Las Vegas Sun

December 13, 2018

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Finding closure at the Maxim

It was quiet in the lobby of the Maxim hotel Monday morning, more quiet than most Las Vegas resorts ever are.

The former casino floor was empty, not a table or slot machine in sight, no sounds of slot machine bells or shouts of excited gamblers echoing throughout. The lounge was devoid of early drinkers, bartenders or even liquor bottles. The restaurant, which should have been bustling at this hour, was silent. Here and there, yellow tape was strung across entrances.

A few employees milled around, doing what little work was left to do, spending time reminiscing with longtime colleagues, knowing their time at the Maxim was drawing short. Every few minutes, the last of the 50-odd guests who'd spent Sunday night there trickled through the lobby on the way out.

The 22-year life of a Las Vegas hotel-casino was coming to an end. At noon its doors would close to the public.

Andrew McKee, a frequent Las Vegas visitor from Glendale, Calif., didn't realize this when he walked through the doors of the Maxim shortly before noon. He and friend Craig Pace had hoped to grab a bite at the East Flamingo Road property, located about 350 yards from the Strip. He'd been there on opening day in July 1979.

Now, unexpectedly, McKee found the restaurant shuttered, and the Maxim just minutes away from closing -- perhaps forever, perhaps only temporarily while it awaits a new owner.

It inspired memories of what the Maxim -- and what Las Vegas -- used to be. A small property, an independent owner, a personal touch. A hot spot in the Las Vegas of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"The place was mobbed, jammed," McKee said, recalling the Maxim's opening night. "The rooms were beautiful. They had a pot of fresh coffee for you every morning, and if you put your shoes outside your door, they'd be shined. You had individual owners, not a corporation."

"There's too many things going up in Vegas," Pace said. "They're not remembering the history (of the city), and that's a shame."

"It's like a memory," McKee muses. "It's all vanishing."

History, and the billion-dollar Strip megaresorts of the 1990s, had left the Maxim behind. The 800-room hotel passed through four different hands in the past four years, even closing for several weeks in late 1999 after a dispute between the Maxim's owner and the casino's operator. The Maxim reopened in December 1999, but its casino never returned -- and without it, the property bled red ink until Houston-based Revanche LLC -- which bought the property in June 2000 -- decided it could stand the losses no more and gave the Maxim's 270 employees a 60-day notice. The hotel's final employees will be laid off Friday.

"It needs to be substantially upgraded to be more attractive," said Revanche attorney Larry Stevens. "It's an old facility, and it's competing with glitzy new facilities. It needs a buyer to invest significant amounts of capital to upgrade it."

A number of employees working at the Maxim on this last day stayed on with the hotel-casino throughout the transformation of the Strip in the 1990s, when massive themed resorts grew up along the Strip like weeds, and thousands upon thousands of new jobs were created to keep the new Las Vegas running.

They stayed precisely because the Maxim wasn't like those massive resorts. The term "family" was used by more than one as they recalled past years at the hotel. That kind of feeling isn't something they believe they could find at the new resorts and the corporations that today control Las Vegas Boulevard.

"This morning, when I walked in, I started crying," said PBX operator Patty O'Keefe, a 14-year employee of the Maxim. "My parents celebrated their 50th anniversary here. My husband used to play piano in the lounge. When I walk out of here Thursday, my heart will still be here. That's why I came back (in 1999) when they reopened it.

"We're family ... one great big happy family. That's one of the saddest things."

Now comes the challenge of finding new jobs in a city that's starting to feel some of the effects of a national economic slowdown. Job training from the county is available, but front-desk clerk Nancy Vaknine said she was told funding wouldn't be available for the programs until October.

"Now, after 16 years (at the Maxim), I have to start all over again," Vaknine said. "I'll take a few weeks off, then start looking. I've got to go on, I guess."

For some, the task is harder than others. Few face a more difficult path ahead than O'Keefe.

Around the time the layoff notices came, O'Keefe was diagnosed with cancer. Within a few days of leaving the Maxim for the last time, she faces the start of chemotherapy. "My cup runneth over," she says wryly.

"I don't know who's going to hire me for the wages I make now," O'Keefe said. "I don't know who will hire me, with all of these challenges I'm going through."

Yet she has no angry words to aim at Revanche, though she believes the Maxim probably could have been sold by now had the casino been reopened.

"I think we all gave it a good shot," O'Keefe said. "I'm not angry with them. They did what they could. It just couldn't have come at a worse time for me."

Others are more fortunate. One is housekeeper Earline Smith, who began working at the Maxim three months after it opened its doors. When her final shift ends, a job is waiting for her with the Clark County School District as a support employee in special education.

After 22 years at the Maxim, Smith can't help but to be saddened by the end. Yet she also has seen tragedy of a far greater caliber.

On Nov. 21, 1980, Smith watched with other Maxim employees from the hotel's pool deck as fire raced through the hotel's neighbor, the MGM Grand (now Bally's Las Vegas). She could see the smoke pouring from the building, the helicopters coming in for rescue attempts. She could hear the screams and cries for help of those trapped inside the blazing building.

The inferno took 84 lives. Later, Smith said she watched as workers pulled the dead from the building, saw the body bags lined up in a nearby parking lot.

"That," Smith said, "was the saddest day of our lives."

And so, Smith puts the Maxim's closure into perspective. It's sad, but there are others that have things far worse, she figures.

"We've been trying to cope with it," Smith said. "But we all know life goes on."

So will the Maxim, though a chain-link fence will block it off from the public after the last employees leave Friday. The only operation that will open at the Maxim is the La Dolce Vita Wedding Chapel, which is independently operated and has bookings into December.

Implosion isn't in the near future for the Maxim, and Revanche still hopes to sell the property for a price near the $42 million the property sold for in 1999. Whether it will be able to get that price is another question.

"The true market value is extremely difficult to figure, as there's no income stream of any worth to evaluate," hotel-casino broker David Atwell said. "Many times properties like this have to find the right buyer who has a specific idea for converting it into a profitable operation. It could take some time, but we've had numerous people interested in it."

But how long it will be before the Maxim returns, no one can say.

"If I knew the answer to that, my client would be very pleased with me," Stevens said. "I have no idea how long it will take. Certainly the right buyer is out there, and we just need to find them."

And so it could be months, perhaps years, before anyone stays in the Maxim again. If it does return, it's unlikely to look anything like it does on this final day.

Most last-day guests admitted they weren't aware of the significance of this day, at least not until they arrived for the weekend. That is, with the exception of Christopher Gray, an actor from Los Angeles.

Gray used to live near the Maxim. He saw legendary properties of the Strip disappear in the past several years, "but I never got to stay at one on the last night."

Gray, in town with a friend and his girlfriend, found the Maxim's rate right and its halls peacefully quiet this weekend. When he left at 1 p.m., he became a small piece of Las Vegas history, as the last guest to check out of the Maxim.

"If I was going to do it," Gray said, "I had to do it right."

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