Provenance of the Morelli House by Sally Rycroft

Antonio Morelli: Provenance of the Morelli House by Sally Rycroft

A Scholarly Essay Presented to the US Park Service for its Consideration of the Morelli House for Listing on the National Register of Historic Places

Antonio Morelli’s birth (1904) and Las Vegas’ emergence as a town (1905) took place within the time span of a single year. Simultaneously, during the early years of the twentieth century, a modern architectural style began to emerge in many sectors of this country and by the time of “Tony” Morelli’s arrival in the Nevada desert in 1954, the distinct Mid-Century Modern look had become a fashionable part of that area’s urban lifestyle. Morelli came to Las Vegas to take advantage of a professional opportunity, but soon he found himself enchanted by desert life as well as the sleek and bold design embellishing the town’s contemporary buildings and dwellings. As he had always been deeply influenced by European classical composers and East Coast living, his sudden western fascination could be considered rather extraordinary.

Morelli’s ultimate intrigue with Las Vegas was even more remarkable given him his first unpleasant encounter in the desert. In 1953, Morelli traveled to Southern Nevada with the Olsen and Johnson comedy team; during their Vegas stopover, the blowing winds aggravated his allergies and caused him severe discomfort.[1] On this trip, Morelli became acutely aware of some of the tribulations of arid living and he was definitely relieved when the time came to return to New York City. Then, following discussions at the Copacabana Club, Jack Entratter, president of the Sands Hotel, offered Morelli the resort’s coveted musical director’s position; for the classical conductor, the plum of this flattering proposal was the Copa Room Orchestra.[2]

Despite his earlier frustrating desert expedition, Morelli agreed to tentatively accept Entratter’s tempting proposition and in the summer of 1954, flew to Las Vegas without his wife, Helen, to explore the feasibility of this employment offer. This time, as Morelli disembarked the airplane, he was greeted by the town’s unrelenting 117 degrees summer heat. Rather than recoil in horror, Morelli found that the dry heat alleviated his constant, throbbing, arthritic pain. He was thrilled and that first evening in a telephone conversation with his wife, Helen, proclaimed he never felt better.

Miraculously, the desert provided a respite for him from the soreness of his joints (and would continue to do so);[3] this health advantage far outweighed his discomfort with simple allergies.

Entratter and other local casino heads were delighted that Morelli had agreed to seriously consider their offer. It was clear to them that the Strip’s economic growth hinged on attracting the Eastern elite and a more high-end audience.[4] They believed that Morelli’s elegant presence and polished manner on display in the Copa Room would help counter the negative rumors circulating about Las Vegas and was, in fact, the lure they needed to get wealthy, educated people to journey westward to visit the town. As Alan Hess pointed out in his article, “Morelli truly represented a new icon for the city: a man very unlike the rougher, gangster type figures popularly portrayed as making up Old Vegas”[5] Bill Reddie, a longtime Las Vegas composer/ musician who would ultimately succeed Morelli as the Sand’s music director, had this to say about the Maestro’s look when he first arrived in the city:

“With his waxed moustache, wavy white hair and authoritative demeanor, (Morelli) gave one the impression of someone who had been lifted out of the 19th century and somehow plunked down in Las Vegas.”[6]

Though Morelli’s distinguished look and impeccable credentials were in order, the casino operators’ high level of confidence in Morelli’s innate ability to draw in a wealthy crowd is amazing, given the complex issues hindering them. It would not be a simple task for anyone to offset the public’s concern that crime syndicates were running some, possibly many, of the seven “luxury” motor inns – the Sahara, El Rancho, Thunderbird, New Frontier, Desert Inn, Sands, and the Flamingo – along Fifth Street (aka Las Vegas Blvd or “the Strip ).[7] It was also worrisome because Las Vegas was perceived to be a dusty, hot and garish community, which was fine for the downtown’s country western visitors , but would such features be acceptable to the more discerning types in the East. Even Helen’s early recollections of the town were disparaging. She described the Strip as a wild, two-lane, not totally paved, roadway without lights or signals. She was also dismayed that each casino had to have its own “sewer plant” culminating in foul smells all over the city when “the wind [blew]… the wrong way.”[8] In sum, the city’s crude lifestyle image mixed in with touches of glamour and glitter probably helped to laden it with what Alan Hess referred to as an “unflattering nouveau rich perception.”[9] To lure people westward, Morelli needed a significant amount of magic in his conductor’s baton. Looking back, he apparently had it and more.

The town’s provincial nature may be why even Helen decided, at the outset, to remain at their beautiful, traditional style home on Long Island; of course, she made several long visits to the desert. In1957, after it became evident that her husband was comfortable with his Sand’s position and desert surroundings, she joined him in Las Vegas. However, they held on to their New York home, not selling it until 1959. By then, they knew they were willing, along with their pet poodle Mozart, to spend the rest of their lives in Las Vegas. Immediately, the Morellis’ began to aggressively plan and commence the construction their carefully crafted, Mid-Century Modern dream home.

Antonio and Helen Morelli’s acceptance of southern Nevada was very fortunate for all concerned in the desert town. Morelli exceeded the Strip leaders’ desires and expectations because not only did he, by his presence and stage effort, assist in luring the well-heeled of the East (and West, too) to visit Las Vegas and lavishly spend money, the orchestra leader also greatly gave of himself to help the ever growing flock of “relocated” western locals to come together as a community.

