Jan 31, 2024

Episode 124

Ross Mollison


From an early age, the Melbourne-bred, New York-based Ross Mollison had a love for music and live entertainment. This nascent passion led him to launch Spiegelworld in 2005, known for its groundbreaking shows that blend cabaret, the circus, and variety performances.

Under Mollison’s leadership, Spiegelworld has become synonymous with cutting-edge, adult-oriented entertainment that pushes the boundaries of traditional theatrical experiences. Indeed, his creativity and vision have played a key role in shaping Spiegelworld’s reputation as a trailblazer in the world of live entertainment, spotlighted in the forthcoming DiscoShow and the development of a circus town in Nipton, California, where Mollison and his team dream up their creative, otherworldly endeavors.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I am here with Ross Mollison. So nice to see you. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Ross Mollison: Really excited to be here.

SSR: Well, thanks. Okay, so we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

RM: I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and I grew up in a suburban area there and worked there from a lot of my career before starting to produce and promote shows in America around the 2000.

SSR: Amazing. And what were you like as a kid?

RM: I loved music. I played a variety of musical instruments and I loved singing and I loved going to the circus, which is how I kind of got involved in the whole thing, because I had neighbors when I was about five years old next door who loved the circus, who would drag my family off with theirs to see the circus. And I just loved live entertainment and at school I loved being in plays and musicals. And then when I went to college, I was in the musicals and produced musicals and then started producing shows and touring Australia with them and stuff like that.

SSR: That’s great. Was there one play or musical that you loved or really remembered from early on from high school or college?

RM: I mean, it’s bizarre to say, but I really loved The Mikado when I was 15 by Gilbert and Sullivan. And then when I was at college, I really loved Stephen Sondheim and I was part of a group that produced the Australian premiere of Anyone Can Whistle, this Stephen Sondheim musical that’s not very well known. It only did six performances on Broadway. And I just loved Sondheim. I thought he was such a genius. And many years later I got to meet him a few times and he came to my shows and stuff. That was a big thrill. But then ultimately I was really into musicals during that period and I just thought West Side Story was the best musical ever written, and we produced a version of that when I was at college, which was just incredible.

SSR: Amazing. And so what did you study in college?

RM: Economics. I took, I think it was six or seven years to do a three-year degree because most of the time I was in a theater or touring Australia with a show, but eventually I just couldn’t do it to my parents. I had to finish the damn degree. It’s always good to know that stuff, but yeah, I just felt bad and my parents and education, everything was so important to them. So I ended up really, really struggling because that one year I didn’t go to a lecture all year. But finally I ended up getting really good marks when I focused on it.

SSR: Okay. Economics was my hardest subject at school.

RM: It was hard.

SSR: So you said after college you went and you toured?

RM: Yeah, we created a little children’s theater company and we put shows on in Melbourne and in Sydney and Adelaide. And then we had a caravan and trucks and garbage, like a circus and fool around regional areas and put little children’s shows on, which was really, really fun.

SSR: When did you start Spiegelworld, your company?

RM: Spiegelworld started in 2005. We put our first shows on in New York in 2006, and that was at the former Pier 17. It’s been torn down and rebuilt as a new Pier 17, but this was when it was a really stinky old pier on the East River under the Brooklyn Bridge. And yeah, that was our first season, which we did two months in 2006, and then we did three years in New York, 2006, ’07, ’08 until the financial crisis came and clobbered us.

The Atomic Saloon Show; photo courtesy Spiegelworld

SSR: And what did you want to create with Spiegelworld? What was your hope for it?

RM: It was always based on this super intimate comedic circus concept in a very beautiful historic venue combined with incredible hospitality, incredible food and beverage. And we always had that ambition when we started our hospitality, the food side of it wasn’t so good. On our opening night, Sasha Petraske, who was the really one of the leaders of the resurgence of cocktails in New York and globally came and did cocktails for our opening night. He created an Absinthe cocktail for our first ever performance. So we did have aspirations to great cocktails back then, but it’s taken us a few years to really get to the levels that we’re really excited about with Super Preco and our cocktail program now.

SSR: Got it. And before we get there, the first one that you debuted was Absinthe right, in 2006. What was the reception of that? Did people fall in love with it? What was the feedback that you received from the first one?

