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VEGAS4VISITORS.COM WEEKLY COLUMN BY RICK GARMAN
August 19, 2013
15th Anniversary Special: Las Vegas Entertainment and the Vanishing Showgirl
2013 marks the 15th Anniversary of Vegas4Visitors.com. Over the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of articles about the big differences between Las Vegas of 1998 and the Las Vegas of today.
The feathered and bejeweled showgirl is an iconic bit of eye candy in Las Vegas. For decades, she ruled the showrooms with her big head dresses and skimpy costumes, starring, or at least featured, in most of the entertainment offerings at the major hotels.
Even as late as September of 1998, when Vegas4Visitors.com launched, the showgirl was still a major part of the Las Vegas entertainment landscape. No fewer than five major production shows were in residence including Enter the Night at the Stardust, Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, The Great Radio City Spectacular at the Flamingo, Splash at the Riviera, and Jubilee! at Bally's. Of them, only Jubilee! is still running today. The others vanished as surely as some of the hotels in which they performed.
But the showgirl is just one example of how much the entertainment scene has changed over the last 15 years.
Back in September of 1998 there five major tribute shows including Danny Gans at The Rio and American Superstars at The Stratosphere. Today there are really only two with Divas Las Vegas at The Quad and Legends in Concert at The Flamingo. The latter used to have multiple shows per night but now runs as a daytime show.
Although you could often see some big name entertainers playing in Las Vegas, most of them stuck to the big arenas at the MGM Grand or Thomas & Mack center and usually only played one or two nights as a part of a worldwide tour. The only major star that was doing an extended residency in Las Vegas in 1998 was Debbie Reynolds, and that was because she owned a hotel in the city at the time.
Celine Dion came to town in 2003 and changed all that by choosing Caesars Palace as her exclusive home. People forget how much of a gamble that was at the time both for the artist and the hotel. Since then, of course, the headliner residency shows have become big business with names like Elton John, Cher, Bette Midler, Garth Brooks, and more all claiming marquee space.
But nothing has changed the face of Las Vegas entertainment more than a little French Canadian circus troupe called Cirque du Soleil.
The Cirque influence was already being felt in 1998 but in a different way. Mystére was (and still is) a huge hit and casinos around town were eager to cash in on this new for Las Vegas form of entertainment. But they didn't do so by having Cirque du Soleil create new productions - at least not yet. Instead, they created carbon copies; shows that were sort of like Cirque but not really Cirque.
Imagine at Luxor, Madhattan at New York-New York, and Storm at Mandalay Bay are just a few of the examples of Cirque-style clones that flourished in the late 1990s. They all featured circus style acts and/or dance and tried to have the kind of cutting-edge feel that Cirque was famous for but mostly just came across as tired retreads of other people's ideas.
It was late 1998 that the future was set when Bellagio opened in October and brought with it the dreamy, ethereal, buzzworthy Cirque production O. That set off a Cirque tidal wave that continues to this day. That the three hotels that used to have Cirque rip-offs now have their own Cirque du Soleil shows with Believe, Zumanity, and Michael Jackson ONE is noteworthy.
And the non-Cirque Cirque shows have found audiences, too. Absinthe at Caesars Palace and Le Rêve at Wynn Las Vegas are both patterned after their Cirque forbearers but have taken the concept to different heights and have become must-see worthy productions in their own right.
Broadway shows have tried with limited success over the years. In 1998 there were only two - Forever Plaid, which was more of a revue, at The Flamingo and Starlight Express at the Las Vegas Hilton. Since then Mamma Mia! and Phantom each had solid five year runs at Mandalay Bay and The Venetian, respectively, and Chicago and The Lion King both lasted for several years both at Mandalay Bay. But the list of high profile failures is extensive with Tony-winning productions like Avenue Q, Spamalot, Cats, and Hairspray all unable to lure audiences for any extended period of time.
About the only thing that has remained constant is the appeal of a really good magic show. In 1998 productions at Monte Carlo starring Lance Burton and at The Mirage starring the iconic Siegfried & Roy pulled in sold out audiences almost every night. Today, the names are different - Penn & Teller at The Rio, Criss Angel at Luxor, David Copperfield at MGM Grand, and Mac King at Harrah's are noteworthy - and certainly the styles have changed, but the concept is basically the same.
