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Video Vault | Preserving the Antonio Morelli home

Reported by: Tom Hawley
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Updated: 7/02/2014 5:15 pm

LAS VEGAS (KSNV — Nevada doesn't have the greatest track record for preserving its past, but there have been some notable successes. One of them is in the heart of downtown Las Vegas — though that's not where it started.

Today, the Morelli House is headquarters to the non-profit, civic-minded Junior League of Las Vegas. Its beginnings are in the late 1950s when the city was really coming into its own as a hub for gambling, entertainment and nightlife ... noted at the time by Sammy Davis, Jr.

"And it just keeps getting better and better," riffed the performer to an appreciative crowd. "I don't believe it. I'm positive that this is what Nero had in mind originally."

Davis was performing in the Copa Room at the Sands with the orchestra of Antonio Morelli. The conductor had been recruited by the that hotel to head west, according to the Junior League's Rachel Hunt.

"He was classically trained," she notes. "At the time he was at the Copa Cabana in New York. And he was asked to come here to really elevate the level of entertainment in the city."

Hunt says Morelli asked for a home to be custom built to the top standards of the day.

"It was in the prestigious Desert Inn Estates, which was one of the neighborhoods to be in."

By then, the conductor had earned the respect of the top names in show business.

"Antonio Morelli ... and probably the greatest band in America today in any club anywhere," said Frank Sinatra to the crowd at the Copa Room as he gestured to the conductor. "Please, Tony."

On another night, Dean Martin: "Right now I'd like to introduce the greatest band in the country. I'd like to that say tonight ... how about a nice round of applause for Tony Morelli and his fine orchestra. What do you say to that?"

"It wasn't unheard of to have Sinatra, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, Nat King Cole," says Hunt, referring to the Morelli House. "All of those entertainers that were at the Sands would actually end up being here at one time or another."

Antonio and Helen Morelli never had children, and their home was designed specifically with entertaining in mind.

"Everything that was put into the house was made with a lot of thought, a lot of care. It's very modern. Particularly for the time. A lot of the different aspects that Antonio Morelli added would have been very unique to this particular house."

Hunt points out some examples.

"Well certainly the marble floating fireplace with the copper hood. That's one of the things that we call a Las Vegas feature. You wouldn't typically find that in a mid-century modern home. In our other room we have a TV that actually doubles as a bar, if you can believe that. It pulls out of the wall. There's a complete bar behind it."

The house also addresses getting natural light without too much southern Nevada summer heat.

"So it does have these large open areas with the beams extending out, and that's what creates the shade for the windows and for the house in general."

When not entertaining at home or at the Sands, Morelli found time to develop Las Vegas' first symphony orchestra and presented pops concerts. He was a pillar of the community until his death in 1974.

By the late 1990s, the property was going to be acquired for what would become the Wynn Hotel, but it was saved from the wrecking ball.

"We were very fortunate that the current owner of the house was willing to donate it to the Junior League of Las Vegas," smiles Hunt.

In a complicated weekend move, the house has lifted off its foundations and placed on a flatbed trailer. The structure then made its way down city streets to the current location at 9th and Bridger.

"It's very fitting," notes Hunt. "The Morellis always liked to do a lot of community projects and volunteerism. And so it would only suit that the house is still giving back to the community."

Walk around the house today, and you can still get a real sense of Antonio Morelli.

"But there is a group of people that I wonder if you really recognize," Morelli's soothing voice can be heard on an archive recording introducing his orchestra section by section. "My brass, please stand ... brass."

"It's one of those things where you can't go back to the Sands," observes Hunt. "But you can come here and you get a feel for exactly what those people experienced during that time."

The Morelli House was placed on the national register of historic places in 2012. It's available for viewing through pre-arranged group tours or periodic public open house events.



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