RM: We pretty much… We’re on a pier in Pier 17, which is South Street Seaport. Anybody who knows New York knows that anyone who lives there just would prefer to swim in raw sewage than go there. It’s just horrible. It’s like it was a beacon for tourists who knew no better. And we walked down and found this pier and we went, oh my God, it’s this horrible old mall, which is all empty and got these terrible tendencies in it. But we’re looking at Dumbo and we’re right under the Brooklyn Bridge and there’s a Statue of Liberty and we’re on the East River. This is the most gorgeous place in Manhattan. But because of that, when we went on sale, nobody bought a ticket. It was just a disaster. And so we just staffed it with everyone we knew. And after the first three days it sold every ticket. It just went insane. And that was super exciting. Sometimes in my business, every now and then you do something that’s just crazy great and it sells every ticket. And that was one of those experiences.

SSR: Yeah. And what was the show about?

RM: It’s about celebrating the circus and burlesque and just the whole human condition. It’s just coming and watching people who do these extraordinarily fantastic and unexpected things, and they’re like doing them on up stage the size of the dining room table and you are just kind of sexy and exciting and beautiful and unexpected. And back then we performed in a real Belgian Spiegeltent, a very old one. We used to say it was the one Marlene Dietrich performed in, but that was probably artistic license. But it was this beautiful old space that’s all made of wood and brass and velvet and stained-glass. And you just walk into this space and you’re just like, what the hell is this? It’s really exciting and it’s got a bar built into it. So they were popular around the turn of the last century and they would tour it through Europe and they’d come to town and every piece could be carried by one incredibly strong Dutchman or Belgium man. And they would build this whole thing in matter of a day. And then everybody would come out in the town and go to a dance and there’d be a band or a mechanical organ would play. And still to this day, there’s places you can go in Europe and see them operates the way they used to operate then.

SSR: That’s amazing. Maybe you said it, but you went to school and you were born in Melbourne. What made you come to the States? What drew you to New York? Was it Broadway? Was it just the possibility of what you could do there?

RM: When I was 15, my parents came to America and bought a recreational vehicle and drove around the country for nine months. And so my brother and I joined them for four months and just dotted around the place. And then the rest of the time I went to high school in New Jersey. I went to an all boys pretty strict kind of Presbyterian school in Melbourne. And then all of a sudden I’m in an American high school. I just had the best six months of my life. It was just insane. And I just fell in love with America through that experience. And so I was anxious to get back and I came back as an adult and started just regularly coming to New York. And I remember coming and staying when the Paramount Hotel had just opened and just like, what is… This is just… Was just the coolest place I could possibly imagine. And then going to see three shows a day and getting out and just experiencing New York. Always loved New York, always wanted to live here desperately.

SSR: Love it, love it. Okay, so you’re in New York, you have a couple of good years and then the market kills you. What do you do next?

RM: Well, fortunately we’d gone to Miami and thrown the show up on a beach down there at South Beach at Collins Park, which is just near… The W was just being built at the time we were there. So that kind of places between the W and the sea tide there. And we did it with Andre Balazs in the Raleigh Hotel, which he owned at the time, and he did all the food side of it and the cocktails. So they were all fabulous.

And again, we threw this thing open on Miami Beach and it was just a disaster. No one came and then we comped the hell out of it and then within a week it just went crazy. And everybody in Miami came, including a guy called Jeff Soffer who was in the process of remodeling the Fountainebleau Hotel on South Beach. And he wanted a show for his new casino he was building in Las Vegas, the Fountainebleau. And so we did a deal with him and we were ready to open the Fountainebleau in 2009 when that opened in Vegas. Fortunately, he was clobbered by the financial crisis as well ultimately. And that project went bankrupt. Ironically, I just went to the opening night of Jeff Soffer, because he lost it and bought it back again and just opened it a few weeks ago. And so that is the definition of relentless.

SSR: A hundred percent. And so then what did you do after that happened? Were you then connected with Vegas and you wanted to try something there?

RM: Yeah, I desperately connected. We desperately wanted to be in Vegas. We were totally broke, just had a long list of people I owed money to and went and just begged. Met with a Venetian, tried to get into MGM, got into Caesar’s and ultimately ended up with this guy, fantastic guy, who’s the regional president of Caesars Entertainment called Gary Selesner. And he’d actually been from New Jersey himself and was a lover of New York and pizza and kind of a journalist PR guy who’d just fallen into managing casinos, but really got this kind of idea of we were doing. And he said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll give you a shot.” And gave us a spot at Caesars Palace to put it in there, but he was the only one who really believed in it. All the other executives at Caesars were just like, “This is… What are you thinking? This is going to be a disaster.”

SSR: And so was it an intimate theater at Caesars or did you have to create that intimacy?

