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Venue betting on Bette’s wide appeal

Skepticism can seem pretty dumb in retrospect.

But you can always say, “Well, I didn’t have all the information.”

Back in March 2003, I stood outside the Colosseum at Caesars Palace with John Meglen, co-CEO and president of AEG Live/Concerts West, and played devil’s advocate to grill him about Celine Dion.

They expected to sell 4,100 seats 200 times a year for a singer who had been out of the limelight five years? Charging an average $141 per ticket? With a top ticket of $200? A singer whose Top 40 currency had expired, and who was becoming a punch line with the comedians and magazines that set the pace of pop culture?

Meglen couldn’t sound more confident, and it turned out I didn’t know about a few things: A new album release on the day the show opened. A big promotion with DaimlerChrysler to drive the single “I Drove All Night” with national TV ads. A CBS network special. Big interviews with Oprah and Larry King.

Most of all, I really didn’t understand Dion’s audience: Few people younger than 40, few of them speaking English. None, I would wager, caring much about what Rolling Stone thinks of the singer’s hipness quotient.

Now it’s time to ask Meglen questions about a different singer, Bette Midler. Again, it’s within the limits of healthy skepticism to ask if Midler, 61, can fill 4,100 seats 100 times a year? With tickets topping out at $250?

If so, can she deliver that from her core fan base, skewed heavily toward gay men? Or will the new show have to be a “crossover” product? Midler’s TV sitcom was a debacle and her last two albums flew under the radar.

But her last tour did gross more than $1 million per night. And, Meglen says, “she sells out in Denver and Kansas City as much as she sells out in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. She has the coastal appeal but also is very strong in middle America and the breadbasket. I think the beauty here is she has both.

“You go through who are the potential artists who can do something like this,” he adds. “It’s really a short list. I don’t worry about what Bette’s last album sold, or Celine’s or Elton’s. They’re institutional artists. … It’s the sum of their career, it’s not the latest product.”

That said, it sounds like AEG also has more information than it did when Dion’s “A New Day” dawned. Don’t look for anyone to sign up for 200 shows per year, or even the 160 closer to Dion’s real tally.

“People are coming (to Las Vegas) a couple of times a year,” Meglen says. “We don’t want to miss somebody coming back and say, ‘I already saw that show.’ “

And, “from a business standpoint, that makes your ticket sales stronger because you have less availability,” he says.

Then there’s that exclusivity thing. “We are protecting the performance in Las Vegas by the artist not touring during this time period,” he notes. “I think when people come to Las Vegas, they want to see something they cannot see anywhere else.”

And we all have more information when it comes to that idea. “These projects are a marathon, not a sprint,” Meglen says. “This had never really been done before, when we did Celine. It was a new business structure and a new performance structure for an audience. Everybody had a lot of questions that, in a sense, people don’t need to ask today.

“Today, people understand it,” he says. “Now we’re just focusing on who is the next one to do it?”

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

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