And finally, let us not forget about that other icon of the Las Vegas showrooms that is virtually extinct today: the Maitre 'd. Back in 1998 there were still many showrooms that operated with tuxedo clad men (or occasionally women) running things. Although you might have assigned seats, all you really needed to do was tip the Maitre 'd a few bucks and you'd get better ones. Tip the Maitre 'd more than a few bucks and you could get into the front row and even score some free drinks.
You may occasionally stumble onto a showroom that still has a Maitre 'd but usually they are just tuxedo-wearing ushers that will take you to the seat you purchased and that's it.
So what will the next 15 years bring in terms of Vegas entertainment? I'd expect technology to play a bigger and bigger role. There's nothing like seeing a live show but today's audiences are demanding a connected experience that could shape what those shows look like in the future. Interactive communications via the performers and your smart phone and the integration of high-tech trickery like holograms and virtual reality will probably become the norm.
Who knows... maybe the showgirl will make a comeback someday. She will probably a 3-D digital projection instead of a real live human being, but at least she'll be back on the Vegas stages where she belongs.
Be Careful What You Wish For: Is Fremont Street Too Successful?
The resurgence of Downtown Las Vegas has been nothing short of stunning. Almost overnight, it seems, the area has gone from an afterthought to a must-visit destination. From the revitalization of the Fremont East Entertainment District to the now booming Arts District to the newfound energey at the Fremont Experience, Downtown is the place to be.
But that success has brought with it a host of problems and the city is trying to find ways to keep the good times rolling without letting it get out of control. Some are saying it already is.
The Fremont East area has driven a lot of new visitation and seems to be causing a lot of the new problems. Popular bars like The Commonwealth, Vanguard Lounge, Insert Coin(s), and Beauty Bar are drawing major crowds, especially on weekend nights. But sometimes the major crowds are simply too major, with the party spilling out onto the sidewalk and into the street.
Open containers of alcohol are allowed on The Strip and under the Fremont Street Experience canopy but not on the sidewalks of the Fremont East district. Of course that hasn't stopped anyone; on any given night you can see people walking around outside with their beers or cocktails and while some aren't aware of the laws many are openly flaunting them.
Recently the city has been cracking down with police on horseback trying to control the crowds and the drinking by issuing tickets that will cost upwards of $200 per violation. They are also cracking down on the clubs, where issues of underage drinking, dangerous overcrowding, and noise violations are resulting in fines and, in some cases, even temporary closures.
The Fremont Experience has not been immune to the difficulties either. New bars facing the pedestrian plaza and package liquor stores have been flourishing and anytime you have that many people and that much alcohol, problems are bound to ensue. Over the last few months there have been multiple reports of violence that started as scuffles and ended in stabbings and shootings.
So does all this mean you should stay away from Downtown Las Vegas? Absolutely not. It just means that, like The Strip, you have to pay attention to what's going on around you and not allow yourself to get into a situation that could become dangerous. If you see throngs of people crowding around a bar, don't worry - there are plenty of other places to go have a drink in the area.
I'm a fan of the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas and want to encourage everyone to visit. Hopefully the area's success will not come at too high a price.
Elvis in Las Vegas
August 16th was the anniversary of the death of a man who became almost synonymous with Las Vegas: The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.
Elvis got his start in Las Vegas in 1956, infamously playing the nightclub at The Frontier. He was 21 and just starting to take off with hits like "Heartbreak Hotel" climbing the charts. But entertainment in Las Vegas, at the time, was more of the blue-hair variety than "Blue Suede Shoes," with pop orchestras, showgirls, and middle-of-the-road vocalists ruling. The city was not ready for rock and roll and the stint at The Frontier went so badly that Elvis reportedly said he would never play Vegas again.
Just a few years later he was back at The Frontier, but not to perform. It was 1963 and Elvis was gaining success in the movies. The production of "Viva Las Vegas" with Ann-Margret had taken over the city and included scenes shot around the pool at The Flamingo and in the Little Church of the West wedding chapel, which was on the grounds of The Frontier.