Antonio Morelli’s Early Years

Antonio Morelli, was born July 22, 1904 in Rochester, New York; and he spent his youth in a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. His father, Cesare Carlos Morelli, a professor of fine arts and a symphony flautist provided him with early training in violin and piano. Then, in 1914, his father, took him to Italy where he would remain for 11 years so that he might pursue educational studies at Milan’s San Celso Military Academy and the Royal Conservatories of Music in Milan and Parma.[10] Morelli returned to the States in 1925 just before his 21st birthday and agreed to be the pianist for a concert group at a hotel resort along the East Coast. Reflecting years later with H.L. Coffer, Morelli believed it was most fortunate he accepted this position for, while visiting a friend, it providentially made him available to fill in for an absent musical director. He stated he was smitten the moment he was thrown “into the box” because “then and there I became a musical director.”[11] He never looked back.

He spent the next few years touring the country, traveling to places as Dallas, Denver, New Orleans, Chicago and New York so that he might conduct theater and civic orchestras. For two seasons, he was the musical director of the St. Louis Musical Opera. In 1935, at the time he married what was to be his lifelong love, Helen Collins, he was the orchestra leader for the newly opened RKO Palace Theatre in Albany, New York. Thereafter, Morelli continued to “travel the entertainment circuit…guest conducting for the pit orchestras at Warner, Paramount, RKO, Pantages, Shubert and other theater chains when stage shows still accompanied the movie feature.”[12] In the Coffer interview, Morelli noted some of the musicals he conducted for the Shuberts:

High Button Shoes, with Eddie Foy. Spring in Brazil, with Milton Berle. Three to Make Ready, with Ray Bolger. Touch and Go. Victor Herbert’s Eileen. Friml’s Vagabond King. Bohemian Girl. and many others…[13]

He enjoyed his life because, as he viewed it, there was “nothing like the excitement of a Broadway opening.”[14]

Of course, life was not perfect. In the East, Morelli lived with a bad back as well as arthritis and bursitis and, frequently, the searing pain of one or more of these afflictions caused him to be bedridden. On one occasion he was compelled to undergo major surgery which, as he told Coffer, confined him to his home for forty weeks. As it turned out, Morelli used this time advantageously to compose music:

This period encompassed some of the major accomplishments of his career, including such commissions as writing the musical continuity for three shows at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, in association with Leon Leonidoff, senior producer at Radio City Music Hall.[15] Fortunately, he was able to do what he loved while his body slowly recovered. At some point during this time period, he adopted his trademark: the courtly mustachioed look with waxed pencil-tip endpoints. The allure of “Tony Morelli” conjured up an appearance of a man comfortable with the East Coast way of life. Las Vegas would seem to be an odd fit for him.


His move to the West….

When Entratter suggested that Morelli should give Las Vegas a try, Morelli had reason to consider his offer seriously. Times had changed in the post World War II Era and, with the advent of television, the East Coast theatre circuit was in a period of economic decline. Since employment opportunities in traditional theater were becoming scarce, Morelli assessed that Las Vegas might open new vistas for him. As it transpired, this move rendered for him the opportunity to step into “a newly minted realm of entertainment,”[16] wherein he would soon be known as “Maestro Morelli”.

During Morelli’s twenty years in Las Vegas, he played the role of a mid-level professional who assisted in transforming Las Vegas into a popular, highly regarded, entertainment venue. Along with the celebrity headliners, Entratter promoted Morelli’s Las Vegas presence with regular billing on the Sands pylon sign reading “Antonio Morelli and his Music” or, at other times, “Antonio Morelli and his Orchestra.”[17] The new Maestro, of course, enjoyed the public recognition and it helped to circulate his name among prominent local groups within the community. People knew who he was.

As stated by an aspiring student vocalist who one day would become the musical director at the First Christian Church, it was hard to miss him [around town] with “his mustache, elegant demeanor and Caddy Convertible. He was an elegant gentleman in our city.”[18]

When Morelli arrived in town, he had to quickly assess the status of local matters impacting his new position. He could immediately determine, as reported by Frank Leone that, “the Sands was the envy of the other hotels”[19] with its domination of celebrity headliners as Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, Red Skelton, Lena Horne, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr., to name a few.[20] The Sands 18-member orchestra was also the best in town, but to Morelli’s amazement, it was basically a brass band since “string sections were not the norm”[21] in Las Vegas. To meet the string needs of these entertainers, the Copa Room Orchestra was periodically augmented to as many as 32 instrumentalists.[22] Morelli had his work cut out for him. He immediately went to work to add a year-round strings section to his orchestra. It took time, but he did do it. Looking back, Frank Leone stated this was “the significance of Antonio Morelli.”[23]

The panelists at the Antonio Morelli celebratory event agreed that during the resort’s heyday “playing at the Sands was the pinnacle of an entertainer’s career,” and, ergo, “all the musicians wanted to be part of the Morelli Orchestra,”[24] He had the best players and they had to meet his demands. It was expected that all his instrumentalists be able to read and play music instantly or as stated by Leone, “you were out the door”.[25] Yet, Morelli, on occasion, made concessions for those who displayed potential talent, notably strings players. Bertine Corimby, a locally prominent violinist and viola player today, shared with a Las Vegas audience her long ago personal audition terror when Morelli demanded that she play a scale of perfect fifths on the Viola, something she could not do at the time. Though he initially scoffed at her inability, she was pleasantly surprised when Morelli gave her a position in the orchestra as the second viola player.[26] She reported that she remained with the orchestra for two years and when she left, her skills had considerably improved. She had Morelli to thank for it all.

