Minnie to the Max:
Callback founder employs energy, experience to boost LV entertainment scene
You smell ink from the newsprint when you walk through the door. Trade papers are bundled and stacked everywhere. Past issues. Current issues. The phones are ringing.
Your eyes adjust and you realize that the room next to the entry is not really another room, but a giant mirror, and the sum of the employees are the ones before you.
"It gives the illusion of the sprawling headquarters," Randy Urgola says as he breezes past to his desk in the roughly 700-square-foot, one-room office.
It is from this tiny cubbyhole that Callback, the trade publication for Las Vegas' entertainment industry, originates twice monthly.
Employees piece together audition announcements, advertisements, industry articles and, of course, gossip items. Job titles overlap: The editor writes reviews and articles. The graphics woman is the accountant.
Behind a half-wall, Minnie Madden, the paper's co-founder and publisher, is on the phone.
When she finally springs forward to greet you, it's eventful. She's tireless, charming. Her black hair is cropped short. Her eyes are big and brown, her gestures animated. She's fit. Dressed in a gray top and faded jeans, she tells stories with a wild look in her eye, hands flailing.
Madden has danced on television, at Radio City Music Hall and throughout the country. She's a choreographer and a director with her own production company and has served as president of productions for the now-defunct Ice Capades.
But she's also unfailingly altruistic. When it comes to Callback (formerly Dirt Alert), she's not in it for the money. She wants to give back.
"A lot of us got wounded in the battle of life," the 54-year-old transplanted New Yorker said. "A lot of us turned to things like drinking. It had devastating results and when it turned around, you have a job to do, to give back. I just thought I'd give back to the community. There were no ulterior motives other than to get people jobs. I said, I'm going to get my friends jobs,' and I did it."
Today, issues of Callback (with a circulation of 2,500) are nabbed by industry professionals, out-of-work dancers, working dancers looking for the next show and hotel professionals checking out their competition.
"It is the source for the majority of entertainers -- to get a pulse on what's happening, what's upcoming," said David Gravatt, chief executive officer and vice president of Dick Foster Productions. "It is to Las Vegas what Variety is to L.A. or BackStage is to New York or Los Angeles."
Madden's office, Gravatt said, "is really the central point of disseminating information."
Madden is a dreamer. She doesn't wince when she says she wants to build an entertainment empire, that she wants her newly formed annual Entertainment Expo, held last October at the Golden Nugget, to be as big as Comdex was and that, maybe, her team may go into management.
She knows the life of a dancer and tells you, "It's a tough career. The rejection level is high. The discipline is huge. The finance renumeration is slim."
It was to Madden's surprise that Las Vegas had no trade paper when she arrived here in the late 1970s at age 26.
"You're a dancer in New York, you walk downstairs, you pick up two papers every week that tell you where the jobs are," Madden said. "Here we were in the entertainment capital of the world and there was no paper. We used the jungle drum method (word-of-mouth)."
Originally, Madden said, "I didn't want to be in publishing. I didn't know much about newspapers."
But in 1989 while in the living room of Mark Tan (who had written for Hollywood Reporter and Variety), with whom Madden was preparing a presentation for a show the two wanted to pitch, her conversation with him turned into what would become Dirt Alert.
"We need dancers," Madden had told Tan. "Too bad there isn't a newspaper. I've always wanted a newspaper."
Then, she said, "He starts typing."
Three days later they had a 12-page issue and delivered 2,000 copies. They gave away the first two editions before charging a price of $1.50. But even then it didn't make money. After starting the paper on borrowed money, Madden supported Dirt Alert with outside jobs and friends who volunteered to help produce the paper.
Dancers backstage couldn't wait to get their hands on them, Gravatt said.
Fluff LeCoque, longtime manager of "Jubilee," which still lists auditions and advertisements in Callback, said, "They (at Dirt Alert) were the only ones in Las Vegas who knew what was going on at that time."
Even today, Frank Leone, president of the Musicians Union of Las Vegas, said, "You get an advanced hearsay of what comes to fruition. Long before everyone knew 'Phantom of the Opera' was going to be at the Venetian, it was in Callback."
Last year Madden put together the Entertainment Expo, which had 44 booths and acts performing every 10 minutes for more than five hours. A similar expo will be held for kids later this month.
"There was an enormous amount of new talent," Madden said. "We had an opera singer, a band, new performers from the Midwest. It was so successful, I decided to do it for kids.
"There are many entertainers who weren't trained in marketing. Agents need to see new and fresh talent in one day, not 55 videos that come in to their offices."
When Madden, who has been married 15 years, talks about her plans to build an "entertainment empire," you start to believe that it might happen because she has a history of making things happen.
