[Transcript of interview with Michael Tell by Barbara Tabach, January 6, 2018]. Tell, Michael Interview, 2018 January 6. OH-03376. [Transcript.] Oral History Research Center, Special Collections & Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.
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An Interview with Michael Tell An Oral History Conducted by Barbara Tabach Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project Oral History Research Center at UNLV University Libraries University of Nevada Las Vegas ©Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project University of Nevada Las Vegas, 2014 Produced by: The Oral History Research Center at UNLV - University Libraries Director: Claytee D. White Project Manager: Barbara Tabach Transcriber: Kristin Hicks Interviewers: Barbara Tabach, Claytee D. White n The recorded interview and transcript have been made possible through the generosity of a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) Grant. The Oral History Research Center enables students and staff to work together with community members to generate this selection of first- person narratives. The participants in this project thank University of Nevada Las Vegas for the support given that allowed an idea the opportunity to flourish. The transcript received minimal editing that includes the elimination of fragments, false starts, and repetitions in order to enhance the reader’s understanding of the material. All measures have been taken to preserve the style and language of the narrator. In several cases photographic sources accompany the individual interviews with permission of the narrator. The following interview is part of a series of interviews conducted under the auspices of the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project. Claytee D. White Director, Oral History Research Center University Libraries University of Nevada Las Vegas m Preface Michael Tell, the youngest son of Jack and Beatrice Tell, is the publisher of the Las Vegas Israelite newspaper and the second generation of ownership. He briefly traces his Jewish ancestral roots back to Eastern European grandparents who settled in New Jersey and New York. He became a bar mitzvah in a conservative Jewish synagogue in New York City. At age sixteen, he accompanied his father, Jack Tell, westward to Nevada. The elder Tell was in pursuit of owning a newspaper and Mike was a perfect companion as Jack took over ownership of the Territorial Enterprise. Mike recalls it was a short lived venture and the family settled in Las Vegas, where his father went to work for Hank Greenspun at the Las Vegas Sun and then for Henderson Home News, owned by Morry Zenoff. In 1965, Jack Tell opened the Las Vegas Israelite. Meanwhile, Mike explored the lucrative business of concert promotions and opened a teen nightclub 1961 called the Twin Lakes Twist. He hired such talents of the era as Bobby Darin and Wayne Newton. Soon his business acumen grew and he moved Mike Tell Productions to Los Angeles. He tells the story of his last concert, booking A1 Green, and being held at gunpoint. Then in 1979, he returned to work at the Israelite, which had a circulation of about 2000. The Jewish community was beginning to show signs of growth. He recalls running an ad in 1992 for High Holy Days services to be held at the Aladdin hotel. He used the word “Lubavitvh” in the ad and this sparked an interest in Las Vegas from the Chabad movement. He also recalls anti-Semitic episodes in Las Vegas, such as Ralph Englestad’s Hitler birthday parties and the presence of Skinheads. And he reflects on the changes in the community that he has observed over the decades. IV Table of Contents Interview with Michael Tell January 6, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada Conducted by Barbara Tabach Preface....................................................................................iv Talks about family roots in New Jersey and New York, his religious upbringing; moving to Virginia City with his father Jack Tell and living at the Riverside Hotel at the of 16. Attended Reno High School and worked at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper for his father; financial backing of the newspaper from Wall Street people. Father moved family to Las Vegas to work at the Las Vegas Sun, then Henderson Home News', started Las Vegas Israelite in 1965.......1 -4 Recalls his concert promotion business locally and out of Los Angeles; mentions starting Twin Lakes Twist, a teen nightclub in Las Vegas; entertainers such as Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, disc jockey Sam Riddle, Jimi Hendrix, Jose Feliciano, A1 Green and The Dramatics. Attended Nevada Southern University..............................................................5-6 Talks about coming back to Las Vegas in 1979 to help his mother with the Israelite, after the death of his father. Describes Jewish community, when Temple Beth Sholom as only synagogue, running ad using “Lubavitch” for services at Aladdin hotel and Rabbi Shea Harlig