Charismatic casino chief prepares for Sin City
August 30, 2005
STATELINE – The days are numbered here for Harrah’s Lake Tahoe chief Don Marrandino, who took a job running the show at Harrah’s and Flamingo Las Vegas.
That’s not bad for a self-described jock who started out a Jersey kid working in Atlantic City as a lifeguard on the New Jersey shore at $3 an hour before moving over to a front desk clerk post for $2 more.
It’s been a whirlwind ever since for the 45-year-old man who’s reinvented fun many times over. When he’s not making money, he’s strumming a guitar or playing ball – baseball, football and basketball, that is.
The team’s marketing motto is: “Swing as hard as you can in case you might hit it.”
He challenged country music star Toby Keith in a basketball game on the casino parking lot before his gig during the Outdoor Summer Concert series, one of his proudest achievements.
“I was worried he’d break his fingers and couldn’t play,” he said.
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Instead, it was Marrandino who pulled a leg muscle during the basketball game.
But hey, it’s all in the name of the game. The show must go on.
Along with the two years he’s logged here, Marrandino has earned a lot of memories in the entertainment and gambling world.
He’s best known for his time at the Hard Rock Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas, where he booked headliners like the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen. Aptly so, Nils Lofgren – who’s played guitar with Springsteen’s E Street band since 1984 – handed Marrandino a guitar with an assignment after a year. Marrandino said he delivered with a rendition of “Stand By Me.”
“I just mess with it,” he said. Marrandino never took lessons, but he uses it to help unwind after coming off the fast-paced casino floor.
He also pioneered Gen-X marketing campaigns featuring ultra-nightclubs and celebrity chef restaurants.
So the offering of eateries and nightclub acts here have his invisible signature all over them – Lipstick, the X show and Cabo Wabo. His friend rocker Sammy Hagar bought into that latter agreement, making appearances that added flair to the blend of music, food and tequila.
“I just love this business. Obviously, Vegas is the mecca. The strip can be challenging. But I’d like to think, if I have a strength, it’s my branding,” he said from his executive suite office covered with boxes, DVDs and guitar cases.
Marrandino said he’s got at least 10 years left for mixing fun, money and friendship from the players and employees to some business and civic leaders. He’ll miss church services at Our Lady of Tahoe Catholic Church.
“The 9 a.m. services?”
“No, 12:15 p.m.,” he responded as if asked whether he’d rather be an auditor.
Marrandino has embraced life in Tahoe.
He’s proud of helping to secure $50 million in improvements, beefing up restaurants scene like 19, Fatburger and Cabo Wabo and the headline acts for the outdoor concert series.
To launch “Opening Day” this summer on the South Shore, the Tahoe Queen’s honorary captain walked a plank and dove off the M.S. Dixie paddlewheeler after losing the paddlewheeler race to Heavenly Mountain Resort chief Blaise Carrig.
He made many friends in his travels. Many staged a surprise send-off last week on the Bow Wave yacht.
“In my 13 years in the tourism business, I have never encountered anyone as community minded as Don Marrandino,” said Patrick Kaler, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority executive director.
Marrandino had parting words for friends and dissenters.
“I think you’re lucky to have life-long friends. I think I’ve picked up a few here. A lot of times people say they never go back in life, but I’ll come back,” he said. “This is where I ski.”
Marrandino also offered words of advice to naysayers of tourism.
“A lot of people in town work together, but there are still naysayers. It’s important for people here to rally around tourism. We wanted events the whole town could get behind. This place could be the Aspen of the West,” he said.