by Steve Ryfle
It wasn't very long ago that a Las Vegas gig signaled the waning days of an entertainer's career. As recently as the mid-nineties, the big marquees on Sin City's fabled strip bore nostalgic names like Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tony Orlando and Liberace, who played out their faded luster and old-school showmanship in tacky showrooms, to dwindling crowds of aging gamblers.
What a difference a decade makes. Everyone knows about Las Vegas's economic makeover, with gigantic, new, first-class casino hotels replacing old, dumpy ones and a publicity campaign to lure back the young and fashionably hip (you've seen those "what happens here, stays here" ads, no doubt). No longer is Vegas a place where celebrities are put out to pasture; it's where they go to make big bucks playing for huge, well moneyed crowds.
It's where Elton John gets paid $75 million to play a series of Caesar's Palace shows spanning three years. It's where comics like Ray Romano, Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno routinely play to sold-out audiences. Where concerts by Britney Spears and Josh Groban no longer seem out of place.
"The city has done some very clever marketing," says Mike Charashi, author of the forthcoming book, "The Gamble: A Las Vegas Story."
"There has obviously been tremendous growth, with all the new hotels, and that's increased tourism in recent years. But the image of Las Vegas has also improved. It used to be that people under 30 wouldn't go there, because it was viewed as a destination for senior citizens. Now the city is luring young people, and you're seeing a lot of new, more contemporary acts. It's sort of like it was back in the fifties and sixties, but on a gargantuan scale."
The Las Vegas Strip had its origins in 1946, when mobster Bugsy Siegel erected the Flamingo Hotel, modeled after resort hotels in Miami. A casino building boom followed in the fifties, with classic names like the Tropicana, Desert Inn, and the Dunes appearing along Las Vegas Boulevard. There were two tiers of entertainment in those days. Lounge acts, which were free except the cost of a drink, spawned names like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene and Louis Prima. In the showrooms, kings like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jack Jones ruled. In 1970, Elvis Presley played a sold-out series of concerts at the Las Vegas Hilton that are considered a high point of his musical career.
But somewhere along the way, cool turned to crassness, and Vegas became a place where old stars humiliated themselves for a steady paycheck. By the mid-seventies, a fat, drug-addled Elvis was sweating out "Burning Love" to his aging female fans -- a memory that seemed to haunt the city's legacy for years.
Charashi says Las Vegas's resurgence as an entertainment powerhouse began in the nineties, when venues like the Hard Rock Hotel opened, catering to younger clientele. "Now we're seeing a broad spectrum of first-rate entertainers, from Barbra Streisand to Britney Spears and Ricky Martin, that sort of thing. It runs the gamut."
Indeed it does. In the near future, Elton John, Barry Manilow and Cher perform at Caesar's, the Hilton and the MGM Grand, respectively; Snoop Dogg and Chingy are booked at the Mandalay Bay's House of Blues; Swedish rock phenoms The Hives recently played at the Hard Rock.
But does that mean Las Vegas has shed its kitsch factor?
Hardly. Wayne Newton is still a big draw, and impersonator impresario Danny Gans is known as the most successful act in town. You can still buy overpriced tickets to see acts like Andy Williams, Bobby Vinton, Sha Na Na, Hootie and the Blowfish, Survivor (they of "Eye of the Tiger" infamy), Connie Stevens, Eddie Money -- the list goes on. For every A-list entertainer that blows through this town, there seems to be about 100 retro acts cashing in on what's left of their fame.
"That's never going to change," Charashi says. "Just because the city's a little more hip now, that doesn't mean the older entertainers are going to disappear. They're part of the landscape. It wouldn't be Vegas without them."