Not knowing even how to skate, she began choreographing ice shows in the late 1980s, including "Nutcracker on Ice" for an NBC special, and worked with Brian Boitano, Oksana Baiul and Vicktor Petrenko.
When Fox purchased the Family Channel, closed down the Ice Capades and put Madden out of work, she turned her focus to her trade paper and production company, Minnie Madden Productions.
But trade papers are notorious for folding. As the stress of publishing and running a production caught up to her, Madden almost sold Callback, but changed her mind.
"If BackStage (the national publication that expressed interest) would have said yes, I probably would have sold it. I would have laid by the pool and ate bonbons and watched reruns of 'Law & Order,' " Madden said. "If you have this ideology about helping people, I'm not sure you'll get money. That's not why you do it. But you have to make money to continue.
"That's why nonprofits fold. You can only work with the lights out for so long."
Leaning back, she sighs, then says, "I need a benefactor."
The early years
Nearly 25 years ago Madden had collapsed onstage in Reno, weakened by alcohol and drug abuse. The auditions she didn't show up for, the jobs she lost, the segment of her life that was ruined by her addiction came crashing forward. She got sober. She put some shows together, drank again, got sober, put some shows together, drank.
Today she's nearly 20 years sober.
"Becoming sober and accountable is transformational," Madden said. "For a long time drinking ran my life. I was an overachiever because I felt so bad inside. I had a planner when I was 9. I mean, how much do you have to do when you're in fourth grade?
"With the arts, you live in fantasy. No matter what you do on the outside, what your accomplishments are, it's not significant in how you feel about yourself."
Born in Washington Heights to Holocaust escapees who lived underground before emigrating to the United States (via Ellis Island), Madden started dancing at age 7.
"My mother had been an actress in Poland before the war and because she was an art lover and because we were poor, they couldn't afford a piano. So she took me to dancing classes," Madden said.
Her parents owned vacation property they rented out in the Catskill mountains, where they spent the summers. When they eventually settled upstate Madden was in high school serving as varsity cheerleading captain, math club president and student council president.
"Ambitious?" she said, squinching her face. "I was participatory."
Unable to sing, Madden never considered Broadway. She studied at Adelphi University, then received a scholarship to Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
It was Jerry Jackson, with whom she worked in New Jersey at the "Folies de Paris," who suggested Las Vegas. She had no problem with the decision. She had been here shortly before, won money gambling and saw every show on the Strip.
"I loved it," Madden said. "But I would have worked for him if we went to Siberia.
"In our world, we keep score in a different way. We don't keep score on what you're driving or how many diamonds you're wearing. We keep score on who we've worked with."
Madden's last show was when she was 35 "dancing for the Emmys." By that time she had choreographed dance numbers for conventions that came to the Sahara and opening acts for Johnny Carson, George Carlin and Buddy Hackett.
"There's nothing in the world like watching people do your work," Madden said, adding that during her first big show, "Madame Goes to Harlem" (starring puppeteer Wayland Flowers and Madame), she was so moved, she wept.
It was not until the Ice Capades folded that Madden actually got her hands dirty with Dirt Alert.
"It ran itself," she said. "I owned it for 10 years and really didn't participate. I had a great staff."
When she became part of the process, she changed the paper's name, moved its layout from cut-and-paste to computers and launched a Web site that enabled her to compete better with other Internet postings while reaching out-of-state and out-of-country performers. She started Callback Kids, a quarterly publication for children.
When Las Vegas shows downsized, Madden opened the publication to all entertainers, rather than those in production shows.
"The entertainment in this town has really changed. We had a lot of production shows: 'Siegfried and Roy' and 'EFX.' Cirque doesn't use many dancers. So for some of the dancers, cruise lines are a good source of work.
"There's a big show in Guam so we always get auditions for Guam. Japan, London, Australia, Tokyo. When Madonna came through town looking for dancers she contacted us."
"Because we're such an entertainment industry, all the companies putting on big shows are coming to Vegas (for auditions)," said Chuck Rounds, the paper's editor and an associate producer for a show that Madden is producing and directing at Sea World in San Antonio.
Like Urgola, who is director of sales at Callback and a Dean Martin impersonator, and Madden's trade show coordinator Gina Yenser, whose father was noted bass player Ralf Rost, Rounds has a history with the industry.
He has worked its odd jobs, even as a stunt man. He got a graduated degree from the University of Alabama, where he eventually taught theater. Vicki Boyung, the graphic designer, is listed in the paper as office psychiatrist.
"Everybody in here puts in long days," Madden said. "We lose time here. Someone will walk in and want to talk about themselves because that's what they do, they're in entertainment."
But, she said, "This office has never had this kind of dynamic. We're in motion."