What happened to Vegas showrooms?

By JOE BOB BRIGGS  |  April 30, 2002 at 5:07 PM
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LAS VEGAS, April 30 (UPI) -- The Wayne Newton of the year 2002 is Danny Gans.

You can't go anywhere in Las Vegas without seeing Danny Gans --- on billboards, on taxis, on the cover of the magazine in your hotel room. Smiling, hands on hips, in his black T-shirt, he's so nondescript he could easily be mistaken for one of those MegaJackpot winners ("Lon Stephens of Willamette, Kansas, Takes Home $100,000!") were it not for the ubiquity of his image.

If you want a ticket for his show, you'd better call two months in advance, and yet if you listen to the ads for his show ("Man Of Many Voices!"), it's difficult to tell just exactly what's so special about him. Perhaps that's part of the mystique. It's one of those "well-I-can't-really-describe-it-you-just-have-to-see-it" shows.

In any other city, there would be no permanent place for Danny Gans. Six years ago he appeared on Broadway, but attendance was poor and the show closed quickly. But he's one of those performers who is perfect for Vegas. He's primarily an impressionist, but he has such a flexible singing voice (impersonating women as well as men) and does such heartfelt renditions of the most stirring moments in films, that audiences leave the theater laughing, crying and, most important in Vegas, loving Danny Gans "as a human being."

It's all a little cloying, but apparently it's good for business. Danny Gans is so famous IN VEGAS that he was too busy to see me, despite repeated requests for interviews over several weeks and attempts to accommodate his schedule. When that failed, I tried to interview his MANAGER, but he was also too busy ---this in a town where virtually all the casino CEOS, the mayor, U.S. senators and almost all other entertainers are fairly easy to get to.

Perhaps it's his way of protecting his image. Danny Gans is just doing what entertainers are traditionally paid to do in Vegas --- fill the seats and put everyone in such a good mood that they don't want to leave the building. Gans is, in fact, such a valuable commodity that the management of Harrah's was raked over the coals two years ago for failing to renew his contract at their most upscale property, the Rio. Instead they ended up with a show starring David Cassidy and Sheena Easton that left audiences clamoring for less.

"They could have TRIPLED Danny Gans' salary," says Robin Farley, a gaming analyst at UBS Paine Webber, "and avoided a terrible quarter that year." Instead, Gans was wooed by the Mirage, which not only paid him more money but built the new Danny Gans Theater.

In the 60s and 70s, there were many Danny Ganses. The city contained what are now considered three of the greatest supper-club-style showrooms in the world -- at the Sands (where the Rat Pack held court), the Hilton (where Elvis became mythic), and Caesar's Palace (the highest class joint of them all). Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme were still performing at Caesar's as late as Labor Day of 2000 -- and the day after they closed, with very little publicity, the historic showroom was dismantled. By October it was gone entirely, to make room for high-roller suites.

The Sands and the Hilton rooms had long since disappeared. If you search the Strip for "headliners" today, what you find is lean times for singers and comics, but a city that's gone nuts for magicians. It starts, of course, with the bizarre marquee at The Mirage featuring wax museum images of Siegfried and Roy, peering down on traffic like embalmed droids from Jupiter, and then there are other magicians who barely register on the national radar -- Lance Burton, Rick Thomas (with his own white tiger!), Steve Wyrick, Melinda (billed as "First Lady of Magic"), and Joe Krathwohl, better known as "The Birdman of Las Vegas" -- and finally, in a category of their own, Penn and Teller, who have settled more or less permanently in Vegas with the ultimate anti-magic magic act.

Among singers, you have Wayne Newton, last of the classic "Man, this crowd is hot!" crooners, still selling out every show. You have Clint Holmes, a true saloon singer in a world that doesn't give them recording contracts anymore, at Harrah's. And you have Danny Gans.

And none of them, according to the Casino Men, represent the future of Vegas entertainment. Steve Wynn's real legacy in Vegas is represented by the showrooms he built. The first one was the permanent space for Siegfried and Roy, which opened in 1990. At $55 million, it was the most expensive theater ever built, offering a level of pure stagecraft and spectacle not seen since the days of David Belasco and Flo Ziegfeld in New York.

But that stage machinery was eclipsed in 1993, when Wynn convinced Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil to establish a permanent show at Treasure Island. "Mystere" has sold out ever since, and much of its power is created by the vast and bafflingly complex maze of moving parts, trap doors, balconies, ledges, overhead cantilevered scaffolding, fog effects, laser effects and sound effects, creating a sensory experience more intense than anything you could ever achieve in a movie theater. That theater cost $75 million.

And then, in 1998, came the even bigger Cirque du Soleil show, at Bellagio, called "O." (Or, as a tourist visiting from the Bronx asked me, "Have you seen that show 'Zero'?") A delegation from the San Francisco Opera recently toured the $95 million "O" stage, as many other opera buffs have, because the technical capability of that theater makes it possible to dream someday of presenting Wagnerian opera in the way it was meant to be seen. It won't be any time soon that Wagner's "Gesamtkunstwerk" is presented in Vegas, though, because "O" is sold out months in advance and could easily run a decade or more.

Of course, state-of-the-art stagecraft doesn't ensure crowds. The MGM Grand built its own high-tech showroom and tried to match the three big Steve Wynn shows with something called "EFX." The result was fairly horrific, beginning with a giant hologram of a pit-faced James Earl Jones talking like God, a lot of over-costumed summer stock gypsies doing cliched fifties dance moves, and so much flash powder that your eyes roll back in your head.

There's a Riverdance-type number, an enchanted-forest ballet with blondes in chartreuse nightgowns cavorting with a green sprite, a fire-breathing dragon out of "Clash of the Titans," dancing unicorns, a Russian trapeze act, an entire sequence performed with painful rhyming couplets, space ships, clowns, a full-scale dramatization of H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine," a 3-D film, percussive drumming by chorus girls in fuzzy animal-print bikinis, and a lot of ponderous actors in medieval garb flown in from the wings to say things like, "The journey begins now. There is no line between fantasy and reality."

The crowd leaves in a state of mild shock, having been numbed into catatonia by lasers, deafening sound effects and a stage so crowded it makes you feel like you've just flown eight hours in coach with a family of accordion-playing terrorists.

Yet that show has everything the Vegas show of the future is SUPPOSED to have. "What we've found," says Alan Feldman of MGM/Mirage, "is that you need as little reliance on language as possible, because we have an international audience. Lots of music, but musical in an international way. And something visually dynamic."

"Spectacle. That's a good word," says Glenn Schaefer, President of Mandalay Bay. "Spectacle is a good word for it."

So the showrooms are not gone after all. The showrooms, in fact, are so big and so elaborate that the Metropolitan Opera would be envious. It's the SHOWS that are gone.


E-mail Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at www.joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.

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