The Penn & Teller magic show and Aid for AIDS of Nevada have a lot in common. Both are mainstays in Las Vegas, constantly tinkering with the formula that keeps them fresh and relevant to an audience that has known them for decades. The entertainers are longtime supporters of the AIDS Walk, which benefits AFAN, and their manager/producer, Glenn Alai, is president of the board of trustees for the nonprofit organization. Alai spoke with Vegas Inc about what it’s like to have a foot in both worlds and the evolution of AFAN’s biggest fundraiser, the Black and White Party, which will be held Aug. 10 at the Joint at Hard Rock Hotel.
Tell us your background and what brought you to Las Vegas.
I was born and raised in New Jersey and when I was a kid, my parents went to Atlantic City quite often. Gaming was new in New Jersey and it was quite the novelty. They took me along on one of their trips and I was fascinated by hotels and live entertainment. The first time I ever walked into a casino, I was mesmerized.
At that time, I was going through an oldies phase after sifting through my parents’ record collection. I was obsessed with The 5th Dimension’s album, “Age of Aquarius.” Their lead singer was Marilyn McCoo, who hosted the TV show “Solid Gold,” which I also loved. And there she was. Larger than life, in a backlit poster in the hotel lobby, touting her upcoming appearance in the showroom. I was hooked.
From then on, all I wanted to do was work in casino entertainment. I was the strange kid who on seventh-grade career day confidently explained I wanted to be an entertainment director in a casino in Atlantic City. My parents were very accommodating and took me down there all the time to see shows. Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ann-Margret, Shecky Greene, Phyllis Diller, Vic Damone and dozens more. When I was old enough, I took the bus or drove myself. It seems a little crazy looking back to let a 16- or 17-year-old do that, but I always told my parents it would pay off. Years later, I’ve actually forged working relationships and friendships with some of the acts I saw way back then.
In 1989, I moved to Las Vegas to attend UNLV and except for a brief stint working in the entertainment department at Caesars Lake Tahoe, I’ve been here since. It’s amazing to see the city grow from a big town to a good-sized city. We’ve really become a world-class destination.
What’s it like to work with the longest-running headliner in the city?
The guys have been working together for 45 years, and I have been with them for 25 of those years. The great thing about them is they always, constantly, want to work. When they are not on stage, they are either rehearsing, writing or developing new tricks. They are always coming up with new ideas and new projects, and when I throw an idea for a project at them, they are almost always game for it.
Between tour dates, TV appearances and corporate shows, we travel about 150 days a year — and still manage to do about 46 weeks of shows at the Rio. A few years ago, I brought them back to Broadway and served as a producer on the show. It was a huge undertaking, but a huge success. We even beat “Hamilton” one week in the grosses. My mother was very proud.
Do you really manage them or do they manage you?
It’s a little of both. When I started to really manage them about 13 years ago, I began taking their career in a different direction. They were already stars, but I took them into places out of their comfort zones, with the intent to raise their profiles even further.
The entertainment-consuming public is fickle and you constantly have to find new avenues and ways to stay relevant, and through all of our projects, best-selling books, Penn’s podcast and guest shots on sitcoms like “The Big Bang Theory”, they have done a great job in doing that. There are not that many acts in show business that almost 45 years later can fill a Vegas theater every night and have a hit TV series in its sixth season.
What is your management style?
I have a core set of duties that I focus on intently, but I look over almost 30 employees, so not a day goes by that I am not having conversations about technical issues for the live show, merchandise, tour logistics, ticketing, employee benefits — a bit of everything. A few weeks ago, I got off of a call finalizing details for the guys to do Jimmy Fallon’s show and my next conversation was approving art for new magnets at the Penn & Teller merchandise shop. The good thing is that we have an amazing staff, many who’ve been with the organization for 20, 30 even 40 years, and they are all incredible at what they do. I will always state how I’d like things done, but for the most part, I let people do their jobs and give encouragement.
What are you passionate about outside of work?
No matter where we are in the world, I always try to see some sort of live entertainment. We were just recently in Japan and China, and I saw a six-hour Kabuki show in Tokyo, and in Shanghai we saw the Shanghai circus acrobats. I just love live entertainment and try to take in something no matter where I am.
Tell us about your work with AFAN?
I’ve been a member of the board for the past four years, and before that, I kind of orbited around the organization for about 20 years.
In 1997, my good friend Tina Yan, a local attorney, asked me if I wanted to volunteer as a traffic guard for the AIDS Walk. That is how I was introduced to AFAN. I got more and more involved and by 2001, I brought Penn & Teller into the organization as grand marshals for the walk. They have been part of it ever since and, through the Penn & Teller Challenge, have raised and donated over $1 million to AFAN.
AFAN has served the community for 35 years. Although there have been tremendous strides in prevention and long-term care, AIDS remains an uncured disease. People living with HIV/AIDS are now able to live long, good, fulfilling lives and manage the disease, but new infection rates are still an issue, especially with young adults.
What are the successes and challenges at the organization?
One of our most recent successes came in January, when we relocated the AFAN offices to a better, more streamlined and safer location. We have a free testing center in the office that is open to anyone in the community, and our clients feel much safer in the new office experience.
The challenges we face are the usual challenges that come along with any longtime nonprofit in a medium-sized city — government funding and keeping AFAN relevant and in the forefront of people’s minds. Again, people often forget that infection rates are still high. As the population has grown, so has the number of charitable and nonprofit organizations in the city, which is great, but we are all often vying for the same participation, whether monetary support or just attending an event. Donation fatigue among a public that is trying to navigate where to focus their attentions can be challenging. The good thing is that we have continued to keep an amazing level of service for our clients in providing the services they expect.
How has the Black and White Party evolved over the years?
At one point, many years ago, the event was really just for members of the LGBT community. But as times and social acceptance have evolved, it has really become a huge party for for everyone. AFAN’s motto is “Protecting Love” and that’s what it really is all about.
What is something that people might not know about you?
I am a forced extrovert because of my job. But I am actually a very quiet and private person away from work. The two seem at odds for a job in show business, but I’ve made the balance work. I do enjoy attending events around town and seeing friends, but when I am in Vegas, I tend to hunker down at home, on my couch.
Where is your favorite local spot to wind up or wind down?
I recently discovered Sparrow + Wolf on Spring Mountain. What a great combination of interesting, delicious and creative dishes in a really great space. I was there just a few weeks ago with a bunch of show business types and we were all blown away.