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Bruno Mars, in rare interview, talks Las Vegas, Pinky Ring plans to move here

Updated June 30, 2024 - 6:30 pm

It’s late on a Saturday night, and the party at this Las Vegas Strip hot spot is bubbling over. The club’s dance floor is jammed, standing room is at a premium, and something akin to a mosh pit has formed in front of the bar.

It’s a golden night at the Pinky Ring, Bruno Mars’ Bellagio nightspot that opened the evening before the Las Vegas Super Bowl.

The headliners are The Diamonds, a collection of flamethrowers from Las Vegas, New York, L.A. and Austin, Texas. The band alternates dates with the Hooligans, Mars’ own backing band.

The musicians are sweating into their matching pink tuxedos, performing four sets of unbroken jams in a show that will end after 1 a.m., with a DJ taking over for at least another hour.

The club’s visionary is in a roped-off enclave at the back of the room. He has just finished an electrifying, sold-out show in Dolby Live at Park MGM. The “24K Magic” recording superstar is recognized around the world, but somehow slides into his VIP cave totally unnoticed.

Soon and with no announcement, there is a commotion at the stage. A man who is booked for two shows at the 90,000-capacity Estadio GNP Seguros in Mexico City next month is throwing it down for 200 revelers.

“You are all right, to-NIGHT!” Mars shouts, as he dives into the Ginuwine club anthem “Pony,” a staple in gentlemen’s clubs and adult revues across Las Vegas. He leads the dance party with “We’re gonna turn the Pinky Ring into a strip club!”

Mars is made for the stage, though not necessarily dressed for it, wearing a Yomiuri Giants jersey, baseball cap and black slacks. He’s gripping a lit cigarette in his left hand and the mic in his right.

Not a man to plan his appearances at Pinky Ring, the 38-year-old Mars takes the stage whenever he feels like it, and he is feeling it tonight.

“I’m taking requests now!” Mars calls out. “What you got? What you got?” He points the mic to the crowd, where someone shouts, “Treasure!”

“Not MY songs! That’s not fun!” the showman commands. “Wait! Did I hear ‘Nice and Slow’ by Usher?” He did. The band knows this one, as Mars sings his superstar friend’s lyrics, “I just want to take it, nice and slooooow!” while the crowd sways and sings along.

If Mars were in a tux, you would have a modern-day Sammy Davis Jr. It’s a direct comparison he sidesteps. But in Mars’ long-term vision for Las Vegas, this throwback scene rings true.

A club summit

The Pinky Ring is also the first point of contact with Mars for this very story. For one does not just awake one day planning to interview an artist who has sold 26 million albums (while making just four studio records) and 200 million singles.

It’s a confab that, in another era, would happen at the Copa Room at the Sands or the Casbar Lounge at the Sahara. On a random visit, Mars steps through the ropes of his VIP booth. This is a darkened corner, typically populated by beautiful people, the occasional resort executive and musicians who play the club.

He offers his hand, chats for a few moments. You tell him you met his father, Pete Hernandez, several years earlier during an all-star doo-wop show at Myron’s at The Smith Center.

That night, Mars’ father, who first put Bruno onstage as a 5-year-old guest star, joked, “Keep supporting Bruno, so he will keep supporting me.”

Hernandez’s penchant for wearing rings on his pinkie finger inspired the club’s name (along with the lyric, “Put your pinky rings up to the moon,” from “24K Magic”). Mars gave his dad the pinkie ring he wears today.

Mars’ birth name is Peter Gene Hernandez; he was nicknamed “Bruno” as a toddler for his resemblance to famed pro wrestler Bruno Sammartino (the superstar recites this story with palpable glee).

Mars later added the planetary surname as his stage name for “pizzazz.”

This intel is in your pocket during an effort to pin Mars down for an interview, an adventure that dates more than a decade. The period covers performances at the MGM Grand Garden in 2011 and 2014, a New Year’s Eve 2014 show during his residency at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (where he headlined from 2013 to ’15), and another NYE show at T-Mobile Arena in 2018.

We finally chat backstage on a Saturday night at Dolby Live, where Mars has headlined since December 2016, in the Park Theater days.

