Las Vegas Entertainment Headliners 1960s-1980s

Las Vegas has earned its status as "Entertainment Capital of the World," thanks to big-name entertainers who have accented the city's luxurious hotels, myriad gaming options, and all-you-can-eat buffets. But it did not earn that status overnight.

Legendary names such as the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., in particular—helped cement Las Vegas' status in the 1960s, but the thriving scene today is rooted in the 1940s with the openings of the El Rancho Vegas, Hotel Last Frontier, and Thunderbird along a dusty highway that eventually became known as "The Strip."

While mostly forgotten acts performed in the still-thriving downtown area and in the small clubs that originally dotted Highway 91 in the 1930s, owners of these newly opened resorts quickly realized that bringing in big-name entertainers would increase their chances of success. Comedians Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, Milton Berle, and Joe E. Lewis, all veterans of nightclubs and vaudeville, were among the first names to grace marquees and helped draw well-dressed crowds that included Hollywood actors and free-spending gamblers.

That helps explain why showroom entertainment was not a profit center for early Strip resorts. What mattered most was business in the pit and whether an entertainer attracted gamblers. While resort executives did not want to lose money in the showroom, they didn't mind if their showroom performers produced profits in the casino.

Pianist Liberace, who would come to personify "Vegas-style" entertainment with his rhinestone-studded costumes and elaborate staging, starred at the Last Frontier in 1944 while Sammy Davis, Jr., performed with his father and uncle as the Will Mastin Trio in a lounge at the El Rancho. Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and sidekick Charlie McCarthy opened Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn in 1950, displaying another important factor in determining who would headline on the Strip: success in radio and/or television.

Sinatra would soon follow at the Desert Inn, and the singing/comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin was another Strip favorite until their widely publicized split. Martin would open solo at the Sands in 1957 while Lewis carved out his own niche in what would become his hometown.

Casino operators were willing to spend big money to outdo one another by bringing in the biggest names in entertainment. Actress Marlene Dietrich received an unprecedented $35,000 a week to perform at the Sahara in 1953, while Liberace's salary seemed to increase with every appearance. He set a record by receiving $50,000 a week to open the Riviera in 1955, and by 1972, he was earning $300,000 a week.

Lounges also provided big-name entertainment, featuring those on the way up or on the way down. On the Strip, Don Rickles debuted in the Sahara Lounge and went on to become a headliner. Although Louis Prima's show redefined lounge entertainment, he never matched his lounge-based popularity when he moved into Strip showrooms. Downtown casinos relied more heavily on lounge acts, but some of the performers moved up fast: Wayne Newton, then a teenager too young to wander the Fremont Hotel's casino unescorted, teamed with his brother Jerry and the Jets in 1959. They performed six shows a day, six days a week for $280 a week. Newton would go solo and have a 1963 hit, "Danke Schoen," and tireless work at various casinos eventually earned him the title of Mr. Las Vegas. He still performs in Las Vegas and set a record-breaking tally of 25,000 shows in town back in 1996.

For all the excitement the Vegas scene generated into the 1950s–showroom rosters were a virtual who's who of modern entertainment–a less pleasant chapter was also unfolding. Although African American performers such as Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lena Horne were welcome to entertain capacity crowds, the entertainers remained victims of ingrained racism that earned Las Vegas the unwelcome if deserved title of the "Mississippi of the West." Not allowed to stay at the resorts where they performed, the entertainers were relegated to boarding houses that dotted the city's predominantly minority West Side.

It took intervention by civil rights groups to slowly break down the racial barriers that, at one time, allowed emerging star Sammy Davis, Jr., to perform at the Sands but not spend the night at the host resort or book post-show seats at thriving lounges. Legend has it that fellow Sands star Frank Sinatra threatened to cancel his future engagements at the hotel unless Davis was granted equal rights.

The 1960s brought a whole new "ring-a-ding" vibe to the swinging Strip as Sinatra, Davis, Martin, and fellow Rat Pack members Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford staged their immortal "Summit at the Sands" after daytime filming of Oceans 11. Their 1960 shows became a nightly impromptu free-for-all with surprise special guests and audience members that included soon-to-be president John F. Kennedy.

The Las Vegas Strip had become the most happening place on earth and the opening of new resorts brought even more entertainment luminaries to prominence as showroom stars. The 1966 opening of Caesars Palace featured singer Andy Williams and the Lennon Sisters, followed by a rotating roster of stars that eventually would include Diana Ross, Cher, Paul Anka, George Burns, Willie Nelson, and Julio Iglesias. Little known when she first played Las Vegas, Barbra Streisand was reportedly paid $50,000 to open the International, just off the Strip, in 1969.

A now older and wiser Elvis Presley, whose 1956 gig at the New Frontier was poorly attended and lambasted by local critics, made his famed "comeback" at the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton) in 1969. He would go on to sell out 837 consecutive shows and reinvigorate his career until weight and drug problems led to his untimely death in 1977.

Coincidentally, Presley's death would portend difficult times ahead for the city's entertainment scene. Although popular acts such as Bob Newhart, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, and the Jackson Five kept things somewhat lively, long-time Strip mainstays were inevitably growing older and replacement acts getting harder to find. Las Vegas, alas, would soon succumb to a malady known as "goin' Vegas": performing at Strip resorts only because there was nowhere else to go.

Liberace gave his last performance at Caesars Palace in 1986; he died of complications from AIDS a year later. Other acts merely faded—or went to Branson, Missouri, furthering that city's image of an "elephants' graveyard" for entertainers past their prime. By the late 1980s, the Strip wasn't dead, but it was hardly at its best.

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