Ross Mollison In « The Improssario »
The VT Interview With Spiegelworld's Mastermind
We're here today speaking With Ross Mollison who is The Improssario of Spiegelworld, the folks who bring you Absinthe at Caesars Palace. Spiegelworld has a new show coming to Caesars Palace this month called Never Sleep Alone.
VT: Ross, what exactly are your duties as Improssario?
Ross Mollison: That's an interesting question. It mainly involves keeping The Gazillionaire in line in Absinthe, which is always tricky... going around very much like a manager would, mopping up after him. I'm also out looking for talent and working out what talent would best suit Las Vegas or other markets that we tour to and arranging the creation of shows that could come to Vegas or tour the world. It's a fun job - it's a great job - that involves every bit of the gig, from negotiating venue deals, negotiating with resorts and casino Presidents to marketing - which is such an enormous issue, not just for Vegas but for every market you go to in the world. They're each very very different in the approach you take.
VT: Give us some background on yourself. How did you get involved in theater and comedy and production?
Ross Mollison: I started from a very young age working in producing and marketing in Australia, I'm from Melbourne. When I was at college in Australia I started working on the professional series of a theater that they had there. We did really really well there, so I built a business out of that.
I've always been really passionate about circus. I've always loved circus since I was a child. I worked with the Moscow Circus, which is a famous and great touring company that toured Australia. From there I went on to work with Cirque du Soleil for many years in Australia. In fact my company still works for Cirque du Soleil in Australia and New Zealand. We're the local promoter there for Cirque, which is a great joy and a great pleasure. Australians absolutely love Cirque du Soleil.
Working with Cirque led us to working on a variety of different shows as a producer, including coming to North America as producer of a show called Slava's Snow Show in New York, starring a fantastic Russian clown Slava Polunin. He worked in the Cirque du Soleil show Alegria, one of their touring shows from a few years back. From doing Slava's Snow Show in America I sort of fell in love with Vegas and started producing a show called Absinthe New York in 2006 and made a deal to bring it to Vegas. It was going to be the show at the Fontainebleau casino, due to open in 2009. Unfortunately, Fontainebleau's lead funder was Lehman Brothers, so that didn't go ahead. We had to scurry around to do another deal. We ended up at Caesars Palace.
VT: How is it you ended up at Caesars Palace?
Ross Mollison: One of the first meetings we ever took was with Scott Schecter who was the VP of Entertainment for Caesars Entertainment. This was like 2006. Back then, when you walked up and down the Strip, the Roman Plaza was like... "Hello!". For a guy who likes putting up tents, the Roman Plaza was just sitting there... empty. At the time Caesars was like "Uh... yeah... no. It's not for us."
Fast forward to 2010, 2011. If you said you were opening something in Vegas, people looked at you like you were crazy. We really wanted to try opening at Caesars again, so Gary Selesner - who was and still is the President of Caesars Palace - said "I love this idea and want to give it a shot" and gave us permission to do it. Originally, Absinthe was scheduled for a six month engagement and it went really, really well. Then we built a permanent installation there and built on that success.
VT: The Spiegeltent in the Roman Plaza seems like the perfect venue for Absinthe. Does being outside of the four walls of the casino afford you any additional freedom?
Ross Mollison: It cuts both ways. We're not a casino owned show. We partner with the casino and we work together with them. That impacts the level of promotion you may necessarily expect, certainly when we opened. Over the years, Caesars has grown to love The Gazillionaire and our brand of humor. Initially, there was a lot of reticence towards it. Because we totally control the show as far as its creation, the artistic side, within the bounds of the Gaming Control Board, it allows us to put the acts in there that we wish to put in. Caesars has been a fantastic partner, they're a fantastic brand and since we've started here the property as undergone an enormous regeneration. Every restaurant has turned into something amazing. I'm staying in the Nobu Tower at the moment. You may hear some jackhammering in the background, they're building a cigar bar or something downstairs, so that's going to be fabulous. They're continually improving the property. It has been a great period to be here.