It is evident that as he strove to improve the Copa Room’s Orchestra’s level of performance, Morelli had unpleasant exchanges with some players. They resented the power of this new-to-town, Easterner, with his unrealistic demands and high-handed ways and tended “not [to] like him.” [27] Some never forgave him. In the Coffer interview, Morelli delicately addressed this issue stating that when he first arrived in town, most of the available Las Vegas musicians of varying talents “were young men from the territory bands and smaller communities.” [28] As the popularity of the town grew, qualified musicians from all quarters began to seek positions in his Strip orchestra and, by the mid 60’s, over a third of his players were “men with degrees in music” who had played “in important orchestras around the world.”[29] The problem seemingly went away.

As the Sand’s music director, Morelli spent a good portion of his time writing orchestra arrangements. Although many entertainment stars brought their own musical directors for their shows, Morelli would sometimes still be required to write new scores or recompose arrangements for them in order to present a better, integrated performance.  On occasion, he could make everything come together in a matter of minutes; at other times, he had to take the arrangement home to make everything flow.

When an extended effort became necessary, each orchestra player might receive a new score the following day.[30] Morelli involved himself because he knew it was his responsibility to ensure that only quality productions were featured in the Copa Room, called “the Jewel of the Desert.”[31] The fact that his efforts improved the entertainer’s level of performance was probably best stated by Florence Henderson, who claimed Morelli was able to make “every show seem like opening night.”[32]

The shows went on nightly in the Copa Room.  Each night, the crowds lined up to see world famous, celebrity headliners on the room’s very “intimate stage”.[33] To avoid performance mishaps, Morelli learned to make it his business to be alert to the mental disposition of his soloists and other noted performers. In fact, Morelli shared his “strategy” with Coffer:

When I’m conducting for a star …I talk to him twenty minutes before the performance. I want to hear the sound of his voice. See how he feels. Has he eaten too much? Missed dinner? Any of these things can influence a performance. I want to coordinate my thinking with that of the artist; feel with him identify with his mood. [34]

In this way, the “showman” Maestro found he had few surprises once an evening performance started. He had control and this was important because as pointed out by Bertine Corimby, “when he was on stage, it was his world.”[35]

Though there were many special moments for Morelli leading the Copa Room Orchestra, his most publicized occasion was when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. came together with Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford in Las Vegas during a three-week period in 1960 while filming Ocean’s Eleven. Amazingly, this was the first time these men had ever performed together on stage. The group entitled this Copa Room collaboration: The Summit at the Sands. But that name was to go by the wayside for, in short order, the group would be widely known as the Rat Pack.

The name switch was not well received by Frank Sinatra because, as it was explained in an article by Tina, his younger daughter, he truly disliked the term. He knew this is what Lauren Bacall had dubbed the daily, visiting friends of her ailing husband, Humphrey Bogart .[36] Yet, for whatever reason, the Rat Pack name stuck and, more importantly, the notable group – in its Sands engagement and with Morelli leading the orchestra – became very famous under the odd moniker.

During this time, as Helen recounted to Massini, the Rat Pack appeared nightly at the Sands and “[they] would do two shows … [yet] it was never clear who was going to appear and they spent the whole time playing tricks on one another.”[37] The audience loved it, and looking at preserved images, Morelli, the master showman, appeared to have enjoyed it too. Historic photographs show a tall, smiling, elegantly mustachioed Morelli while standing in front of his orchestra, laughing at the Rat Pack’s clowning and stage antics.[38] This was one of the most successful collaborations of his career and the photos clearly indicate Morelli’s awareness that something wonderful was going on. These photos circled the globe. Though the Rat Pack on stage photos show both Sinatra and Morelli standing together and enjoying each other’s company, this would not always be the case. As written in the Review Journal’s news article “Standing Ovation,” the two men, on several occasions, “locked horns;” [39] Yet, as each of them was used to having things their own way, personality disagreements over time probably was to be expected. More importantly, even with Frank Sinatra, Maestro Morelli stood his ground.

Historical photographs on file document many other special celebrations and noteworthy personal occasions for the orchestra leader. Herein, a brief focus will be provided to two select memorable instances. One was the celebration of the Sand’s twelfth anniversary with celebrity guest star Danny Thomas, a Copa Room favorite and on this special evening, a photo shows a beaming Thomas, Entratter and Morelli on stage with a cake showcasing the Sands with its planned 17-story tower, wherein the famed casino would join the ranks of multi-story resorts built on the Strip after 1952.[40] The second photographed occasion is believed to have occurred in 1964[41] when President Lyndon B Johnson stopped over in the city during the final days of his election campaign against Barry Goldwater. Morelli, in a center position, was photographed with President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Nevada’s two prominent U.S. Senators, Howard Cannon and Alan Bible. No other individuals appeared in the formal photograph. What an honor.

An unexpected privilege for Morelli in leading the Las Vegas Sand’s Orchestra was it allowed him to socially interact with a pillar of the East Coast musical community.

