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Your average, down-to-earth, casino-owning millionaire

Spending time with Palms owner, celebrity confidant and regular dude George Maloof. (Call him George.)

Spencer Patterson

Summer 1990: A young man with a vision sits on a barren patch of land, counting cars and dreaming. Most Friday evenings find him perched atop this 10-foot desert dune, scanning the horizon as if waiting for some far-off spark to flicker. It doesn’t, but in his 25-year-old mind he sees something far brighter—the future, what could happen, should happen, if only he could make others see what he does.

The land is his, roughly located where Rancho Drive and Lake Mead Boulevard will someday intersect. To the east lies the city of North Las Vegas, though the man rarely looks in that direction. His attention is fixed almost exclusively westward, toward a budding suburb called Summerlin five tantalizing miles away, and the stream of headlights moving to and from that location and his.

Legend has it that some 50 years earlier, another man with a similar vision pulled his car to the side of the road to stand, dreaming, on another barren patch of land. But where Bugsy found the financing to make his fantasy a reality, this man has not. At least, not yet.

A year passes and still the land remains untouched, evidence of the man’s own comings and goings aside. So, grasping the tough but true certainty that his dreams will have to wait, he leaves town, hoping to return someday to get his Vegas vision off the ground.

•••••

Summer 2007: The same man, now 43, sits at a much different perch—a private box in a gleaming concert hall. The theater, known as the Pearl, has been transformed for tonight’s occasion, the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, and waiters hover near the man and his family, offering cocktails and lobster hors d’oeuvres. This is, after all, his joint, if something as awe-inspiring as the Palms Casino Hotel can accurately be classified as a joint.

As a procession of superstar entertainers—Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, Dr. Dre, Justin Timberlake—appears onstage, others such as Kanye West, Linkin Park, the Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy join the broadcast from elsewhere in the hotel. West’s performance, which takes place in the towering Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, provides spectacular aerial views of the Palms’ exterior, drawing hearty applause from the man’s brothers and a wide-eyed “wow” from the man himself.

Though the individual merits of the event’s musical moments and award recipients will be hotly debated for days to come, there’s little argument about the night’s clear victor, the Palms itself, which has seized the opportunity to display its array of sinful, sexy and slick charms to the world.

Later—after making unplanned detours to both hotel towers to meet with rock stars Tommy Lee and Kid Rock, combatants in an outrageous dustup midway through the telecast—the man strolls out to the pool, where acquaintances, strangers and three lovely ladies from E! TV series Sunset Tan treat him like a hero. Later still, motoring toward fine-dining venue N9NE Steakhouse, he pauses to look back—at the crowds packed into his casino, straining for a view as they madly snap photo flashes and cry out his name—before moving on to receive a bear hug from one dinner guest, actor-turned-Extra-host Mario Lopez, while awaiting another, longtime celeb pal Paris Hilton.

•••••

So just how did George Joseph Maloof Jr. get from his desert perch to the catbird seat, from the middle of nowhere to the center of attention, from Rancho and Lake Mead to Las Vegas’ “50-yard line” (his words), just one mile from Bugsy’s own famous corner of the Strip?

What drove him to work so relentlessly to get there, considering he needn’t have worked at all to enjoy a life flush with comfort and prosperity?

And now that he’s there, is he happy?

My head bursts with questions as I enter the Palms’ west entrance one hot July day and stride through the long, linear estate toward an elevator that will carry me to the executive offices. I’ve spoken to George Maloof on a dozen or more occasions over the years, and spent enough time in his presence—most notably during a hard-hat tour of a then-embryonic Pearl last November—to know that addressing him or referring to him as anything other than George, here or anywhere else, simply will not do.

Still, no previous encounter has prepared me for the first word out of his mouth. “Taffy?” he asks as he extends a small candy dish my way. I decline as he gets to work unwrapping his piece. Is that a hint of nervousness I detect? No, more like nervous energy, a trait confirmed moments later as we sit at the coffee table at one end of his modestly sized office, adorned with various photos of the Palms and his family, a TV set transmitting the feed from the hotel’s valet security camera (“I figure if I’m here, why not keep an eye on things?”) and a plaque celebrating platinum-selling Killers album Sam’s Town, recorded in the hotel’s voguish sound studio.

George’s brown eyes glisten and dart excitedly as he describes MTV’s plans: simultaneous performances all over the property—in the Pearl, Rain Nightclub, the fantasy suites, the Hefner Villa and at the pool—along with an extended red carpet winding through the heart of the casino. All of that will cost the Palms close to 500 slot machines and half of its table gaming, not just on event night but in the days leading up, to allow for setup and to accommodate the network’s extensive crew, reportedly well over 1,000 strong. “They’re literally taking over the hotel. It’s very disruptive, but I told them anything goes,” he says, sounding as if he’s still trying to convince himself he’s made the correct call. “It’s expensive, but it fits perfectly with our brand and the vision we’ve always had for that brand. It’s a gamble, but that’s what Las Vegas is about.”

