The Man Behind the Strip

He's the designer responsible for the Bellagio, the Wynn, and the newly opened Encore hotel. As he prepares to retire, Roger Thomas reflects on a life with business partner Steve Wynn and how his aesthetic transformed the face of Las Vegas forever.

BY Steve Friess

May 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

If steve wynn's gay alter ego didn't point it out, odds are almost nobody would ever notice. In fact, even with him pointing it out, it takes a minute to figure out what Roger Thomas is talking about. There's a small oval window about 15 feet above the corridor that connects the casino to the shopping arcade at Wynn's new $2.3 billion resort, Encore, and it is framed by white clamshell-lined molding. It's hard to see, perched as it is behind a colorful five-foot-tall pineapple-shaped chandelier, so its very existence would seem to be unremarkable.

Thomas, however, looked at the window in the drawings at some point during the property's design and found it lacking. On his desk at the time were samples of various leaf shapes, which in turn inspired the decision to crown that somewhat obscure window with shimmering gold laurel branches. "It was just sort of a natural," Thomas shrugs.

And yet anyone even vaguely familiar with what Las Vegas has historically been about knows there is nothing natural about such an effort in a city cluttered with fakery and replicas of world landmarks, at least not until the billionaire whose name is emblazoned everywhere set Thomas loose, first at Bellagio in 1998, then at the elegantly unthemed Wynn Las Vegas in 2005, and now the latter's five-month-old sister, Encore.

"It's all Roger's design," Wynn says. "Whatever his sensibility is, whatever ends up in those sketchbooks of his that he always carries with him, wherever that creative genius is that he has, Roger Thomas has transformed Las Vegas with it."

Neither Wynn nor his wife, Elaine (the couple filed for divorce on March 5), is comfortable identifying that sensibility as specifically gay, but both date Thomas's creative blossoming directly to the mid 1990s, when, after two marriages and four engagements to women, he came out of the closet at 45. Now 57, he says today that he could no longer hide his same-sex desires -- from himself or others -- after developing an intense infatuation with a male business associate.

Shortly after he came out, three of his brothers staged an intervention, forcing Thomas into treatment for alcoholism. "The minute he was ready to deal with those things, that liberated him," says Elaine, a Wynn Resorts board member who is widely credited as a key player in her husband's visionary success. "It was like watching a dove come out. It freed his spirit."

Or, to hear Thomas put it: "Authenticity begets authenticity. My work matured really quickly when I was all of a sudden able to be who I really was. That's what creates really great work. I don't know that I didn't occasionally temper ideas or concepts I had for fear that they would look too gay, whatever that is," he says referring to his work at the Mirage and Treasure Island hotels. "È‚f;'That's a little out there, that's a little fey, maybe I won't do that, maybe I'll butch that one up.' I think I might have done that."

There was no grand announcement of his sexuality. In fact, neither the Wynns nor Thomas can even remember exactly how he let it be known. As for his alcohol recovery, Thomas recalls being ensconced at Scripps McDonald Center for his treatment when a note came in from the Wynns: "Don't worry about your office. There will always be another project, there will only be one of you. Take care of yourself."

Roger was actually the second Thomas to transform Las Vegas. The first was his father, E. Parry Thomas, patriarch of one of the many old-line Mormon families who moved to the city after World War II. The elder Thomas opened a bank branch and then became the only banker willing to lend capital to casinos, taking some repayments in shares of the business and then becoming very rich as the city exploded.

By the early 1970s, Thomas had befriended a young casino executive named Steve Wynn; Thomas helped finance Wynn's Golden Nugget hotel. The two families owned homes in the ski town of Sun Valley, Idaho, where they spent Christmases together, and Parry Thomas often referred to Wynn, whose own father had died when he was 21, as his fifth son.

Young Roger was always a Thomas of a different feather. While his siblings took to the family business of banking and two of his brothers became bishops in the Mormon Church, Roger curled up at a young age with his mother's Vogue magazines and spent much of his time sketching. "I was very prone to costume," he says. "I was phenomenally flamboyant. I'd come out with five scarves tied around my neck."

Yet it was his rambunctious, defiant nature that confounded his parents more than his evident effeminacy, which he says was not spoken of. As a teen, he was arrested for drug use and warned by a judge that he was ruining his life. "I told him he was wrong, that I was an artist and that this was simply one of the credentials I would need in the world to be an artist," Thomas says. "He suggested at the end of my lecture that I might want to leave the state because if I got into any further trouble, he was going to make it very hard for me."

He did. Thomas left the following January for Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, a small boarding high school "that didn't have a football team but had two symphony orchestras." He felt nurtured and valued there and would go on to earn an art history degree from Tufts University.

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