Rio takes nightclub in new direction

The city's oldest surviving casino nightclub, the Rio's Crown Theater, will stick with traditional shows for the near future and come back under the management of Caesars Entertainment.

Darin Feinstein, who leased the space to run as an independent "four-wall" operation in April 2010, hands the keys back this weekend. Two shows, "MJ Live!" and "The Rat Pack is Back," will remain in the main showroom, and comedian Eddie Griffin will continue to perform in the adjacent King's Room.

But the nightclub operation had its final hurrah last weekend.

"The club had run its course. It's more viable as a theater," Feinstein explained from the sidewalk seating of the Fatburger he operates on the Strip.

The Fatburger is close enough to the construction crane in front of the MGM Grand - converting the former Studio 54 into a new multilevel club operation - to remind Feinstein of what it takes to be a big player on the nightclub scene.

"They have $100 million nightclubs inside $4 billion casinos," he said.

The Crown, modest by comparison, was getting by with niche events courting ethnic audiences. But the business was depending more and more on locals, and "we got unlucky also," he says.

That's a reference to a March shooting of three men in the Rio's parking garage in what police called a gang-related episode tied to the Crown, though Feinstein says the men involved had been denied admittance that night.

But the club had become a disproportionate stress compared to Feinstein's other businesses.

"I specialize in deals for distressed properties," he said. To add such expertise made him realize "we were starting to become distressed," he added with a laugh.

He will continue to produce Griffin's stand-up show, however, and will co-produce "MJ Live!" with Dick Feeney, who helms "The Rat Pack is Back." He also is willing to back the return of an oldies tribute, which ran at the theater until it was derailed by court injunction over the use of the group name the Platters. ...

One door closes and another door opens. For the Amazing Johnathan, it may be opening because a maniac with an ax is behind it.

The deranged comedian-magician plans to reopen his regular 10 p.m. show Friday in a new venue, sharing a former Bally's buffet with "Tony N' Tina's Wedding." He calls it a countdown for his last two years of performing the "Amazing" act.

"I'm tired of doing it," he says. "The crowds are not what they used to be."

But fear not what he will do for a creative outlet. He has 35,000 square feet to play with, as he tries to get a two-floor haunted maze at the Las Vegas Club ready for an Oct. 1 opening.

If you know him offstage - especially if you have been to one of his epic Halloween parties - you know the haunted attraction may be his true life's calling anyway.

"I want to work on projects, and this is a great idea," he says.

There's a cruel fire in his eye as he walks through the work in progress and its sinister effects: a spinning tunnel, an animatronic mad dog in a maze.

What it won't have is a bunch of part-time workers in "cheesy white makeup, jumping out and yelling, 'What are you doing here?' " he says of the attraction, based on the premise of a rabid virus requiring the hotel wing to be quarantined.

Most of the effects are illusions or mechanical, so the whole thing can be staffed by a dozen people, he says of the attraction that occupies an abandoned casino annex, sports book and lounge.

Johnathan (Szeles) says he "built it to be permanent" and hopes to operate the maze year-round; he will make the decision based on how profitable October turns out to be.

"There are a million people on Fremont Street now. Strangers dancing in the street." ...

Keeping that iron hot: The live version of "America's Got Talent" will again try a longer run of eight weeks on the Strip, opening Sept. 26 at the Palazzo, a mere 13 days after the winner is determined on NBC Sept. 13.

The 2009 finalists had an extended run at Planet Hollywood. FremantleMedia Enterprises and AEG Live later opted for a single weekend in AEG's larger Colosseum at Caesars Palace.

Ironically, it's a year of low representation by Las Vegas variety performers. The Scott Brothers were the only local act to make it as far as this week's competition. ...

Hey, Murray and Jan Rouven, don't you be taking any post-Labor Day vacations. Some 30,950 new empty seats next week can be all yours.

In theory, this weekend's closing of "Viva Elvis" and "Phantom--The Las Vegas Spectacular" could have a trickle-down effect to the smaller shows. In practice, losing the two big shows could be negligible. After all, if they sold anything close to their seating capacity (1,800 at Aria and 1,850 at The Venetian) they wouldn't be closing, right?

But "Phantom" did see a big uptick in business this summer, probably because of its countdown campaign to Sunday's closing. That's a big venue possibly off-line until Tim McGraw and Faith Hill begin their shows Dec. 7.

The Aria theater will have a faster turnaround after "Elvis" closes Friday. Cirque du Soleil plans to open "Zarkana" for previews Nov. 1 (previously announced as Oct. 25), with a gala opening Nov. 9.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ or 702-383-0288.