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April 23, 2017

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Mr. Las Vegas is back: Wayne Newton returns to Shenandoah

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Christopher DeVargas

Wayne Newton at his home Casa de Shenandoah on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Wayne Newton at Casa de Shenandoah

A look at some items from Wayne Newton's collection in Las Vegas, Nev. on September 8. 2015. Launch slideshow »

Wayne Newton is being mauled, once more, by an overzealous Wayniac.

The affectionate visitor to Newton’s new Casa de Shenandoah museum has managed to grab the neck of Mr. Las Vegas and is clinging to his collar with great intent.

If you go

• Wayne Newton’s Casa de Shenandoah

3310 E. Sunset Road

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Cost: $35-$95

* The attraction includes a gift shop and theater that plays a 15-minute documentary of Newton’s life and career.

What to see at the Casa de Shenandoah museum

• Rolls-Royces, previously owned by Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen, Liberace and Harrah’s founder Bill Harrah

• A gold microphone Frank Sinatra gave to Newton

• The letter Elvis wrote from the Las Vegas Hilton that sparked the Newton song, “The Letter”

• Jack Benny’s Stradivarius (Newton worked with Benny for years.)

• The canoe navigated by Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond”

• A collection of Newton’s stage costumes, including a faded purple, western costume made by Newton’s mother, Evelyn Marie, when Newton was just 4 years old.

• Newton’s Fokker F28 jet

• A desk that belonged to Franklin Roosevelt

• Military mementos and jackets from Newton’s service overseas as the USO’s Celebrity Circle chairman

It’s fun, but he will not let go.

“Oh, what’s this?” Newton asks as he is kissed on the cheek, over and over. “What is going on? What are you saying to me?”

The response is a high-pitched shriek from the interloper, who goes by the name of “Boo.”

Boo is a capuchin monkey.

“This little guy is my best friend,” Newton says of the 4-year-old monkey. “It’s good here, isn’t it? It’s good to be home, right?”

It is good to be home. In June 2013, this moment seemed impossible. Buzz Aldrin seemed more likely to return to the surface of the moon than Wayne Newton to return to Casa de Shenandoah.

The ranch estate, glorious for its grassy expanses, artesian wells and lines of stables that housed dozens of Arabian horses, had served as a source of familial distress, lawsuits and unrealized dreams.

“Nobody thought we’d be back here,” Newton says, shaking his head. “When we moved out, I never thought I’d be back here, either.”

He reflects on the day he learned he would be leaving Shenandoah and the day he said goodbye to the ranch. Was he sad? Were their tears?

No.

“By the time we got to the point of leaving, I had had enough of the toll it was taking on my family,” Newton says. “We had been fighting in court for a long time. I got tired of hearing my daughter (Lauren, now 13) come home from school and repeat some of the things she had heard from her classmates. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.”

But make no mistake: Wayne Newton is a tough dude. He is one of the great survivors.

“I will never back down from a fight,” he says. “I’ve been through it with NBC (Newton filed a libel suit against the network in 1981 over a series of reports claiming he was tied to organized crime), and I’ve been through it with Johnny Carson (when Newton flew to Burbank, Calif., and reportedly told the talk-show host, “I’ll knock you on your ass,” if he didn’t stop a litany of jokes he had been making at Newton’s expense). But when we left Shenandoah, I was just relieved.”

•••

Signs that the Newtons — Wayne and his wife of 21 years, Kathleen — had regained a genuine interest in what for years has been been called “the Ranch” surfaced in December. That’s when the “Casa de Shenandoah” sign was returned to the corner of Sunset and Pecos roads, replacing the staid “Springs Ranch” sign and signaling that Newton was making a comeback to his former home.

That return now is complete. On Sept. 18, Shenandoah opened to the public with tours, a newly constructed museum housing memorabilia dating to Newton’s childhood and a stunning array of animals, including Newton’s Arabian horses and peacocks, wallabies, and of course, little Boo.

“Shenandoah is a magical place; I really believe that,” Newton says. “You ask, what got me through the difficult times in my life? The animals. The horses. Being with them has calmed me, and they belong here. This is something I needed to do, come back here and return what means so much to me to this property.”

The move back to Shenandoah has been physically and mentally taxing. In early summer 2013, the Newtons vacated the home Wayne had lived in since 1968 (he bought the original five acres two years earlier) and relocated to a home on East Oquendo Road, the result of a settlement with former business partners Lacy and Dorothy Harber. But Newton’s return to Shenandoah is foremost a business agreement. The Harbers maintain majority ownership of the property through CSD LLC, formed six years ago to purchase Casa de Shenandoah and turn it into a museum dedicated to Newton.

The family now is performing many of the operating tasks itself, from designing attractions to displaying memorabilia in glass cases to producing the video tour narrated by Newton himself.

