Las Vegas Entertainment Headliners 1980-2000

The Strip malaise of the 1980s—characterized by older crowds and aging artists—prompted hotel entertainment executives to ponder an uncertain future. True, there was the one-time specialty act in the Tropicana, Folies Bergere, the Stardust's Lido de Paris production shows, and Siegfried & Roy, who proved that magic and white tigers could combine for an audience-drawing show. And in 1982, "Beyond Belief" opened at the Frontier Hotel. (Magician Lance Burton would follow the same specialty-act-to-headliner path when he opened his own self-titled theater at the new Monte Carlo Hotel-Casino in 1995.)

However, the 1980s remained one of the darker periods in Las Vegas entertainment history as a nationwide recession and the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City, New Jersey, further diminished the Strip's drawing power. A profit-oriented corporate mentality anchored itself in newly planned resorts, no longer content to treat entertainment as a "loss leader," as it had in the past.

Seven aging resorts, ranging from the Dunes and Sands to the Landmark and Hacienda, were imploded starting in 1993 and, coincidentally, this ushered in a revival for entertainment. Operators of the new hotels relaxed or ignored dress codes, instituted smoking bans, and installed theater-style seating, replacing both traditional banquettes and the cramped table seating of the past.

Names of youth-oriented acts such as "shock comics" Andrew Dice Clay and the late Sam Kinison were popping up on marquees (even as Las Vegas marketed itself as a family destination), and hotel executives experimented with acts such as the Neville Brothers in an effort to revitalize a moribund scene. Rock acts that once bypassed Las Vegas suddenly found a welcome mat when The Eagles opened The Joint at the new Hard Rock Hotel-Casino in 1995. Other rock acts would follow and, in 1997, no less than counter-culture maestro Bob Dylan was quoted in Rolling Stone as saying: "Las Vegas is the hip new scene."

Veteran acts found refuge at expanding off-Strip "locals" casinos, while the bright neon way found new life with bookings ranging from magician David Copperfield to Earth, Wind & Fire and comedian Jerry Seinfeld. This "new" Vegas was no longer a fly-over for acts traveling from Phoenix to Los Angeles. Newly opened resorts such as the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay built full-sized arenas to accommodate superstars such as the Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jos Carreras), Barbra Streisand, and the Rolling Stones.

The renaissance of the 1990s continues today, even after such venerable venues as the Circus Maximus showroom at Caesars Palace closed in 1996. Entertainment executives developed new headliner acts such as singing impressionist Danny Gans, who headlines at The Mirage, while visionary performers such as Penn & Teller saw the emerging future and moved from New York to Las Vegas, where they headline at the Rio Suite Hotel.

With the new century came a marked turn in philosophy. Big-name acts realized they could ignore the rigors of touring and set up permanent shop in Las Vegas, bringing the audiences to them. The first to do so, Canadian singer Celine Dion, became a year-round attraction at the custom-built 4,000-seat theater with which Caesars Palace replaced its outdated Circus Maximus. She opened her lavish "A New Day" production there in 2001 after signing a multi-year deal worth, depending on various reports, between $50 and $100 million. Dion closed her show in December 2007.

Another entertainment icon, Elton John, frequented the same venue when Dion was on break, with Seinfeld filling in open dates. Other resident headliners have included comedians Louie Anderson (Excalibur), Carrot Top (Luxor), George Wallace (Flamingo Hilton), and Rita Rudner (New York New York and later Harrah's); singer Clint Holmes (formerly at Harrah's), and the avant-garde Blue Man Group (first the Luxor and now the Venetian). The Las Vegas Hilton is now permanent home to singer Barry Manilow.

Other major stars, including Bette Midler and Britney Spears, reportedly have explored permanent gigs in Las Vegas venues, while veterans such as Wayne Newton continue to find work along with other stars who survived tougher times along the Strip. With the number of annual visitors approaching forty million, it now makes more sense to let the tourists travel to see the stars instead of vice-versa.

While many individual performers are fixtures, Strip executives have moved toward production shows and Broadway shows, sometimes with big names. Cirque du Soleil shows are big hits at several Strip hotels, and have the advantage of requiring neither the large salaries that big-name headliners expect nor the lavish orchestras. Although a variety of Broadway shows—ranging from Guys and Dolls to Flower Drum Song—have popped up on the Strip for extended stays, entertainment directors more recently have tried to translate long-running Broadway success to Las Vegas with mixed results. Mamma Mia, based on hits by the Swedish rock group ABBA, has been a success at Mandalay Bay, but Avenue Q at the Wynn Las Vegas and Hairspray at the Luxor proved short-lived. Whether Spamalot at the Wynn and The Producers at the Paris Las Vegas will be successes remains to be seen.

The Strip continues to tinker with Broadway imports and the lavish spectacles of Cirque du Soleil, but it is the flashing smiles and TV-borne familiarity of headliner entertainers that continues to make Las Vegas the center of the entertainment universe.

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