It’s not just any boat with oars extended into a few inches of questionable water, dry-docked in the middle of a bar, surrounded by acres of Caesars Palace.
“She’s a time machine to our past,” says Branden Powers. As the managing partner of two time-traveling bars beyond the Strip — the Golden Tiki and Evel Pie — Powers is an understandably vocal fan of Cleopatra’s Barge.
The nightspot from 1970 is the last iconic piece of classic Vegas architecture still in use on the Strip (though original casino areas survive at Caesars and the Tropicana).
“They keep destroying it. If I wanted to go on vacation and stay in an airport, there’s plenty of places now,” Powers says. But the Barge?
“She endured the test of time,” he says. “Vegas needs more Vegas.”
The Barge’s stewards agree. Beyond two local acts preserving its tradition of open-lounge dance music, March brought a test of ticketed concert names: “Unhooked” from Blues Traveler, with two recent midweek stints, and Plain White T’s, coming up March 30 and 31.
“I just want to do cool things there,” says Damian Costa, the Caesars Entertainment vice president who oversees the venue.
Costa said he was inspired by cable-TV music shows such as “MTV Unplugged” and “Live From Daryl’s House.”
“Let’s bring some cool things in there that are untouchable moments,” he says.
The copywriters did know how to milk a theme.
“I, Caesar, have created Cleopatra’s Barge in my Palace of Pleasure so my guests might sink into the silken cushions and imagine that they are on this mystery woman’s ‘ship of sin’ as it keeps its date with destiny,” says a guidebook left in Caesars hotel rooms back in the day, now preserved in the Special Collections library at UNLV.
Four years fade in the course of 50, but the Barge was not part of the original casino that celebrated its 50th anniversary in August. The floating lounge opened with the Centurian Tower addition (now the Nobu Hotel) in late September of 1970, replacing the original Nero’s Nook show lounge.
“Your visit to Cleopatra’s Barge will be an exciting and romantic adventure, in an atmosphere as soft and enticing as a beautiful woman’s kiss,” the guidebook promised.
The original artist’s rendering by then-ubiquitous casino designers Albert Parvin & Co. did not include the Barge’s most prominent attributes: the carved figurehead on the ship’s bow, jutting into a casino walkway for countless photo opps and outstretched hands.
In time, though, the rest of casino impressario Jay Sarno’s swanky ’60s vision fell piece by piece: the Bachannal restaurant and its “wine goddesses,” then the Circus Maximus showroom.
For years, fans of the Barge worried that it was on borrowed time, that hotel executives would finally decree it wasn’t “classy” enough for the rest of the made-over hotel.
Fans of retro Vegas breathed easier when British singer Matt Goss took up weekend residence on the boat in 2010, for years doing strong business in a 165-seat configuration.
When Goss left in September, the rumors began again. But two local favorites with an appreciation for classic Vegas stepped in: the Zowie Bowie Band on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the David Perrico Pop Strings Orchestra on Thursdays through Saturdays.
“The vibe I get now is ‘Wow, we’re playing something that’s iconic, has history,” trumpeter Perrico says. He adds that he’s probably not the first person to joke over the years, “Don’t feed the fish.” But it still makes them look.
Perrico’s 13-piece band covers everything from AC/DC to Beyonce. But the big band arrangements are full circle to the old days. “People in their 60s and 70s are hanging out, buying bottles of Champagne. We fit just perfect,” he says.
Well, usually. “There’s been sheet music dumped in the water,” Perrico says, but so far no musicians.
“Nobody’s going to know what’s going to happen in the future,” Costa says. But for now, “let’s use what we have the best we possibly can. When the landscape changes, then we’ll change along with it. But while we have what it is that’s in front of us, let’s do cool things in it.”