Las Vegas is often called “the entertainment capital of the world,” but what does that mean for the entertainers? Vegas has such a glut of showrooms and showtimes that the city has an insatiable demand for more and more performers of almost every description.
It’s been like that pretty much from the beginning, but Vegas also serves as a Petri dish or safe haven for entertainers who are either already successful or right on the verge. Vegas has always been the high-octane fuel that burns hot and fast in any career engine, and a breakout show here has always been the genuine ticket to ride in showbiz.
Of course, everyone knows about Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — Sinatra plus Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. But by the late 1950s into the 1960s when the Rat Pack and their swingin’ lifestyle became famous, Ol’ Blue Eyes was already an internationally recognized singer and movie star. So, though Sinatra didn’t really get his start in Vegas, he certainly became part of its most fundamental entertainment mythology. Perhaps it was destiny that his first movie appearance was in 1941’s — even if it was just an uncredited cameo as a singing bandleader.
Other members of the Rat Pack did get their big breaks in Vegas. For example, in 1959, Sinatra brought Sammy Davis Jr. into his show, even though blacks weren’t allowed in casinos at the time. Davis then refused to perform anywhere segregation was practiced, leading to the “integration” of most Las Vegas casinos and expanding opportunities for other black entertainers.
Here comes The King
Another pillar of Vegas entertainment legend didn’t fare so well in his Sin City debut. Elvis Presley performed a two-week run at the New Frontier in 1956. Even though the single “Heartbreak Hotel” and his album Elvis Presley both hit number one on the Billboard charts during that time, the Vegas crowd didn’t know what to make of this gyrating young punk. Newsweek said Elvis in Vegas was like a “jug of corn liquor at a champagne party.” By the end of the two weeks, Elvis was booted to the bottom of the playbill, below the Freddie Martin Orchestra and comic Shecky Greene.
The King didn’t return to Vegas until 1969, when he triumphantly reinvented himself as the “Vegas Elvis” at the International casino. That return, and the hugely successful run of shows that followed, reshaped how casinos handled entertainment. Elvis’s Vegas run was the first show to ever turn a profit for its host casino. Before that, such shows were viewed as mercenary loss-leaders to bring in and keep gamblers. With the new draw of big-name, big-ticket shows, casinos began the transformation into entertainment megaplexes that continues to this day.
Making of a legend
Despite Elvis’s misfortune on his first appearance, plenty of other legends got their Las Vegas start in the 1950s. Wladziu Valentino Liberace started performing in Vegas in 1951, had a popular TV show by 1952 and was Vegas’ highest-paid entertainer by 1955 (at $50,000 per week). “Mr. Las Vegas” Wayne Newton started performing with his brother Jerry at the Fremont in 1959. Many other performers started and returned to Vegas from this period on, including Bob Hope, Mel Torme, Sid Caesar, Danny Thomas, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns, Jimmy Durante, Buddy Hackett and Red Skelton.
The 1960s saw the next generation of Las Vegas entertainers appear, and many spent the 1970s becoming superstars in Vegas and beyond. Country singer Roy Clark had a quiet Vegas debut in 1960 as an opener at the Golden Nugget, but by 1970 he was a regular headliner at the Frontier.
Donny Osmond debuted (with his brothers, of course) in 1964 at the tender age of 7, opening for Shirley Bassey at the Sahara. Spanish firecracker María Rosario Martínez Molina Baeza, otherwise known as Charo, first appeared onstage at Caesar’s Palace in 1966, when she may have been still a minor (Charo’s “real” age is a subject of legendary debate). Siegfried and Roy debuted in 1967 at the Tropicana. By 1972 they had won the Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year award, and they were well on their way to a career spanning thousands more performances and numerous television shows. Legendary lady’s crooner Tom Jones didn’t become a Vegas fixture until the early 1970s, but by then he’d already had a TV show and a comeback or two of his own.
Fame and fortune
The Las Vegas starmaking machine is now so inextricably linked with Hollywood that the two are almost indistinguishable. Anyone who starts to break out even a little in Vegas will immediately become an object of desire for Los Angeles casting agents.
That’s not to say that Vegas doesn’t produce talent anymore — notables ranging from comedienne Rita Rudner (standup in comedy clubs in the 1980s) to “adult film star” Jenna Jameson (pole-dancing in strip clubs in the 1990s) got their start in Las Vegas. But even though many entertainers do seem to make it a permanent home, Vegas often serves as a place to catapult out of and then come back to for additional celebrity momentum.
As Elvis demonstrated, Las Vegas doesn’t work out for everyone. “Mama” Cass Elliot kicked off her solo career in 1968 at Caesar’s Palace, but tonsillitis and lack of rehearsal caused her to cancel the whole run of shows after a disastrous opening night. Other people realize after performing in Vegas that perhaps the entertainer’s life is not for them. Nevada’s own lieutenant governor, Lorraine T. Hunt, once performed as a musical entertainer in Vegas as well as Reno and Lake Tahoe. At least she never had to open for Shecky Greene.
Chris Mohney is a contributor to .