We're sort of counter to what the vibe of shows was in Vegas. They were always like...the casino floor, and somewhere out in the back you'll eventually find the production. I think actually being right in front of Caesars Palace, on the corner of Flamingo and The Strip has really helped us. The fact that you can see Absinthe from Google Earth as you zoom in on the top of our big top is really really exciting. That gives us a great deal of presence, people like that.
VT: The interior design of the Spiegeltent is also something to behold. It is very eclectic, right down to the seating. I once watched a show from the inside of a bathtub. Can you tell us how you went about designing that space?
Ross Mollison: Part of it was due to budgetary concerns. A lot of Vegas is what I term, "Vegas Luxe." It is expensive, it looks beautiful, but it is highly undifferentiated from any other offering in the market. We felt we could do something with what I call "Brooklyn Bar, found object design." There's a great trend in the last decade in Brooklyn where you just find whatever junk you could and put it in a bar and saying that's your interior design. It was a lot cheaper of course. A) We didn't have a lot of money and B) that would certainly set us apart from anything else on The Strip. The other advantage of the venue is it is a one room theater, in that everybody is in the same room, all the patrons are in the same space as the artist and you get that incredible intimacy and incredible sense of excitement of being in that one space. In fact every audience member is really a part of the show. As you're looking across the big top, you can see someone sitting on the other side of the big top and you're watching their eyes while they're watching whatever is happening on stage. It's a group theatrical principle. The interior design itself, we just have so much fun... we're constantly updating it. We just put a whole lot of new art in there, its a lot of fun we enjoy doing it.
VT: We want to talk for a minute about The Gazillionaire. He, of course, is the star of Absinthe. We had The Gazillionaire on our Match Game VT panel at the Vegas Internet Mafia Family Picnic in October.
Ross Mollison: I'm sorry, I apologize about that.
VT: I have to be honest with you. He was cruel and we loved him for it. In the same ways that prisoners fall in love with their captors. What is The Gazillionaire's greatest strength?
Ross Mollison: The Gazillionaire knows no bounds. He's not afraid of being punched in the face. He's not afraid of being kissed. He's not afraid of anybody really. He's just there doing what he has to do because the people he was hoping to get to come and host the show never showed up. He's kind of stuck in that spot.
When I first met The Gazillionaire, we were in a tiny little cabaret bar in L.A. that held 50 people. Some guy was celebrating his birthday and The Gazillionaire was congratulating him by kissing his shoe. He took his shoe off and started kissing his sock. He took his sock off and the guy was eating calamari rings. He stuffed the calamari rings on each of the guys toes and puts bits of lettuce between all the toes and holds this guys foot in the air like some kind of calamari ring birthday cake and then stuffs it in his mouth. The Gazillionaire sucks all of the calamari and lettuce off of this guys toes and eats it. That was my introduction to The Gazillionaire. I kind of fell of my stool at the bar watching this. I've never met anybody like that and I thought "he might play in Vegas."
VT: I agree. Once you see someone eating a calamari ring birthday cake, you got something there.
Ross Mollison:You don't see that. I think that is the great opportunity about Vegas is to do things that are highly differentiated - to come in with something that nobody else is doing. The tendency is to say "well, that's what's working, let's do more of that" which is traditional developer tendency the world over. They keep building apartments until they can't sell them, then move on to shopping centers or whatever. The great thing about Vegas is people come here to have fun. I can guarantee you, nightly, there are a thousand people going through Absinthe having an absolute blast.
VT: I have a theory I want to throw at you. Is it fair to say that there is a 'misanthropic undertone' to Absinthe? What I mean by that is - I mean it as a compliment - I don't mean to suggest that the show has actual contempt for its audience, but it does seem to unite the audience in their common stupidity.
Ross Mollison: The thing about Absinthe is, the tone of the comedy picks every body up. If you see nasty comedy, there seems to be victims. Even people on stage doing ridiculous things they never expected to be doing that night, are laughing and having a great time. I understand what you are saying in the sense that there is definitely a very strong edge to the comedy, but I do believe quite strongly in the parody of various types that The Gazillionaire undertakes, and of course the other characters having nothing to do with The Gazillionaire - The Checkov-Jones, the Cirque du Soleil parody number, La Petite Merde "the Cirque show from Reno" is all about poking a bit of fun about certain stereotypes. I think the audience loves it and are refreshed by the satire of it all.