RM: Yeah, we built a Spiegeltent right in front of Caesars Palace. We took one of these old wooden tents from Belgium and this enormous fight ensued with the fire department chief. And she just said, “You said this was a tent. This is not a tent, it’s a fucking building.” And I’m like, it’s a Spiegeltent. I told you in the plans and everything. And she said, “You submitted the plans and we reviewed it and we approved it. So you can have this thing up for six months, but then you pull this thing down and you never bring it back to Vegas again.” And that’s what I’ve committed to, only six months. So we opened it, this incredible Spiegeltent was about 300 seats, and we built this fantastic beer garden around it and off we went. And after six months it was starting to buy it. It was starting to be a success, but the locals of Vegas really loved it, but we had to pull it down.

So I pulled it down and I worked out, I just had this idea that if we… Caesers hated the beer garden. It was like, I call it Brooklyn found object bar junkyard kind of beer garden we had. And they just loathed it. Everybody else loved it, but they used to call it a West Virginia junkyard. And I said to them, “Well, what if I make the tent white on the outside and I put all the junk from the beer garden on the inside?” And they said, “Yeah, if you do that, you can stay.” So that’s what we did, and we rebuilt. We built a new temporary structure that we permitted it as a permanent venue with life safety, insulation, everything we needed to have a permanent building. But we built it out of a tent, which is incredibly stressful. It was a hard period of my life, but ultimately that tent’s still there now 13 years later.

Atomic Saloon Show, Las Vegas, Spiegelworld, Ross Mollison

The Outlaw at the Atomic Saloon Show; photo courtesy Spiegelworld

SSR: And how long did that take you?

RM: We did in two weeks, but it was pretty rough when it opened, and then it took us about a year to get all the permits in place. But that’s a great thing about 2011, 2012, because of the financial crisis, nobody was doing anything in Vegas. It was just like, you are opening a show in Vegas. Are you crazy? It was like Vegas was at a crossroads. It could go eh or it could go up. It’s not like now where there’s all this investment, all this really positive attitude to the whole thing. So I think that was also part of our success, is just opening at that period where nothing else was happening. And people are like, “You are taking a part on Vegas? Are you crazy?” And the locals loved us for it. So that was good.

SSR: Well, now look at it, how much Vegas has grown and come back.

RM: It’s fantastic.

SSR: Okay, so you’re there. How did you continue to evolve and expand your portfolio and continue to grow Spiegelworld to what it is today?

RM: Well, I mean, we had the bar at Caesar, it wasn’t very good, but we really love this idea of getting back to what we started in New York where we had a restaurant there in our third year. And so we wanted this idea of a restaurant and a show and the whole thing together. At the same time, The Cosmopolitan had just opened and this leader of The Cosmopolitan, then a guy called John Armwood who was just fascinated by the whole idea of live entertainment, food and beverage. And we really had a meeting of the minds as to how this worked, which ultimately fell apart. It was incredibly difficult to do, but we opened a thing called Rose. Rabbit. Lie. in 2013, which was this extraordinary restaurant and theater complex, which was just way too ambitious for its time, but was fantastic. If everybody who said they’d been there actually had been there, it would still be running.

But again, we learned so much about design and how these things can interrelate. We had walls going up and down so you could see through the restaurant into the theater. We designed the theater. It’s an incredibly compromised space. It only had 14 feet of head height, so it’s hard to do live entertainment in that, but the whole design was a critical part of the whole thing and how that would all work.

SSR: The cool thing that I loved about that space is that you were entertained throughout the night, right? You had different performances pop up as you’re eating, so it really combined entertainment and restaurant.

RM: Yeah, to me it’s a subtle difference to, I think the consumer, but to me it’s an incredibly important difference that when you go to a lot of hospitality-oriented live entertainment, it’s just, okay, it’s what I’d call stop and watch, where for the lights go down and you’re sitting there eating dinner, having a nice time, and then everybody shut up and this guy’s going to get up and pretend to be Frank Sinatra for a couple of hours, and you’re going to have to just watch all this garbage. And you’re just like, come on, man.

So when we designed ours, I said, “Right, we really want it to be take it or leave it.” If you’re not into it, you can just go, yeah, yeah, leave us alone and then keep on going. Bye. But it creates an environment in the restaurant that’s really fantastic as well, which is unexpected, and that leads to a delight and that leads to a fun as opposed to just, oh my God, we’re going to have to watch this thing for the next 30 minutes. I prefer to kill myself. I didn’t come to Vegas to do this.

