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Simon Cowell on the Strip: A golden opportunity

Updated November 14, 2021 - 8:59 am

Simon Cowell is on the phone from his home in London, talking of being knocked off a bike, but never forgetting how to ride it.

For the creator of “America’s Got Talent,” this is not a metaphor.

“I broke my back. I didn’t catch COVID. So there was a kind of an upside to it,” says Cowell, seriously injured in an e-bike accident at his residence in Malibu in August 2020. “Because of all the physical therapy you go through, I am much fitter than I was before the accident. So it’s one of those things that had a kind of a silver lining. I mean, at the time, it was horrendous. But now I feel really good.”

Cowell is moving at high speed once again, navigating his “AGT” empire and delivering his “America’s Got Talent: Live!” show to Luxor Theater. The show has launched its open-ended engagement, at long last fulfilling Cowell’s dream of staging a variety show on the Las Vegas Strip.

Variety is the operative term. As is “AGT’s” tradition, if you can spin a plate, swallow a sword or dance on the head of a pin, auditions are open.

“What we have discussed for years is to try and give the audience the experience you have when you come to the live show at the Dolby Theatre,” Cowell says. “Anyone who comes to the finals, they all have a great time. They always tell their friends that it’s a got-to-be-there kind of experience. So what we tried to do as much as we could was to replicate what we do in our live shows.”

The Luxor show is hosted by Season 12 finalist and stand-up comic Preacher Lawson. Reigning 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. French illusionist Lea Kyle, a Season 16 finalist, joins the cast at a date to be announced.

What is the audience for this cavalcade of performers?

“I think it’s the same as it is for the TV show, which is pretty much a family audience,” Cowell says. “You know, I think kids in particular love the show, young kids as well. I think that’s the reason the show has survived for so many years.”

“AGT” debuted in 2006, a chief competitor of another of Cowell’s brainstorms, “American Idol.”

Cowell is certainly not the first or only person to want to build an entertainment empire in Las Vegas. But he is the rare entertainment mogul with the resources to pull it off, as his show reaches across the country and beyond for great unknown acts with (ideally) compelling biographies.

Cowell already has achieved a peripheral presence in Las Vegas. He has long noted the former “AGT” champs and finalists dotting the Strip — among them Terry Fator, Mat Franco, Piff the Magic Dragon, Shin Lim and Tape Face — who had their own dedicated Vegas productions. Though the performers have returned for guest spots on “AGT,” their stage shows are not formally tied to the “AGT” brand.

“We have seen the success of the show on billboards in Las Vegas for years,” Cowell says. “What we are looking for in our contestants is, obviously, talent and vision. I think what we’ve realized now, with Vegas, that’s really the USP (unique selling proposition) of the show right now. It’s a fantastic prize, to perform in Vegas. I’d say 90 to 95 percent of the contestants who are entered in the show want to end up in Vegas.”

After performing the “AGT” all-star, limited engagements at Planet Hollywood Resort and Paris Las Vegas in previous years, Cowell’s Syco Entertainment production company and partner Fremantle Entertainment seized on the grand Luxor Theater, left open after Cirque’s “R.U.N” hauled out in spring 2020. MGM Resorts International was only too willing to have an offshoot of a hit TV show play one of its theaters.

“As soon as we spoke to MGM, you know, we were completely on the same page in terms of what audience we were trying to attract,” Cowell says. “I think it was their enthusiasm for it, you know, which made us decide to go with them, because we’d had offers in the past, but there was something about MGM’s enthusiasm. Their hearts are in this show, and they’ve been amazing.”

Cowell is not likely to be at the show, in person, until next year. The production will be talked of routinely on the TV show. Ex-champs and finalists from Vegas will still visit Dolby Theatre, though there is not a formal plan for the former “AGT” finalists to stop into the Luxor production.

Cowell has also pulled himself from the planned “Walk The Line” musical game show in the U.K. He had been in line as one of that show’s judges, but instead ceded his seat to Gary Barlow, late of the pop combo Take That. Cowell said he simply had too much to juggle, with his TV responsibilities and getting the “Live” show up and running.

Cowell has held a fascination about Las Vegas since he was a kid, learning of the Rat Pack and the Sands hotel and all of those classic Vegas icons. The conversation turns unexpectedly to Wayn Newton, and again about riding bicycles.

We took a famous bike ride along the Strip with Newton in May 2020, when the boulevard was shut down during COVID.

Forever curious, Cowell wants to know all about that ride, when the Strip seemed more like a military zone than tourist destination. Barricades were up around all the famous resorts, including Luxor, where Cowell now has a home.

“If you ever bump into Wayne Newton, which I’m sure you will, will you tell him that ‘Danke Schoen’ is literally my favorite song of all time?” Cowell says. “I love that song. I heard it in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and I think it’s brilliant. The arrangement is incredible. I just love it.”

Maybe the 62-year-old Cowell was born later than he would prefer, according to the Vegas calendar. So he’s creating his own golden-buzzer ispired, golden era of Strip entertainment.

“I would love to have been around the time when, you know, the Rat Pack were performing at the Sands hotel and all that kind of stuff,” Cowell says. “I think it must have been an amazing era. And it’s like, now, everything has gone full circle.”

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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