Book Excerpt: Michael King Raised the Ante for Trips to Vegas

Syndication pioneer didn’t always leave casinos a winner, but one trip left a lasting impression
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I have traveled to Las Vegas often over the years for business or pleasure, but it rarely feels like the latter. While I am not a big fan of Vegas, one trip there, which lasted less than 24 hours, is an experience I will never forget.

One Friday afternoon in 1999, sitting in my then-boss Michael King’s office with two other King World execs going over end-of-the-week business, Michael had an abrupt proposal: “Who wants to go to Vegas for the night?”

It had been a long week, filled with headaches trying to keep Roseanne’s talk show from self-destructing to trying to convince the brilliant Marty Short and his manager Bernie Brillstein that his terrific show needed to air in the daytime, not late night. I tried to beg off Vegas, but Michael was insistent. As usual, when he wanted to do something, any other plans we may all have had pretty much went out the window. He was a hard man to say no to.

Michael King and his brother Roger were well-known as enthusiastic gamblers—“whales” in casino parlance—from Vegas to Atlantic City. There is very little casinos will not do for their whales.

With a phone call, a Gulfstream 4 was fired up at Santa Monica Airport and a car came to pick us up. Despite my protestations that I had no clothes and wanted to go home to pack a bag, we were in the air a half-hour later.

A giant limo met us on the private tarmac in Las Vegas and whisked us to a hidden entrance to the MGM Grand’s private palazzo on the grounds of the casino used only by whales. It’s so secret that you enter through a nondescript little fence at the back of the resort complex.

It’s called The Mansion, and for good reason. A winding driveway, lined with beautiful ponds, fountains and landscaping, leads to a majestic stone villa that in my memory is about 54 stories high. 

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Each whale gets a whole floor, complete with four elaborate suites, a grand living and dining area, private pool and spa and its own complete white-gloved staff including butlers, maids, bartender and private chef on call 24 hours a day.

Upon arrival around 5 p.m., we were assigned our suites and a member of the staff asked what clothing and toilet articles we needed for our overnight stay. Anything we wanted. A few minutes later he returned with shirts, socks, underwear and shaving kits, which were placed in our massive individual suites. Then we all convened in the main living room for drinks and cigars.

A bit later the chef took our dinner orders and presented us with an elaborate feast including caviar, fresh Maine lobsters and Cristal champagne.

By 9 p.m. I was urging Michael to go down to the casino to get the gambling part going and hopefully over by around midnight in the hopes of getting a decent night’s sleep. But he was in no rush and enjoyed just relaxing and holding court in our super-suite. Michael was a great storyteller and was regaling us with stories from the early days of King World and much more.

By midnight, I was fading and tried to head to my room to crash, but Michael was having none of it. He was finally ready to hit the tables and insisted I join him and the guys. “Let’s go, Andy, we didn’t come to Vegas to get a good night’s sleep. And besides, I’m feeling lucky.”

Again, he was a hard guy to say no to. Off we went.

We entered the casino from The Mansion via a secret hallway and were escorted to a private area of the high-stakes baccarat room. It was an elaborate layout, complete with private croupiers and long-legged cocktail waitresses standing by to grant any food and beverage requests we might have.

After some over-the-top welcomes and greetings from top casino execs, Michael sat down to play his game of choice.

At his own private table with croupiers and casino bosses looking on, and with his three execs standing behind him, Michael began playing at the rate of $150,000 a roll. Baccarat is a game played with cards in which players may bet that either or both of the other two hands will beat the dealer’s hand.

It was now after midnight and I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I thanked Michael, wished him luck and good night. I went back through the secret hallway to the mansion and went to bed.

Turned out to be a costly decision. After I left, Michael asked the casino to give my fellow execs who stayed up with him $25,000 each in free chips so they could gamble along with him. At a third of what Michael was spending per roll, they happily agreed.

Over the next 45 minutes, Michael (and the guys as they were piggybacking on his bets) got on a major roll.

Michael and his brother Roger, as with all whales, have lost many times and many millions during an outing but this one went his way. When he got up to $1.5 million in winnings, he calmly thanked the croupiers and said he’d had enough. He requested to have his winnings delivered to our suite the next morning at 10 a.m. and to please have the limo and jet waiting to take us home at 10:30.

The casino bosses appeared shocked, my colleagues say. The casino staff asked Michael if everything was all right and if there was a problem. He had only played for an hour and he was known to play for many hours typically.

He assured them that all was great, thanked them for their hospitality and went off to bed.

At 10 the next morning, following some ribbing about how I’d missed out on some real fun and some real cash, the doorbell rang and four, huge security guards came in with a casino exec and placed $1,500,000 in $100 bills, packed in clear plastic, shrink-wrapped blocks on the dining room table for Michael’s inspection.   

Michael casually took a look and said, “I’m sure it’s all been counted properly.” He thanked the exec, who assured us the limo and jet were standing by.

The casino exec asked again if everything was all right. Had the casino done anything wrong? “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay another day or two?” he asked. Obviously they were hoping to get Michael back to the tables.

Michael nicely explained he needed to get home, that all was fine and again thanked them for everything.

The slightly incredulous casino exec asked if we’d like the security guards to walk us down to our car or accompany us to the jet, given the large amount of cash we would be carrying. Michael politely declined, at which point the guards put the bricks into four, nondescript brown paper shopping bags and left the suite.

Michael handed each of us one of the bags and we walked out of The Mansion to our waiting limo. On the way down, I asked him why he hadn’t kept going on his hot roll. He replied simply, “I’d had enough and knew the roll was at an end.” 

Before we headed to the Gulfstream we had a half-hour meeting nearby with a potential partner on an upcoming show. I have to imagine our potential partner wondered what exactly we were carrying in the large brown shopping bags but he never asked.

We were home by noon.

Andy Friendly, the son of CBS television pioneer Fred Friendly, is a producer and former executive. He headed production at King World and primetime programming at CNBC and produced shows such as Entertainment Tonight. This piece is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, Willing to Be Lucky: A Life in TV.

©Andy Friendly

(Photo via Håkan Dahlströms Flickr. Image taken on June, 22, 2015 and used per Creative Commons 2.0 license. The photo was cropped to fit 3x4 aspect ratio.)

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