If you go

• Graceland Presents Elvis: The Exhibition

Westgate Las Vegas, 3000 Paradise Road

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Cost: $22

If you think your most recent move was difficult, consider that Newton owns a huge collection of stage costumes, a dozen exotic and antique vehicles, a bevy of personally-signed letters from every president dating to Kennedy, and a Fokker jet.

“The other day we had to put wrought-iron ramps up around the living room of the main mansion to be in line with ADA regulations, because there was nothing there for when you bring the public into that space,” Newton says. “So here I am, paying attention to the wrought-iron in the living room of my old home. ... It has been a challenge, to say the least.”

•••

The history of the museum dates to early 2010. The Newtons had befriended the Harbers, well-financed real estate investors in Grayson County, Texas. Lacy Harber, the billionaire owner of American Bank of Texas, longed to help Newton create a museum at Casa de Shenandoah.

The group created CSD LLC, with the Harbers owning 70 percent of the corporation, the Newtons owning 20 percent and property manager Steve Kennedy and his then common-law wife, Geneva Clark, splitting 10 percent.

If you go

• Mob Museum

300 Stewart Ave.

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday through Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Cost: $19.95 for adults; $17.95 for seniors, military, law enforcement and teachers; $13.95 for children ages 11-17 and students ages 18-23 with proof of ID; free for children ages 10 and under

But the deal came unraveled in spring 2012, when Kennedy sued the Newtons after the project stalled. Newton fired back with a countersuit, alleging it was Kennedy’s own inaction and unauthorized conduct that blunted the attraction’s progress. The project — although not Newton — fell into bankruptcy in October 2012, and Shenandoah twice was listed for sale: first for $70 million in September 2013, then for $30 million last September.

By then, the Newtons had been living at the Oquendo Road estate they bought from Las Vegas producer Norbert Aleman, founder of “Crazy Girls,” for $5 million. The property includes a second home across the street and enough acreage to house Newton’s Arabian horses.

Shortly after a public tour of Shenandoah last September, Kathleen Newton received a call from Lacy Harber. (Wayne famously refuses to carry a cell phone.) It was a rare overture. Wayne Newton said the voice on the other end was friendly and to the point: “Wayne, you built Casa de Shenandoah, it is your home, it will always be your home. Let’s work something out so you can take it back.”

“I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Newton recalled. “I talked to my wife, and between the two of us, we decided to take one more shot at building something special.”

It is doubtful that Harber, given his affection for Newton (business squabbles aside), would want to be responsible for selling Casa de Shenandoah to a developer who would wipe out the ranch and build a housing subdivision. That’s what was being discussed when Harber phoned Newton with the idea of the Newtons taking back the property.

“This really is a piece of Las Vegas history,” Newton said. “It would be a shame for it to be turned into something else.”

As a signal of friendship, the Harbers attended an invite-only opening of Shenandoah.

If you go

• National Atomic Testing Museum

755 E. Flamingo Road

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $14 general admission; discounted rates for seniors, students, children and military personnel with proper identification

•••

Newton has been amassing personal items for about 60 years, particularly since he began performing at the Fremont Hotel’s Carnival Lounges as part of the Newton Brothers with brother Jerry. He has a massive collection of memorabilia.

But the viability of his museum, in today’s Las Vegas, is hardly a certainty. A similar attraction dedicated to Liberace closed in November 2010, in large part because Liberace’s name recognition had waned.

Even Elvis isn’t a sure thing in Las Vegas. Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” closed and there has been a lackluster response to “The Elvis Experience” stage show at the Westgate, though Graceland Presents Elvis: The Exhibition, a museum and tour, still is flourishing.

“I realize there is that issue; I’d be naïve to think otherwise,” Newton says of needing to keep his name in front of a new generation of fans. “It happens to all of us, but the difference between Casa de Shenandoah and Graceland, for that comparison, is that I am still here. I can boost interest personally if need be.”

If you go

• Neon Museum

770 Las Vegas Blvd. North

Hours:

Day tours: 9 a.m.-10 a.m. Night tours: 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; all tours must be booked in advance

Cost: $12 for Nevada residents, students with valid ID, senior citizens and veterans

And Shenandoah itself is a unique destination.

“The property itself is so special, sitting on artesian wells here in the middle of the desert,” Newton says. “I think people will realize that when they see it.”

Newton is not finished as a performer, either, though he hasn’t played in Las Vegas since closing his Tropicana stage show “Once Before I Go …” in April 2010. His only recent show in Clark County was Dec. 6 at Laughlin’s Edgewater hotel-casino. He still performs one-offs around the country, however, and spends ample time in his Montana home.

But Mr. Las Vegas still very much remains Mr. Las Vegas.

“I have every hope I will perform again in Las Vegas,” Newton says. “I am still singing, and this is my home.”

Newton shares the reason for his ambitious designs at Shenandoah: “I think it’s a great way to say thank you to this great city. I owed it to the city that has been so great to me.”

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