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From underground bakeries to costume shops: The Strip’s secret spaces

On the roof, under the stage and behind the bar for a look at how the Vegas magic happens

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Executive pastry chef Carlos Salazar inside the basement bakery at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.
Photo: Leila Navidi

Photographs by Leila Navidi

From four-star meals to dazzling stage productions, Las Vegas offers decadence and spectacle seemingly at the push of a button; it’s part of the larger-than-life illusion that drives our city. But for every over-the-top attraction and glamorous headliner, there are the back-of-house spaces and the behind-the-scenes stars that make the Strip work.

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      Chippendales dancer John Rivera gets ready backstage in the Chippendales backstage dressing area before their show on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at the Rio in Las Vegas.

      Chippendales

      “Five minutes to show!”

      Chippendales dancer John Rivera does pushups backstage in the Chippendales backstage dressing area before their show on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 at the Rio in Las Vegas.

      Chippendales Stage Manager Kathy Carr calls out, and that’s when the iron gets pumping. Like something out of a salacious superhero movie, the half-dozen guys eating dinner and playing on smartphones backstage remove their shirts and become the men of Chippendales. The air turns pungent with the smell of cocoa butter. “Not baby oil,” Carr explains. “Everyone thinks it’s baby oil.” The performers smear it on their chests to accentuate their muscle tone, and Carr calls out: “Two minutes!” Glistening, they chat idly about traffic and trade gossip as they curl 30-pound hand weights and perform push-ups to give their muscles one last boost before showtime. Carr raises a hand as a final cue, but when shrieks from the waiting crowd rise above the opening music, they’ve already said it for her: Showtime!

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      Inside the green room at Vinyl in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      Vinyl Green Room

      Warwick Stone, the creative consultant and curator at Hard Rock Hotel, had one day, one assistant and $100 to decorate the green room at music venue Vinyl, where the likes of Reverend Horton Heat, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Band of Skulls hang out—and act out—before and after their performances. That’s not to say Stone has forsaken attention to detail: The dozens of vinyl records that make up the room’s rock ’n’ roll wallpaper—courtesy of Zia Record Exchange’s $1 bin—detail Las Vegas’ musical eras, Tom Jones to Rod Stewart to Mötley Crüe.

      On the opposite wall, artist signatures adorn wooden blocks hung above a mini-fridge, always stocked before shows with the myriad demands of a tour rider. No doubt bands indulge in the minibar and ashtray offered up alongside the plush furniture, but at this moment, the only sensory high is the smell of leather and freshly cleaned carpet.

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      A view of the underwater tank at "O" during the show at the Bellagio on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

      O Theatre

      A view of the underwater tank at "O" during the show at the Bellagio on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

      A view of the underwater tank at "O" during the show at the Bellagio on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

      Sixteen feet below the stage of the Bellagio’s O Theatre, synchronized swimmers wait underwater, sipping air from oxygen tubes and checking their waterproof makeup in the reflective windows that line the pool. Before the show begins, seven safety divers who will remain underwater for the two-hour performance check the oxygen regulators at each swimmer’s station, along with the movable regulators that allow performers to complete 15-second underwater costume changes during the show.

      With props in place and performers warmed up, the show can begin. The sounds of the orchestra are piped in through underwater speakers to help the swimmers stay on cue. The music’s distorted echo provides a perfect soundtrack for watching the reverse choreography of the synchro troupe, the explosive splash of a high diver from 60 feet above and the improvised tango of the costume change. Even as underwater lifts begin to rise on accordion hinges to piece together a stage, it’s tough to tear your eyes away from what’s happening beneath the surface.

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      Gardener Michael Fearon tends to the rooftop herb garden at the Bellagio on Monday, June 17, 2013.

      Bellagio Garden

      Gardener Michael Fearon tends to the rooftop herb garden at the Bellagio on Monday, June 17, 2013.

      Gardener Michael Fearon tends to the rooftop herb garden at the Bellagio on Monday, June 17, 2013.

      High above the bleary-eyed clubgoers stumbling onto the sidewalks at dawn, the Bellagio’s rooftop gardeners are already well into their workdays, tending to the tomatoes that will end up on plates that night. For two years, the small but hearty garden has stocked the kitchens of several Bellagio eateries, particularly the Asian-fusion restaurant Sensi.

      With rooftop temperatures reaching 120 degrees in the summer, the early morning hours—which hover at a more reasonable 85 degrees—are a crucial window to tend the sage, rosemary, peppermint, thyme, chives and other herbs that give Sensi’s eclectic dishes their signature freshness.

      A barren rooftop might seem like a terrible place for a garden in Las Vegas, but thanks to a system of curtains, shades and rigorous drip irrigation—not to mention attentive inspection and care from the horticulture team—the rows of plants manage to thrive. And you thought the botanical gardens were impressive.

