Photos by Tom Donoghue

He calls himself the world’s happiest mayor (now former mayor), and when you meet him, you know it’s true. In his office on a Monday, he was talking in awe about the mail he had received from people all over the country for his birthday.  He picked up one card in particular and said, “Look at this; this person doesn’t even know me and he sent a check for $100 for Keep Memory Alive. Isn’t that amazing?” He was truly honored at receiving that donation. 

Oscar Baylin Goodman was born on July 26, 1939, and last month he turned 80 years old to a series of amazing parties, fetes and celebrations. He was honored at a public gathering on July 18 on Fremont Street—pulling up with his wife Carolyn in a 60s-era Cadillac convertible, the color of a Bombay Sapphire Gin label. He was whisked out of the vehicle, immediately flanked by two pink-clad showgirls, and ushered to the stage where he oversaw the proceedings.

Frankie Scinta was the emcee who welcomed a string of guests and performers including Terry Fator and his puppet friend Frank Sinatra; Dennis Bono and Lorraine Hunt-Bono, of the Dennis Bono Show and former Nevada lieutenant governor, respectively; and many others.

Of course, there was the presentation of a martini glass-shaped birthday cake (with Oscar licking a finger of icing), and the ubiquitous photos of Oscar through the years. But those photos weren’t just shown on a screen on the stage, they were shown on the first section of the Fremont Street canopy to be updated with brighter lights and higher resolution. Oscar never looked so good! 

The highlight of the event was a parade of 80 bartenders marching in rhythm to their posts where they prepared 80 “Hizzoner” martinis for the attendees. It was well-choreographed with shakers shaking in unison, bottles of Bombay Sapphire Gin raised and poured in cadence, 80 jalapeño peppers dropped into 80 glasses at once, and a simultaneous presentation of the drinks with Oscar Goodman masks raised. It was really done well.

Afterward, many moved to Oscar’s Steakhouse in the Plaza Hotel and Casino for dinner. A prix fixe menu featuring many of Oscar’s favorite foods was available and a portion of the proceeds benefitted Keep Memory Alive.

Getting His Start

Oscar not only considers himself to be happy, he also considers himself to be lucky. Not at the gaming tables, but as in opportunities, and right place, right timing. He was born in Pennsylvania and attended Haverford College and The University of Pennsylvania Law School. While going to school, he clerked at the district attorney’s office to keep his sanity. “I was the only one in my law class working forty hours a week while going to school,” Oscar said. “I made $1 per hour and was happy to have it.” 

It was there that he got his first experience working on a high-profile case, one that involved the Teamsters Union. When he got out of school, someone told him to move to Vegas—he’d find plenty of similar cases there.

As Oscar tells it, “I went home and said to Carolyn (his wife and current mayor of Las Vegas), ‘How would you like to move to the land of milk and honey?’ Her reply was, ‘Oscar, I love you and would follow you almost anywhere, but I’m not moving to Israel.’ I meant the other land of milk and honey, Las Vegas.” 

They arrived in Las Vegas on August 28, 1964 with $87. Oscar couldn’t take the Nevada bar exam until the following summer, but once he had passed it, he found plenty of cases to challenge him in Las Vegas. He represented defendants many thought were involved in organized crime including Nicky Scarfo, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro. In his book, Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas (written with George Anastasia), Oscar tells it this way:

“I never shied away from being called a mob lawyer. That’s what I was. But—and this is important—the men I represented were my clients. They were entitled to a lawyer, the same as any other citizen.”

Changing the Face of Vegas

One of the Goodmans’ favorite places to eat was the Venetian Restaurant and Pizzeria at its original location on Fremont Street. It was owned by Lou and Angie Ruvo. Their son, Larry, was working there as a busboy and became acquainted with Oscar and Carolyn. Decades later, Oscar persuaded Larry to build the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in what was to become Symphony Center in Downtown Las Vegas. This building—designed by Frank Gehry—is now a focal point for this area of town.

In 1984, Carolyn realized a longterm dream when the doors of The Meadows School opened to students for the first time. She was one of the main founders and continued to work there for many years. 

Over the years, Carolyn and Oscar made changes throughout the Las Vegas Valley. They were dedicated to this community. Oscar was elected mayor in 1999 and served three terms. Interestingly enough, it was the Goodman children who thought that Carolyn should run for the office after Oscar’s final term. “They suggested that I had a lot more ideas to implement, and they thought their mother would do a good job of making those ideas happen,” said Oscar.

The Public Oscar

Just because he is now 80 years old, that doesn’t mean that Oscar is slowing down one bit. He is the chairman of the Host Committee of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and an ambassador for Las Vegas. One of his main responsibilities is welcoming groups to the community, which he does with showgirl accompaniment and martini in hand. There couldn’t be anyone more suited to the job—his smile is infectious, his stories sometimes outrageous and his enthusiasm for Vegas is genuine.

But, speaking of martinis—Oscar is also a spokesperson and ambassador for Bombay Sapphire Gin. This opportunity was presented to him in 2002 by his friend Larry Ruvo, now senior managing director of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Nevada. Oscar was still mayor at the time and couldn’t personally accept the $100,000 stipend that went along with the honor, so it was arranged that $50,000 per year would go to support the homeless in the valley and $50,000 would go to The Meadows School. 

This worked out perfectly—Oscar had always been a gin drinker, and his signature martini was a little different from the ordinary. It simply consists of gin and a jalapeño. Carolyn created a how-to video for National Martini Day in June. According to the video this martini has no vermouth and no olive or onion garnish, but instead a whole jalapeño with a small tip of the end cut off. She also suggests shaking the gin with the shaker sideways rather than up and down, “This way is better,” she says. “This way is faster and it makes it colder.” 

Oscar’s huge personality is also a plus for Bombay Sapphire Gin. When asked if he had always been such a showman with such a strong outgoing personality, he said, “My mother has told me that I was always this way. My wife has said that I was always this way, but I have to admit, I never saw it.”

The original recipe for Bombay Sapphire Gin was created in 1761 and calls for the infusion of ten botanicals. This gin is distilled outside of London and is in a family of three gins: Bombay, Bombay Sapphire and Bombay Sapphire East. Because the process for creating Bombay Sapphire is a vapor infusion, it is an aromatic spirit, but a bit less pungent on the pallet than some. 

The Private Oscar

Even though the Goodmans are prominent figures, they value their privacy. Carolyn is reportedly an excellent cook, and many nights they can be found home sharing a private dinner. They spend time with their four children and six grandchildren, who all live in Vegas, and just celebrated the wedding of one of their sons.

Oscar reads voraciously—between the hours of two and five every morning—finishing several books each week. He reads almost exclusively fictional mysteries and has just completed Knife by Jo Nesbo. He enjoys Scandinavian moire such as Stieg Larson’s “Millennium” series that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He listens to classical music, and admittedly the only exercise he gets is raising a martini glass on a daily basis.

Everyone who knows Oscar has heard him say that he tries to live each day to the fullest. In his life, he has been a Fuller Brush salesman, a janitor in Harlem, a salesman of men’s shoes in a department store and an elevator operator. He will tell you that he did those jobs to the best of his ability and enjoyed them all, saying, “If I found myself in a job I didn’t enjoy, I looked for something else.” 

Let’s all salute Oscar’s 80th by raising a martini glass of Bombay Sapphire—preferably with a jalapeño with the tip cut off inserted!