George Wallace will be in the audience this time, not onstage. “I started to ask if I could open for her again, just for old times,” the comedian says.
Crystal (Chris) Woods will be in the audience, too, but he’s hoping Diana Ross will pull him up to the stage once she sees him dressed like her.
And Frank Marino just wants to meet her.
When a pop legend is back in town for the first time in years, other Las Vegas performers pull up a chair.
Ross, 66, isn’t as synonymous with Las Vegas as the Rat Pack or Elvis Presley, but she was just as much a part of it. She even opened the Thomas & Mack Center with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in December 1983, stepping in for an ailing Sammy Davis Jr.
Ross’ “More Today Than Yesterday: The Greatest Hits” tour, which pulls into the Colosseum at Caesars Palace today and Saturday, bookends a 44-year history on the Strip.
Marino, the cross-dressing host of “Divas Las Vegas” at the Imperial Palace, concedes Las Vegas may not have missed much when the singer excluded Las Vegas from most of her touring in the 2000s, except for a couple of corporate dates and the semiprivate opening bash for the Palazzo in 2008.
“I had a five-year period where it was hard being a Diana Ross fan,” Marino admits. But he flew to New York to see an earlier tour date this year. “Oh, honey, she’s got it back, better than ever,” he proclaims, including the higher end of her vocal range.
It’s only fitting that the Supreme singer is back at Caesars, her Las Vegas home for 24 years. Ross was just starting to build a solo career in 1972, so she was co-billed with — no kidding — Shipstads and Johnson’s Ice Follies (“The Hot and Cold of It!”).
“Pregnant is also beautiful,” Las Vegas Sun columnist Joe Delaney noted of the delicate condition surrounding her debut.
But she stuck with the old Circus Maximus showroom and its limited seating capacity even after ’80s hits such as “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” and an infamous concert in Central Park made her an arena-sized draw.
(Paychecks said to be a flat $220,000 per show couldn’t have hurt in the loyalty department, though Ross has always enjoyed an old-Vegas reputation for giving back at the tables.)
The room didn’t change, but the billing did. An oft-told tale included in J. Randy Taraborrelli’s “Diana Ross” biography has the diva refusing to go onstage until she walked outside to visually confirm Caesars had removed the name of a coming attraction from the bottom of her simple, unadorned “Diana Ross” marquee.
That meant opening-act comedians never received billing, even if they were future stars such as Wallace (1981), Bill Maher (1982), Howie Mandel (1982) and Paul Provenza (1984).
“I did call her ‘Miss Ross’ at the time. Everybody did,” Wallace says of the infamous courtesy title, one author Taraborrelli says originated in Las Vegas. When the Supremes first played the Flamingo in 1966, Motown head Berry Gordy instructed a local reporter to “Call her Miss Ross,” having only recently adopted “Mr. Gordy” himself.
Wallace became friends with the singer in the year and a half he toured as her opening act. Her favorite joke, he says, was one he made about his genitalia: “All I got down here is a tattoo that says ‘Ok,’ but when I get excited it says ‘Oklahoma.’ ”
Jeff McBride called her “Miss Ross,” too, but says she had a name for him as well: “My magician.” As in, “Where is my magician?”
Ross put the Las Vegas-based illusionist on the map by using him as an occasional support act for five years, including Caesars dates in 1984 and 1989.
“She knew she had something unique to show her fans. She really felt she had discovered me,” McBride says of her putting his segment in the middle of the show instead of the traditional opening-act slot.
“My show is pretty messy with all the cards, confetti and streamers I leave on the floor,” McBride adds. Once, she saw him trying to quickly clean it up and told him, “I’m running backwards in those long Bob Mackie gowns. Nothing can trip me up.”
Woods knows gowns, too. He has done his drag impersonation of Ross for 32 years, 25 of them with Marino in “An Evening at La Cage” and now “Divas.” Woods first met Ross in Florida in 1984 and says “she thanked me for being her.”
Woods remembers the time he and Marino were in full drag for a Halloween ball at Caesars while Ross was performing in the showroom. “People chased Frank and me into the bathroom. We had to wait for security to come and get us out.”
In January 2008, Marino witnessed Ross singing to recorded backing tracks as part of the Palazzo’s grand opening celebration. He defended her against suspicions of lip-syncing, but now agrees it wasn’t her finest hour. “It wasn’t her thing. Plus, she wasn’t on tour.”
But he’s fired up for tonight. “I have met every star in the world but her, and she’s my idol,” he says. “I will get a photograph with her if it kills me.”
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.Preview
8 p.m. today and Saturday
Colosseum at Caesars Palace,
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South