coming to Las Vegas with Chabad movement in early 1990s...............................................7 - 10 Mentions well-known local anti-Semitic episodes; Foxy’s Deli, Jewish Telegraphic Agency; growth of the city to over 2 million population; Rabbi Medny Harlig story in Israelite related to the 1 October 2017 mass shooting on the Strip. How he discovered he is biological father to actor Sean Astin..............................................................................10-13 v Today is January 6th, 2018. This is Barbara Tabach and I am talking with Michael Tell via phone. We are recording an oral history for the Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage project. I thank you very much for making time for me this morning, Mike. My pleasure. Your participation in the history of Las Vegas—it's been immense. As I mentioned earlier, I like starting with the ancestral story. What can you tell me about your family Jewish roots? My mother's side, my mother's father, my grandfather and grandmother met on the boat from Poland to Ellis Island and they married each other. And they married on the boat. Well, no, they married after they met, but they met on the boat. I got it, okay. On my father's side, I didn't know them at all, but they came from Austria. Where did everybody settle when they came to the United States? My mother's side settled in North Bergen, New Jersey, and my father's side settled in New York City. What kind of work were they involved in, do you know? Yes. My father [Jack Tell] was publicity director and ended up being the picture editor of the New York City Times. My mother [Beatrice nee Goldstein Tell] sold shoes in a shoe store; she was a great saleswoman. My grandfather [Charles Goldstein] owned the shoe store and they lived on top of the shoe store. That's a classic story, isn't it, from that era? Yes. 1 Did you visit there? Do you have memories of growing up and watching all that happen? Yes. I grew up on 75th Street and the temple was on the bottom of the street that I went to, Temple Beth Sholom. Was religion a big part of your upbringing? It was conservative. It wasn't orthodox. It wasn't reform. It was conservative view (of Judaism). Did you have a bar mitzvah? Yes, I had a bar mitzvah at that temple I just told you about. Siblings, do you have brothers and sisters? Yes, I have two brothers. One of them is deceased. He was a pit boss at Caesars Palace. And the other one is alive and living in Los Angeles. He was in the stamp and coin business. What brought the family to Las Vegas? My dad was picture editor of the New York City Times, as I said, and his dream was always to own a newspaper. This is going to blow your mind. He was involved in getting investors and mortgaged our house and we moved to Reno, Nevada, and my dad bought the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, owned by Mark Twain. Oh, really. Yes. We lived at the Riverside Hotel. My dad knew the owner at that time—a guy named Bill Miller. We commuted every day to Virginia City; I did it on a learner's permit, and the snowstorms were wild. If the line painter of the lines was off a little bit, I'd be over the mountain. Oh, no. I commuted every day. I came out with my dad; the rest of my family stayed back east to sell the house. I commuted with my dad to Virginia City, Nevada, which was really the Wild West. They would tar and feather people and run them out of town in Virginia City. 2 How old were you? I was a teenager; I was sixteen years old. So were you attending high school in Virginia City, too? I went to Reno High School in my senior year. I commuted every day to work on the newspaper. Did you mind working on the newspaper? No, I loved it. It was a flatbread press, which doesn't exist anymore. My office and my dad's office was in the Mark Twain Museum. I took my current wife (to the Mark Twain Museum) and we had to pay seven dollars to see my old office. That's pretty wild, isn't it? Yes. What did you do as a teenager? What were your responsibilities? I went to Reno High School in my first part of my senior year. My second part of senior year, I transferred to Las Vegas to the Las Vegas High School. Your responsibilities at the newspaper, what kinds of jobs or tasks were you accomplishing? I was really a teenager and my dad, it was the first time—he never owned his own newspaper, so it was...I don't know how to answer that question. It sounds like maybe he was learning the trade at the same time you were being his buddy, his companion in this? Sure, sure. Then you mentioned you came to Las Vegas. What prompted that move? My dad, as I said, had Wall Street people backing him and he also put in $40,000, when he sold our home in New Jersey. My dad was not a businessman. He was always a newspaperman. The 3 Wall Street people owned 51 percent of the newspaper, and when it didn't go as well as anticipated in the first six months, they out voted him and sold the newspaper and we came to Vegas broke. What did he do when he got here? My dad worked for the Las Vegas