The end was near, so one by one, Adam Steck’s family took turns saying goodbye to his Uncle Gene.
It was 1992 and the uncle — really more like a father figure to Steck — lay unconscious in a hospital bed dying of complications from AIDS. It was Uncle Gene who made them laugh and helped them through the rough patches after Steck’s father left. He even loaned Steck the money to produce his first show in Iowa.
So when his turn came, he thanked Uncle Gene for being there when he needed him most. And Steck made a vow.
“You were a big influence on me and one day, I will do something to honor your memory,” he told him.
Fast-forward several years later. Steck, who moved his production company to Las Vegas in 1999, lent cast members of Thunder From Down Under to raise money for Golden Rainbow, a nonprofit that assists locals who have HIV or AIDS. Cast members from several of his other shows — Human Nature, the Australian Bee Gees Show, for instance — also have supported a variety of causes over the years.
“I’m very much an advocate of giving back,” says Steck, 41. “We’ve got the platform to reach so many people it just makes sense to do something good with it.”
Whether it’s a school supplies drive, a fundraiser for a nonprofit or a public service announcement to raise awareness of a disease, Strip performers often dedicate their time and talent to help local charities. Though the individual motivations vary, producers and performers say, it all comes down to one reason: to help others.
“The image you get from working on the Strip is that it’s all about the glitz and glamour,” says Shannon Hardin, a former dancer in “Jubilee!” “But everybody wants to be part of their community and make it better. The longer you’re here, the more you want to do that. You realize this is your home, you have to do your part.”
Hardin joined “Jubilee!” in 1995 and a year later started dancing in the annual Ribbon of Life fundraiser for Golden Rainbow. He started directing in the show in 2002.
The entertainment community is tight-knit, he says, so it was only natural that he joined Golden Rainbow’s fundraising efforts. The nonprofit was created after a former “Jubilee!” dancer died of AIDS in 1987. No one knew much about the disease then; the dancer’s parents put his bed in the garage as his health declined and he died there, Hardin says.
“People from all these production companies get together and raise money because they don’t want that to happen to another person,” Hardin says.
A symbiotic relationship exists between charities and local performers. Raising money or awareness for a cause can bring good things to all involved.
For Hardin, his charity work served as a creative outlet. Cast members usually do the same performances night after night so when they join a fundraising show such as Ribbon of Life, it breaks the monotony, he notes. Some, like Hardin, direct or work behind the scenes. A charity show can help performers showcase their abilities in a way their regular jobs don’t.
“This gives you something new to do creatively, and it also gets your work out there, seen by others,” Hardin says.
When he was a young magician, Mac King did a lot of charity performances. It was a great way to develop as an entertainer while doing something for a worthy cause, he says. Now that he’s married and has a daughter, his charitable involvement is much more community-oriented. King is known for his work in promoting literacy. A few times a month, he visits local schools and performs for kids. He also talks up books and the role they played in his life and career.
“I talk about how checking out magic books from the library changed my life,” King says.
He promotes book drives and then helps distribute the books to schoolchildren.
Terry Fator uses his spotlight to bring awareness to two issues that hold special meaning to him: arthritis and veterans.
His younger sister, Debi, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 18, Fator says. After mentioning her on “America’s Got Talent” in 2008, the Arthritis Foundation contacted him and asked for his help. He has done public service announcements to raise awareness of the disease and makes appearances whenever he can.
Military veterans have always been a passion of Fator’s, he says. When he was 8, he was friends with a boy whose father had been a POW in Vietnam. Seeing how the experience affected his friend’s father made an impact on him.
“It’s something I will never forget,” Fator says.
That’s why he donates a portion of the proceeds from his merchandise sales to military causes such as Snowball Express, an organization that helps kids of veterans who have died. He also sometimes donates a percentage of ticket sales.
In addition to being a necessary outlet for performers, or producers, charitable work also is just good PR. Some shows require their performers to volunteer their time for a cause.
Dancers from “Fantasy” at Luxor are contracted to make three personal appearances a week, says producer Anita Mann. Charity events count as an appearance. Steck’s performers also are contracted to do appearances.
But, the producers say, they would do charity work even if it didn’t result in media coverage. In fact, they do many events and activities that are never publicized, they add.
“We’re not doing it for press coverage,” Mann says. “That’s not what it’s about. We’re so blessed to have the ability to work and do a job that we love. We’re just blessed, and I think that everybody that can give should give.”
Steck agrees. After his uncle was stricken with AIDS in the 1980s, he often dreamed of becoming a producer of larger-than-life charity events. It’s still his goal, he insists. Until then, he’ll keep donating tickets and themed merchandise to organizations who ask for it. And Steck will keep giving to Jewish organizations; they fed him and his mother and sister and put clothes on their backs while he was growing up, Steck recalls.
“I want to take my little sliver of existence and use it to do what I can,” Steck says. “Use the power of entertainment to reach whoever I can.”
Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4564HELPING HANDS
Other noteworthy causes taken up by local performers include:
Manilow Music Project: Last year, Barry Manilow donated more than $500,000 worth of gently used and new musical instruments to the Clark County School District. In exchange for a donated instrument, he gave away vouchers to his Paris Las Vegas show.
George Wallace: The comedian hosted the Easter Seals Walk with Me in April and will do so again in 2012. He also has participated in HELP of Southern Nevada’s annual toy drive, performs at local charity events and often gives away tickets to college students and veterans.
Penn & Teller: For the past 10 years, the magicians have served as grand marshals for Aid for AIDS of Nevada’s AIDS Walk.
“Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood: Dance captain Paula Caselton has organized the Las Vegas version of “Broadway Bares,” a fundraiser that the show’s producer started in New York to raise money for AIDS prevention and treatment.