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Buying talent: Danny Zelisko, the Pearl

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The Pearl won the Weekly’s 2011 Best Music Venue award.
Photo: Denise Truscello/WireImage

The Phoenix-based concert promoter is back at the Palms, with 8,000 shows under his belt dating back to 1974.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I started promoting rock shows in Vegas in the early ’80s. I go back as far as doing The Scorpions and Stray Cats at the [Convention Center] Rotunda. Then I worked with a company out of Chicago called Jam—my company is called Evening Star—and we co-promoted shows with a local guy there, Michael Schivo, for a number of years when Ed Torres owned the Aladdin Theater. In the ’80s, we were doing something that nobody else to speak of was trying to do in Vegas, which was to do rock shows. At the time, everything was Wayne Newton and Paul Anka and the Rat Pack.

We also did more shows than anybody at MGM, Mandalay Bay and Thomas & Mack throughout the years. We did the first shows in the Thomas & Mack Center. I was involved with Bill Graham in bringing the Grateful Dead to Vegas in the ’90s.

In 2001 I sold my company to a company called SFX that’s owned by Bob Sillerman, who then sold to Clear Channel, which then its entertainment division into Live Nation. I was the chairman of the southwest concert division for Live Nation until I parted ways with them last February.

Since then I’ve been doing shows on my own again, and having a good time doing it. And over the years I’ve become acquainted with [entertainment VP] Billy Conn over at the Palms. They were looking for somebody to take over their booking, and I ended up being their guy. I signed on at the beginning of March, so my shows start with Seal and Beck and Yes and the blues fest with Johnny Winter. And I booked all the shows in Rain [at the Palms]: Santana. Ozzy [Osbourne], No Doubt, Kid Rock, Kiss … I was George Maloof’s originally booker.

What’s your overall vision for booking the Pearl?

Our goal is to book any form of popular music—classic or alternative rock, DJs, country, comedy, whatever. We’ve put in a lot of offers that are pending right now, and we’re really excited about it. It’s arguably the nicest auditorium in town, and the Palms is a fun hotel to go to—they’ve got good restaurants and it’s not a complete pain in the ass to get in and out of.

What I find there, too, with the makeup of the hall, you feel like you’re somewhere elegant but where you can also let your hair down. I think it’s the perfect size room. It’s a place for people on the rise or people who really want to have an intimate experience with their audience, where they can reach out and touch people instead of being so far away.

A lot of us wish the Pearl weren’t empty so often.

We’re trying to change that now. We want to use the place as often as possible. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and I think everybody’s gonna be pleased with what we end up with for the rest of the year. We’ll have a fresh shot at 2013, and by then we’ll have a lot of new shows under our belt that we can show off to the industry and let them know that we really mean business to do a lot of business here. We’re still establishing traction with the agents, but the calls are coming and we’re open to booking pretty much anything.

How small an act is too small for the Pearl?

It’s all a function of what the act’s charging and what the ticket prices are. If a group is really just capable of going around the country doing 800, 1,200, 1,400 people, we definitely want them in there. There’s a lot of groups that can’t sell over 2,000 tickets. And that doesn’t make ’em bad, it just means they have an audience that’s either on the way up or it’s simmering or it’s on the way down. But the bottom line is, there’s nothing wrong with drawing 1,000 or 1,200 people and having some excitement in the room. We’re not putting our nose up at anybody.

We’ve already made some offers for some groups with the balcony closed. Making it any smaller than that is a little difficult to do.

What’s the capacity with the balcony closed?

Let’s say 500 up there, so it would bring your capacity down to about 1,700. So if you do 1,200 or 1,500 people in there it looks great. The whole thing for an act is, when you’re onstage you wanna feel like you’re in a room that’s got a lot of energy in it, and it’s hard to feel a lot of energy if you’re in too big a room with empty seats.

How much of the decision on which acts to pursue comes down from the Palms?

Well, obviously, it’s their place, so they have the final word on anything that gets booked in there. That said, all of the people who come in for these shows are tomorrow’s players. Those are the people who have friends all over the country, word of mouth is still the very best form of publicity. If somebody comes to the Pearl and has a great time, they’re gonna tell people locally and nationally and internationally. At the end of the day, you want people talking about your place, and that’s why you bring in shows, to attract attention to your property.

The bottom line is, the Palms is committed to doing as many shows as possible that make sense. We’ve got to lay it out on paper and figure out what can we charge for ticket prices. There’s a lot of competition for acts in Vegas. Some people book shows just to collect shows—we got it, you didn’t. We wanna book shows because it’s the right room for the act, and we’re trying to keep ticket prices as inexpensive as possible. So it’s a balancing act.

You mentioned Beck. That seems like an act that could have set off a bidding war.

They called us out of nowhere and said he wants to play there. We were really, really happy. If we’re lucky, we get the shows on the Fridays and the Saturdays, but in a case like Beck it turned out to be a weeknight [a Wednesday]. And it was like, who cares? It’s Beck.

Obviously, the hotel wants the bars through the roof, the gambling drops through the roof, the restaurants full, the rooms at 100 percent occupancy. That’s not always gonna happen. Think of how much entertainment there is to choose from, for such a small town. It’s insane.

On anything they approve for me to book, my goal is to make sure we’ve got the right price on the group and the right price on the tickets. There’s times when it just gets to be too much—we think the group belongs in there, and they go and take a date somewhere else. Sure it pisses us off, because we want the act. But there’s a certain point where we won’t chase, we won’t play that game of overspending just to get the act on the property to the point where we’re taking a severe loss to do the show. In most cases, when that’s happening and you’re chasing an act, you end up charging too much for the tickets. So you’re counting on all the out-of-towners that come in and you’re gonna gauge the locals.

Everybody’s saying my room is better than that room. In our case, I think we’ve got a great room that speaks for itself, people like going there and groups like playing there. So that’s my pitch for the place.

How much of what you do is trial and error?

You’ve gotta take chances and you’ve gotta take risks. If it was easier, believe me, everybody would be doing this. And everybody is trying to do it—all these different casinos. Some of them are trying to stay with the tried and true stuff. I do to a certain degree. We’re booking some older stuff that was never really booked before; we’ll see how those do. But we’re definitely looking for the younger stuff and the hipper stuff, too.

You’ve gotta have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on when you’re booking things. You have to be in there with the agents and know who the movers and shakers are that say, ‘Hey man, this is gonna be big. Get in now.’ It’s very difficult, but you can’t be worried all the time. You’ve just gotta keep pressing forward.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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