Sun, for Hank Greenspun. The only Jewish newspaper here was the Henderson Home News. My dad was offered a job with the Henderson Home News; he worked that with my mother selling the advertising and my father doing the newspaper part of it. Then the old-school people in Las Vegas, like Carl Cohen and Moe Dalitz, they offered my dad to open up the Las Vegas Israelite, they said they would support him. So Cohen and Dalitz were partners in the business? No. They just offered to support him with advertising. I see, great. I didn't realiz^...Henderson Home News was a Jewish newspaper at first? Yes. It was owned by Morry Zenoff. His brother was a judge. He didn't pay my father too well, so my dad took the opportunity to open up the Las Vegas Israelite in 1965. They were fifty-three years in business. When a baby is born, it takes a year for it to become one, but when a newspaper is bom, it's one from the moment of its existence. So in 1965, in January, we started the Israelite, and fifty-three years later we're still in existence. What's it like to get a newspaper to sustain itself for that length of time in the current era where people don't always buy subscriptions to newspapers? It's challenging and we've had our ups and downs. I love what I'm doing now. Would you like to hear a little about what I did in Las Vegas? Yes, I do. When my dad was working for the other newspaper and started the Las Vegas Israelite—by the 4 way, I named the Las Vegas Israelite the Las Vegas Israelite. How did I do that? The biggest Jewish newspaper at the time was a guy named Harry Golden who had The Carolina Israelite and I figured he doesn't own the name Israelite, so that's why we named it the Las Vegas Israelite. Thanks, that's good to know. I want all that kind of information, so please share. Now, this is diversifying a little bit: I was a teenager and I had nothing to do in Las Vegas in 1961. The population of Vegas was ninety thousand. I started a teenage nightclub and I went to Bobby Darin, in jeans, and said, "Look, Bobby, I don't have any money. I can't pay you anything. But the teenagers have nothing to do in Las Vegas." He played for me for free and he got me Wayne Newton the next night. The first weekend of my life in show business I netted ten thousand dollars and was buying groceries for my family. That's an awesome story. Where was this teenage nightclub located? It was Twin Lakes Lodge. It was called the Twin Lakes Twist. How did you advertise that you were opening up? On KENO Radio, which was the Top Forty station, I worked day and night creating spots. Bobby Darin, Wayne Newton, and I had a lot of different acts. Then I became a concert promoter. I put a billboard on the Las Vegas Strip with James Brown and I put a big sign saying, a Mike Tell production. I was an egomaniac at the time, a teenager. The biggest disc jockey from Los Angeles was driving to Vegas, a guy named Sam Riddle, worked for KHJ Radio, and he saw my name and he call me up and he said, "What are you doing concerts in Vegas for? Why don't you come to Los Angeles?" I said, "Great idea." I became the fifth largest concert promoter in the United States. And you were still a teenager at this time? Well, yes, I was a teenager and moved to L. A. and for twenty years I did concerts. I was the first 5 one to book Jimi Hendrix and Jose Feliciano; I gave them both their starts. My dad toiled with the Las Vegas Israelite with my mom and I was in L. A. I went to Nevada Southern University and I was a cocky kid. You know it was called Nevada Southern before UNLV? Yes, I have heard that. It was called Sagebrush Tech. I was looking at my professors teaching me and I would make more in one night than what they were making in a year, so I quit and I became a full-time concert promoter for twenty years. Without going into years and years of stories with concerts, my last concert was A1 Green and I was held in a room at gunpoint for three days. My dad passed away that weekend and I decided to come back to Vegas in 1979 and take over the Las Vegas Israelite. Now, I have to know the story of how you were held at gunpoint. A1 Green was the opening act in Bakersfield and The Dramatics were the opening act. And The Dramatics said, "We can't appear." The doctor who was a gynecologist who was backing it said, "If you don't have The Dramatics—this is my reputation; open the show—you're not leaving Bakersfield alive." So to make a long story short, I had the doctor hire a Learjet and fly The Dramatics from San Diego to Bakersfield. When it came to Bakersfield, I jumped on the Learjet and sat on the floor as The Dramatics were buckled in and tried to get the money back that the doctor wired to the unethical promoter in San Diego who conned him out of nine thousand dollars. Was that a low point then? That was the reason you decided to get out of the promotion business? It was mainly because my dad left no insurance for my mom and I wanted to take care of her. 6 I see. They had been operating the Israelite—you came back, you said, in 1979 to take over