SSR: Exactly. Okay, so that ran a couple of years though, didn’t it? Rose. Rabbit. Lie.

RM: Rose. Rabbit. Lie. The theater side of it closed down and then the property was sold. We left the property, the restaurant continued running for quite a few years. Then the property came back to us and asked us to do a show there with its new owners, Blackstone. And so we put a show into the theater space. Then during COVID, the restaurant closed down and we opened Superfrico in the restaurant. So we basically went back to having the whole space with Superfrico and a show next door called Opium.

SSR: Okay. So what were those two? What did you want to create there and how did you come up with these concepts, too? Because you mix really interesting things together and people and different genres. So I don’t know if people have been to one of your shows, but talk about how you create those as well.

RM: I mean, it’s a process of putting a diverse group of people together. As part of our process, we brought all our design in house. So we have in-house art direction architecture, mixology, executive chef, and food design and restaurant design. And then we go out and we expand that with different designers. So right now we’re doing a disco experience, which will have a new diner in it. We’ll have a show and a restaurant and I don’t know what it is, three or four bars. And we brought in like, okay, we need a really theatrical designer to help us with this show. Nobody’s done a show like this before. So we’ve brought in a guy called David Zinn from a Broadway Tony Award-winning guy to help us design that.

And then we’ll work in Atlantic City. We work with other Broadway designers to come in and help us do the set design there. And so the process is very much about us really deciding on what we want to do and then developing a unique space for that, and then making sure we’ve got the creatives. Just having the mixologists sit around when you’re doing set design or restaurant design or theater design and trying to create a space that really doesn’t look like anything else and doesn’t feel and operate like anything else. It’s about designing something that is designed to operate.

I remember arguing with the designers of Rose. Rabbit. Lie. I said, “Look, I just hate this.” And the head of this agency said to me, “Well, don’t worry about it on opening night, we leave and you can do whatever you want with the space.” And I was like, “Yeah, but we’ve spent all the budget.” And A and B, it’s not about submitting something to go in fucking Architectural Digest to look gorgeous. It’s about how do people feel when they come in there? And so much of what is designed now, I feel, is not about the experience after it opens. How do you feel when you’re actually in that space? And it’s just like… I call it Vegas luxe, for instance. It’s just like, well put more marble in. No, we need more gold. It’s just totally undifferentiated because what could be more beautiful than the Wynn? Well, the Fountainebleau is going to be more beautiful. But then Resort World’s more beautiful. But maybe the Cosmo. The Chandelier Bar is more beautiful, but it’s all just beautiful, but it doesn’t really create an intimate experience for people beyond that. And so yeah, how do we create the ideas we started with, I’m going down a rabbit hole here.

SSR: I like it though. And each one is different. Each one that you do has a different story and a different act. And do you switch it up as they get throughout their “life?”

RM: Yeah, yeah. There’s a David Merrick who was a Broadway producers quote, he was like, he used to say, “The contract is signed, let the negotiation begin.” And for us, it’s a bit like the thing is built, let the development begin. As soon as we’ve opened it, we’re now instantly thinking about, okay, how can we keep developing this? How can we keep developing the acts in the show and how can we keep… What are the things that we can keep adding and changing to this? Because we find we get enormous repeat visitation, and it’s so lovely when people come back and see the show and they go, “Oh my God. It was just better than it’s ever been.” So we’re constantly iterating on everything from the cocktails, to the bars, to the bar design to the right now for our ski lodge, we’re just designing a snowmobile chandelier to go into our little PDR room and kind of stuff we make ourselves rather than buy. We make all the sconces ourself. We make the table lamps are all pine trees with bras in them like you see at a stupid ski resort. Except people keep stealing our tiny little bras, which is…

SSR: Have to glue those on.

RM: We are. We do. They still peel them off. Anyway, but it’s just like the stupidity of that. When you go up on a ski lift and you see that, who thought that was funny enough? I don’t even think it’s very funny. It’s just like a stupid idea. I guess, we’ll design a stupid idea where other people won’t.

SSR: Yeah. And how has your guest changed since you started Absinthe in New York to what you’re producing now in Vegas? Or have they?

RM: That’s a good question. I don’t know if they have. I feel a very similar vibe from like we’ve just opened a show last year in Atlantic City, and it feels a similar vibe there to, it did in New York in 2006. That people who were just kind of tired of sitting in a hundred-year-old theater in a tiny seat for three and a half hours waiting for a musical to end, people who are looking for something more than that. And so I think it’s a similar vibe, but I think maybe it’s got a little younger, I don’t know. I think social media has really helped us promote. It promotes itself in a way. If you do great live entertainment, you do a great restaurant, it promotes itself.

