Thursday, May 20, 2004 | 8:06 a.m.
Music is alive and well on and near a stretch of South Decatur Boulevard. This entertainment enclave features such haunts as the Emergency Room, Cabo Charlie's, the Sand Dollar, Central Park West and a dozen other venues where fans can sit and listen to jazz while dining, dance to rock 'n' roll or hear salsa music or the rhythms of the Caribbean.
Some are clubs, such as Money Plays, 4755 W. Flamingo Road, and Central Park West, 4760 W. Sahara Ave., which make most of their income from slots and provide live music as a perk to their customers.
Many are restaurants that provide background music, including Fellini's, 5555 W. Charleston Ave.; Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, 4561 W. Flamingo Road, Bonito Michoacan, 3715 S. Decatur Blvd., and Ferraro's, 5900 W. Flamingo Road.
Some of the restaurants go beyond the minimum, such as Nora's Cuisine, 6020 W. Flamingo Road, where the Joe Darro Trio performs late-night gigs on weekends.
City Lights Bistro (at the northeast corner of Decatur Boulevard and Flamingo Road) provides Greek music and belly dancing on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays beginning around 11:30 p.m. and sometimes continuing until dawn.
Mondays through Wednesdays the Greek/Italian restaurant and lounge features jazz jam sessions that get going around 10 p.m. The sessions are led by keyboardist Dennis Mellen and drummer Paco Martin, but they are joined by a host of musicians who drop by to perform.
Trumpeter/vocalist Skip Martin (no relation to Paco), of Cool and the Gang fame, fronts Mellen and Martin from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays.
Mellen noticed the concentration of live music venues in the area.
"I don't know of any other part of town, except the casinos, where there are so many places you can go to hear live musicians within a relatively short distance," said Mellen, who has performed in Vegas for nearly 15 years.
Beverley Southworth enjoys the friendly atmosphere and the music at City Lights and Cafe Nicolle, two of her favorite hangouts.
The Las Vegas native recalls the days when Vegas was a small town you could cross in 15 minutes. She doesn't like to fight today's traffic while getting to a casino or to clubs that are more distant from her home.
"It's easily accessible," Southworth, a Realtor with Coast to Coast Real Estate Inc., said.
Last year Michael Karafantis, a Vegas restaurateur since 1989, bought the former Kitchen Cafe, which for years was a favorite hangout for musicians.
He wanted to keep the Kitchen's tradition alive.
"I partied here for 10 years," said the 53-year-old Karafantis, a native of Greece. "I like the club atmosphere and the live music."
Tony and Marlene Golamis, owners of Cafe Nicolle (at the northeast corner of Decatur Boulevard and Sahara Avenue), share Karafantis' feelings about live music.
"We want to provide a place where our customers can enjoy music and dance," Tony Golamis said.
When the couple bought Cafe Nicolle four years ago they put in a dance floor and built a stage for a band, which is occupied Fridays and Saturdays by vocalist Lou Martinez, drummer Conrad Csogi and Mellen on keyboards.
South of Cafe Nicolle (on Decatur near Spring Mountain Road) is the Emergency Room, where the stage is shared by a rotating roster of live bands and a DJ.
"Our best nights are Mondays," bartender Desiree DiPuzo said. "After midnight, we're maximum capacity."
Mondays are DJ nights, featuring DJ Hollywood. His fans are younger, in their 20s and 30s.
"We may start having DJs on Wednesdays and Fridays as well," DiPuzo said.
The older fans prefer live music, especially rock 'n' roll, DiPuzo said.
The Emergency Room changed hands a couple of years ago. Before then it was managed briefly by John Earl Williams (of John Earl and the Boogie Man Band) and his wife, Shirley. At that time it was strictly blues, and live.
At one time the venue belonged to Tommy Rocker. It was the rock 'n' roll entertainer's first venture into owning a restaurant. Now he owns four.
The Williamses managed another popular nightclub in the area for about 13 years -- the Sand Dollar, east of Decatur Boulevard at 3355 Spring Mountain Road. John Earl started a blues tradition at the Sand Dollar that still thrives. There is music seven nights a week, with several bands rotating engagements.
Recently the featured band was the popular group the Ruffnecks (Jason Edwards, keyboard and vocalist; brother Rob Edwards on bass, and Alvin Segler on guitar). When the Ruffnecks finished, Little Joe came on at 2 a.m.
Cabo Charlie's, 2605 S. Decatur Blvd., is one of the oldest clubs in the area.
It first opened in 1991, then was sold to a new owner for several years and then rebought and reopened almost three years ago.
The club (with a Cabo San Lucas motif) once was part of the Arizona Charlie corporate family, but when Arizona Charlie's sold, Cabo Charlie's spun off on its own.
There are six Cabo Charlie's around town. The only one that offers live music is on Decatur Boulevard, and it features bands or singles on Fridays and Saturdays, DJs on Sundays and drum jam sessions on Wednesdays, with every kind of drum imaginable, from snare to congo.
The groups may range from a duet to an eight-piece band. Last week the duo Deuces Wild performed. This weekend it will be the seven-piece band Knock Out.
The Night Kings, a four-piece doo-wop group, are among a handful of bands that perform regularly at Cabo Charlie's.
Fred Kiser, marketing director for the Cabo chain and manager of the Decatur Boulevard club, says clubs along Decatur are popular because they are close to neighborhoods.
"We're one of six bars on the four corners around Decatur and Sahara," Kiser said. "With the DUI laws becoming stricter, people want something closer to home."
In addition, many of his customers work on the Strip, and when they get off work they don't want to stick around.
Also, there is no cover charge, and you don't have to buy a minimum number of drinks.
Several club owners provide music for customers because they personally enjoy it, not because it makes them money.
Russ Davies and Dave Smith bought the Cellar, 3601 W. Sahara Ave., about three years ago, providing a haven for blues fans -- guitarist/vocalist Billy Ray Charles and his band perform there late nights Thursdays through Sundays.
"It's something we need in Las Vegas," Smith said.
Jim Holcombe, owner of Pogo's Tavern, shares Smith's point of view.
Economically, the slot machines are more important to his business than the music. But he and his customers like music.
Pogo's, at 2103 N. Decatur Blvd., is far beyond the concentration of clubs on South Decatur Boulevard, but it has become a legend among local bars. It was opened almost 40 years ago by the late Glen Jones, who was Clark County sheriff from 1943-'55.
From 8 p.m. to midnight every Friday the nondescript club transforms into a sit-in jazz joint, a place where talented musicians have been jamming for almost three decades. Drummer Irv Kluger, 84, has led the band there for 20 years.
Down the road a couple of miles from Pogo's is Central Park West, 4760 W. Sahara Ave.
Ron Smilow opened the club two years ago in a former Applebee's restaurant.
"I like live music, but it's a complete waste of money," Smilow said. "You can't get your money back. People who believe live music will help their business are just grabbing at straws."
Most of his money comes from slot players.
"Slot players gamble as an escape," he said. "The last thing they want is music or some other noise distracting them."
His live music is strategically performed when there are not a lot of slot players around.
"When I'm not making slot money anyway, like right after work," Smilow said. "It maybe helps get the people to stay an extra hour."
Smilow says the musicians in Vegas are being wasted.
"There's a ton of talent in this town, but they can't get work," he said.
But bars are more popular than ever. Smilow says the reason is there isn't anything else to do in Vegas.
"That's why the bars are so crowded," he said. "It's people just hanging out. What are the locals going to do, go see Celine for $200?"