While driving on the Boulevard Sunday evening, I couldn’t help being reminded that Las Vegas is still the land of second chances and reinvention.
The city is a plastic surgeon’s dream, whether the subject is face-lifts or busty architectural enhancements. The ability to reinvent and reinvigorate is part of what gives Las Vegas its spirit.
It’s easy to be awed by the latest Steve Wynn creation, but what gets me jazzed is when I see some of the older ladies of Las Vegas get dolled up again. The Tropicana, for instance, is cleaner than it has been in years. The bare-knuckle old Barbary Coast has undergone a stunning transition into the well-mannered Cromwell. Pygmalion would be proud.
And then there’s the SLS, whose grand opening generated big headlines this past week. Sam Nazarian’s place is making its mark on the site of the venerable Sahara.
It’s that way with Las Vegas entertainers, too. They also are capable of making a comeback in their later years. If they get the chance, that is.
Motoring through traffic past some of the sparkling older ladies on the Boulevard, I decided that what Las Vegas needs more of are small-venue showrooms that highlight some of the great entertainers who once headlined the Strip. Not some “Ghosts of Vegas Past” review, but a showcase capable of reminding visitors of a certain age that they can still get their groove on.
I ran that idea past the undeniably classy Mary Wilson earlier this summer. And, brother, you can count her in.
Wilson, best-known for her work with Diana Ross and the Supremes, had just finished filling a dinner theater in Miami. At 70, she still travels throughout the year as a solo artist. In her spare time, she blogs and writes books.
Even if the casino corporations’ tastes in entertainment have changed, Wilson can still fill a room and hit all the right notes. And, frankly, she has the kind of soul the big city with its massive resorts can use.
“We started coming to Vegas when it was really a different town,” she says. “It was 1967, and we opened at the Flamingo (and later played the Frontier.) We kind of caught the tail end of a great era in Vegas. It was glamorous. I remember the women dressed in minks and big diamond rings and the men in suits smoking big cigars. It was a lot of fun.”
Some of the best entertainment came after the group’s final set, at places like the Sahara.
“The lounges were great,” Wilson recalls, her voice reflecting the excitement of neon past. “We went to see all kinds of people after our show at the Frontier. We’d see Shecky Greene in after-hours show. I remember one time getting invited to Johnny Carson’s house for a party and seeing all kinds of celebrities there. Then, of course, there were the times we’d go to Sammy Davis’ place for parties after the shows. He had this little house, and it was a good time.
“Those were the days when, to me, the town was really, really soulful. Now it’s beautiful and it’s big and it’s gorgeous. But the soul is kind of not the same.”
Wilson isn’t like many entertainers who lost the fire for performing once they were left off the main marquee. Truth is, even a half century after the Supremes rocked the charts she can’t wait to get out there and move the audience.
“I would love to be at the very top as Mary Wilson, but I think the fun of it is enjoying what you do,” she says. “I’m 70 years old, and I still enjoy being up there on stage. I still enjoy making people smile when I’m on stage. I totally appreciate the gift I’ve been given, and if it were up to me I’d do even more.”
Does the new Las Vegas still have space for showrooms featuring the best talent from the Strip’s not-so-distant past?
Maybe it’s just the nostalgia of a Sunday night drive on the Boulevard, but I’d sure like to think so.
And I know a lady singer who would jump at the chance to play Vegas one more time.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.