SSR: And in these spaces where you have the theater and the restaurant, are they separate spaces, or do you try to intermingle them, or how does that work?

RM: In the Rose. Rabbit. Lie. space we designed in 2013, the next door to each other, but the walls all came down. So the finale of the show in Vegas Nocturne was called, would be seen by everybody in the restaurant to the extent that they could see it. And then all the walls would go up. And the theater and restaurant we built in Atlantic City, it’s based on a space where the 1929 Warner Theater, the Warner Wonder Theater of the World used to be, right on the boardwalk at Caesars Palace. And we recreated the Warner Theater. It used to be 4,000 seats, now it’s about 400. And we put the restaurant in the dressing rooms. So to actually get to the restaurant, you have to go through the stage door, but then all the artists who are performing in the show, in the theater are all coming from their dressing rooms through the restaurant to get to the theater. So that’s when a lot of interaction happens with guests dining in the restaurant.

And the whole thing is, it’s got what we call the third layer, which is after we get it from the contractors, it’s when all our art directors come in and just totally create a totally unique design. And then as part of that, we also bring in original artworks and other artwork we’ve purchased from… I’ve got artwork from Australian artists through to, we’ve got this fantastic artwork by an American artist called Randy Palumbo, which is a big thing called Marvel that’s over the DJ stand in the restaurant. So there’s many different layers of the art that people can actually consume or not as they see fit.

SSR: Got it. Got it. And why did you want to go to Atlantic City?

RM: I didn’t. I was dragged there for, it felt like a decade by Caesars going, “Come on, let’s come down and do something and help this guy.” No, it won’t work. No, it won’t work. No, it won’t work. And then during the pandemic, Caesars was sold to this kind of family company from Reno, El Dorado. And these people who bought it were just… The second day they owned it, they called me up and said, “Hey, we want to have lunch with you. Come to Vegas.” It’s the middle of a pandemic. I’m going to meet these people who just bought Caesars Palace. This is crazy. And they just said, “Look, this is what we want to do. We want to do shows with you. We’d like to do a new show in Vegas. We’d like you to do a show in Atlantic City. We’d like you to do a show in New Orleans with us.” And we were closed.

I didn’t know. I thought, well, I assumed we’d go bankrupt and here’s Anthony Carano and Tom Reeg saying, “Hey, let’s do something together.” And I’m like, “Okay, let’s do it.” And then I kind of got into my jersey roots and started going to Atlantic City a lot. And I was just there last week. I wanted to go the worst day I could possibly imagine going. So I went the coldest day of the year on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter and just to go to see our show and our restaurant. And it was just fantastic. And I said, “Wow, this is going to happen. This place is going to come back.” This place is just… It’s just getting better and better. And ultimately I was sold on it by these new people and their faith in it. And they invested like $400 million in Caesars Palace to make it great in Atlantic City. And part of that investment was what we did with them. And so you go, actually, this is the greatest geography in New Jersey. This is gorgeous beach. And I just think it’s going to keep going because there’s a whole lot of people there looking for something to do.

SSR: Yeah, a hundred percent. A hundred percent. And now you’re also expanding in Vegas, too. Don’t you have a new show coming up soon?

RM: So the DiscoShow opens in end of June this year. And the DiscoShow is we’re building a theater that is a 50 by 50 cube of LED. The floor is LED, the walls are LED, the roof is this massive lighting design rig, and it’s all about the sound. It’s all about the experience of going to a loft party at David Mancuso’s Loft, 99 Prince Street, 1974. And he was like the chief protagonist in the birth of… He thought of the idea of dragging in his other record player so we could have two record players next to each other. So everyone’s tripping on the punch he’s made. He can keep Soul Mancuso going for three hours by playing two copies of the same record just to keep the beat going. It never ended. And that whole birth of disco, I just find absolutely fantastic.

I know it ends up with the BeeGees and Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 and all that stuff. But the start of it, which I just love the romance around all that. So we’ve got the bar where you’ll experience just getting into this place and then this restaurant where you can go before the show or after the show, and we’re going to do midnight brunch in this restaurant and just create something that’s totally unique, not just for Vegas, but for the world.

