It’s one thing to stand where Frank Sinatra did, but those bragging rights only take you to the edge of the stage.
The Golden Nugget’s showroom also has present-tense appeal, says Clint Holmes, one of its current headliners.
“It obviously has an intimacy, but more than that it has an immediacy,” Holmes says of the third-floor show venue. A low stage only a few feet from the front row “gets people into the energy of a show rapidly.”
The room was part of Steve Wynn’s expansion of the old Golden Nugget into a full-fledged resort, and opening night on June 23, 1984, boasted both Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra (there was a bit of controversy about the billing and protocol, but Sinatra ended up going first).
The surprise now is that the Nugget is actually the newest of 10 surviving venues from the old days. Because Wynn’s next step of show evolution — the Mirage showroom hosting Siegfried & Roy — is already gone, there’s a big leap to the modern era with the Excalibur’s family-friendly “Tournament of Kings” arena in 1990 and Cirque du Soleil’s custom theaters.
But the fall of older giants such as the Sands, Stardust and Riviera, the current hibernation of Bally’s “Jubilee” room and the underused Elvis stage at the Westgate Las Vegas make you appreciate even Las Vegas’ awkward ’70s and ’80s era. You could almost call these rooms cool again, in the case of CeeLo Green playing Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace July 21-22 and 28-29.
We explore the 10 surviving show places, in chronological order of their arrival:
■ 1. Circus-Circus Midway, 1968. While it’s not technically a showroom, a diminished version of the acrobatic performances witnessed by Hunter S. Thompson (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”) and James Bond (the movie version of “Diamonds Are Forever”) still entertains children of all ages.
Atmosphere: Circus acts mashed up with slot machines? Still trippy.
■ 2. Westgate Las Vegas, 1969. Barbra Streisand opened the International in July 1969. But it was the second tenant, Elvis Presley, who made a bedazzled white jumpsuit synonymous with the Las Vegas Hilton.
Atmosphere: Theater seats replaced the tables and booths for “Starlight Express” in 1993, but the lobby entry and the stage itself still radiate that Elvis brand of luxury.
■ 3. Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace, 1970. The grand old Circus Maximus bit the dust in 2000, leaving room for this love boat that sits on real water to become a ticketed show venue late in its career, after hosting dance bands for most of the years since it opened as part of the first addition to Caesars in 1970.
Atmosphere: The swingin’-est. Despite alterations over the years, the Barge still conveys the decadent adult theme park vision of Caesars’ early days.
■ 4. The Plaza, 1971. It opened with “Fiddler on the Roof,” but this downtown showroom is more infamous as the home of “Natalie Needs a Nightie” and “Nudes on Ice.”
Atmosphere: Whaddaya mean we can’t light up in here? Even if it owes its survival more to benign neglect than tender lovin’ care, the Plaza showroom is so thick with retro authenticity you can practically smell the no-filter Camels. It’s a perfect fit for The Scintas, the old-school show band that breathed new life into the room.
■ 5. The Tropicana, 1973. The long-running “Folies Bergere” moved across property into this disco-era showroom, which hosted the showgirl spectacle until 2009. Magician David Goldrake opens “Imaginarium” on June 27, hoping to end what seems like a curse on the place.
Atmosphere: A handsome makeover for a short-lived version of “Mamma Mia!,” including theater seats replacing most of the tables and booths, doesn’t detract much from the vintage charm. And they’re still practically new, since so few people have sat in them.
■ 6. Bally’s, 1974. Generations of showgirls — and their mothers — navigated the translucent steps of “Hallelujah Hollywood,” followed by “Jubilee,” the last old-Vegas spectacular, which closed last year. The room is now largely dormant, awaiting word on its future.
Atmosphere: The MGM Grand fire of 1980 forced one remodeling, and at some point, theater seats replaced most of the tables and booths. But the scale of the massive stage to the relatively cozy room made “Jubilee’s” nightly sinking of the Titanic all the more impressive.
■ 7. Flamingo, 1976. How cool is it that Donny and Marie Osmond have spent nearly 10 years in the showroom that opened its doors with “Playgirls on Ice” the same year their wholesome teen variety show took ABC by storm?
Atmosphere: A time capsule. This is the place for old-Vegas buffs to see the way it was. The tables and booths are remnants of an era when you tipped to sit in “king’s row” or made new friends at long tables that require a coordinated 45-degree turn when showtime arrives.
Atmosphere: The old tables and booths were changed into a clublike configuration that must have looked good on paper but creates a schism between the haves (banquette seating) and have-nots (straight-backed stackable chairs).
■ 9. Harrah’s Las Vegas, 1982. The former Holiday Casino for years hosted “Keep Smilin’ America” before giving way to headliners such as Mac King and the Righteous Brothers.
Atmosphere: Ehh. Perhaps reflective of Las Vegas in the early ‘80s, it gets the job done in a drably “classy” way but lacks real character.
■ 10. The Golden Nugget, 1984. “It feels like a nightclub, which is kind of what I was brought up on,” Clint Holmes says.
Atmosphere: Theater seating turned out to be an awkward retrofit, but the low ceiling (which can’t be changed, because a spa sits right on top), “gives you the sound,” Holmes says. “In some rooms you can get big applause, but you don’t feel it because the room is spacious,” he explains. “In this room, you really do get the energy of the laughs and the applause.”