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      Bakers Johnmar Viray, left, and Gabriel Shavalier work on bread inside the basement bakery at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      Caesars Palace Bakery

      Baker Carlos Meza racks fresh bread inside the basement bakery at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      Pastries for Bacchanal Buffet inside the basement bakery at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      Caesars Palace employees joke that the property’s massive back-of-house bakery is far away so people won’t steal its pastries. You couldn’t blame someone for trying. By 8:30 a.m., the smell of fresh-baked bread fills the sterile linoleum hallways outside the bakery’s double doors. Inside, the scent diversifies—to the left, the pungent bite of sourdough; straight ahead, the toasty sweetness of brioche; around the corner, the buttery perfume of olive ciabatta, just a few of the more than 60 varieties of bread baked here daily for use everywhere from room service to Guy Savoy. Carlos Salazar, the executive pastry chef, estimates the kitchen goes through 3,000 pounds of flour and 400 pounds of butter each day.

      At a wide, flour-coated wooden table, four bakers methodically break lumps of dough off a large disc, rolling them two at a time before placing them on a baking rack headed to Serendipity. It’s a job normally handled by a dividing machine that broke down earlier that morning, so the men are pulling extra duty preparing them by hand.

      Asked what he loves most about the job, baker Gabriel Shavalier jokes, “Going home at the end of the day.” The 26-year veteran of the Caesars bakery doesn’t sugarcoat the back-breaking work, which has led to seven hernias. Still, he sounds proud of what he does. “In my time here I’ve fed, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of people? I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it.”

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      Flavored vodkas used inside the Mixology Kitchen at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

      Cosmopolitan Mixology Kitchen

      Cosmopolitan's property mixologist Chris Hopkins cooks inside the Mixology Kitchen at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

      Bubblegum bitters. Leather-infused bourbon. Grapefruit salt. Like alchemists, the mixologists of the Cosmopolitan’s Vesper bar blend the homemade ingredients with practiced precision when concocting their signature craft cocktails. But what they prepare in a matter of minutes at the bar has been months in the making two floors below in the Cosmopolitan’s mixology kitchen. Part culinary space, part chemistry lab, there you can find property mixologist Chris Hopkins hunched over a stove, stirring pots of fragrant concoctions in a three-piece suit.

      “I try to wear a [chef’s robe], but sometimes inspiration grabs you and you don’t have time to change,” says Hopkins, whose team creates veritable painter’s palettes of cocktail ingredients, doing everything from dehydrating fruit to aging infused spirits for bitters to reducing pungent pots of spices into flavored syrups. As a result, menu development can range from six weeks to three months in a constant process of developing and refining recipes, preparing ingredients and training staff.

      “I think sometimes people think there’s, like, a magical bunch of fairies behind the scenes who press buttons, and then all of a sudden there’s all this stuff for the mixologist to play with,” Hopkins says. “But it’s very rewarding. ... A program like this is adventurous and sets the standard for what people can do.”

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      Wardrobe technician Irma Cooper works on a costume inside the Jubilee! costume shop at Bally's in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      Jubilee! Costume Shop

      Wardrobe technician Shahnaz Minaian repairs a headpiece inside the Jubilee! costume shop at Bally's in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      Marios Ignadiou. head of the Jubilee! costume shop, holds up a headpiece from the Disco number at Bally's in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

      As the tall, slender dancers of Jubilee! shimmy about the stage in their signature towering headdresses, it’s incredible that they don’t topple over. Turns out, there’s a team responsible for that. Marios Ignadiou has overseen the Jubilee! costume shop for 20 years, repairing, maintaining and tailoring the thousands of costume pieces used in the show—and fitting each headdress to a dancer’s specific head size and shape.

      Long before showtime, Ignadiou and his six-person team are seated at workstations in the costume shop deep in the theater’s backstage labyrinth. They tend to the never-ending flow of last-minute maintenance on the delicate pieces: replacing elastic on thongs, re-sewing feathers on headdresses and replacing sequins on, well, most everything. Many of the costumes date back to the 32-year-old production’s first decade, with several pieces still around from the show’s inception—including the massive 15-pound “disco hat” used in the opening number.

      “When people see the beautiful costumes on stage, they should know that behind this there is an army preparing them,” says Shahnaz Minaian, a wardrobe technician and seven-year veteran of the show. “Nobody can see us, but they can see our fingers, so to speak, on the costumes. That’s enough for me, really.”

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      Employees pick up and drop off their uniforms inside the Garment District at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

      Cosmopolitan Garment District

      Beep. Click. Clack, clack, clack. Repeat. The rhythm of the automated Cosmopolitan employee wardrobe racks almost sounds soothing as workers steadily pour into the basement level known as the “Garment District,” where staff begin their shifts by exchanging street clothes for uniforms. With the swipe of a key card, narrow purple doors unlock to reveal oblong dry-cleaning racks stretching the length of a small warehouse. They spin, not unlike a slot machine, stopping on cross sections of hangers to bring up slinky black dresses for the casino cocktail servers and utilitarian smocks for the line cooks. Each uniform weaves atmosphere. And much like costume changes during theatrical performances, the audience never sees the transformation.

      Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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      Andrea Domanick is a reporter covering arts, entertainment and the behind the scenes stories of life in Las Vegas. Before ...

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