And I think that’s part of what we do is a lot of developers, a lot of resorts in Vegas, they go out and say, “Oh, this is great. This Carbone thing in New York, this is fantastic.” It is fantastic. Let’s do it in Vegas. And they did a fantastic job of Carbone in Vegas. I think it’s great restaurant there and everything, but I love creating things that are unique to Vegas. We get approached every week to do Absinthe in London or somewhere, and I’m like, “No, Absinthe’s in Vegas. If you want to see that you have to go to Vegas. We’ll do something else in London.”

SSR:  And is the disco still have circus moves and all that, still involved with it?

RM: Yeah, it has circus moves, and it’s directed by a guy called Steven Hogger, who is an incredible show creator from a company called Frantic Assembly in the United Kingdom, who then went on to create Once and create Harry Potter the stage show, and just incredible group of creatives we pulled together for this big disco experience. I couldn’t be more excited about it. I think it’s going to really surprise people just how much fun it is.

SSR: That sounds awesome. And it must be so fun for you to work with these different producers and see the different talent. Can you do any circus moves yourself?

RM: Not really. I kind of leave that. I’ve just found so many fantastic artists all around the world. I don’t really think my skills are up to it. I can do a three ball juggle, but that’s about it.

SSR: That’s it. Got it. I was just curious. But it must be, as I say, really exciting and inspirational to work with these various producers and talent, and how are you finding new people to work with and to continue to raise the bar and think differently about what a circus could be?

RM: We bought this town called Nipton in the California, the Mojave Desert, and we’ve created the Nipton Office of Design, or NOOD, which is our internal creative team. And so we go out there regularly at least once a month, and we’re always inviting people to come out there and meet with us out there.

So like Randy Palumbo who created that artwork that’s in the restaurant in Atlantic City, is also creating an artwork with us for the restaurant in Las Vegas. Or a lot of different artists come out there, different creatives come out there, comedians from LA. And we sit around and we talk about and think about new ideas, and it’s about just creating circumstances where you can create ideas. And then if we have an idea we want to test, we go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and we put it on there. So we might go there for, we did Atomic Saloon there for a month, which was this fantastic show. It just sold every ticket. People went crazy. And then we brought it to Vegas, and now it’s played there for several years.

So ultimately, we’ve got many different ways of doing it, but it’s about pulling together people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be in the room together. And also sometimes lowering the stakes. We just did a show for Formula 1 in Vegas called Lights Out! We did it for one night. We didn’t sell any tickets, we just gave all the tickets away, but we put it on stage and we had incredibly talented artists go to Nipton for a month and work it all up and put it on stage. And now we go, okay, well what do we do with that next? Well, maybe we tour it around three or four Formula 1 races in 2024. It’s about sometimes lowering the stakes rather than saying, “Yeah, we’re just going to go and open this show and it’s 50 million.” Which we’ve done as well, but sometimes it’s nice just to go and spend 300 grand and test something out and learn where the market sits.

SSR: And is there some space or something still that you want to create or do? Well, actually let’s go back. Because didn’t you buy a piece of land that you’re turning into something really exciting in terms of it’s the first circus town of sorts.

RM: Right? Yeah, that’s Nipton, the circus town, where we do our creative work. And that is an enormous project for us, and I can’t work out how much it’s going to end up costing us, but we’ve just built this enormous lake there and we just do it piece by piece. So right now we’re working with this guy we met. We were down in New Orleans because we’re building a show down there, and we met this guy who is this old, he’s an old Burning Man guy, but he’s an incredible artist who recreates these beautiful caravans out of the Spartan Imperial Mansions, which are these 70-year-old caravans that the Getty Aircraft factory used to make. And we’ve got 11 of these things, and I’ve been saying, “Right, these are going to be our hotel. You’re going to come and stay in one of these Spartan Imperial Mansions.

So just designing how that we look in a circus environment, in a Mojave Desert context is what we’re working on right now with this guy in New Orleans. Ultimately though, those caravans will all come back to Nipton, and that will be the hotel component, and then the live entertainment component will be another thing that’s pieced over the top of that. And then the hospitality we’re working on, well, what does a cocktail bar look like in a town in the middle of the desert? What does the restaurant look like that we put in there? And we’re working on that at the moment as well.

SSR: Amazing. Wait, did you just say you built a lake there?

RM: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s hard. You could call it a pond, but it’s a hundred feet wide. It’s 25 feet deep. It’s massive. And I just said, “This is a desert town and the oasis is disastrous. We need to rebuild the oasis.” So we spent a ton of money and we created this, it’s filtered by ozone and UV light, and we created this whole natural ecosystem pond that exists there now, which I swam in a few weeks ago, and it’s fucking freezing. But in the middle of summer, you could just sit in there for six hours, and it’s so beautiful.