In the early 60’s, Leonard Bernstein, the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, came to town for scheduled performances at the Las Vegas Convention Center. During his desert visit, Morelli brought Bernstein over to his home for dinner wherein, apparently, the two discussed the ill-mannered nature of the western audience. Though Bernstein was initially embarrassed and insulted that people were not stationary during his concerts, he chose to overlook the unintended slights. He surmised it was of greater importance to appreciate that these artistically deprived music patrons were coming voluntarily to hear him. Morelli attested (to Coffer) that Bernstein’s words regarding the West’s lack of cultural exposure strongly impacted him.[42] This conversation perhaps, renewed Morelli’s resolve to vigorously continue with his time-consuming pop concerts for the people of Las Vegas.

On special week-ends and following select performances, many of the above listed strip headliners (and many others), musicians, prominent locals, colleagues, and treasured friends would frequently congregate at the Morelli House . Jimmy Mulidore admitted that “the parties were truly magnificent.”. Morelli loved bringing people to his custom, self-built, Mid-Century Modern home; he truly believed that this dwelling which he had helped to build with his own hands had been “one of the greatest challenges” of his life.[43] He was convinced it had helped define who he was. At the home, their large standard poodle, Mozart, would greet all guests at the door[44] while Helen would whip up tasty appetizers or a luscious meal for their evening guests in her ultramodern kitchen.

During these occasions or at other scheduled times, many of the performers would make their way to his music room to rehash evening performances or to collaborate on difficult musical compositions. During the day, it was not uncommon for Morelli to find his varied dinner guests playing a round on the golf course behind his home. In short, through the years, a lot of local musical and entertainment history did take place in the Morelli House at the Desert Inn Estates.[45]

In 1987, the Las Vegas Sun Publisher, Hank Greenspun, fervently proclaimed that the Sands was the “resort that made Las Vegas famous.”[46] Greenspun noted that with the Sand’s opening on December 15, 1952, the city began an unprecedented period of visitor and Strip construction growth. The impressive list of hotels that appeared on the Strip during these glory days is as follows: Dunes (1955), Riviera (1955), Hacienda (1956), Tropicana (1957), Stardust (1958), Castaways (1963), Caesars (1966), Aladdin (1966), Circus Circus (1968) and the off strip hotels, Landmark (1969) and International (1969, renamed Hilton Hotel, 1971).[47]

The Sand’s domination of the Strip showcasing the best celebrity entertainers and the best entertainment couldn’t and didn’t last forever. It was inevitable that as Las Vegas Blvd, dotted with the magnificent hotels list above, began to thrive, the throng of visitors and celebrity headliners began to explore new entertainment venues. It was probably hurtful to both Entratter and Morelli when Dean Martin, who was given a minority shareholder’s interest, chose to contract at The Riviera and, of course, they surely felt the sting when Frank Sinatra moved over to Caesars Palace.[48]

Nonetheless, with such significant casino and city advances within a relatively short period of time, Hank Greenspun correctly assessed the situation, and it subsequently follows that both Entratter and Morelli played credible roles in the growing stature and popularity of the Las Vegas Strip worldwide.

Las Vegas Pop Concerts ………

As stated, Jack Entratter, at the urging of his cohorts, had brought Morelli to Las Vegas to help offset the city’s impaired image. Job security on the turbulent and notoriously competitive Las Vegas Strip never existed, and the fact that Morelli was retained as the Sand’s music director until his health failed him in the early 70’s, highlights the fact his employers always believed they had acted very wisely in retaining him. Morelli accomplished what they had expected of him – and more. However the story does not end there, because on a wider examination of Morelli’s life in Las Vegas, it appears his noteworthy contributions to the city include not only what he did while on the Strip, but his accomplishments as a true cultural architect to bring music to the Las Vegas people during his off duty time. This refined man had a vision of Las Vegans coming together as a tight-knit community and , by his actions, it is apparent he decided to do what he could to help bring the revelation into actuality.

Las Vegas was a unique locale in the 50’s and 60’s due to the State’s legalization of gaming, and, moreover, the fact that most Las Vegans really were from “someplace else” and, ergo, not native to the area (strangely, these issues remain to the present day). Morelli was keenly aware that Las Vegas newcomers experienced great mental turmoil moving into this “gambling mecca” wherein gaming was suddenly viewed as a good and wholesome pursuit. The positive spin on this local industry countered all that they had been groomed to believe before and as Morelli stated, “it does something [negative] to the man who believes [gaming] to be a vice.”[49]Thus, the Maestro recognized it was natural for a person to get mentally “lost” in this land of sand and hot sun. Morelli was sensitive to the locals’ innate confusion because he conceded he had undergone the same intellectual unrest before his gradual recognition of the positive side of life in Las Vegas. He began to espouse the position that they had all come together to form this remarkable desert community “with over 300 days of sunshine and warmth”,[50] and he hoped to unite them through his gift of music.