That fake wedding laid the groundwork for a real one a few years later when Elvis married Priscilla Beaulieu at the original Aladdin hotel in 1967.
By that time, Elvis' career was in a slump. Radio was ruled by the British Invasion led by The Beatles and the King had trouble even getting his singles to be played.
His televised "comeback" concert on NBC in 1968 led to an offer from hotelier Kirk Kerkorian, who opened The International in 1969. At the time it was the biggest hotel in the world and had the biggest showroom in Las Vegas with 2,000 seats. He lured Elvis into an exclusive engagement and the show was an instant smash. It is said that over the course of that first month's worth of shows, the production generated $2 million and it was the first time a Las Vegas showroom turned a profit.
He would go on to play the hotel, which became the Las Vegas Hilton and is now LVH, for years and there is still a bronze statue of him located in the lobby.
Outside of his home Memphis and his birthplace of Tupelo, Las Vegas is still inexorably tied to Elvis Presley. Elvis impersonators are everywhere, from tribute shows to wedding chapels to street performers hustling a few bucks from passing tourists. There used to be an Elvis museum here and may be again at some point. There was even an Elvis themed Cirque du Soleil show for a time. That it wasn't very successful is more of a comment on the show's execution rather than Elvis' appeal.
Having said that, it has been more than 30 years since his death and the audience that grew up with him is growing smaller all the time. Could there be a day when Elvis is no longer a part of the Las Vegas landscape? I don't think so. Like the showgirl, Liberace, and slot machines that dispense coins, Elvis may become more rare but he will always be there if you know where to look.
Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards
The Happy Birthday Award of the Week goes to The Adventuredome at Circus Circus, which will celebrating its 20th Anniversary on Thursday, August 22. The indoor theme park originally opened as Grand Slam Canyon in 1993. The occasion will be marked with appearances by the JabbaWockeeZ dance crew and cast members of Tournament of Kings, who will celebrate with cupcakes and confetti.
The Who Wants to be a Millionaire Award of the Week goes to The Rio, which will host "Wheel of Fortune" star Vanna White as she awards $1 million to someone on August 24th. 20 semi-finalists, who have already each won $50,000, are going to be competing for the chance to win the big prize in the Millionaire Maker sweepstakes.
The Dilemma Award of the Week goes to anyone who wants to visit The Cosmopolitan on a weekend for the foreseeable future because it will likely involve you needing to cross a picket line. The Culinary Union is protesting at the hotel on behalf of its workers who have been operating without a contract for two years. The union says they will keep the weekend picket lines in until ongoing negotiations are settled.
Restaurant Review: Andiamo Steakhouse
I know. Another steakhouse. Haven't we already settled things in this category? Old Homestead, Strip House, Delmonico, Austins, and The Steakhouse at Circus Circus. Any one on that list will provide you with a steak that you will savor and an overall experience that you will remember.
But the list has to get a little bit longer with Andiamo, a transplant from Michigan at The D in Downtown Las Vegas.
The restaurant got its start in 1990 and has grown over the years to now have nearly a dozen outlets in and around Detroit. The high-quality beef and homemade pastas have turned it into a local legend, favored by many in the area as their "special night out" eatery of choice.
It could very well be that for Downtown Las Vegas as well. The place has a cozy wine cellar feel, with a narrow, brick-lined entry opening up on to a warmly lit dining room. It's the modern interpretation of a classic, with white table cloths, cozy booths, gorgeous light fixtures, and very comfortable furnishings. Note that the servers are wearing white tuxedo jackets - you don't need to get that dressed up but do put a little more effort into it than just putting on your nicer flip flops, okay?
The menu is only one page but it's a really big page with relatively small type so there is a lot to choose from here. Starters include steakhouse classics like shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half-shell mixed with some Italian favorites like an antipasti plate of meats and cheeses, homemade sausage and peppers, and a "Grande" meatball, roughly the size of a softball and topped with ricotta cheese and tangy tomato sauce. Meat lovers should order that. It's really, really good.
