There’s no place like Vegas for production designer

Andy Walmsley’s work has been seen by millions, but few of them know his name.

And he is fine with that, because he never had the nerve to get up on a stage himself — even though his dad was a comedian and his mom a fire-eater.

Instead, Walmsley ended up designing the stage sets for "American Idol" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." But all the time, the British production designer really wanted to be on the Strip.

"I just always wanted to do Vegas so much that to me, these shows are a bigger deal than ‘American Idol,’ " he says. "Which is crazy, I guess, but my ambition was always to do Vegas."

That’s why he has designed six Las Vegas shows in less than three years, the latest being Terry Fator’s new showcase at The Mirage.

To understand the obsession, rewind Walmsley’s life. As the son of two showbiz folks, "I really grew up in that variety world," he says. "I literally sat in a stroller in the wings in variety theaters just like this."

In the resort town of Blackpool, England, Walmsley was building tiny set models by the time he was 13. When he was 15, magician Paul Daniels — a family friend and a big name in Great Britain — invited him to do a set for one of his TV specials.

College was not to discover his life’s calling, but to reinforce the work he already was doing as a stagehand and aspiring set designer. By the time he was 21, Walmsley had West End and Broadway credits for "Buddy," the Buddy Holly musical.

Soon after, in 1991, a "Buddy" connection arranged for Walmsley to get the VIP treatment at the new Siegfried & Roy show at The Mirage. "Michael Jackson sat in the booth next to me, and I went backstage to meet (the magicians) after the show. So you can imagine how I thought, ‘This is for me. I want to live here. These are the kind of shows I want to do.’ "

He figures he flew from London to see Siegfried & Roy at least 15 times. "People forget it was actually that Siegfried & Roy show that really changed show business," he says. "Everyone thinks it was Cirque. It was the (magic) show that really changed the Vegas landscape."

But it was Walmsley’s sleek, futuristic set for "Millionaire" that changed the look of the TV game show. "Prior to that, quiz shows looked like ‘Jeopardy’ or ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ very bright and very kind of tacky, to be honest."

He says he is blown away to see "Slumdog Millionaire" become a major hit and Oscar contender. The movie was shot on the set of the Indian "Millionaire," one of 108 adaptations of the game show around the world.

"I did it very quickly in about three days. Who would have dreamed that 10 years later, I’d be living in Las Vegas, sitting in a movie theater and seeing my set, huge on the screen?"

Walmsley was looking for a career change — consulting an immigration attorney about moving to the United States — when the producers of "Pop Idol" called and asked if he wanted to go to Los Angeles to adapt his set for the U.S. version, "American Idol."

A relationship with a Las Vegas woman (since ended) led him to buy the Turnberry Place condo he now calls home. Walmsley broke into the local show scene in 2006 with the quickly forgotten "Headlights & Tailpipes" at the Stardust.

"It was a terrible show, but I loved it because it was in the Stardust theater," he recalls. "That was history, and I was doing a real Vegas show."

By doing the set for another TV show, "America’s Got Talent," Walmsley met first-season contestant Nathan Burton, which led to his redesigning the stage at the V Theater and, later, Burton’s afternoon show at the Flamingo Las Vegas.

The second season of "Talent" put him in touch with Fator, who presented the challenge of making over the small, restricted stage that had been carved out of a ballroom at The Mirage.

The design echoes Walmsley’s TV work, with a "video ribbon" tying the central set to side screens on each edge of the stage. "Most of the time, he’s in the center, so it helps to add movement through the video and light boxes that change color," he says.

The danger of Fator’s puppets, he adds, is that it could "become very childlike and look like ‘Dora the Explorer’ or something. And obviously, that’s not what his show is. The whole springboard for this design is, how can we change the scenes for each character, but do it in a very classy, sophisticated way? And very quick without tons of scenery, especially in this very tight space."

Walmsley next is helping with a "Legends in Concert" makeover. Because of time constraints, the tribute show will use a "halfway house" version, as he jokes, of his new set design when it moves from the Imperial Palace to Harrah’s Las Vegas on Feb. 23. The plan is for "the full version in all its glory" to replace it early next year.

Another of his shows, "Laugh Out Loud with The Scintas," bows out of the Las Vegas Hilton next month. That was the first in which Walmsley also carried the title of producer (with business partner Steve Parker), and he hopes it isn’t his last.

In fact, he loves Las Vegas entertainment so much, "I’d be happy never to have to do another set design," he says. Unless, of course, it was the next big Vegas spectacular. "I think I’ve done more Vegas shows than any other designer now, although they’re all of a certain level," he says. "It’s sort of frustrating, because I want to do that big one."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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