Therefore, after Morelli nightly put down his baton in the Copa Room, he would turn his focus to putting together band members along the strip for the purpose of providing free public concerts. These orchestras – much larger than the commercial strip orchestras –first performed as the Shirt Sleeve Symphonies and then the Las Vegas Pop Concerts.[51] From the outset, he would overtly display incredible showmanship capabilities which awed everyone.[52]

Morelli held the first local concert, in 1955, at Cashman Field and this initial production went off as well as he could have hoped. His effort to put on this event, with 125 brass playing musicians who gave freely of their time, began months in advance of the scheduled summer performance .[53] The concert went from 8:00 pm to midnight and crowds filled the stands with wild cheers of approval. A major challenge at this event was transporting the entertainers and musicians back and forth from the Strip casinos to Cashman Field so that they would be there in time to perform for their shows. The Las Vegas solution was to whisk them in and out via a sheriff’s car. As Helen recalled, people paid $1.50 to $2.00 to attend this initial performance; future events would cost less, or be free.[54]

This concert set the tone for future performances held each year; and when the Las Vegas Convention Center opened in 1959, Morelli had a venue to hold larger public concerts on a more regular basis. For these public performances, Morelli formed a Community Chorus composed of 50 to 60 members (on average) of all age groups and, as stated by Dennis Ortwein, a then young teacher who would one day obtain his doctoral degree in educational administration, joined the chorus early on and participated in many of the Maestro’s musical performances. Ortwein stated Morelli was definitely a “taskmaster” but, that he “achieved outstanding quality by skillfully motivating us all to get better.” Through the years, Morelli met with this group each week on his night off.[55]

The Community Chorus was an important element for Morelli in his plan to hold multiple public performances each year. Looking back today, Dr. Ortwein stated that “what most distinguished Maestro Morelli was his amazing talent for bringing the community together for the spectacular concerts and holiday celebrations.”[56] Morelli’s annual series would include an Easter Pageant in March or April, a Mother’s Day Program in May, hopefully an opera in June, a patriotic program in July, and a Christmas Concert in the month of December.[57] Not stopping there, on two occasions, Morelli also had a complete Hebrew program in February. (Was this a Passover program? don’t know for sure) Morelli had this to say about his operatic efforts:

In Las Vegas, we have produced three operas in concert manner: Cavaleria Rusticana in English; Il Trovatore in Italian and Aida in two languages – Italian and English – in costume, to S.R.O. (standing room only) audiences. All local talent and an orchestra of sixty-five.[58]

Through these lavish, regularly scheduled, free performances, the people of Las Vegas truly came to know Morelli. They appreciated the extraordinary effort he went to on their behalf. Helen proudly stated that, in one publication, her husband was referred to as “the Tuscanini of the Desert.”[59]

What may not have been as clear to the public was the funding arrangement for the performances. It may have been assumed that all costs were borne by the hotels.

In truth, though the Convention Center and accompanying production equipment was, apparently, provided free of charge and a Music Performance Trust Fund compensated the musicians, Morelli personally financed all needs he could not get donated.

Maxine Deacon, one of his young production singers, verified that “he gave generously of his time and money to bring music to [the people of] Las Vegas.”[60] Helen, following her husband’s death, corroborated this point stating “I could have had many mink coats with all the money he took out of his own pocket to pay for these things.”[61]

But she supported his efforts because “he enjoyed it and the people enjoyed it.”[62]

Morelli, an amazing showman, went to great lengths to provide the best performances possible at each of the seasonal events. Bertine Corimby claimed they really were” spectacular productions”. At one event, she recalled his having “every type of imaginable animal; big ones, too.”[63] He was able to do such things because, as Dr. Ortwein stated, “Morelli had access to everyone … a call [by Morelli] to a business, a construction company or a publicist would bring positive action.”[64] They would give what they could to make the specific event successful; what they couldn’t give, Morelli covered. The show was going to go on.

Morelli was able to get several celebrity performers and soloists, as Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and Red Skelton, to agree to perform pro bono on his community stage.

When the information was circulated that the caliber of these celebrity headliners felt it was something worthwhile to do, than it was something many other good, aspiring performers would find the time to work into their schedules as well. Helen apparently enjoyed sharing the story that Dean Martin, on the eve before his act, would jokingly state his need for rest because the following day he would be “in concert at the Convention Center.”[65] Amazingly, whereas many Las Vegans could not afford to see Strip entertainers in the casino showrooms, Morelli helped to make it possible for “these locals” to see their favorite personalities “for free” at his pop concerts on Sunday afternoons. As a result, a sense of community really began to grow, because where else would local inhabitants find such unique and special opportunities? Maybe, Las Vegas really was a special place for people to raise families.

The Good Friday Concert, held in 1966, was for Morelli and others, his most spectacular liturgical performance as, incredibly, there was an estimated 10,000 spectators. The people who came were regally entertained. It was reported in the local papers and in the Coffer interview that the gospel of St. Matthew was dramatized by a large cast in period costume. Danny Thomas served as the Gospel narrator. Moreover, a well known local district judge was commentator and Pontius Pilate was played by the chairman of the Clark County Commission. [66] The audience could identify the cast of characters. They knew this was something special.

The following year, Morelli wrote a musical version for an Easter Sunday Sunrise Service. This service also had an overflowing crowd in attendance. Moreover, Morelli proudly stated that for this performance his wife “designed and cut out one hundred costumes.” [67] Each year he tried to make the performances more and more elaborate. He astounded everyone.

In an interview with Coffer about five years before his retirement, Morelli made clear, that for him his community musical accomplishments “were his special pride.”