As George’s head tilts downward for the first of many visits to his BlackBerry (Pearl model, appropriately) to scan incoming e-mail and text messages—“I need to call the mayor,” he remarks, as if placing the tidbit on a mental checklist he’ll return to later—I take note of the framed photo of his dad, George Sr., standing in front of the Classic, the Albuquerque hotel he opened one day before suffering a fatal heart attack in November 1980, when he was 57 and George Jr. was 16. Though the younger George comes off far hipper (bushy hair and contact lenses will do that), I detect the same soft-but-serious look in the eyes of the father that I see staring back at me as the son finishes replying to a text and re-cocks his head in my direction.

As we chat, about his day to that point (alarm set for 7, woke up well before it went off, no breakfast), his car (“a Mercedes ... two-door ... I don’t know, I’m not a car guy”) and the musical contents of his iPhone (Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, Black Eyed Peas ... Animal Collective? “The girl I’ve been seeing put some songs on there for me to hear”), it suddenly strikes me that we’re completely alone. No secretary taking minutes. No personal assistant shining his shoes. No security guard manning the door. Just two guys, one of whom happens to be Las Vegas’ best-known casino mogul this side of Steve Wynn. (A few weeks later, a visit to George’s Spanish Trail home confirms that his privacy extends there, too; five-day-a-week housekeeper aside, he lives and functions solo, answering his own phone, driving his own car—often through the nearby Carl’s Jr. drive-through—and even microwaving his own frozen Hot Pocket when he’s in for a bite.)

I observe how, like a child with ADD, George spends the rest of the afternoon bouncing rapidly from topic to topic, task to task—not because he isn’t able to focus, but because he hyper-focuses on each: sizing it up, mulling his options and deciding on a course of action, sometimes all within a matter of seconds. Over the next several hours I’ll watch him perform this routine often: Should he consider MTV’s request to shut down Flamingo from the Rio to Harmon Avenue on VMA night? Does the new commercial for the Palms’ Bistro Buffet—depicting George dining with a real, live pig—portray him, and his property, in the best possible light? What can he contribute to a basketball-themed video shoot pitting Shaquille O’Neal against Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz?

As the day’s final VMA planning session—regarding traffic and parking coordination for the approaching September 9 extravaganza—breaks up and George bids farewell to Palms employees, MTV honchos and one extremely relieved Nevada Department of Transportation rep (“We’re not closing down Flamingo,” George has assured him), another key proposition lands in his lap, this one from Laura Hill, production executive for MTV News. She’s added yet another Palms location to the network’s wish-list, and this one hits George where it counts. As the pair eyeball the Mint, the casino’s high-stakes blackjack room, he silently assesses the request, to turn a key money-generating zone into a live staging area. Three minutes later he’s made up his mind. “Let’s do it.”

•••••

In the home office that looks out over the main living space of the impressive, but hardly mansion-sized, house he’s occupied for three years, George displays a few choice keepsakes among an otherwise uncluttered existence: a framed set of first-run gaming chips, photos of his three nephews (sons of his older sister, Adrienne) and a letter from Valley Bank. It begins, “Dear Mr. Maloof, We are sorry to inform you ...”

The Maloofs had just sunk $4 million of their family fortune—no great sum by 2007 Maloof standards but a significant expenditure for the clan in 1990—into that parcel in North Las Vegas, with intentions of securing another $20 million for construction on loan from Valley. Just one hurdle remained: If Valley couldn’t locate lending partners, the deal could fall through. And, wouldn’t you know it, that minor technicality turned into a major dose of reality, in the form of that letter.

Until that moment, George’s adult life had proceeded relatively according to plan.

After displaying an aptitude for working at his family’s New Mexico-based Best Western chain as a youngster, he attended UNLV’s hotel management school, spent hours wandering Las Vegas casinos (a predilection for craps and poker didn’t hurt in that regard, either) and became what can only be described as a hotel geek, spending free time sketching his own renderings of literally dozens of hotel-casinos.

“We used to call him the professor,” Gavin Maloof, the younger of George’s two older brothers, says after we almost literally bump into him near the Palms’ food court.

“George has always been detail-oriented, and he’s always been fascinated with casinos. To this day, he could tell you where every slot machine, every restroom is in every casino in Nevada.”

