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Newton wants to open house to world

by Cristina Silva
| November 25, 2010 8:00 PM

LAS VEGAS - Wayne Newton's Las Vegas estate is a lavish wonderland complete with South African penguins, sweeping crystal staircases and a memorabilia collection to make a celebrity junkie salivate: a Frank Sinatra champagne glass, Nat King Cole's watch, Steve McQueen's Rolls-Royce and a Johnny Cash guitar.

The estate is so resplendent, Newton said, that he plans to open his gated home to the public and turn it into a tourist attraction. The project some have dubbed "Graceland West" won initial approval from a local government board Wednesday, paving the way for Newton to open his tours in late 2011 as planned.

The attraction has caused friction between the entertainer and neighbors opposed to noisy tour buses, unyielding traffic and inane gift shops flooding their affluent neighborhood of ranches and mansions just six miles from the Las Vegas Strip.

At the Clark County Commission meeting, critics went on for more than three hours, begging the board to postpone approving the still-evolving project, to no avail.

"This has been incredibly heavy-handed," said neighbor Terry Manley. "It's arrogance. What's the hurry?"

In Newton's vision, visitors to Casa de Shenandoah will tour select parts of his 10,000-square-foot home adorned with plush white carpets, gold-trimmed doors, impressionist paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and 17th-century antiques collected from European castles.

They might glance at the singer's favorite space, a cramped office just to the right of his lavish living room, where the red paint splashed on the walls is barely visible behind the shelves and stacks of mementoes collected during his 50-plus years in show business.

The keepsakes are a reflection of some of the mentors and friends who helped make Newton famous, including Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin and Jack Benny.

"This is 'The Dove,'" Newton, 68, informed visitors on a recent morning, plucking a beat-up guitar case from a row of instruments near his desk. "Elvis gave it to me at Graceland four months before he died."

An adjacent theater would show a documentary about Newton's public life, and, on some nights, Newton himself would take the stage to belt out the songs that made his high-pitched voice famous - "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast," which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts in 1972; his 1965 version of "Red Roses for a Blue Lady," and his signature hit, "Danke Schoen."

Newton said he and his wife decided to share their home because they love the 40-acre estate so much. The attraction will be both a tribute to Las Vegas performers and a peaceful haven in a city of neon lights and 24-hour casinos, he said.

"The last thing I have ever done is infringe on my neighbors," he said. "I've heard people say that we are building a monument to myself. Get serious. I'm not that important."

The attraction could employ more than 400 people while creating a new cash cow after years of financial troubles.

Newton filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1992 to reorganize an estimated $20 million in debts, including a $341,000 Internal Revenue Service lien for back taxes.

In 2005, Newton disputed IRS claims that he and his wife owed $1.8 million in back taxes and penalties from 1997 through 2000.

More recently, sheriff's deputies were turned away from the ranch home in February while trying to collect a $500,000 court judgment stemming from back pay owed to a former pilot.

That same month, Newton's billionaire buddy Bruton Smith, chairman of NASCAR race track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc., tried to seize Casa de Shenandoah for repayment of a $3.35 million loan.

He said any debts have been paid.

Newton began singing at the age of 4 at county fairs, high school dances and local radio shows in his native Virginia and then in Phoenix after his family moved.

As a teenager, he rode into Las Vegas on a Greyhound bus for a two-week tryout at the Fremont Hotel & Casino. The gig turned into a lounge act of six shows per night, six nights a week for nearly a year.

Newton later made his home on a five-acre lot off a rustic, two-lane road near the Las Vegas Strip.

He slowly began to add to the property, snatching up neighboring homes as his fame grew. He became a national name after a 1962 television appearance on "The Jackie Gleason Show" led to many more singing and acting gigs.

A decade after his start in Las Vegas, however, Newton remained desperate for a headliner gig.

As Newton tells it, the Flamingo hotel-casino offered him one night on the main stage on Nov. 12, dead space between tourist seasons in the late 1960s.

The show surprisingly drew a packed audience. The drunks and the casino workers who frequented his many lounge performances turned out to make his career.

"The people who live in this town are the kind of people who would have covered the desert in wagons," he said, referring to the adventurous settlers who tamed the West. "It's a very, very loving city."

Las Vegas would come through for Newton again and again after that.

He jockeyed for work alongside Presley, Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. His mighty contemporaries became legends of the silver screen, but it was Newton who became synonymous with the glitz of Las Vegas.

He headlined at casinos throughout Las Vegas and received the first star in the Las Vegas Walk of Stars. His latest show, called "Once Before I Go," ended in April at the Tropicana Las Vegas hotel. Newton, his hair still raven and his body fit, said he would take the stage again in early 2011.

Newton has also earned a reputation as a Las Vegas philanthropist, helping local charities and opening his house up to veterans in need of a wedding site. He remains active with the United Service Organization.

Newton is no stranger to push back over his construction projects. Neighbors mounted a similar protest in 1985 when Newton wanted to build 10-foot-tall walls around his property. Critics called the concrete gates excessive and ugly.

Newton won. At a public hearing, he claimed the high walls were needed because he was being hounded by fans who would do anything for a glimpse of Casa de Shenandoah.