Having the opportunity to share the magic of music and all its variety with his fellow Las Vegans was the spark that provided life’s special meaning. In his words, The idea is to expose the people to all kinds of music: give them a little bit of everything. Nothing… can take the place of a concert hall when it comes to a musical education. Why is that? ‘If you get an audience together and play to them for two hours, …,a program that includes Brahms, Strauss, a little Wagner, and a little Sousa on the same program – you’ve achieved something.’ [68]

and in another direct quote, …people …seldom get any variety… [but] when they come to my concerts I will put Sousa, Gershwin, Verdi, Rachmaninoff, with a Liszt piano concerto on the same program. I want to hold their interest and that’s the way I do it.[69]

Morelli, a true cultural architect, knew he was gifting his Las Vegas concert audiences with a facet of life many of them had not been privileged to participate in before. He hoped that, with time, the attendees would grow in refinement and develop manners appropriate for these occasions. He could see he was having a certain measure of success. What did please him, however, was that the concert attendance numbers were, in showman’s terms “off the charts.” They were always in search of larger and larger staging areas at the Convention Center for the people. The rest would come with time.

The Morellis’ were devout Catholics and this is perhaps why the annual Easter and Christmas productions were the most elaborate productions. They were parishioners of the Guardian Angel Catholic Church to which they would generously contribute each year. However, Morelli gladly would perform for other notable religious heads and on one occasion while doing so, catastrophe struck. In 1967, while rehearsing for a concert to be held the following day for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, who was visiting Las Vegas, Morelli suffered a stroke. It was written that:

Despite the stroke, Morelli refused to be hospitalized, continued the rehearsal from a wheelchair and at 6 pm the next day he was on the podium in the Convention Center for the Archbishop’s concert which won raves as a musical triumph.[70] According to reports, Morelli was confined to bed for a month after this event. Morelli extended himself too far, on too many occasions.

Maxine Deacon, one of his vocalists who is still today actively involved in gospel concert productions in Las Vegas, best summed up Morelli’s contribution to the community stating that he was “an amazing man with vision, energy and talent who brought wonderful music to the Desert for lots of people for so many years.”[71]

Morelli’s efforts with young musicians

Morelli always liked to assist young people. In fact, before coming to Las Vegas, Morelli did all the vocal specials featuring young aspiring vocal artists at Radio City Music Hall in New York. After his arrival in Las Vegas, he held seminars at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (originally, one building: 25 ‘ by 100’).[72] He also provided musical seminars in several of the other public schools. According to Dr. Ortwein, examples of Morelli’s success with young people include, Members such as Maxine Deacon, Louise Camera and Anthony Thomas were tutored by the Maestro and made notable musical contributions. High school prodigies Carmen Ruggerolli and Patrick Clary [local attorney] profited under his baton.[73]

Morelli stated in the Coffer Interview that The Pops Concert Orchestra performed for the university’s 1,800 students on several occasions.[74] In1963, he did a “Portrait of Nevada” which depicted life in Nevada, its early growth and the Indians at Pyramid Lake and Winnemucca.  He needed a young chorus and he used … the students at UNLV. It took him six months to train the young men and women. [75] When they performed, they performed magnificently. The positive benefit of his efforts here has had to live far beyond his years. (Sally have you spoken with Doug Peterson? Doug is the director of the Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society Chorale—he worked with Morelli and had offered to share his memories with us—I, unfortunately, did not properly follow up—but could still make the contact for you. He gave us a photograph of Morelli conducting his choir.) No, would love to speak with him.

Morelli took great pride in assisting young Las Vegans find their way in music.  To that end, he arranged a scholarship fund for music students entitled the Antonio Morelli Friends of Music Endowment Fund at UNLV and gave the lead gift of five thousand dollars ($5,000.00).

A most spectacular thing Morelli did for young Las Vegas people was showcase several gifted ones as “Musicians of the Future” in special concerts. On May 28, 1961, he introduced four young musicians, including Tom Constanten, who later became a member of the popular band, Grateful Dead, and, thereafter, in 1994,inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When asked to reflect on special moments in his early career in a web Digital Interview, Tom Constanten thought of his time with Antonio Morelli and the impact the conductor had on him:

There was my “debut,” which occurred at the Las Vegas Convention Center on May 28, 1961. I was one of four “Musicians of the Future” showcased by Antonio Morelli, who conducted the orchestra at the Sands.

This was a gala concert with the Las Vegas “Pops” Orchestra, and it was every bit as glitzy as you’d imagine. Morelli’s showbiz savvy got us kids to play way over our heads.[76]

From Constanten’s comments above, it is obvious that Morelli stretched the Rocker’s performing ability at the time; it is further apparent that Constanten appreciated the push and maybe that nudge from Maestro Morelli helped the young performer find his way to the musical Hall of Fame.

Morelli also inspired a young family member to fulfill his destiny. Maestro Morelli’s great nephew is the contemporary singer-songwriter and recording artist, Ed Hale.[77] On Hale’s website, he acknowledges his pride in his “Uncle Tony” and credits him, in part, for his love of music:

Music is in the blood for this man [Hale] who released his first album at the tender age of 17 and whose great-uncle was none other than the famous musical conductor and arranger, Antonio Morelli, well known for his many years at the infamous Copa Room in Vegas during the ‘Rat Pack’ years.[78]

His nephew’s tribute would have made the band leader very proud.