George doesn’t even try to deny it. “My brothers and I would walk into a casino, and they’d say, ‘Don’t ask the bellman where the bathroom is. Just ask George,’” he recalls proudly over lunch at the buffet. “Did you know they switched the men’s and women’s bathrooms at the Las Vegas Hilton a while back? I’ll bet you didn’t know that.”

George appropriates everything within reach as he simulates the giant, fold-out map of Las Vegas he began hauling around after receiving Valley Bank’s letter. “Okay, this knife is Rancho and this fork is Lake Mead, my salad is North Las Vegas, and my iced tea is Summerlin,” he furiously arranges, to the amazement of both myself and the family of four seated one table over. “Bankers kept hearing ‘North Las Vegas’ and turning me down, and I kept pointing over here,” he says, gesturing emphatically toward his iced tea. “What about all the people who will be moving over here?”

George flashes back to countless hours driving to and from Summerlin, often alone, sometimes with prospective investors, in fruitless attempts to turn his desert acreage into a thriving hotel-casino. “I must have taken 30 different banks out there. I had a certain route and a certain time of day when I’d take them, so they would see the most people possible on the road,” he says. “Mentally it was brutal, taking people out there who just didn’t see it.”

What would drive a man to keep pushing at that point, rather than simply unload the land, shrugging his shoulders and spending a few months forgetting the whole incident on some Caribbean isle?

“None of us has to work another day in our life, but then what would we do? Go to the beach and hang out?” Gavin tries explaining. “No, we need something more in life ... a place to hang our hat ... challenges. It’s the drive in us ... to be better than the next guy ... the action. We like to say retiring means dying, and the only way you can kill a Maloof is by putting him on a deserted island. That would be torture.”

•••••

As I speak to friends who have known George longest, stories of his willingness to toil take on legendary proportions. Though the former high school quarterback played only sparingly (as a cornerback and on special teams) after walking onto the UNLV football team in 1985, the 5’9”, 175-pounder gave the Rebels everything he had for three seasons, so much so that a hulking defensive end with a nearby locker couldn’t help but notice the work ethic.

“You’ve gotta really love football to play in 107-degree weather, 120 with a uniform on, but George never complained,” that ex-teammate and friend to this day, rap impresario Suge Knight, recalls. “He worked so hard in practice ... I always tried to work harder than anybody on the field, so I was impressed to see someone else working just as hard.”

Reggie Turner, who joined the UNLV squad in 1986, remembers George knocking himself cold trying to bust the opposing wedge on a kickoff. “As a wide receiver, I used to match up with him in practice, and man, he busted his butt every day to earn everything he got,” Turner says.

That vaunted Maloof determination traces back to George’s grandfather, who emigrated in 1892 from Lebanon to Las Vegas—not here, the one in New Mexico—where he opened a general store and established the beer distributorship that would put the family on a path to riches. It traces to George’s father, who brought that distributorship to Albuquerque and grew it considerably, at the same time making inroads in the hotel, banking and trucking industries in that state and beyond. It traces to George’s mother, Colleen, who stepped in as chairwoman of the board even as she mourned her husband’s death, and to George’s older brothers, Gavin and Joe, who unhesitatingly picked up day-to-day operations after the tragedy, going on to expand the Maloof empire by adding its most visible pre-Palms holdings, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and that team’s Arco Arena home.

“My husband was a workaholic, and my sons take after that,” says Colleen Maloof, whose fourth son, Phil, served four years as a state senator in New Mexico and now runs the family’s entertainment wing in Los Angeles. “I’m very proud of my family, all my sons, of course, but ... ” she continues, pausing to consider exactly how to go on.

That “but” is a biggie, one Colleen Maloof never envisioned as she raised her four boys, imagining, as most parents do, the day when they would become parents themselves. Yet all of Colleen’s grandchildren have come courtesy of her only daughter, while her four sons remain notoriously single, as Phil and George push into their 40s, Gavin and Joe into their 50s. “It’s sad to me, in a way,” Colleen admits. “I don’t think it would have happened this way if my husband was still alive.”

•••••

Even after George left Las Vegas, in 1991, to run a small casino in the historic mining town of Central City, Colorado, he often returned to show financiers his land and tell them about his vision. When traditional methods failed, he looked to less conventional means, jetting to the Cayman Islands on the advice of a newfound acquaintance. “On my way there my family found out the guy was a fraud, that he was probably going to kidnap me and try to get money from my family,” George remembers. “So as soon as I got there I went to the Hyatt, and they put a guard at my door. I never left the hotel.”

George did manage to slip out of his room briefly, however, for a quick trip to the hotel bar. “I met a girl and we ... had some fun,” he says, somewhat sheepishly. “A crazy 12 hours in the Caymans.”

