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Old-style shows on Fremont need help

Yes, Life Was Beautiful last weekend. But what about the other 363 days a year, when 60 bands aren’t playing downtown?

With all the progress downtown, it’s easy to forget one thing that hasn’t really changed: Old-school, ticketed shows are still kind of an afterthought on Fremont Street.

And it’s not really for the lack of some good ideas. The collective lineup is as strong now as it has been in years. The Golden Nugget has some fresh thinking on display right now, the comic play “Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody” that falls outside the usual genres.

Maybe things just haven’t changed fast enough. Bruce Ewing, who sings in the fine cabaret show “The Phat Pack,” says he fights the feeling that his group “didn’t sit and wait long enough,” even though it just can’t afford to stay beyond its Nov. 16 closing date at the Plaza.

For decades, there were only two proper showrooms downtown. The Golden Nugget was the crown jewel — Frank Sinatra sang there in the 1980s — and the Plaza was the faded stepsister. Other shows came and went in more makeshift venues, such as the Lady Luck curiosity I dubbed “the bubble dome,” a precarious wedding tent-type structure that seems to be missing in the hotel’s relaunch as the Downtown Grand.

That dynamic between the Nugget and Plaza never completely changed, even if the playing field is more level. The Plaza has more the name star in Louie Anderson. The Nugget is said to sell most of its tickets for durable impressionist Gordie Brown by packaging his show tickets with a buffet.

The Plaza has a knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite a facelift for the larger property, management never never seems to know quite what to do with a vintage showroom that has hosted several misfires. Veteran comedian Anderson seemed like a sound choice to set the ship aright, but he isn’t setting attendance records.

The busiest showroom these days is at The D, where four titles bunk up as roommates. Among them, “Marriage Can Be Murder” does fine as one of only three shows in town offering dinner inside the showroom. And the veteran supper club act The Scintas is bankrolled directly by the hotel.

In the larger picture though, the collective energy of the Fremont Street Experience and The Downtown Project urban renewal program seems to break down when it comes to the shows, leaving them to fend for themselves.

The challenge was obvious one night as I made my way up the blocks from the restaurant Park on Fremont to the Plaza’s “Superstars of Magic,” dodging a bustle of crazy street life to get to a nearly deserted showroom.

“The focus is not on that kind of entertainment. The focus is on the cheap bars outside,” says one producer, who didn’t want to bite the hand that sort of feeds him.

“I thought all the Fremont hotels worked together on stuff like (entertainment),” Phat Packer Ewing says. “I found out it doesn’t happen.”

What if it did?

Here’s a modest propsal: Move Anderson, Brown, the Scintas and any other takers to 4 or 5 p.m. and collectively market downtown as your home of the afternoon show. The slogan could be “Before the lights come on, the stars come out,” or something along those lines.

The performers all just happen to appeal to older audiences anyway. Their host properties could follow the Nugget’s lead in packaging them with restaurant combos. The early start not only would steer downtown performers clear of the big Cirque shows, but the street scene outside their doors. They could market downtown as a place to see a show, then have dinner and then dive into the midway atmosphere.

Frank Scinta says The Scintas did just fine during the Life Is Beautiful festival, with some fans telling him they took a break from the fest to catch the sibling act and then go back. “That just blew me away,” he says.

Whether the street life proves to be an ally or competition, Scinta says one thing is clear: “It’s bringing people downtown to see it has changed,” he says. “They get down here and discover it really is a party.”

The challenge now is making sure the shows are part of it.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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