Las Vegas has a secret.
Perhaps you have heard; and if you can keep it quiet, maybe you can join in.
Every Monday evening, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Neil Diamond gather with other musical legends to perform as if the mob still ran Las Vegas and Cirque Du Soleil was not yet a twinkle in the imaginations of two French-Canadian street performers.
It’s not Sinatra, Davis Jr. and Diamond per se, but if you close your eyes and listen, it’s as if time has gone back to long before the Great Recession and shortly after the Great Depression. Their vocal doppelgangers caress the crowd in their glittering finery and good pearls.
Vegas Underground is a secret society of live entertainment.
“It’s the best kept secret,” said Joanne Toranto, a longtime patron, giggling over her glass of champagne. “I’ve been involved since the inception.”
The underground movement to promote live entertainment is alive with passion and excitement.
“It’s like a party every Monday,” Vegas Underground founder LJ Harness’ fiancée Terri D’Arpo said. “People get into this. They really love to dance.”
The group meets every Monday night at the Tap House on Charleston and Upland boulevards and once every other month for a free public event, Rock the Foundation, in the Mandalay Bay’s foundation room. Rock the Foundation dates vary, but information on all events can be found on the group’s secret website thevegasunderground.com.
The backroom fills up every week, leaving only standing room, Harness said.
“The demographic — 38- to 70-year-olds — seems to get what the Vegas Underground stands for,” he said. “They grew up with live entertainment more than today’s generation. It’s a very colorful demographic of people.”
That doesn’t mean that a younger crowd isn’t welcome; it means that the set list won’t include any Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars.
“Vegas was founded on live entertainment, not super guest star DJs or Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters as entertainment,” Harness said. “It’s a taste of old Vegas with an edge.”
When they’re not tearing up the dance floor or sipping scotch on the rocks, Toranto and D’Arpo fill their night catching up with the people they have come to see as a family.
“This is like a family. Wherever anyone is, we follow,” Toranto said. “Everyone here is from a different walk of life. It’s so wild.”
For her, the lack of accessible live music before the Vegas Underground was heartbreaking.
It was hard to find good lounge shows and musical performers before the secret society was formed, the music-loving Toranto said.
So why keep it a not-so-secret, secret?
“When you put in something like Underground, it makes it a little mysterious, so people want to know about it,” Harness said. “There’s a lot behind the Vegas Underground.”
The beginning of the self-touted “secret society of a city built on live entertainment” is a humble one.
Harness moved to Las Vegas from Florida after a debilitating addiction to cocaine, a bout of homelessness and a short stint in jail. He was a man who knew rock bottom and had a new appreciation for all of life’s little things.
A professional drummer in his youth, opening for Aerosmith and Cheap Trick, he left it all behind and changed his focus to helping the less fortunate, organizing charity events and raising more than $1 million for Toys for Tots and other organizations.
But music was still calling out to him.
“After coming here four years ago, not coming out here to pursue a music career, I started meeting all of these entertainers,” Harness said. “I met people wanting to be involved in something special.”
After organizing a three-day charity event in Town Square, the owners of the Tap House invited Harness to host a weekly open-mic jam night to revive the culture of live entertainment.
With Harness on the drums, a singer and keyboard player, the Vegas Underground was formed.
Almost three years later, the secret society is thriving and live entertainment has a new home in a city that saw big-name performers take the stage unannounced, Harness said.
“There was an interest and hunger for live entertainment,” he said. “People could come in on any given Monday night and pretty much see what is now being called the new generation Rat Pack. It’s not knowing who’s going to walk in on any given night and end up being part of a kick-ass show.”
It is not unusual to see the band pull singers from the crowd like needles from a very distinguished and talented haystack. Attending an open-mic night, it is sometimes difficult to tell where the audience ends and the entertainers begin.
It is common to see big names like the Scintas, who perform at the D Hotel on Fremont Street, Neil Diamond impersonator Rob Garrett and singer Jackie Wilson’s son, Bobby Brooks.
“Nothing’s rehearsed, that’s the beauty of Vegas,” Harness said.
The Vegas Underground is not just a venue, it is a chance to go back to simpler times and an opportunity to get involved, network and give back.
“At different times, I’ve probably booked everybody here,” Howard Newman, a live music promoter and long-time Vegas Underground attendee said. “That’s where the people who do the music come. Here.”
Live entertainment is resurging beyond the Tap House, Harness said.
“More entertainers are working more than ever. More restaurant lounges and clubs have live entertainment like back in the day,” he said.
“My slogan here and what I always try to remind people — the success of the Vegas Underground at the Tap House or at any big charity event isn’t about any one of us.
“It’s about all of us, supporting each other,” Harness added.
Their newest cause is the Helping Hands of Vegas Valley, an organization that collects donations to help senior citizens. Donations are accepted every Monday night and at the monthly Rock the Foundation.
“People seem to like to be a part of something. We wanted to create something that was special, and not just promoting live entertainment, but getting people involved in giving back to the local community,” Harness said. “Las Vegas is a very passionate city and has some very special people living here. I’m blown away sometimes by the generosity of people.”
But remember, Vegas Underground is a secret.
Contact reporter Rochel Leah Goldblatt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0264.