For the community’s cultural growth, Morelli dreamed of the day that Las Vegas, a young city by national and international standards, could support its own symphony orchestra. Twenty-four years following Morelli’s death and before the city’s 100th birthday, the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra was established (July 4, 1998). Up to the present day, its performances have been held on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus. Next year, on March 12, 2012, this orchestra will have the spectacular 2,050 seat Reynolds Hall in the magnificent, Performing Arts Smith Center as its musical home. These advances demonstrate that the small Las Vegas “community flame” which Morelli worked so hard to help enkindle years ago, is blowing brightly today. Morelli would be pleased to know this.


Morelli’s Retirement and Passing

As indicated earlier, Morelli’s health issues were a constant source of concern for him; his general health worsened with time. Though he did rebound from his stroke in 1967, he apparently did, thereafter, have a few additional small strokes and then, in

July, 1971, following a brain hemorrhage, he was forced to retire as the Sands orchestra leader. Morelli made a personal request to Bill Reddie to take over his duties as the Sand’s musical director ( which Reddie agreed to do).[79] Morelli may have been in mourning because his employer, Jack Entratter, the man who lured him to Las Vegas approximately 17 years earlier, had died on March 11,1971. Thus, sadly, two very notable figures vacated the Sands Resort‘s hallways within mere months of each other.[80]

Though the Clark County population was approximately 60, 000 at the time of the classical musical director’s arrival, the area grew significantly and was nearly 360,000 people on the eve of his death.[81] Moreover, during his many years in the Copa Room, Morelli saw Las Vegas firmly establish its place on the world entertainment stage. The Las Vegas Strip had been transformed, too, from the two lane roadway lined with a handful of luxury motor inns to a 6-lane paved highway dotted with, as earlier stated, popular, world famous, multi story resort hotels (by 1970, several had already had new towers and other subsequent construction additions put in place).

Morelli lived to see the grand openings of the (first) beautiful MGM Grand and Harrah’s Resorts (1973). Morelli was also aware that Elvis Presley, a new spectacularly, popular talent was beginning to be regularly headlined at the new Hilton Resort (the former International Hotel).

Thus, as he spent his final days at his home in the Desert Inn Estates, Morelli had time to reflect on, since his arrival, the many wondrous changes that had taken place in Las Vegas. He, most likely, had mixed feelings about the newer, prominent resorts and it was probably sad for him to see that the Sands Hotel was no longer the premier Strip location at which to be seen . Hopefully, he was able to intellectually resolve that he had played a part in the progress that had occurred and would take place in the future. Time was moving on.[82]

On June 17, 1974 one month shy of his 70th birthday, Morelli quietly passed away at his home, cause of death was due to an apparent heart attack. Helen was at his side and in a final tribute to her husband, she was quoted in the Sun as saying that the people of Las Vegas had, “lost a good and dear friend in the music field.”[83]

Morelli help to “set the bar” for what Strip entertainment should be and through his pop concerts, he did his part to help promote the cultural growth of Las Vegas. Although sometimes controversial, he strove for musical excellence and achievement in himself and those around him. The tall, mustachioed, showman truly did cast a long, wildly successful shadow on the Las Vegas Valley, which he proudly called home.

*  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *

Three years after his death, in 1977, The University of Wyoming recognized the entertainment and cultural significance of Antonio Morelli and chose to become the repository for many of his musical papers. After the many historical photographs and recordings of his community concerts preserved by Helen Morelli were given to the Junior League of Las Vegas Endowment Fund, the organization donated them to the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.[84] and to the Arnold Shaw Popular Music Research Center at the University of Nevada. The Junior League hopes to uphold the memory of this influential and important cultural architect of Las Vegas by making both his home and his photographical records preserved and restored and accessible to the people of his city

[1] “Morelli and His Music” Morelli Booklet, p. 3

[2] Alan Hess, “Antonio Morelli: House Essay for Junior League of Las Vegas, October 2.2007.

[3] Jerry Massini, Oral Interview of Helen Morelli,52 Country Club Lane, Desert Inn Estates, Las Vegas, NV. March 6,1976

[4] As explained at the “Morelli and His Music”event, the downtown casinos drew in a more country western crowd and the Strip moved to attract the wealthy nightclub types and Eastern audience. Copa Room would be named after the Copacabana Club and where Entratter came in contact with Morelli.

[5] Alan Hess, Antonio Morelli: Study for the Junior League, October 2, 2007

[6] Bill Reddie, Written testimonial, March 13, 2009

[7] History of Las Vegas, Las Vegas Sun. Website.

[8] Jerry Massini, Oral interview with Helen Morelli, 52 Country Club Lane. March 6, 1976, tape 1

[9] Alan Hess, “ Antonio Morelli: Study for the Junior League,” Oct 2, 2007

[10] Morelli House booklet

[11] Helene L.Coffer, “Antonio Morelli: From Broadway to Las Vegas” Sage, 1967.

[12] Coffer, p. 22. Morelli House booklet.

[13] Ibid

[14] Coffer, “Antonio Morelli: From Broadway to Las Vegas,” Sage. p. 21

[15] Coffer, p. 22

16 Hess, “Antonio Morelli, a Study for the Junior League of Las Vegas”. 2007.  October 2, 2007. Pg 2. “Antonio Morelli and His Music” booklet.

17 “Morelli and His Music,” booklet. Standing Ovation”, Neon section of the Las Vegas Review Journal, April 2, 2009. There is also a photo in the Morelli House showing the Sands pylon sign with “Antonio Morelli and his Music” on it.