or to help. Were any of your other siblings involved in the newspaper? Yes, my brother Don was working it while my dad was sick. What was your job or your role when you came back? First, I started on circulation and I tried to be everywhere that people lived would see the Israelite. Then I moved into the publishing end, the content of the newspaper, and my brother was happy because he was a pit boss at Caesars and was happy to give up his part-time job that he did to help my mother. What was the circulation of the newspaper? A couple of thousand then. How would you describe the Jewish community at that point in time? There was one temple in 1973. There was one temple, Temple Beth Sholom on Oakey between Maryland and Eastern. It's now on Town Center Drive and Desert Inn and it's the biggest temple in town now, still. There's twenty-eight temples now. That's amazing, isn't it? Yes, it's a growth that's unbelievable. As a newspaper how do you respond to that kind of growth in the Jewish community? How do you cover that? We went from a national newspaper doing national stories of Israel and all the.. And then we built our focus as it was growing on local. What are the challenges that come with that? How do you keep everybody happy? It's hard. Any more questions? This is about looking at the Jewish part of Las Vegas. From when you came here in the 7 1960s to being here now fifty-three years later, what are some of the significant things that you feel the Jewish community has contributed to Las Vegas? In 1992, rabbis came to me and they said they were doing a High Holy Day service at the Aladdin. I gave them an ad and I said, "The Lubavitcher presents High Holiday service at the Aladdin." And I gave the ticket information and everything. I gave them the ad for free. That newspaper got back to Brooklyn to Lubavitcher Rebbe and he said, "Well..." I wasn't supposed to say "Lubavitcher presents" in the ad; I made a mistake. When the Rebbe saw Lubavitcher, he said, "Well, Rabbi [Shea] Harlig, you go out there because if they're advertising it, it means they want it." Rabbi Harlig came out to Vegas and he now has nine temples. The orthodox movement became amazing, Young Israel and Israeli orthodox temples now. That's what amazes me the most; that the orthodox movement became so huge in Vegas. It really is significant. Conservative temple in 1963. Do you go to each one of these twenty-eight temples every issue and look for news or do they just automatically send you things? They send it to me. I'm spoiled. They write it. I don't even have to hire a photographer like I used to hire. I used to hire Marvin and we used to do all these events. Now every temple sends me all their material. They hire their own photographers. So it helps me a lot. Who will succeed you? Do you have a succession plan? My nieces. Michelle Tell has a public relations firm in town. They're the heirs. What do you see as the role or mission of a Jewish newspaper in a city? Are there lots of these types of publications left in the United States? Yes, every city in the United States has their own Jewish newspaper. In Denver, it's the Rocky 8 Mountain Jewish News. In St. Louis, it's the St. Louis Jewish Light. In Philadelphia, it's the Philadelphia Exponent. In New York, it's the Jewish Press. Does the newspaper define your Jewishness or your connection with the Jewish community? Not at all. I expanded the Israelite from national, which they can get in CNN on television or the Review-Journal, or any news outlet you can get national Jewishness. I made it local Jewish news now. How do you express your personal Jewishness today? I love the orthodox. I love the conservative. I love the reformed. I adhere to all of their principles. Tell me some interesting story or anecdote that happened with growing the newspaper. Who were some of the challengers or experiences that you had that are kind of fun to talk about? I went to the Strip when Ralph Engelstad threw a Hitler birthday party and I saw the older Jews picketing with Nazi skinheads. I was amazed because I said, "Is this my city?" It was like Nazi Germany. I went home and I turned on Channel 3 TV news and I saw the skinhead leader in an interview saying the most important person that he wants to get in this town was Mike Tell, editor of the Las Vegas Israelite. I saw my life threatened watching television. So I went to Senator [Richard] Bryan and we passed national legislation on the skinheads. Then Steve Wynn had moved them from the houses that were living in—a small town then—to Utah to Zion National Park. They moved. Then I was watching Dan Rather on television one day and he said, "The skinheads are now living in Zion National Park." They had the newspaper and they call it The True Israelite. 