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The almost-famous life of Larry Hart

The almost famous.

Depending on how far you stretch the definition, they are most of the people I know in local show business. The performers and craftsmen who go unbilled in production shows. Or even the headliners — comedians, magicians, singers — who have their name out there but are always trying to make it bigger.

Larry Hart was one of those people who always seemed to be on the threshhold of breaking through to the next level. But Hart’s story was one of the more curious, and frustrating.

The performer and composer died June 19 in his condo at Regency Towers in the Las Vegas Country Club, and at this writing, the cause of death was pending a toxicology report. He was 57.

While it’s unfair to reduce a man’s life to two things, for the sake of shorthand let’s say his name may be familiar for mostly two reasons.

The first is the Hartland mansion, the 31,000-square foot downtown residence on Sixth Street that many a Las Vegan has visited for a wedding reception or company party over the years.

The mansion long overseen by Hart’s late mother, Toni, stands out for — how do we say this respectfully now? — its kitsch factor. If you were a corporate planner who thought it would be fun to throw a bash in Liberace’s house, but found it didn’t exist as such anymore, the gaudy Hart mansion was the place you settled for.

The Hart family story demands more space than I have here (it was well-told by The New York Times in 2010). But Larry’s father was a tent-show preacher and the family worked the 1970s gospel circuit. They were proud of recording dozens of albums; you can probe eBay and find vinyl by the Hart Family or Musical Harts. (Sister Linda Hart is the most almost famous of the family; you may recognize her from a solid career of supporting work in movies and TV.)

You could say the family created its own legend with the house and its “Sunset Boulevard” eccentricity. The Harts built it after the original, connected structures burned, financing it by working as a lounge act on the Strip.

Larry hand-decorated the bedrooms. He also won a Grammy for best gospel performance in 1978 for the song “What a Friend.” Remember that one? As I said, almost famous. The Grammys have more than 80 categories, and gospel isn’t one of the ones they give out on TV. But how many Grammys do most of us have?

In 1996, it seemed Hart’s ship had come in. After a cringe-worthy learning curve with a musical about teddy bears staged at Cashman Field, he rebounded with “Sisterella.”

The gospel/R&B telling of “Cinderella” — much the way “The Wiz” relates to “The Wizard of Oz” — premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse with a high profile. Michael Jackson was a producer. It was said to be the only time he financed a work that did not involve him as a songwriter or performer. And Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions had partnered with Disney’s Miramax Films for the Broadway and film rights.

Audiences loved it and the reviews ranged from mixed — Variety thought the connecting book was weak and the songs needed more diversity — to enthusiastic: “Yes, Virginia, money can buy a thrilling new musical,” the Los Angeles Times proclaimed.

And then?

“They say it’s the hardest thing to do,” says Clint Holmes, a friend of Hart’s who has waged a similar battle in the development of his theatrical memoirs “Comfortable Shoes” and “Just A Man.”

Holmes saw the workshop version of “Sisterella” in New York. “Larry made the costumes, directed it, starred in it. I just remember telling him, ‘Dude, you can’t do everything. You’ve got to delegate something on this.’”

The irony, Holmes says, is that for a musical to get to Broadway, you have to delegate about everything: “You’re not in control. That’s the problem with it.”

We’ve seen what a tough path new works face in Las Vegas. Some failed even when they tapped (or perhaps because they had to license) proven material. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Music of Stevie Wonder” died quickly at The Venetian in 2002, even with Chaka Khan and future “Kinky Boots” Tony winner Billy Porter. “Surf the Musical” was a nonstarter at Planet Hollywood three years ago, despite the Beach Boys catalog.

Most recently, the quick closure of a musical based on “Duck Dynasty,” with a huge brand and a Broadway pedigree, reminds us what a long shot theater is.

Reports of a “Sisterella” reboot surfaced from time to time. In 2011, it was (wrongly) said to be headed for the former Las Vegas Hilton with Flavor Flav as the fairy godfather. Denny Weddle, a family friend acting as spokesman, says Larry was still revising and writing new songs for it when he died.

Who knows? There could still be something close to a happy, “Rent”-style ending if “Sisterella” should resurface as the legacy of its creator. Whether they knew Hart or not, the almost famous of Las Vegas must surely hope so.

Read more from Mike Weatherford at bestoflasvegas.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com.

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