Ah yes, “girls.” George does love them, or as his brother Gavin puts it, he’s “never had trouble getting a date.” But the common perception, that George is always looking for a new female conquest, is only partly accurate. Sure, he’s dated more women—pretty, young, long-legged, sometimes famous and usually blond women—than the average prince of a small foreign country. The full magnitude of that experience hits me during a live-on-TRL VMA nominees special when, surveying the Hefner Villa’s cantilevered rooftop pool packed with 25 bikini-clad models, he leans in and casually remarks, “I think I used to date her,” nodding in the direction of one tall, leggy blonde.

“I’ve had fun, don’t get me wrong,” he says over sushi at the Palms’ Little Buddha Japanese restaurant. “I’ve always just rather gone out with a girl than with the boys. I don’t have a lot of guy friends—my brothers are my friends—so I’d rather go out on a date than go out drinking with the guys, trying to meet women. And though I enjoy courtship, I’ve never been a big chaser. If I get shut down, I’m out.”

Seeing the way pretty women watch him, the way they appear drawn to his important-yet-approachable demeanor, it’s tough to imagine him getting “shut down” all that often, though he’s not generally available, either. His reputation as a sort of Hugh Hefner to the contrary, by all accounts, when George dates someone, he dates only her, until, as has happened so often during his life, she realizes she can’t compete with what has always been, undeniably, his first love: business.

When he made an overnight decision to transfer from Trinity University in San Antonio to UNLV at the semester break of his freshman year, his girlfriend in Texas suddenly became his ex-girlfriend. When the woman he’d been seeing got tired of George veering off mid-date to check out new subdivisions near his North Las Vegas land, that relationship ended, too. “It’s happened with pretty much every single girlfriend I’ve had,” he concedes. “I’ve had some great girlfriends, some good long-term relationships, but I’ve always put business before girls.”

George and his current significant other, dethroned ex-Miss Nevada Katie Rees, have been together nine months. At the VMAs, when we chat during a commercial break, she sounds understandably uneasy. “I’m excited to be here tonight, but I’ll be relieved when this is over,” the 23-year-old Rees explains. “The last few weeks, George has been so busy with this stuff, sometimes I have to text him three times before he calls me back.”

•••••

Unapologetically and with some regularity, George selects the word “obsession” to describe his fondness for business. It makes perfect sense that he chose the casino industry, a 24-7 grind that has leveled swarms of less industrious souls. “Everyone wants to get into this business, but you can burn out easily,” he says. “There are good days and bad days, and you have to have a stomach for it. I’ve just always been able to do it.”

He doesn’t have hobbies. He doesn’t play golf, and though he sometimes watches football, he does so with a keen awareness of which scenarios will best benefit his sports book. He regularly works Saturdays and Sundays, and typically eats lunch and dinner inside the Palms, ducking in for a bite between obligations.

A well-worn yellow legal pad in George’s home office serves as further testament to his compulsion for labor. On it: laundry lists of specific ideas—literally hundreds—relating to the creation of the Palms, every one now featuring a satisfied strike through its middle, confirming completion. “My family’s always been great, and so supportive, but I’ve always just felt like I had to do this all myself,” he says. “It’s always just been a control thing.”

Or could it be something more? George’s grandfather, Joe Maloof, was just 54 when his fatal heart attack hit. George Sr. was 57. At age 43, consciously or not, might George Maloof Jr. be in a race—against time? mortality? family history?—feeling as if every minute not furthering the Maloof legacy is a minute squandered?

He tells me, on several occasions, he’s trying to slow down, make fewer lists, get more sleep. Those closest to him aren’t buying it. “He’s a workaholic, there’s no other way to describe him,” Palms GM Jim Hughes says. “When I wake up and check my phone, I’ll have messages from him from 9:30, 11:30 and 1:30 at night and 5 in the morning, all on different subjects, different things that pop into his head. And I’ll think, ‘When is he sleeping?’”

George’s home seems barely lived-in, and he acknowledges he hasn’t spent much time there, apart from late-night arrivals and early morning preparations—namely, choosing which dark suit (usually sans tie) to pull from his closet. When I inquire about a trash can, he begins searching, opening and shutting one cabinet door before locating it behind another in the house he’s lived in for three years. George met with the architect who designed his home exactly twice, from the time he decided to build to the day he moved in. Why? The project coincided with the development of the Palms’ Fantasy Tower, and given the choice, there was no choice at all. “George told me he once laid by a pool,” Hughes nutshells. “Once.”