The Gazillionaire, Absinthe Las Vegas

Absinthe in LasVegas; photo by Erik Kabik

SSR: That’s amazing. And how did you find this property, this place? You said that you use it to test and to innovate.

RM: Yeah. Yeah, we found it. We stayed there about probably six years ago on a strategic retreat. We go away to weird places that we find and spend two or three days there and dream up the new things. And we were sitting out there doing that. And then during COVID, someone said, “There’s this company that bought the town called American Green, and they’re going to turn it into a weed resort,” where you could just go, I guess, and smoke weed and hang out, and Californian State or someone said, “No, you’re not.” And so they went bankrupt. And so it was just for sale and we bought it during COVID.

SSR: Amazing. So what else is there that you want to do? You feel like you’ve done so much, but is there somethings still on your bucket list that you’d want to create or try?

RM: We really work to the beat of a new major project every year, and our strategic plan is to keep building the company for the next 10,000 years. So we are just trying to continually evolve what we do, and I want to continually do that for as long as I can. So we’re looking at projects in overseas markets. We’ve still got New Orleans and Vegas to open. There are two new projects here. Ultimately, I live in New York. I would love, love to have a project in New York, and we’re very close to doing that. We were almost shaking hands on a deal with Rockefeller Center to build a big theater and restaurant, and then COVID hit and everything changed there, but that’s fine as well. Ultimately, we’ll find the right place for it. I don’t even know if Midtown in New York is the right place for it. I would love to do something in New York.

I would love to do something in Paris and in Tokyo, but we’re in no hurry to expand. We just want a moon at the beat of a drum that makes sense for what we’re doing. We’re not looking to just scale. We’re not some start entrepreneurial company, which is aiming to 10X our revenue so we can sell our business or anything. [inaudible 00:43:00] tried to buy us a few years ago and we said, “Oh, we’re not for sale. We don’t want to do that.” It’s too much fun to create a corporatized structure out of it all. We’ve got to keep the intimacy and the fun of the whole experience.

SSR: And you do have a partnership with Caesars, right?

RM: Yeah, Caesars, we’re doing DiscoShow, Atlantic City and New Orleans.

SSR: New Orleans, so New Orleans is happening.

RM: Yeah. And they have Caesars Palace, which has just been rebuilt at the moment in New Orleans. And obviously we have Absinthe that Caesars Palace in Vegas, which has been an enormous success there.

SSR: And that’s kind of cool that you’re infusing stuff into New Orleans and in Atlantic City. Are there other kind of smaller markets? I know you mentioned New York, which is obviously a major metropolitan city, but are there any smaller markets that you would like to try your craft in?

RM: I really love New Orleans, and I think Atlantic City is going to continue to grow for us and be really successful. I think it might take two or three years to really hit where we’re going. But you can just feel the momentum there. But I’m not necessarily looking for more places in North America. We did a show in, I think, it was 2015 in Tokyo. I just came back from Tokyo. I’d love to do something there. I think that’s an enormous opportunity, great sensibility, similar to our kind of sense of humor there and just an enormous city, obviously.

And enormous is not necessarily better. In a way, I think New York is kind of harder than anything else. I used to know how to promote here. Now it’s a lot harder. You can’t just book an ad in the New York Times and everyone sees it. But the other side of that coin is if you do something incredible, you don’t have to do anything. My friends who launched Sleep No More in New York a decade ago, and I don’t think they’ve ever taken an ad. This thing just is so great. It just sold out.

SSR: Yeah, exactly. It’s a crowded marketplace. So how do you stand out? And how do you try to… Going back to the circus town that you’re creating, how are you involving local residents and your neighbors in that town and to really create something that will be a destination of its own?

RM: We really trying to create something that will be many things to many people, so that we actually have, as part of the town, we have an RV park, which has about 30 residents. So what they needed was new sewer and new power lines. So we redid the sewer and redid the power lines because just to make it more comfortable. We’re rebuilding the laundry for them.

Our other neighbor is the Mojave National Preserve, and we created this thing called MOOPapalooza, which MOOP is Matter Out Of Place. It’s an old concept that Burning Man adopted, but where we just go out in the desert and collect rubbish because the desert is full of rubbish. So we work with them, and then our other neighbors out there are mines, and they’re really, really excited we’re there. They gave us all the rock to help us rebuild the pond, and they’re helping us, because the landscape is kind of scarred by development in the past, and we’re reestablishing the desert landscape by putting in the bush again. So they help a lot with that because they’re used to mitigating what they do in their mine.