VT: In addition to Absinthe at Caesars Palace, there is an Australian production of the show?
Ross Mollison:Yes. We just concluded an Australian tour which was incredible, just great. It was a privilige to take it back home. We worked in Melbourne and Perth with Crown casino there, James Packer's company, there. We arranged to put the show on the roof of the Crown casino in Melbourne, which was really exciting. In the other markets, we were in the center of the city in Brisbane and Sydney. It was great to take what is now a signature part of Vegas entertainment down to Australia.
VT: There were some cast members doing dual time between the Vegas production and the Australian production. Is it safe to say that the Vegas show will become more static now or will there still be a rotation?
Ross Mollison: It's always great for artists to move around and experience different audiences. I think the Las Vegas audiences are extremely generous, they're fantastic. I think it sharpens artists to move around and experience audiences in other markets. We've certainly been looking at touring Absinthe in Europe and indeed America and Canada. There is a possibility that some of the artists will move around a bit. But equally at the same time we use every production we do as an opportunity to develop new ideas. In Australia we developed new idea for our horizontal bar act, which is like a gymnastic sport you would see at an Olympic level, they jump from bar to bar. You put that in the environment of the big top and it is right over the audiences heads, it is just unbelievably exciting. So we developed this new act which I'm hoping to bring to Vegas at some point. So yes, we move the casts around a bit, we have a wonderful stable of talent that are very much part of our family. They all have a particular style we love. It's also a bit like a sporting team, you have to stay at your absolute peak.
VT: Vegas Nocturne is another Spiegelworld show that had a brief but brilliant run at Rose, Rabbit, Lie at Cosmopolitan. I went and found it to be an incredibly immersive experience. There was a platform in the middle of the dining room where a performer played a glass harmonica, there was a raucous band that would kick up in the adjoining bar, the theater itself had a fast-paced variety show, the seats were very close and you couldn't help but to be part of the action. Afterwards, the place was filled with secret spaces and speakeasy bars and the audience could interact with the talent. I had a great evening playing 78rpm records with Piff The Magic Dragon in one of the side bars. It was incredible and seemed like the next big thing. I know it ended badly, but could we ever see a Vegas Nocturne-like experience again in Las Vegas?
Ross Mollison: I think undoubtedly you will. Vegas Nocturne was created with good will by all parties, on all sides. It was an incredible investment by The Cosmopolitan, and an incredibly bold idea. Unfortunately, just half way through to launching, the property is sold and new ownership means different directions. That's just the nature of Vegas. We've all settled. We're big boys and we're all friends. Shows open and shows close. That show played for about seven months.
That level of interaction, that level of excitement and unexpected outcome plus the opportunity to dine and participate in entertainment at your will not like part of a track and being to be locked there for four hours. You could go to Rose Rabbit Lie for 15 minutes and have a cocktail if you wanted to. There were people I met who would come to the 7:30 show and still be there at 1 in the morning. People would say "I'm only there for the show" and at 1am you'd find them in the study with Piff, bidding $2,000 to buy a croissant or whatever ridiculous stuff was going on. It was created with us and The Cosmopolitan with an enormous sense of play and adult fun in mind and we got a long way towards achieving that. I think that is what's next, that is what I want to do. What do you do at 10:30 at night if you don't want to go into a big box humping heaving duff duff club? Where do you go?
VT: I enjoyed it a great deal and felt like it was an alternative for people who, as you say, want adult entertainment and are not part of the club scene.
Ross Mollison: Not to take away from the incredible club scene that is here, but maybe you want to do that one night and something else another night. There's not a lot to do. Especially when you start to hit that 35-50 year old demographic and you do want to go out at that time of night? Equally, a lot of the restaurants are closed, the kitchens close at about 10 o'clock. We were open until 1 or 2 in the morning, with a menu, and there was entertainment and there was great cocktails. Our mixologist Marshall Altieri was amazing... just delicious cocktails there.