     

•••••

Swat! As Shaq emphatically redirects another of Wentz’s outside shots toward the wall that doubles as a pull-down day bed in the $25,000-per-night basketball-themed Hardwood Suite, the Palms owner stands under the basket, laughing. Not a loud guffaw, mind you, or even a sustained cackle. More of a lighthearted chuckle that, coming from someone less sure of himself, might sound put on.

It definitely sounds authentic, as George playfully dodges errant shot attempts from Wentz and marvels at the surprising quickness of the 7-foot-1, muscle-encased Shaq. Afterward, the Palms’ owner and the NBA’s best-known player share a private moment in the suite’s locker room, with George, who sometimes appears slightly cramped in social situations, seeming perfectly at ease hobnobbing with the famous figure.

When the Palms first opened and began attracting celebrities, the hotel used every bit of that pull to its full, public advantage, George readily confesses. “I told the papers about who was here, and went on LA radio every morning to talk about it,” he says. Once the Palms had succeeded in becoming the hip capital of Las Vegas, however, its owner began protecting its famous guests’ stays as voraciously as he had publicized their activities early on.

“Some of the biggest stories—Paris, T.O. [Terrell Owens], Barry Bonds—come to the Palms, and nobody even knows they’re here,” says Turner, George’s former UNLV teammate who now heads up the hotel’s community relations division. “They come through our back entrance, and they’re able to relax here. They know they can trust George.”

When Britney Spears sought refuge from an unrelenting press corps last November, she holed up at George’s house. Axl Rose hibernated at the Palms’ recording studio in January, working on long-delayed Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy away from spying eyes and ears (“He told me it was coming out last April,” George says, answering my next question before I can open my mouth to ask it). Even O.J. Simpson, whom George swears he’s never even met, has made the Palms his Vegas sanctuary, though he’s unlikely to be welcomed back after drawing Metro police and hordes of press, not to mention plenty of curious gawkers, to the hotel on the heels of Simpson’s recent Palace Station incident.

In no small measure, celebrities flock to George because he has—for all intents and purposes—become one of them, an unintended consequence of serving as the face of the Palms in a way Wynn, Sheldon Adelson and Peter Morton never dared. “He doesn’t seek out the limelight, but as a tireless promoter of the property, it comes to him,” Hughes says.

Walking at George’s side, I quickly become accustomed to stares and excited whispers from casino players and restaurant diners, some of whom tap him on the arm or brazenly step in his path to ask if he’ll pose for photos. He always does, appearing both genuinely flattered and slightly tortured by the attention. “People are fascinated with my life,” he tells me midway through a text-message exchange with Paris Hilton. “I take it for granted that it’s not a normal life.”

Like his father in his day, George preaches the importance of media availability—first-time interviewers typically receive his personal cell number—but he tries hard to avoid reading his own press, never Googling his name, abstaining from reading his Wikipedia entry and most of all, steering clear of the thousands of pictures of him currently inhabiting cyberspace.

“I hate photos,” he tells me in no uncertain terms, seconds before stepping into a shoot with British pop star Lily Allen. It’s rather an odd sentiment from a man who, less than two weeks later, will spend nearly two hours traversing the red carpet, mugging with a slot machine for a mob of still photographers before moving on to conduct close to 50 separate television, Internet, radio and print interviews before finally arriving at the Pearl and ducking down a back hallway to catch his breath.

“That was the longest red carpet he’s ever done,” Palms PR director Larry Fink explains. “And he did great. He’s a pro.”

•••••

“They cut the cucumbers big today,” George observes as we kick off our buffet lunch with a spin through the salad bar. Personally, I’m more dumbfounded that the man is picking through iceberg lettuce with a pair of metal tongs, rather than resting at a secluded corner table as a team of underlings deliver brimming platters of his usual favorites. That simply isn’t his way. He just walks in, says hello to the women manning the registers, sits at a table near the center of the room and orders iced tea from a busman who, yes, calls him George. Then he’s on to the food array, where he assembles a salad, selects a couple of Chinese dishes and finishes with a chunk of apple cobbler.

Relaxed as he might seem hanging with some of the world’s top celebrities, and even playing the role of one himself, George Maloof is first and foremost the guy who picks up trash from the Palms’ casino floor, flies commercial (Southwest, typically) and answers his cell even when he doesn’t recognize the number. An elderly woman who approaches with a question about her Palms Club membership rewards receives the digits to his direct office line, along with a credible assurance he’ll personally resolve her issue. In contrast to the Palms’ ultramodern physique, its owner is a throwback to a bygone era, when Vegas honchos like Benny Binion worked not behind some executive curtain but in plain view of their clientele.

