expensive shoot would not often be canceled by rain like in Florida, she mentioned the incident to Penn. His reply: “Well, it’s true.”

Soon married and the mother of two children, Emily Jillette has spent the past five years being wife to the man she walked away from in disgust in 2002. And while for their first six months of dating Jillette kept her job, she eventually became fully immersed in her husband’s busy life and their life together. “It was heaven. For about four years I did not work, from pregnancy, because I did not need to, from acclimating to being Penn’s wife, which was nothing but paradise, but a paradise I had never visited. There was a lot to learn in terms of how the day goes, in terms of how the world perceived us, in terms of what I can do to support him. It was the first time in life where I was the quiet one. I have never had anyone be so supportive of who I am. But he is three times more than I am. He fills the room. He is Penn. And I loved that, and I adopted all his friends, all his crazy rituals and his crazy life in his crazy house in Vegas. Then we had kids. Eventually I felt adjusted.”

The Details

School House Rock
Every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
$8 to $14
Stage Door Theatre, 949-6123

Somehow during this period she added to her proficient blackjack skills a love of poker. So, for her first foray back to work, she helped organize a celebrity poker event to benefit Opportunity Village. “It was a group effort,” she says. It also was a very successful effort, raising, she estimates, about $200,000. “I love Opportunity Village. I love everybody there. I love the results. I am still at Opportunity Village, and I am with them as long as they will have me. But it also gave me the chance to work and work hard again. I like hustling.”

Of course, thanks to her husband’s job, she doesn’t have to work. Which means money is not her motive for leaping into this project. But she realizes that for it to succeed, her partners need to make money, the cast has to be paid, the nut must be made. And so she puts more thought into the business end of things than many who come to Vegas with dreams of producing a show or entering theater. She has no disdain for the money side of the operation. “I won’t say I have done extensive market research. But for everything I am doing here I have thought, ‘Can this work? Can this make a profit?’”

This brings us back to the second, afternoon showing of Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday. After the first performance, most of the cast and crew have lunch and bask in the afterglow of a successful first performance, or just grab a moment of rest before the second show. But Jillette is thinking there are still available tickets. So she grabs a handful of fliers and starts wandering Town Square, talking to young people or parents with children telling them about the great showing of Schoolhouse Rock starting at 2 p.m. ...

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