Club Rio’s future uncertain

Blair Farrington sits in a very familiar showroom booth for — who knows? Maybe the last time.

The room is best known as Club Rio, and its future is uncertain. It hasn’t been used for a ticketed show since Prince abandoned it in April. Word has it the Rio’s circular room will be remodeled into a new nightclub, but Harrah’s Entertainment folks haven’t said much either way.

Farrington recently used the dormant showroom to shoot a concert video that will promote a singer named Michael Paige. “They went from having too much entertainment in this room to nothing,” he jokes, remembering the years when he produced The Scintas, who shared backstage space with the Chippendales dancers and afternoon ventriloquist Ronn Lucas.

The producer helped design the room and produced its very first show, “Conga,” in March 1994. It was an unusual hybrid that hasn’t been attempted since; an attempt to create a ’50s-style supper club, or at least the romanticized version seen in old movies. Patrons dined and chatted while Carmen Miranda-style dancers doubled as servers and performers.

I first met Farrington when I went to do a preview piece for the show. When the formal interview ended and the notebook closed, Farrington said Tony Marnell, the Rio’s chief executive in those days, was thinking about a late-night dance club. The staff was weighing the potential drawbacks, such as attracting a crowd that wouldn’t drop money in the casino.

You know the rest. The club opened, “Conga” went by the wayside, and a new industry was born.

“Tony’s idea was, he wanted a place where he could hang out,” Farrington recalls. “What happened was, it didn’t end up like that at all. It was not his kind of music, and the crowd that was coming was a much younger crowd. At first he was kind of objecting to it, but then he finally said, ‘This is who’s showing up. We’re going to cater to them.’ “

Club Rio seems quaint and dated compared to the new $20 million LAX at Luxor. But so far, Farrington points out, it’s the only successful showroom that became a club. “It wasn’t giving up one for the other.”

There’s still room for that. Witness Prince’s perfect blend of concert and club atmosphere. The Strip is also losing too many midsize venues that aren’t dedicated to one show, in the manner of the Cirque du Soleil productions.

And while “Conga” is all but forgotten, the supper club idea still may be valid as well. Currently, dance clubs don’t care about anyone over 30. Older guys do endure the loud music to hunt the young women, but “there aren’t any choices,” Farrington notes.

“Right now, (casinos) feel like they’re being driven by what the next guy’s doing. I think a big demographic is being neglected.”

If there’s no future for Club Rio, perhaps the new wave of megaresorts will remember its possibilities.

Mike Weatherford’s entertainment column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Contact him at 383-0288 or e-mail him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com.

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