George’s residence, stately but in no way Cribs-style tricked out, accurately reflects the modest millionaire. Apart from a pair of troublesome column-imbedded fish tanks (“The fish never seem to live longer than three months”), the house offers only what its owner actually makes use of: a moderately sized gym with adjoining steam room and sauna, a wine cellar stocked with hearty reds, TVs with four-way split screens (“E!, the news, MTV and one I flip through”) and a bar-equipped cabana for hosting visiting guests. Not counting a few family gatherings, the manor has yet to host a party. “When you spend all day at a place like the Palms, you don’t need to bring the party home with you,” he explains. “Plus, I’m not a show-off.”

That’s sounding like an understatement as Turner tells me about the time when, upon receiving complaints from the Palms’ housekeeping department, George took up a vacuum and duster for a day. “He worked as a housekeeper, and I’m not talking about standing around in the rooms,” Turner says. “He pulled and made beds, cleaned rooms ... he had gloves on, and he was sweating. But he wanted to see what the problem was. Just think how it makes you feel when you work at the Palms and your owner is willing to do that. And I don’t care who you are, if you walk up to him and say, ‘Hi, Mr. Maloof,’ he’ll stop you right there and say, ‘My name is George.’ That creates the entire atmosphere of the Palms. We don’t have CEOs who go by last names. I’m Reggie, our GM is Jim, and our owner is George.”

Of course, being accessible doesn’t necessitate being foolhardy, so George employs security for large events—one serious-looking type shadowed him all through VMA day—and, much as it may not be in his nature, even keeps an eye out for potentially nefarious characters. When a loud, middle-aged man interrupts us, barking about the Maloofs’ battle to build a new Kings arena in Sacramento (or, potentially, move the team elsewhere), George listens politely even as he marches on and eventually sheds the stranger. “You don’t want to be rude, but you always gotta keep moving,” he advises.

•••••

As for the cucumber concern, that speaks to George’s attention to the finest of details, another key component of the man’s distinctive DNA. Mere seconds after green-lighting the takeover of his high-rollers room, he’s asking me the name of the song playing through the casino’s overhead speakers. I’m a music writer by trade, and I’ve barely noticed there’s even music on, yet it caught George’s ear during a critical decision-making process. (Footnote: I tell him it’s Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks,” and a few weeks later, PB&J are playing the Palms’ pool. Coincidence?)

While MTV films Lily Allen at the center of a rambunctious, staged round of craps, George’s sights are elsewhere, on the gaming tables in the background, specifically the extras sitting around them. Quietly, he summons Palms PR man Chris Walters to his side and communicates his desire for a better-looking crowd on show night.

“More models for the VMAs.” Sure enough, come September 9, voluptuous women pack the area, many of them plucked directly from the Palms’ own Playboy Club.

Even as George works the red carpet that night, he diverts his attention to an emerging issue: the sudden disappearance of comp tickets earmarked for one of the casino’s most important clients. Between reporters’ questions about Britney’s comeback and the Pearl’s MTV makeover, he ducks out of the reception line for frequent status reports. “We need to find those tickets,” he sternly instructs Jon Gray, the Palms’ dapper, young VIP-schmoozer (technical title: special operations manager). When the tickets ultimately fail to materialize, George reaches into his own pocket for two from his personal stash, shaking his head in frustration before regaining his composure and turning to meet the next journalist head-on.

Just don’t assume that because George Maloof deals with the types of small details high-ranking executives tend to shrug off, he ever loses sight of the big picture. One doesn’t ascend to the ranks of the powerful worrying only about vegetables, human backdrops and concert seats.

That North Las Vegas land no investor would touch? It eventually became one of Nevada’s most lucrative locals casinos, the Fiesta. George’s instincts were confirmed, his vision validated, when then-Station Casinos head Frank Fertitta Jr. purchased the property directly adjacent to the Maloofs’, sending a 28-year-old George scurrying back from Colorado with new confidence, and a significant new concern. “When he bought the land next to ours, all of a sudden I looked like a genius,” he explains.

“But all of a sudden, I had the toughest competitor in the local market right next to me. Great.”

At last convinced the site could support a moneymaker, a bank, First Interstate, loaned the Maloofs the $20 million they’d been chasing for more than three years, but only after each family member signed a personal loan guarantee, putting not only the family’s business reputation, but also each individual’s own wealth, at considerable risk. “We always had confidence in him, no question,” Gavin says.

“There was no doubt in my mind he’d be successful.”

