Thirty years and 1,500 weddings later, Nielsen family sells business
The first wedding The Entertainer produced was at Valhalla. No one spoke English, owner Jackie Nielsen said. When she hung up the bells around the wedding cake, they fell and crushed parts of the cake.
When it was all over, she said she was never going to do a wedding again.
Thirty years later, the business is finally winding down for the Nielsens. They sold The Entertainer, now located in Gardnerville, to Valerie and Jim Prather in September, but are finishing out their remaining contracts with the new owners. The last wedding will be in December.
After working with The Entertainer for their son’s wedding, Valerie Prather found she had a lot in common with Jackie. Prather has a background in design and thought it’d be fun and challenging to take on the business.
Prather said the hands-on learning process has been great because she has learned a lot in a short amount of time. It’s not just a buyer and seller relationship, she said.
“It’s like you’re at a party all the time,” Prather said.
Gary and Jackie moved to Lake Tahoe in 1977 and started their business from scratch.
The name for it came to Jackie when she and Gary went to listen to Anthony Newly perform. He started singing the song “I am the Entertainer.” Jackie looked a Gary and said that’s what the name should be. The name is trademarked in California.
Their son Travis literally was brought up by the family business. Two days after he was born, Gary said he had Travis strapped to his back while he worked on a wedding.
Travis said he is proud of what his parents have accomplished, but doesn’t want to continue in the business. He is working as an assistant general manager at Heavenly Village Cinemas.
The early years of the business are referred to by Jackie as “crate paper and bell days” because those were the main forms of decorations. Since then, the business has produced extravagant weddings ranging from The Simpsons animators’ caveman wedding at Valhalla, to Beach Boy Mike Love’s wedding in Incline Village. Over the years, they have married individuals and then gone on to organize weddings for their children. In all, they’ve put together approximately 1,500 weddings.
Gary Nielsen said they can count on one hand the number of times an event has gone wrong, which makes them fortunate after being in the industry for 30 years.
The Nielsen’s presence will be missed. Phil Stoll, wife of Tahoe dentist Tim Stoll, said The Entertainer planned the weddings for both of their daughters. Eldest, Kari Barstow’s wedding was a traditional theme with 200 people in attendance. Youngest, Dr. Ellery Stoll’s wedding was a bit more extravagant.
Since the groom was Persian, the wedding mixed both cultures, Stoll said.
“She tunes in to what they need,” Stoll said.
Even though they planned the Persian wedding for a year, Jackie was excited the whole time. Stoll said if she could, she’d relive her daughter’s wedding again.
“I’d like to go back there,” she said. “It lasted a whole day but, it was over in an instant.”
Life after The Entertainer has already begun for the Nielsens. The truck Jackie drives doesn’t have The Entertainer signs on it anymore.
“I’m Jackie now – not Jackie The Entertainer,” she said.
Prather understands how hard it is to let a business go and how it becomes a part of how owners define themselves. Her husband sold a business he started after 22 years.
“It’s like a child practically,” she said. “You raise and nurture it,” Prather said.
The Nielsens do have future plans. Gary will continue to be a campground host and a bus driver for the Dixie Queen. He enjoys the job because he comes up with trivia for the passengers and provides entertainment for them on their ride.
Travis plans to pursue his writing. He’s written a novel and working to get it published.
Jackie said she is going to look for a relaxing job.
As for the business, the Nielsens said it’s in good hands. After all, The Entertainer must go on.