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Las Vegas has always been ‘AGT’s’ land of opportunity

Updated October 27, 2021 - 7:34 am

“America’s Got Talent: Live in Vegas” opens this week at Luxor.

We mark the occasion by recalling that Howie Mandel and Gene Simmons have a history.

Mandel, of course is the great comic actor and judge on “AGT’s” NBC series. Simmons is the fire-breathing bassist and co-founder of the Kiss rock-entrepreneurial empire.

Mandel was a hot, rising comic in the early 1980s when Simmons caught him making jokes on daytime TV.

“I was on the Merv Griffin show in 1981, and I get a call from Gene Simmons, and he said, ‘I saw you on Merv Griffin, and you’re very funny,’ ” Mandel recalled during a group interview in August at Dolby Theater in L.A. alongside fellow “AGT” judges Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Sofia Vergara and host Terry Crews. “He said, ‘Would you mind opening up for my girlfriend in Las Vegas?’”

Mandel said, “I would love to. Who’s your girlfriend?”

Diana Ross,” Simmons said. Ross was headlining Circus Maximus at Caesars Palace at the time.

“So, I became Diana Ross’s opening act at Caesars Palace,” Mandel said. Crews cut in with the understandable response, “That’s crazy! Did you pray to get fired? You were praying to get fired!”

It was not Mandel’s crowd. “The audience was not there to see me. They didn’t like me. The lights would go down and they’d say, “Caesars Palace is proud to present an evening with Diana Ross! And they’d roar. But if you listened really closely, or if you were my mom, you’d hear, “But first, here’s Howie Mandel.’”

Mandel’s “AGT” co-stars burst into laughter.

“I would be working the front of the curtain, and people were literally pounding on my feet, ‘Get the (expletive) off the stage!’” Mandel continued, his voice accelerating. “But we have a great relationships, we are great friends. I went to her 75th birthday party. She gave me a real break in my career.”

The nature of showbiz is that Ross and Kiss are both still headlining Vegas. “AGT” is about to jump in the pool, too, taking the former Luxor Theater for an open-ended run.

Mandel’s story is classic Las Vegas, and the “AGT” judge has not forgotten his break on the Strip. “America’s Got Talent” has provided similar shots at fame for many Vegas performers. The production is corralling many finalists over the past few years in the show opening for previews Thursday. “AGT’s” formal premiere set for Nov. 4.

The production is a performance-based celebration of “AGT’s” past finalists. It is an exhibition, not a competition. (As David Letterman often said, “Please, no wagering.”)

Season 12 finalist and stand-up comic Preacher Lawson hosts. Just-crowned, Season 16 champ Dustin Tavella and Season 15 champ, spoken-word artist Brandon Leake lead the Vegas cast. Singer Kodi Lee, danger duo Deadly Games, performance artists Duo Transcend, the mentalist team The Clairvoyants, shadow-performance troupe The Silhouettes and Ukrainian LED dance troupe Light Balance round out the show’s opening lineup.

During the session, Vergara said she first visited Vegas for a segment airing on a Univision travel show based in Miami. This was in the mid-1990s. Vergara had full run of the city.

“We had a backstage pass to everything in Las Vegas, and we saw things that other people don’t even see on their first trip,” Vergara said. “We went shopping, there was always extra shopping. Jewelry, fancy watches that are made specially for you.”

The actress learned she can indulge, but only in small doses.

“I can go to Vegas, but no more than two, three days,” Vergara said. “That’s my limit. I can’t do more than that.”

“That’ll read nice in Las Vegas,” Mandel joked, eliciting more laughs. “But the key to Vegas is, you see things there that you can’t see any other place. So I think that this is so fitting, because we have things on the television show you can’t see any other place.”

Vergara most recently visited Las Vegas in March 2020 with her husband, actor Joe Manganiello, during the launch party for the pet line Canini by Baguette. Vergara’s son Manolo Gonzalez Vergara started the line.

Klum recalled working as a model for a cover shoot for Brides magazine in 1994. All of her photos were at Vegas chapels.

“I got married to this guy, 13 times,” Klum said. “Thirteen times, the same guy. We’re in many pages inside the magazine.”

Everyone has a Vegas story. But Cowell was more interested in connecting the “AGT” performers to Vegas in a more permanent capacity. Such headliners as Terry Fator, Mat Franco, Piff the Magic Dragon, Tape Face and Jabbawockeez all have ascended from “AGT” to venues on the Strip.

“We have so many performers working all over the city, so now we’re like, well, let’s put them all together in one show rather than having them segregated across Vegas,” Cowell said. “That is why we want to do this.”

Klum took the last word, this time, breaking in with, “In America, they call it a no-brainer.”

Cool Hang Alert

Duck into a new-ish venue with a throwback Vegas name and vibe, Casbar Lounge at Sahara Las Vegas. Multfaceted vocalist Angelina Alexon is there 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday. No cover. Dress up for the performer who can disguise her voice in many languages. It’s a pop-Top 40 scene. Grooving is encouraged, but not mandatory.

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 Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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