Racing to launch before its neighbor to the south (Texas Station), the Fiesta opened after a wild, eight-month construction blitz, in December 1994. (Texas Station arrived the following July.) Behind a marketing plan centered on loose slots—George began advertising his casino as the “Royal Flush Capital of the World”—and popular Mexican restaurant Garduño’s, the Fiesta quickly became a favorite for, yep, locals in and around Summerlin, and the nearby northwest. “I knew we were going to make it,” George says, “when I went up on the roof on opening night and looked down, and 10 minutes after the doors had opened there were still thousands of people waiting to get in.”

The Fiesta expanded four times under the Maloof regime before George took note of a new casino project to the west, promptly forecasting the impact that establishment, the Suncoast, might have on the operation he’d so painstakingly molded. “I went through our database and saw that about 35 percent of our customers came from ZIP codes close to the Suncoast—89138, 89143, etc.” And just like that, the Maloofs sold, both their casino and its brand name, to longtime competitors Station Casinos, for a cool $185 million, money they would parlay into a new venture briefly referred to in-house as “the Breeze.” “Yeah, that’s what we were gonna call it, before my sister told me that was also the name of some female product,” George recalls with a snicker.

•••••

Though the new enterprise’s permanent name had yet to be nailed down in those early stages, George’s overriding concept for what it would become already was. Walk from the west end of the Palms—the food court, movie theaters, sports book—to the east end—Ghostbar, Rain, N9NE—and it stares back at you, almost teasing you for not thinking of it first. “From the start, I said, ‘This will be a hybrid hotel,’” George says. “We’ll take two markets and put them in the same building. The locals on the west side of town will come for movies, the buffet and loose slots, and celebrities will come for the top restaurants and nightclubs.”

Moreover, at the height of Las Vegas’ themed-casino craze, George wanted no part of that. “Everybody wanted to sell me a theme—Hell theme, London theme, Ferris-wheel theme, winter wonderland—but I wanted to keep it themeless and just go after the two markets, the locals during the week and the LA hipsters on weekends.”

Stop by the Palms on a Wednesday afternoon and you could just as easily be in Sam’s Town or Sunset Station, daily bettors hunkered down at quarter poker machines as kids mill near the McDonald’s and Ben & Jerry’s windows. Come on a Saturday night, and it’s all shiny shirts, strappy sandals and bottle service, 20-somethings hoping to see and be seen as they stand in line for dinner and dancing. And every bit of that, Hughes insists, is precisely by design. “When we first got started talking about what this property would be, George laid out this vision,” Hughes says. “It hadn’t been done before, and there were more than a few critics out there who said we couldn’t cater to locals and also the young, hip set. But we did it, and, obviously, it’s worked.”

Before George could make it work, he’d have to do some major road realigning (“I actually designed a version of the Palms that bridged over Wynn [Road], because nobody thought I could move the road”), though that would pale compared with the Palms’ next major impediment—Las Vegas’ devastated casino industry in the wake of 2001’s terror attacks. “We opened in November 2001, and it was hairy for the first few months,” George concedes. “I was definitely sweating.”

With tourism slumping badly, George harkened back to his Fiesta experience, hitting the locals market hard with direct-mail promotions. He also ingratiated himself to Southern Nevadans by hiring roughly a third of his original 1,800 employees from the vast pool of casino workers laid off after 9/11. Still, to elevate the Palms beyond the neighborhood-casino pack, he’d need to capture the attention of a younger, trendier crowd. Who could have guessed it would only take a reality TV show and a socialite heiress to accomplish that?

Within the Palms’ first year, MTV’s The Real World: Las Vegas began beaming the modish property—the setting for the series’ most risqué season ever—around the world, fulfilling another of George’s lifelong fantasies. “My favorite TV show growing up was Vega$, with detective Dan Tanna driving up and down the Strip with hot chicks in a Thunderbird,” he says. “When I got the call about The Real World, I was instantly committed to the idea of bringing TV into the casino, and I convinced them that this was the best place to do it.”

Around the same time, Paris Hilton became the Palms’ best-known regular guest, and her high-profile party antics soon made it “cool to go out again,” in George’s words. “I met Paris about a year before the Palms opened, and I invited her to be my date for the opening,” he says. “Then we realized she might be under 21, so we asked her to fax us a document verifying her age, which she did. She came to the event in a dress made from $1 million worth of chips. And then a couple months later, I received an invite to her 21st birthday in the mail.”

•••••

The more time I spend with George Maloof, the more I’m struck by the many dualities that compose his personality. “He’s a real person,” Suge Knight assesses. “I have a lot of homeboys, people I know, out there, but I can count on one hand who my friends are, and George is one of them. He’s a real person, a man, and you don’t find that too often nowadays.”

On one hand George is a wide-eyed kid, summoning me to the Palms two days before the VMAs to marvel at miles of MTV cable running this way and that throughout his hotel. “Have you ever seen anything like this? I never have,” he says as we pick our way through a chaotic crew at work in one fantasy suite. “This is gonna be amazing.”

