Nevada Focus: Lounge singers lose out to other forms of entertainment

LAS VEGAS - Four decades ago the billboard-sized marquees lining the Strip sported names like Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Elvis in bold black familiar letters.

That was then. Today Las Vegas Boulevard's 10-story-high neon signs flash names like Lance Burton, Steve Wyrick and Danny Gans.

Danny who?

There's a new face on entertainment in Sin City. Illusionists Burton and Wyrick and singing impressionist Gans are modern headliners, replacing the one form of entertainment that has been as synonymous with this city as neon and gambling - the lounge singer.

With the final curtain falling in the past month on two of the Strip's most celebrated showrooms - Caesars' Roman-themed Circus Maximus and the Desert Inn's celebrated Crystal Room - some think the days of the Vegas lounge singer are numbered.

''This might be one of the most interesting times in Las Vegas entertainment history because they are doing away with the lounges,'' said crooner Wayne Newton, who still has a showroom to call his own at the Stardust hotel-casino.

Lounge singers are losing their intimate showrooms that each night seated hundreds of customers. Now arenas hold thousands and play host to Ricky Martin or Cher for a performance or two.

Other singers have lost their stages to opulent villas that would have made the flamboyant Liberace blush, as casinos try to maximize floor space and attract high-rollers.

Some entertainers like Tony Curtis and Julio Iglesias say by losing showrooms like Circus Maximus, the city is losing some of its essence.

The opening of The Mirage in 1989 spawned the Strip's 1990s building boom of megaresorts. That's when casinos began to move away from using traditional headliners - big names - and began booking big production numbers, such as ''EFX'' and ''Mystere,'' said Lee Solters, a Los Angeles publicist who represented Frank Sinatra for 26 years.

''Then suddenly that segued into the headliners disappearing,'' he said.

Newton, who has been playing the Strip for four decades, said the demand for star entertainers cannot be filled with ''names'' like in the past because of the sheer number of new megaresorts. Five - Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Paris, The Venetian and the Aladdin - have opened within the past two years.

''So the town has moved to many production shows, magic shows, and impressionists,'' Newton said. ''The great thing about our town is that there's truly room for everybody regardless of their style of entertainment.''

Phyllis McGuire, of the McGuire Sisters, agreed.

''The one thing we've always had is variety,'' she said.

McGuire thinks it's the terminology rather than the entertainment that has changed.

''What is a lounge? The younger generation doesn't know what a lounge act means,'' she said. ''We have our own language here in Las Vegas that's unique to the town.''

What's certain is that entertainment in Las Vegas will continue to be all over the map, says David Attaway, senior vice president of entertainment for the recently opened Aladdin hotel-casino.

''Las Vegas has changed,'' he said referring to the city's 35 million visitors a year. ''What worked in the past is not going to work now.''

While the city continues to be home to myriad active lounges, it's tougher to get a star to play several nights and numerous shows, when they can play one night to a larger venue for more money, Attaway said.

''But there are certainly exceptions,'' he said. ''Look at Danny Gans.''

There's that name again.

Gans' rapid ascent to popularity began at the Stratosphere Tower in May 1996 and continued at the Rio. That success propelled him to sign an eight-year contract with Steve Wynn at The Mirage that gave Gans his own 1,260-seat theater and a billing as arguably the city's top entertainer.

In the past four years, Gans has created his own show-business legend in Las Vegas by imitating such legendary crooners as Tom Jones, who often can be found appearing down the street in the MGM Grand's Hollywood Theatre.

Larger arenas, such as the MGM Grand Garden and Mandalay Bay's Resort Events Center, are responsible for drawing the Barbara Striesands and Bruce Springsteens to the city that at one time had an ''end-of-the-line'' reputation, Attaway said.

''Las Vegas now finds itself a critical stop on nearly every tour and even for those who aren't touring,'' he said, explaining why the Aladdin opened with a 7,000-seat Theatre of Performing Arts.

Not all the showrooms are history. The Aladdin is designing a 1,200-seat venue and the newly opened off-Strip Suncoast opened its 500-seat showroom with a retro tables-and-booths venue in the tradition of the recently closed rooms. On the east side of town, construction continues on an annex to Sam's Town - Sam's Town Live, a combination nightclub and showroom with 1,100 seats.

Steve Lippia, who belts out Sinatra note for note in his tribute show, said the Las Vegas entertainment industry is in flux.

''The casino owners and upper management are trying to find something that works,'' he said. ''Do they produce more dollars with slot machines or foot traffic (from the showrooms)?''

Some casino developers have chosen slots over the lounge singer. But Lippia, who has headlined at the Rio, thinks that in these days of theme park casinos the way the resorts can distinguish themselves is through their entertainment offerings.

''At some point, people have got to step away from the tables and they'll go to see a show,'' Lippia said. ''People go to Treasure Island because of Mystere or Mirage because of Danny Gans. The entertainment becomes almost inseparable from the property.''

That's where Lippia comes in. He said lounges offer an affordable way to give something to guests they can't get anywhere else.

Then there's Bob Anderson, who mimics the songs and swaggers of those in the Rat Pack among others - if you can find him. He doesn't have a big marquee like his megaresort competitors Gans and Andre-Phillippe Gagnon down the street. He doesn't even have a real showroom.

Instead, he's tucked away at the Stardust in a converted convention room where he was offered a gig after megaresort developer Wynn bought and closed the Desert Inn. The sale effectively killed Anderson's long-term contract in the Starlight Theatre and later led to the demise of the Crystal Room.

At end of September the final curtain will go down on Anderson's run at the Stardust so the space can revert to conventions. He's a lounge singer without a showroom.

''The town goes in cycles,'' he said echoing Newton. ''I left town because I was doing impressions. Everyone else was doing comedy and then magic. I came back and everyone is doing impressions.''


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