It sounds like a scene straight out of the mob flick “Goodfellas:” guests being snuck in through back hallways, blissfully ignoring the back-of-the-house chaos and debris because they were walking a path the hoi polloi only dream about. At the Forum Shops Mall (Caesars Palace), that double-stitched dream has turned into a nightmare for club owner Mike Goodwin. He has become ensnarled in a lawsuit against Caesars Palace and Simon Property Group, which manages the cobble-stone sporting mall that Goodwin’s Poetry Nightclub calls home, alleging the mall and casino property have engaged in ongoing and egregious racial discrimination against Poetry Nightclub and its guests, the majority of which are African-American.
Goodwin has operated in leased space he shares with Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group’s [WPFDG] popular Chinois Restaurant since 2003, when he struck a deal for the second floor of the space that included the ability to operate under the Puck-meister’s liquor license. While Goodwin didn’t open doors with the intent of going after an exclusively upscale urban clientele, he quickly found it to be an underserved market in Las Vegas. “We saw hip hop being played everywhere but not being promoted anywhere,” he says, “so we decided to make that our niche — a venue that remains true to R&B and hip hop.” Goodwin insists he didn’t go after any particular clientele, but that the hip hop community and subculture embraced what he was doing at the venue, which originally was named OPM. Goodwin responded with a commitment to make his club, “a responsible environment to enjoy that type of music.” And from these early beginnings would grow the most popular and successful upscale hip hop nightclub in the history of Las Vegas.
In 2005, PURE Nightclub opened in the casino portion of Caesars Palace, hell-bent on attracting a celebrity clientele and the beautiful crowd that would spend money to party with the stars. Down the way, OPM was fresh off an incredible opening run that marked packed houses and 18 consecutive incident-free months of operation. Allegedly, the management team at PURE became uncomfortable with customers who didn’t meet its dress code loitering at their entrance and blamed their presence on the hip-hop club operating several hundred yards away. Although Harrah’s Entertainment spokesperson Jacqueline Peterson commented that PURE Nightclub’s presence on property never affected any decisions made in regards to OPM Nightclub, Goodwin believes the PURE team began to assert pressure on Caesars Palace to force Simon Property Group to address the ‘problem,’ down the hall.
In February 2006, a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department sergeant was shot and killed by an aspiring rapper, miles away from the Strip. The response from then-Sheriff Bill Young was a wide-ranging crusade against “gangster rap” and the booking of “gangster rap artists” in Las Vegas casinos and nightclubs. In an editorial that ran in the local Las Vegas Sun newspaper, he wrote that “steering clear” of all things hip-hop was, “a legitimate crime prevention strategy,” and even dredged up the decade-old (and still unsolved, mind you) murder of Tupac Shakur. The editorial, along with a letter penned to Gaming Control Board officials, prompted another meeting. This time, not only were the management and security departments of Simon Property Group involved, but also Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace, and representatives from his own security department. According to Goodwin, “the purpose of that meeting was to discuss the different ways we would all work together to create and improve a security system between all parties,” although Goodwin notes that, quixotically, no representative from PURE Nightclub was present, even though their nightlife space has a capacity level that dwarfs OPM’s. When he asked why PURE representatives weren’t present, Goodwin says he was told by Caesars management quite simply, “None of your business.”
It certainly would become his business. The day immediately following that meeting, OPM Nightclub received a cease and desist and eviction notice that, according to Goodwin, said, “they didn’t know who we were or how we were operating a club in their mall.” From there, the battle has continued unabated.
In June 2006, Simon Property Group approached OPM Nightclub and asked its management to close. Goodwin responded: “We are running a good and safe business and have every right to be here.” The mall giant responded with a letter of default to Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, saying they had duped Simon by not telling them they were opening a nightclub within that space and that it wasn’t being run in a first class manner, although Goodwin retorts that until that time, “Simon had been supportive of the opening and had worked with the venue on several events.” If the point of no return had not yet been reached, it would occur in August 2007 when two groups got into an altercation that led to an African-American firing four to six shots across the casino floor, resulting in two injuries. It was around this time that Caesars Palace came up with a method to force OPM out: simply close and lock the doors to the mall at 1 a.m. and make OPM patrons find another way in. One month later, Simon Property Group again joined the skirmish, this time filing a lawsuit against Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group in Delaware stating the nightclub was operating illegally and senior members of WPFDG management had maliciously deceived the mall company.
