Felix passed away recently, a heart-wrenching, unexpected shock to all those friends.
With no disrespect for many people that I admired, and learned from, in the gaming industry, Felix was the best leader I ever saw. Every executive who ever worked for him would run through walls for Felix. I mentioned this to him once and he said, “I don’t mind them running through walls, as long as it is with purpose.”
Felix loved being with smart, interesting or important people. Some were celebrities, some were captains of industry; but most were just regular people in whom Felix was always able to see, or pull out of them, what was smart, interesting or important.
Felix invited me to dinner numerous times in the 30 years that I knew him. It always made me feel special that he wanted to spend time with me, talk shop and hear what new crazy notion I had come up with. Except for the one last dinner I had with him alone a week before he died, each of those dinners had several other people there, with Felix gladly announcing the surprise with simply, “I asked so and so to join us.”
At those dinners, Felix loved to “hold court.” He told jokes and stories. He shared industry information. He asked about family and what people were up to. He had this gift of being able to get to know and remember countless details about countless people and I would watch in awe as that knowledge bank made each dinner so personal and meaningful for everyone at that dinner table. He carried that skill into the workplace, where if he didn’t know the names of all 6,000 team members at Foxwoods (where he had been CEO for four years at the time of his death), it was pretty damn nearly all.
History will remember Felix Rappaport as an innovative and highly effective senior gaming executive at many first class, amenity-filled casino megaresorts such as Luxor, MGM Grand, New York New York, The Mirage and Foxwoods. It will focus on the entertainment, dining and retail innovations that he pioneered. It will remember the successes he had, the EDITDA that he generated, the turnarounds that he engineered and the titles that he held.
But history rarely captures the essence of a man. History won’t recall a Felix Rappaport walking a casino property and picking up every single bit of trash that he noticed on a floor; greeting and chatting with every single frontline employee that he encountered; carrying on conversations with guests; and trying to understand how the flow of his property—the signage, the displays, the people—made a guest feel.
Felix loved to have fun, strangely not a common trait among casino executives whose primary business is fun. I’ve seen him wear fake eyebrows to executive committee meetings; throw marshmallows in the air in a gourmet restaurant to see if an executive could catch them in their mouth; and ask dinner guests to describe their most embarrassing moment in life. Felix had a unique laugh, you know, the kind of laugh where you laugh at the laugh, even if the joke or story wasn’t all that funny.
One Felix story will live in my memory forever. It was 10 days before his heart gave out and he was “holding court” with three dinner guests at Foxwoods’ delightful Cedars Restaurant. I walked in with a Foxwoods executive, whom I had been trying to chat with for weeks about some innovative work he had been doing. Felix immediately asked us to join his dinner party, even though they were midway through their dinners and the table only sat four. I politely declined, explaining our discussion and that we didn’t want to interrupt.
I should have known better. Midway through our two-person dinner, a “special treat” arrived from the chef at our table, compliments of “Rappaport”—it was a plate of already eaten, chicken wing bones, which had been re-cooked to be extra crispy. Glancing at his table, I saw a bellowing Felix, laughing that laugh. He followed with taking a photo of the re-cooked food scraps, which he promptly sent to his F&B vice president, with a note that he had discovered a great new menu item for the restaurant, “Chicken-Less Bone-In Wings.”
Felix was a family man, a sports fan, an entertainment fan. He loved trying new things. When Foxwoods opened its mile long, signature zipline, Felix and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Rodney Butler were the first to experience the thrill.
But what really thrilled Felix was connecting with people, not in a “just getting to know you” kind of way, but in a way that only Felix Rappaport could do. And as I think about that, I believe there were two traits/virtues that explain this unique connection: Felix cared about making you feel just a little bit better for having spent time with him, and he enjoyed finding something good in you that even you didn’t know you had.
Thank you, Felix. Thank you so very, very much.