Longtime headliners shine for locals, tourists in off-Strip venues

All the world’s a stage.

But for veteran performers who’ve been headlining Las Vegas showrooms since the Rat Pack ruled the Strip, that stage has shifted — to off-Strip casinos where they’ve found new performing homes catering to visitors and locals alike.

Hollywood sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, for example, returns to the South Point showroom tonight for a two-night stint; Tony Orlando checks in next week as the New Year’s Eve headliner at the south-of-the-Strip hotel.

And Mitzi Gaynor, another song-and-dance favorite from the silver screen’s golden age, had such a good time at The Orleans in October — her first Vegas showroom gig in more than 30 years — that she’s planning to return.

“I think I did OK,” she says, reflecting on her Las Vegas comeback in a telephone interview from her Beverly Hills, Calif., home. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be asking me back.”

Gaynor remembers the exact date she first played the Strip — “the seventh of July, 1961” — and how, in those days, “I was the queen of Vegas, darling. But these days, I don’t think there is a queen of Vegas.”

Not with so many Strip showrooms devoted to elaborate themed shows, many from production powerhouse Cirque du Soleil.

When Cirque and similar productions began invading Strip showrooms, “the headliners were starving to death for places to work,” observes Roy Jernigan, president of Bu-La Productions, who books the South Point, as well as the showroom at Laughlin’s Riverside.

That shift enabled The Orleans and other off-Strip casinos to expand their entertainment programs, Jernigan notes.

Station Casinos, for example, “started doing headline entertainment about 15 years ago,” according to Judy Alberti , the company’s vice president of entertainment.

And now, “we are definitely happy with our entertainment program,” she says — a program that includes 200 performances a year in a wide range of spaces, from Palace Station’s 250-seat Louie Anderson Theater to Red Rock Resort’s 10,000-seat amphitheater, where performers from Enrique Iglesias to Blink 182 have played. (Iglesias’ dad, Julio, has played another Station Casino: Green Valley Ranch Resort.)

“Most of those acts are still viable” Strip attractions, in Alberti’s view. “We’re certainly competing with the Strip.”

But the variety of booking options at Station Casinos means “we have a lot of flexibility in the size of the headliner,” she notes.

After all, “a lot of casinos” on the Strip have “only one big venue,” and that venue may be tied up with a long-running, ongoing show, Alberti says.

Orlando, celebrating his 50th year in show business, has been playing Las Vegas for more than 40 years, he says in a telephone interview from a recent Florida gig.

When he made his Las Vegas debut in 1972, Orlando played the Hilton, then split time between the Hilton and Riviera, with additional stops on the Strip at the Desert Inn and Caesars Palace.

“I made my rounds,” he says. “When I sold out the Hilton or the Riviera, it was an honor to be on the Strip at the time,” with his name on marquees alongside such legends as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. “I’m proud of being a part of that Vegas. And I’m still proud to be in Vegas.”

These days, however, Orlando’s Vegas home is the South Point’s intimate 400-seat showroom, which in his view “is very reminiscent of old-school Vegas.”

So, he adds, is South Point owner Michael Gaughan, who first hired the singer to perform when Gaughan owned The Orleans, now owned by Boyd Gaming Corp.

“If he had gone to Shanghai, I would have gone with him,” Orlando says of Gaughan.

As for Gaynor, she agreed to play The Orleans in part because her old friend Don — comedian Don Rickles — “loves The Orleans. That’s one of the main reasons I took the job.”

Her positive experience echoes his, she says.

“Everyone was so wonderfully cooperative,” Gaynor says. “Such a nice warm feeling. And the band was fabulous.” In short, “everything about it was really, really good.”

Including the chance to perform for locals as well as visitors.

“The nice thing about the change of venue,” Gaynor says, “is that I get the people that live there, too.” (Including former Strip headliners Siegfried and Roy, who attended her closing-night performance at The Orleans, she says.)

The South Point’s mix of visitors and locals is by design, according to Damian Costa, director of entertainment.

“We’re not a locals-specific casino,” he says. “We’re more like The Orleans — in service to the local community, but also a feeder casino from the Strip.”

He estimates the South Point audience is “about (a) 50-50” mix of locals and visitors, with many of those visitors conventioneers.

The South Point’s showroom attractions also are designed to appeal to a wide demographic range, Costa explains, from such vintage-Vegas favorites as Reynolds and Shecky Greene to younger-skewing acts such as comedian Ralphie May.

“If a person is going to see Shecky or Debbie, they’re going to know Ralphie May’s not their flavor,” he says. To illustrate the mix, Costa proudly notes that the South Point hosted two generations of Shore things: comedian Sammy Shore and his son, Pauly.

“At the South Point, it worked,” he says. (Costa’s showbiz instincts run in the family: His grandfather Tony was musical director at the old MGM Grand, now Bally’s, for 17 years, working as vocal arranger for the long-running “Jubilee!” and conducting for such Strip headliners of yore as Jack Jones.)

And while there’s no denying today’s “Vegas crowd is not the Vegas crowd it used to be,” Gaynor says, citing audiences who arrive in flip-flops and cut-offs rather than dinner clothes, that’s not the important thing, she maintains.

“Do I wish I was back in the great big room?” Gaynor says, reflecting on her new Las Vegas showroom home at The Orleans. “To me, this is a great big room.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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