This brings us full circle to that back hallway. Unlike in the movie, it’s not filled with wise guys in expensive Italian suits but rather garbage, debris and, according to Goodwin, even rat traps. “My guests have to walk outside the casino, through a back hallway and then back into the mall area just to get to my venue,” he says, adding that a back valet had recently been closed from 10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., which coincidently are the hours of operations that the venue now named Poetry Nightclub promotes. According to Goodwin, Simon Group also has thrown a number of other demands at his feet, regulating everything from sound volume to venue curtaining, even signage locations and availability.
“They have tried to disguise their prejudice and racism in many ways, but in reality it’s very blatant. In a day that we as a country have elected our first black president, it is amazing that corporations such as Caesars Palace and Simon Property Malls feel it is appropriate to make the customers of a business that caters to a predominately black customer base enter through a back door and often dirty service hallway. It’s like a flashback to the ‘50s when Sammy Davis Jr. would perform in a casino and then not be able to stay at the property where he had just performed.”
In January 2008, Goodwin had had enough. Puck’s group and Poetry jointly filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against Caesars Palace and Simon Property Group, alleging both companies were engaging in unlawful discrimination against the nightclub and its patrons. Almost immediately, the corporate giants assigned two of the largest law firms in the state to handle the case and filed for a dismissal, claiming that there was no case. After several extensions, the dismissal argument was heard and Poetry Nightclub recorded a small victory when U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan moved forward the proceedings with all pleadings intact.
“That was a big one for us,” Goodwin says. While the Delaware lawsuit between Simon and Wolfgang Puck continues, so does the discovery process on Poetry’s suit versus the mall and Caesars Palace. “I have documentation on everything,” Goodwin notes with a sly smile. “We run a clean ship, we are a top-notch operation.” Among the many measures the club invests in to ensure the environment is both safe and fun includes the hiring of uniformed LVMPD officers. The result: a relatively clean police record that Goodwin says he would put up against any other venue in town.
When approached, the normally tight-lipped corporate PR office at Harrah’s Entertainment noted that although they usually do not comment on pending litigation, they believe the lawsuit is so egregious that they have been given more leeway in this specific case. Peterson is adamant that Caesars Palace will continue to file motions for dismissal, and that Poetry’s early victory is hollower than Goodwin might like, adding, “The judge merely ruled that the wording in the complaint is sufficient to allow the case to go forward at this point in time.” When asked about the steel gate that blocks the mall entrance at night, Peterson stated, “We simply closed the door as a security measure in the latter part of the evening,” before adding: “In response to OPM's [now Poetry’s] request, we have offered to keep the security door open if OPM would pay for additional security in that area. OPM [now Poetry] declined that offer.”
Goodwin doesn’t deny that the offer was made, but pointed out that the definition of ‘that area’ in the property’s eyes includes the entire parking garage and large sections of the casino floor, adding that Poetry shouldn’t have to cover the expenses of securing hundreds of thousands of square feet for the 8,400 square-foot nightclub venue to operate. “I can’t be responsible for securing their property,” Goodwin says.
Meanwhile, as Goodwin continues his immersion into discrimination law, Poetry Nightclub is doing better than ever, becoming a favorite of celebrities ranging from international recording stars such as Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Snoop Dogg, to star athletes including Shaquille O’Neal, Ben Roethlisberger and Steven Jackson, and other high profile stars like comedian Chris Rock and boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr. “We have a lot of celebrities who frequent the club on a regular basis,” Goodwin notes, adding that both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Heat have celebrated their championship wins with parties in the club, and that some of the planet’s most popular hip hop and R&B artists also have performed there. Poetry ranked #79 on the 2009 Nightclub & Bar Top 100 list.
As Goodwin fights on, it should be noted that he is white. “Color has never been a big thing to me,” he says. “Yes, this is my business, but regardless, what these companies are doing is wrong.”
Competing against the bankrolls and marketing budgets of the bigger nightlife companies, while at the same time battling one of the largest mall operators in the country and one of the biggest casino brands in the world, it’s hard to not paint Goodwin as a modern day David, fighting against the odds, armed with a hip hop-heavy iPod and a little piece of paper called the Bill of Rights. Standing alongside one of the most popular chefs on the planet certainly doesn’t hurt and gives Goodwin even more ammo to go up against the two Goliaths, as does the watchful eye of groups such as the NAACP and ACORN, which have been in contact with Poetry Nightclub and are intently watching what happens. When the dust settles, here’s hoping a hip hop beat still permeates over the battlefield.