On the other, he’s looking for an ass to chew out upon finding his food court in disarray following a Pearl concert on a Saturday night. “I can get a little snappy, and if can’t find the person in charge or get a good explanation, I get more excited,” he self-evaluates. Paula Pace, his executive assistant, puts it this way: “Does he fly off the handle? He can, but he’ll always give you a chance to explain yourself first. And he doesn’t hold grudges. The couple of blowups he’s had with me over the years never got personal, and they’re forgotten a few minutes later.”

One minute he’s grinning exultantly as we stand on the terrace outside his second-floor bedroom, asking what I see in the distance. Though the surrounding tree line obscures the Strip completely, I can make out—wouldn’t you know it—the Palms’ two finished towers, along with the nearly completed Palms Place condo tower. “How bizarre is that!” George exclaims, assuring me the view was a happy accident, and not actually part of his grand design.

The next, he’s looking like he might actually cry as he relates the Time magazine story that kept him awake the previous night, about a post-Katrina New Orleans utterly unprepared for another weather nightmare. “The headline says, ‘It’s pathetic,’ and it really is. There’s a tiny wall between that city and another disaster,” he says, his head shaking slightly from the sentiment.

He’s the shrewdest of businessmen, annoyed that his family’s association with pro basketball means the Palms’ sports book can’t accept bets on the NBA. “Any time you have to tell your customers ‘no’ about something your competition has, it’s not good,” he explains.

He’s also a man who gives back, doling out college scholarships, funds for impoverished schools and anything he can offer after one recent tragedy. “After that family of five was killed by a drunk driver off Farm Road, George called me and said, ‘I can only imagine what that family is going through. How can we help?’” Turner relates. “So we donated all the money from the Bistro Buffet that week to Stop DUI. We raised about $40,000 to help them with legal costs for that family.”

He’s the George Maloof who has lifted his famous family to triumphant new heights, supplying the crown jewel of an imperial kingdom. And he’s the George Maloof still yearning to live up to the legacy of his father, a man who never got to witness the vast accomplishments of the teenage son he left behind. “I didn’t have enough time with my dad,” he begins slowly. “He was a brilliant man who got along with everyone, and provided us with great opportunities. I think if he saw me today, he’d say, ‘Good job, George,’ and he’d be proud. I hope he would be proud.”

•••••

At the end of another long workday, George Maloof stands in the shadow of Palms Place, staring up at the last major phase of his 6-year-old hotel’s extended period of expansion. “I’ve literally been under construction since I got out of college,” he says, not sounding the least bit exhausted.

What’s next? He mentions he’s received several offers to buy the Palms the past few months, but he has no intention to sell. “We’re the last independent brand left in Las Vegas,” he declares. “If you look up and down the Strip, everything is corporate, or owned by a big private equity corporation. The Palms is family-owned and operated, and that’s important to me.”

Another Palms? Possibly. “But it would have to be the right place. I wouldn’t just stick the Palms brand on a riverboat,” he says. “I definitely want to do more—it’s almost a responsibility to do more—and I’ve got a few more ideas, but I haven’t looked too far out.”

That night, between bites of the George’s Lobster Roll named for him at Little Buddha, George mentions another potential project, one far more surprising. “I’ve actually been thinking about having kids lately,” he discloses. “When you start multiplying out your age and where you want to be ... if I had a kid today I’d be 64 when they were 21 ... it gets a little weird. You get to a point where you think, there’s gotta be something else. So maybe ...”

Colleen Maloof takes this bit of information in stride, as if she’s heard it from one or more of her sons before, only to be let down later. “I’d love it if my sons would, but if they can’t happen to find the right person, they shouldn’t. I don’t want them married and miserable. So maybe some things aren’t meant to be.”

Still, when George mentions it again a few weeks later at his dining-room table, it sounds like more than just a passing thought. “It would be a big change from what I’m used to, but I don’t think I want to be a bachelor forever. I see my sister with her kids, and it’s pretty cool,” he says, then stops, taking the thought an unexpected step further when he continues. “You know, if I were to look back at the girlfriends I’ve had over the years, I can probably think of five or six that, if I’d been looking to get married, would have been great wives and maybe great mothers. But I guarantee you, if I’d done that, the Palms would be a totally different place, if it would even be here at all.”

And there it is, the principal irony of George Maloof’s eventful existence, that to have the kinds of children others might have wanted from him he’d have had to sacrifice the kind of child he always dreamed about, his singular vision, his hotel.

Spencer Patterson is the Weekly’s music editor.

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