No audience for this session, just us. The floor is laden with dozens and dozens of Vans sneakers, which Mars and his backing band, the Hooligans, wear onstage. A rolling rack of color-splashed, short-sleeved. designer shirts is just feed away.

Also nearby is an open carton of Natural American Spirit cigarettes, the yellow, or “light,” blend. He burns through a couple during the conversation; he’ll also perform vocal exercises and stretching before his two-hour show, a performer who literally burns the candle at both ends.

Hit us with an answer

Mars, of course, made news away from the stage this spring. Unless you have been residing under a stone, you know the topic.

So, I ask, “Do you want to address the gambling rumors circulating on the internet?” And he responds, “Absolutely not! I love the lore that I am a Las Vegas lounge singer in debt to the mob. I can work with that.”

The 15-time Grammy Award winner talks about what he wants, and his focus is sharpened on the club and his show. MGM Resorts International says it is proud of its relationship with Mars in his Dolby Live residencies and at the Pinky Ring.

Mars’ vintage-Vegas references are no accident.

Mars has referred to himself as “A full-on Las Vegas lounge singer,” as he calls for requests at the Pinky Ring. He frames his affection for the city in his first performance at the since-closed Bank Nightclub at Bellagio on New Year’s Eve 2011.

At the time, Mars was warned that playing Vegas was a bad idea while he was so hot commercially. His debut album, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” had been released the previous year and was on its way to triple-platinum sales.

“Someone reached out and said, ‘Bruno, we want you to play a residency at the Cosmo,’ and everybody was telling me, ‘No! Don’t do it! This is where entertainers go to retire!’ ” Mars says. “They were saying, ‘It’s too early in your career to be playing Vegas like that!’ But I fell in love with the city very early.”

You might guess when that was — Mars’ turn as Little Elvis in the 1992 comedy classic “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

“Yes, I had the cameo — I was 5 or 6 years old. That’s when I met James Caan,” Mars says, chuckling at the memory. “I just remember Vegas being like, over the top, back then. I remember my dad taking me to some weird gift shop, some toy store, that just had, like, everything.”

But Mars appreciated the city’s unique culture, and its embrace of his Hawaiian heritage (he is a native of Honolulu who moved to L.A. about 20 years ago). He is especially attentive to Las Vegas’ rich history of live entertainment — and his place in the city’s legacy.

“I just thought, I want to play Vegas while I have No. 1 records, while I am playing the Super Bowl,” Mars says. “For the longest time, I’ve romanticized about Las Vegas and what it is. Maybe I just look at Vegas through a different lens. I look at it like ‘Casino’ and the Rat Pack, everybody in suits, gambling and going out. That’s how I see Las Vegas.”

Mars expands the thought, “Those guys were my heroes, as far as what was,” the superstar says. “So, why isn’t there a Frank Sinatra golf course, or an Elvis Presley hotel, or a Sammy Davis Jr. nightclub?”

I suggest Mars’ own club could have been named Sammy’s, simply as an ode to the late Vegas icon.

He shuts down that idea, “But I’m not Sammy, you know? I’m not Sammy.”

Option A, and Option B

Mars is in his own lane, as a modern-day showman. There are certainly similarities to Davis, James Brown, Prince, Michael Jackson in his stage performance and his robust recording career.

One of the remarkable moments in the Dolby Live production is Mars dancing alone in silhouette, showing off his talent to move, as the crowd roars. He plays a wicked guitar, sings to the sky, all while grooving in tight choreography with his Hooligans bandmates.

It’s a feast for photos and videos across social media, or it would be if Mars allowed phones in the show. But he famously orders them pouched in cases, or simply left behind.

Mars celebrates the decision with the second song of the night, informally titled “I Took Your Phones Away.” He smiles and sings, “I took your phones awaaaay. There’s nothing you can saaaaay.”

He considers the song “a cult classic.”

Mars relishes mocking cellphone use in live shows. He’s firm about keeping the phones dark in his theater performances, though fans still use them in his arena and stadium shows. Phones were actually allowed in his shows at the then-Park Theater, today’s Dolby Live, until 2018 (the headliner was surprised to see I’d saved several photos and videos from a show at Park Theater in December 2017).