18 Maxine Deacon, Written Testimonial, March,2011.

[19] Frank Leone. “Morelli and His Music”, Las Vegas Academy Theatre, Ap 2.09

[20] Frank Leone, “Antonio Morelli and His Music”. Las Vegas Academy Theatre. Apr. 2, 2009

[21] Leone, panelist discussion at “Antonio Morelli and His Music”. Ap 2009

[22] Coffer

[23] Frank Leone, panelist. “Morelli and His Music” Las Vegas Academy, Theatre, April 2 2009. Leone stated bringing the year round strings section to the orchestra is “the significance of Antonio Morelli.”

[24] Leone, panelist discussion. Mulidore agreed “everyone wanted the job.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Bertine Corimby, “Morelli and His Music” 2009. Panelist Ken Hanlon attested to Bertine’s exceptional talent as a violinist and viola player.

[27] Jim Mulidore, “Morelli and His Music”, April 2, 2009; Cork Proctor, Oral recollection of musician’s feelings, March 12, 2011;

[28] Coffer, p. 20. Bill Reddie, Written testimonial. March 13, 2009

[29] Coffer, “Antonio Morelli: From Broadway to Las Vegas”, Sage. Summer, 1967. Reddie’s written testimonial makes it clear that overtime Morelli regretted the clash he had with some of these men he came to respect, so in this way, the problem did not go away.

[30] Coffer, p. 21

[31] Frank Leone, “Morelli and His Music”, April 2, 2009

[32] Coffer, 1967, p. 21.

[33] Hanlon, “Antonio Morelli and His Music” Las Vegas Academy Theatre.

[34] Ibid

[35] Bertine Corimby. “Morelli and His Music” Las Vegas Academy. April 2, 2009

[36] Melinda Newman.“Tina Sinatra Laments the Loss of Her Dad Frank and the Death of Rat Pack Cool,” Web article. February 17, 2011

[37] Massini. Oral Interview of Helen Morelli. March 6, 1976. tape 1.

[39] “Standing Ovations”, Las Vegas Review Journal, April 2, 2009. At “Morelli and His Music” event, Jimmy Mulidore shared a few sparring incidents between Sinatra and Morelli.

[40] Historic photo on display at Morelli House. The Sands Hotel, as originally built, was a single story resort.

[41] Brian Alvarez, LVCVA, verified photo archives show casino signs welcoming Lyndon Johnson to town October, 1964

[42] Coffer, p.25. Leonard Bernstein. Thank You Note, September _____

[43] Morelli is referring to the challenge of working with his hands. Coffer

[44] Bertine Corimby, “Morelli and His Music.” Ms Corimby claimed she never made it past the entrance of Morelli’s home due to Mozart. Pete Barbutti, master of ceremonies for the Morelli event, also shared an encounter with the dog.

[45] “Sands Hotel: Legends of the Copa Room” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

[46] Hank Greenspun, editor’s column, Las Vegas Sun . 1987

[47] History of Las Vegas, Sun Newspaper Archives

[48] Ken Hanlon, telephone conversation with Sally Rycroft, March 8, 2011.

[49] Coffer

[50] Coffer, 1967, p23

[51] “Morelli and His Music, p. 4

[52] General panelist agreement at “Morelli and His Music”2009. Ron Simone called him a “PT Barnum”.

[53] Massini. Oral Interview of Helen Morelli. March 6, 1976.

[54] Massini, Tape 1 Side B

[55] Dennis Ortwein, written testimonial, March 25, 2011

[56] Dennis Ortwein, Written testimonial. March 25, 2011.

[57] H. L. Coffer, “Antonio Morelli: From Broadway to Las Vegas”; Sage. 1967

[58] Coffer, 1967, p.23

[59] Massini. Oral Interview of Helen Morelli. March 6, 1976. Tape 1, Side A

[60] Maxine Deacon. Written testimonial. April 19, 2011

[61] Massini, Tape 1, Side B

[62] Ibid

[63] Corimby, “Antonio and His Music” panelist discussion. 2009

[64] Dennis Ortwein, Written Testimonial, March 25, 2011

[65] Massini, p.

[66] Coffer

[67] Coffer,

[68] Coffer

[69] Coffer

[70] “Famed LV Conductor Antonio Morelli Dies” Las Vegas Sun, June 18, 1974

[71] Maxine Deacon. Written testimonial. March, 2011.

[72] Massini, 1976

[73] Dennis Ortwein, Written testimonial, March 25, 2011

[74] Coffer

[75] Massini and Coffer

[76] Tom Constanten. Digital Interviews.

[77] “Antonio Morelli”, Wapedia

[78] Ed Hale Web site

[79] Bill Reddie, Written Testimonial, March 14, 2009

[80] Jack Entratter died March 11, 1971, same year as Morelli’s retirement. Bill Reddie, Written Testimonial, March 13, 2009.

[81] All Strip hotels are in the county. Even at that time, the visitor volume at any one time added greatly to the perceived population of Las Vegas.  In 1980 Clark County’s population would hit 463,087. Clark County’s present day population is 1,951,269.

[82] The Sands was closed and imploded in 1996; the Venetian replaced it that same year.

[83] “Famed LV Conductor Antonio Morelli Dies”, Las Vegas Sun, June 18, 1974

[84] Letter verifying Receipt from University of Wyoming, 1977


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