We just get out and talk to everyone, and we’re not in an enormous hurry. We just do each piece as it goes. Our next piece is we have a five bedroom motel and we’re rebuilding the roof on that. We have a large piece of art that we’re building. It’s from the Burning Man about eight years ago called The Jellyfish, which is about 30 feet high on this enormous pylon you go up into. So we’re working out when we can put that up with the artist who designed that. And we’re just going through piece by piece as we can afford to make the development, we’ve got to restore our solar farm, which needs about two and a half million dollars of investment. But then our power needs are totally taken care of. So we don’t need any grid power whatsoever.

There’s a lot of different infrastructure and creative projects, and we’ve got a number of other artists, like a friend of mine, Matthew Day Jackson built this incredible crypt-like artwork in Iceland for one of his clients. And I was talking to him. We’ve got an old TNT bunker underground, and I said, “Right, this is for you, Matthew. You’ve got to come out and build an artwork in this.” So just adding those unique pieces of art is also really, really exciting.

SSR: Yeah, that’s awesome. So what is it that you love about what you do and what’s most challenging about what you do?

RM: I think that the thing I love, the reason I do it is because just so motivated by how much fun it is. And the challenge, there’s two challenges. One is knowing to say no, is just like saying, “Look, that is an incredible opportunity, and I’m so grateful for that, but it’s just not for us. We can’t do that justice.” A lot of the kind of creative companies are just looking for deals. And like I say, “We are not looking for deals. Let’s just do what we do really, really well and then make it work.”

And I think that’s the hard thing. The hard thing, the challenge is just to keep that focus in mind because you have to be relentless. You have to work so hard, and then you have to fix the things you fuck up, because sometimes you do things and it doesn’t work out as you planned. And so you’ve got to turn around and go, well, how do I fix this? And so I find that you’ve got to try and explain to your partners, be it might be a resort CEO, a casino CEO, who’s got 80,000 employees, and then you’re just going, “No, I don’t want to do that.” He’s going, “Why do I care about what you think?” Well, because it’s important we get this right, because this is the reason people come to Vegas. This is what is unique about Vegas, is this thing, this tiny little thing where it might be a restaurant that does 500 covers, but they’re going to go back to wherever they come from and say, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” And that’s the challenge is to not just phone it in, it’s to do something that is always iterating and always making it more exciting.

SSR: Yeah, a hundred percent. What is one thing that people might not know about you?

RM: I think that thing that I went to school in America, they all know I’m Australian. They can hear that. I don’t know, that I learned the electronic organ and then for about eight years when I was a kid, that was big in the ’70s, learning the electronic organ, like a little Yamaha thing. And then I went on to learn the pipe organ after that as well. Nobody knows I played the pipe organ.

SSR: You’re funny. I love that. That’s awesome. And why the pipe organ? Did you have one growing up?

RM: I went to a school and had a couple of them, and there’s actually nothing more awesome than getting in there before school in the chapel and playing American Pie on the pipe organ. I used to love the Beatles, and they’d bang out Beatles numbers on the pipe organ before anybody turned up, and you’d just be like, it’s kind of a power thing or something. The whole place is roaring.

Superfrico, The Studio, Spiegelworld

Superfrico restaurant at the Cosmopolitan; photo courtesy of Spiegelworld

SSR: Yeah. Amazing. All right. Well, I hate to end this conversation, but for the sake of time, we always end the podcast with the question that is the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

RM: I think that it’s a common thing that I think people say, but I think it’s to be relentless, to work hard, and no matter how bad it gets to turn up, because you’ll eventually get lucky. I’m assuming people who are clever. You’ve got to be basically clever, but if you are relentless and you work hard and you turn up, and the fact that we came out of being decimated in 2008 on this pier in New York where I ended up having to load out the entire circus myself, because I had no more money to pay crew. To go into that, to having a deal at the Fountainebleau in Las Vegas, to then go bankrupt again when they went bankrupt, and they never paid it, so anything. So I’m just like, they’re going, oh my God. But we were relentless and we came back and did the deal with Caesars, and ultimately that worked out. So yeah, there’s disappointments along the way, but you just got to keep going.

SSR: Exactly. Keep pressing on. Well, thank you so much for your time today. It was so great to hear your story and hope to get to experience one of your spaces in Vegas at our conference this spring.

RM: Look forward to having a drink there with you.