VT: I had no idea some of the rooms existed and to this day have no idea how I ended up in the bar that I ended up in. But as you say, I was sitting in that bar drinking cocktails and there were other people sitting at that bar eating cheeseburgers. I didn't know there were cheeseburgers, but if you just sort of started asking questions, things started revealing themselves.
Ross Mollison: It is a very interesting model. It is a model that as Vegas moves on to the next stage and more and more casinos open I think will be explored again. This is certainly something we're very passionate about exploring, we love the idea. If any casino presidents listen to your fine podcast, please feel free to call and we'll turn up.
VT: Well, thank you. Spiegelworld is bringing "Never Sleep Alone" a show hosted by Dr. Alex Schiller to Las Vegas for three nights this month. The show promises to help single people in Las Vegas to get laid. Is that a problem that needed solving?
Ross Mollison: I guess we're about to find out. This is a little test run to see how this idea will play in Vegas. In New York, it has been an incredible hit, the people just love it. I've never been in an audience New York before - at the Public Theater, no less, this is fancy - where I felt like I was in Vegas. I said "this has just got to work in Vegas." So I thought, let's just be careful, take it down to Las Vegas for three shows and see what happens. Well, just from the response from casino executives alone has been amazing... they all want to come down and check it out. We've sold out the first two shows. We have an ad budget of about $50 bucks. I think Never Sleep Alone could be something that plays here.
VT: We noticed that tickets were being sold in two section - the 'singles' section and the 'voyeur' section. I think I have some idea what the voyeur section is. I occasionally peep into my neighbors windows. What are you in for if you sit in the singles section?
Ross Mollison: Dr. Schiller runs it as a mix between a TV evangelist and, like Tony Robbins, a motivational speaker talking about sex. If you wish to really get involved in some of the demonstrations that she does or some of the different workshop sessions that she wants to do onstage, which she takes very very seriously, then, you can do that. If you are in the voyeur section and you feel compelled, you can always jump down in front and get involved. I've seen that happen. Equally, if you're down in the front - I call it the "swingers" section, you don't need to be single, you're just up for a bit of fun - and you don't want to be involved, you don't have to. It's all very friendly. Very friendly.
VT: I don't think my neighbors mind when I look in their windows. They're in their 70's.
Ross Mollison: Equally, people who are coming to this style of show in Las Vegas, in front of Caesars Palace, in a circus tent, they kind of know what they're up for. They're out to have some fun.
VT: One final question. Let's say I'm a six toed, sex toy juggler who is comfortable with full frontal nudity and I can guess your weight while I fart the first three songs from AC/DC's High Voltage album. How do I get a gig with Spiegelworld?
Ross Mollison: We regularly run auditions and would absolutely delighted seeing that. I've seen so many amazing artists in my time, from guys setting their pubic hair on fire to the soundtrack of Towering Inferno to the most amazing tricks... there's a Swedish girl, a 12-year-old who jumps... uh... like a horse. There are extraordinary artists out there, and you never know... we're the place for you. Come to Spiegelworld and audition. You remind me that we should be doing auditions in Vegas soon because we haven't done it in a while.
What I always find extraordinary is... I listen to you guys a lot, I love listening to your podcast... what I find amazing is the focus and interest you have in the actual business of Vegas. The greatest business in Vegas is show business. There is no better margined Vegas business than a hit show - Guy LaLiberte figured that out pretty quickly with Mystere and O - and certainly Absinthe, there is a fantastic business there. It is better than gambling, better than running hotel rooms, better than everything... it is the best margined business in Vegas. It amazes me that more live entertainment - especially in the category of 300 to 1000 seat range - is not happening, because there is enormous demand for it. It is a great market for thousand toed people to produce shows.
VT: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Ross!
Ross Mollison: It's a pleasure and nice to chat. Come see Never Sleep Alone! Cheers.