9 That blew my mind a little bit. I'll bet. Was there other anti-Semitism that happened historically throughout Las Vegas? Just very little things that we squelched at the time. It seems that when I listen to people there really was a very ecumenical feeling within this city. Would you agree with that? What do you mean? That people got along; they weren't biased. Yes. When it was a small city, everyone knew when everyone went to the bathroom. The main deli was Foxy's Deli. Have you heard of that? Oh, yes. That was the place to— Entertainers to Mafia figures, everybody would go to Foxy's Deli. Were those places that you would hang out to get leads on stories or to make sure that you were getting all the news that you could get? As I said, it was national news at that time, so I subscribed to JTA [Jewish Telegraphic Agency] and they sent us all the national news, the Sharanskys and the Israel news. Have you been to Israel? No. What do you do for fun these days? Just I'm married to a newspaper. My wife is from Colombia. Is she involved in the newspaper? No. Right now she's in Bogota taking care of her mother who has Alzheimer's. That's hard. Yes. She's coming back next month. 10 Good. What do you feel about all the changes you’ve seen over the years in Las Vegas? I love it. Las Vegas is my home and I love it. When it was a small town, I loved it, and now two million people, I love it. There's only one Las Vegas in this world. Did you have any feelings, being around entertainers a lot, about what happened at Route 91, the shooting there on October first? Yes. What I did was...A rabbi from Henderson, the Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Harlig.. Mendy Harlig— Yes, I know him, yes. He went to visit the stricken people, the mourners. He wrote all about it [in the Israelite] and that was my way of relating it to the Jewish community. That was really good. I did interview him and ask him about that experience, too. My hairdresser was there. The girl who cuts my hair was there. She told me a lot of details. At any time did you miss leaving the entertainment promotion business? Not at all. I love what I'm doing. My claim to fame is I was married to Patty Duke, the actress. Oh, you were? Yes. She always told her son that Desi Arnaz, Jr., was his father because he had thirty million I didn't happen to have. But as my luck happened, my niece sat next to him at L. A. City College, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I know who your father is." He said, "I know who my father is." We did a DNA and I'm the proud biological father of the famous actor Sean Astin. Oh, wow. Yes, yes. We get along great. My granddaughter was just accepted into Harvard. That's wonderful. Is that your only grandchild? He has three daughters. He's my only son and his three daughters are my grandchildren. But we 11 met through DNA. Another interesting twist of technology, right? Yes. I took my blood in Vegas and he was on the set of Rudy, he played Rudy. He took his blood. They shipped it to Seattle. Six weeks later I got a letter, 99.3 percent that you're Sean's father. So how did you first meet him physically, face to face? After we both knew we were father and son, I flew to L.A., gave him a package of presents for his new daughter, who is now nineteen—the one that is going to Harvard. She fell in love her freshman year that she was in Harvard. She never was away from her parents, from Los Angeles, and now she's totally in love. It's fun to watch that generation grow up, isn't it? Oh, for sure. She's a beautiful young lady now. I've known her since she was a baby. I can hear the pride in your voice. That's wonderful. Yes. Mike, is there anything else you'd like to share with me, about the Jewishness, about yourself, anything? I love these stories that you're sharing. When do you think The Israelite will become digital? They're working on it. They're still trying to raise more money to finish it. The Jewish community has continued to financially support us a little bit at the time. Maybe we should run a big article about it in The Israelite. No problem. It's really been an incredible honor for me to work on the project and to get to know people who were so instrumental in the growth of this city. It really demonstrates how if you just 12 take one thread and look at a city’s history, it will take you everywhere, and this certainly shows you the beginnings of our entertainment industry to just the fabric of everyday life here. It’s really amazing. Yes, it is. It really is. This city is unique. It's like the best city in the world. How would life have been different if you had continued to grow up in New Jersey? [Laughing] I can't imagine. I have no clue. I can't see into the past or future. I just love living here. I don't miss the snowstorms they're having in New Jersey. It’s bitter cold there right now. Oh, for sure. I really do appreciate your time. It took us awhile to get together, but if there's anything that you want to add to this now that we figured out how to do an interview over the phone, I can add to this. Appreciate you working on the weekend. It's my pleasure. I needed to escape, for a little while anyway. All right, Barbara. Anything else I could do for you, just don't hesitate to call. All right. Thanks a lot. You take care. [End of recorded interview] 13