By Mars’ explanation, phones sap the soul of a performance. His assessment dates to his childhood, when his dad brought him onstage in the Honolulu days, what Mars calls “my little ‘School of Rock’ experience.”

“I remember when I was a kid, performing in my father’s show. The whole reason why you’re even sitting here talking to me today is because of the feeling I remember, of taking a microphone and creating something magical,” Mars says. “I fell in love with the energy that can get a room dancing, smiling, moving together, you know? I feel that is part of the show.”

He spells it out. “Without phones, without cameras, you have Option A and Option B. Option A, you have a good time. Option B, you don’t like it. That’s it, right? But the cameras bring in this new gray area, which I call Option C, which is you don’t know what to do. So, you just video, and you’re really not in it — you just want to show people online that you went to a concert.”

After experiencing Mars’ return to Dolby Live this month, it was evident his crowds are uncommonly loud, almost deafening at times. The takeaway: The audiences are not tied up in recording photos (especially selfies), or videos. Unshackled, they cut loose.

“I’m not saying that it’s coming from a bad place,” Mars says of the rampant recording. “I’m just asking the audience to be selfish, almost, and say, ‘This is for me. I want to feel this and be immersed in this energy.’ Because you will never be able to experience that when you are watching the phone.”

Mars has since checked photos and video of other headlining shows texted to him, with a sea of cellphones blocking the stage. He says, “It changes the experience, I’ve been trying to tell you!” He makes a compelling point.

The music man

Mars has been involved in the venue’s design and production since rehearsals at Las Vegas’ SIR Studios, taking notes and giving direction. He assembled the master set list, working with members of the band that would become the Diamonds.

No charts are allowed on stage — this is not only a cellphone-free zone, but also iPad-free. The set list is fluid; many of the conversations from his booth involve which songs to move to the stage and how they will be arranged.

Mars’ personality is reflected in his lyrics and themes. He says that “When I Was Your Man,” in which the singer regrets a lost love, was his most difficult to write.

You can hear his off-stage voice in, “I’m a dangerous man, with some money in my pocket!” from “24K Magic,” “I wanna be a billionaire, so (expletive) bad,” from “Billionaire,” and, “I’m ’bout to buy Las Vegas after this roll,” from Silk Sonic’s “777.”

No elaboration, though, on the inspiration for these phrases.

“I don’t want to explain how the cake was baked because it takes away from what I am trying to communicate,” Mars says. “Once I put out a song, it’s not even mine anymore. What matters is how it makes the listener feel.”

The ‘Seinfeld’ residency

A high point in Mars’ run in Vegas, and his career generally, has been his Silk Sonic partnership with Anderson .Paak. The 47-show residency from February to April 2022 caught fire early in its run, as all of Park MGM might have well taken on a 1970s “Soul Train” theme.

“An Evening With Silk Sonic” won all four Grammys for which it was nominated in 2022, a “clean sweep” as .Paak proclaimed, which included record of the year. This was also a “phone-free” show, but visually dazzling in its retro set design and choreography.

Musically, it filled its “sonic” description.

“That was a very special moment in my life, and I can speak for Andy because he’s my brother, and I know it was for him, too,” Mars says. “We were just coming out of COVID, you know, and had recorded that album. We didn’t know if the world was coming to an end. So, we said, ‘Hey, we’re just going to make this album and do this show as if it was the last show we were ever going to do.’”

What would need to happen to return Silk Sonic to the studio, or stage, or both?

“I think me and Andy would just have to lock in again, and do something when the time is right,” Mars says. “That’s the beauty of what we did is that we kind of left this open book, you know. We never closed it. We left at the peak. We did a ‘Seinfeld’ with it (laughs).”

Mars is sharpening his vision for his next season, as it were. The stage show is blazing, but hasn’t been totally overhauled since he opened nearly eight years ago. He is determined, as he puts it, to “land the plane” with his ideas for Las Vegas.

“If you look at the Pinky Ring, I’ve been working on that for years. A lot of things had to get shuffled around in order for that to happen,” Mars says, again flashing that smile. “I’ve got a lot of plans, especially in regards to Vegas, and I’m just getting started. That’s what I’ve got to say, OK? Just wait to see what I do next.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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