Steaks range from huge to kind of crazy huge with a 32-ounce rib eye topping the charts. They boast that the beef comes from Pat La Frieda and Stockyard Premium and rank in the top 8% in the US in terms of quality. I'm willing to believe them because they are amazing. There's no special preparation - just a little salt and pepper - but the flavor is amazing even without the available sauces. Still, you owe it to yourself to try the "zip" sauce, which is basically buttery gravy. If the idea of buttery gravy doesn't make you drool a little, I don't think I want to know you.
Veal, lamb, and seafood options from scallops to lobster complete the steakhouse portion.
But we aren't done yet. There's still the whole Italian portion of the menu to explore.
Classic osso bucco and some free-range roasted chicken options are interested, but it's the pasta that you should really pay attention to. The potato gnocchi was perfect, tender and creamy served in a slightly spicy tomato ragu. The agnolotti, stuffed with beef and pork in a mushroom cream sauce was equally stellar.
Desserts are displayed on a classic cart and while you may be tempted to just wheel it out the door, you should probably limit yourself to something like the delicate cheesecake or the fluffy-sweet strawberry shortcake, both of which are excellent ways to finish off an excellent meal.
Prices are reasonable especially when you compare them to most of the other steakhouses on the list above. If you go with the cheaper pastas as your main course you could easily do the whole meal with appetizer, tax, and tip for around $40. Go for one of the more expensive steaks and seafood options and you could double that. That's still cheaper than The Strip and the food seems worth it anyway.
I'd be remiss if I didn't call out the service, which was absolutely stellar from the moment we arrived to the moment we had to dash out to see a show.
So yes, the list of noteworthy steakhouses in Vegas has gotten a little bit longer. After eating here, that's totally fine with me.
Nightclub Review: Hakkasan Las Vegas
It's almost difficult to grasp the concept of Hakkasan, the biggest nightclub and restaurant complex in the world at a mind-boggling 80,000 square-feet. To put that into Vegas-related context that would be like taking the entire casino at The Stratosphere and turning it into one, really big dance floor packed from wall-to-wall with party-hearty people.
The first and second floors of the complex at the MGM Grand are devoted to an Asian restaurant, one of a boutique chain that has outlets in London, Miami, San Francisco, Dubai, Mumbai, and elsewhere.
The third floor is devoted to the ultralounge space called the Ling Ling Club. It's separate in both location and atmosphere to the main club with casual, first-come-first-served seating, a DJ, and a cozy bar. This is the space where you can retreat to when you need a break from the madness that awaits you upstairs.
The fourth floor is the main club level, an enormous barn of a space that seems to stretch out for infinity. It actually could be two separate clubs, one with an outdoor Zen garden feel complete with a waterfall wall and one with a spaceship meets Studio 54 vibe where you'll find the massive dance floor, lots of bottle-service seating, and several bars.
There's a fifth floor with yet another bar and several uber-VIP booths and skyboxes overlooking the dance floor. Go up here if for no other reason than to get a bird's eye view of the sea of humanity filling the space. It's a bit breathtaking.
The DJ booth is manned by a mix of house spinners and big name artists like Calvin Harris, Tiesto, Deadmau5, and Steve Aoki to name a few. Each DJ brings their own vibe to the club but most of the music is going to be of the EDM variety.
The crowd is almost exclusively young and ready to party until dawn and seemingly willing to run over anyone or anything that threatens to get in their way. The air was a little thick with testosterone fueled aggression on the night I visited but that could have had something to do with the DJs that were coming on that night, Dada Life, who shower the crowd with champagne and bananas. Why? Why not?
Prices are sky high. Figure $20-$40 cover on a regular night and upwards of $75 on a superstar DJ night. Beer starts around $10, well around $14, and the stuff on the shelves $15 and up (sometimes way up).
Like I said, hard to grasp, but here's a way to break it down... Hakkasan takes everything good about nightclubs and turns it up to 11, so if you like them you'll love this one. But be warned... it also takes everything bad about nightclubs and turns that up to 12, so if you don't like them you are going to hate this one.