Before last month, not many visitors ever got to see past the tall, white and gold gates of
Wayne Newton's Casa de Shenandoah, the giant, walled estate that began with five acres in 1966. In the nearly 50 years since then, it's become a legendary piece of Las Vegas property that only the famous typically saw, while the public stayed curious — even seeing it on MTV's Cribs doesn't do it justice. But now, Casa de Shenandoah, which means "home of beauty" has opened its gates for all to see. And for that, we have to say danke schoen to Newton for letting us into his home.
The new tour of the property begins across the street at the visitor center with a 15-minute video in the theater, tucked into the gift shop, to brush up on all things Mr. Las Vegas. Next, guests board the shuttles to enter the compound through the massive, opulent gates. "
Opulent" is a word that'll pop up frequently throughout the approximately two-hour experience — whether it's inside his private jet, meandering down the museum's aisle of cars from Newton's prized collection, or on the grounds themselves: 52 acres that includes the Aramus Arabian horse stable, complete with a swimming pool for the horses. And we haven't even gotten started on the mansion.
Welcoming the public into Casa de Shenandoah was a decision that Newton and his family had long contemplated, but took some time to fall into place.
"Well, obviously it's a little bit of a mixed bag," Newton says. "At times the thought of it is a little frightening, and yet at the same time, I keep reflecting back — and maybe this is what has kept me on track, that my mother used to tell me as a small boy (at the risk of being corny), that the happiest you can be in life is when you can share those things that you love the most with others. My wife actually came up with the idea of maybe it's time we share that part of Wayne Newton with the world."
The hundreds of pieces of memorabilia and photos on display in the museum and mansion were all chosen by Newton and his family. Letters from presidents (Newton and
Ronald Reagan were close), notes and pictures from his many trips entertaining troops abroad, several of his custom, elaborately beaded and rhinestoned Nudie Cohn suits — almost every piece of Wayne Newton's long and storied career is there for all to see.
Choosing which parts of his life he wanted to share and which he wanted to keep to himself wasn't as daunting as it'd seem.
"I think that was probably fairly easy to the extent that I don't have a lot of secrets," Newton admits. "I have lived in a fishbowl since I was 4-years-old and there isn't anything I have done or thought about doing or anticipated doing that in some form or fashion hasn't ended up in the press first. In some ways, I feel like that has kept me in line more than it's been a hindrance to me. And so in deciding what to share with the public I'm sharing me, and that's all of me. This is what Wayne Newton has evolved into, and so much of that has happened simply by happenstance."
Throughout the compound you'll run into wild peacocks and hens, sometimes with their plumage up, roaming freely. Newton's love of animals — especially horses — is as famous as he is; he's built up one of the top Arabian horse herds in the world. The tour includes the option of watching the horses take a dip in their specially designed pool and perform for a few minutes in the outdoor arena.
"My two loves in life were music and horses, and I couldn't tell you which I loved more," Newton laughs. "I can tell you which afforded the other."
From there, you'll visit the exotic animals, which include a friendly
Capuchin monkey named Boo, wallabies direct from Australia, and several types of birds. Don't be weirded out — yes, those are penguins, and yes, they're okay in the desert. They're South African penguins and like the heat — so much so that one, Charlie, had to be brought inside the mansion during one of Las Vegas' rare snow storms, and lived there for a short time because she refused to leave.
Newton likes to tell a story about why he feels so close to animals. "I have always been one of those people that has never been barked at by a dog," he says. "I had a dog in the sixth grade in Phoenix, this female German shepherd that came by the house where we lived, and I thought she was just a neighborhood dog, and I petted her and gave her some food and she left seven puppies at my home. She was looking for the right person and the right place to leave those she loved the most. There has always been an honesty about animals that has always intrigued me and has hopefully had a positive effect on my own life. You don't have to wonder what they're thinking. I can tell you before most people if an animal is sick, I can tell you before most people whether an animal needs certain care that they're not receiving. It's just a gift that I was given from God, and I can't take credit for it at all."
The mansion is the last stop on the tour, depending on your package, but is totally worth it. Bellagio-like fountains near the front jump and dance, spouting water from the natural artesian wells buried deep beneath the property. And walking through those tall, gold doors, you'll get to see the inner sanctum of the Newton household. While it is all — yes, opulent, the house, for all its trappings and gold and chandeliers, is somehow still intimate; it still feels like a home rather than a museum.
That's something that Newton definitely wanted to share with visitors: that this place is more than just a collection of buildings and his life. "My sincere hope for the experience that a guest will take away from here, is the immense desire to come back," he says. "This property — and I'm not talking about mortar and bricks and all that, [but] what
Mother Earth created. There is a calmness and a serenity about this property unlike any place I've ever been in my life."
And yes, Newton might even be at Casa de Shenandoah when you visit. "They absolutely will see me. I will be here on certainly a daily basis, and they'll see me out riding in the arena, and they'll probably see me swimming out in the pool with the penguins and giving Boo a bath."
As to whether special visitors might be treated to an impromptu, live performance by Mr. Las Vegas himself? "Truthfully speaking, I haven't thought that far ahead," Newton admits. "Other than to tell you that the one thing I've learned in life is never say never."
By Grace Bascos, Special for USA TODAY