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What a drag: Run ends for ‘La Cage’

The venerable drag show "An Evening at La Cage" abruptly ended its 23-year run Monday, though the revue still might have two possible futures under different scenarios.

Producer Norbert Aleman said he characterizes the closing as "a break." He said he has made a deal with reality-TV producers for a backstage-drama series and hopes to reopen the live show when the cameras are ready to roll, perhaps in May.

"The writing is on the wall," Aleman said Tuesday. "It’s better if we take a break right now and see what’s up with the economy, rather than see my numbers go down and have to perform for under 100 people."

If he sells the reality series, Aleman said, he will ask the Riviera if he can reopen. However, he said he understands that "I cannot ask the Riviera to not rent the room if somebody (else) is going to come along," and he then would look for another venue.

Frank Marino, the host comedian of "La Cage" from its earliest days, said he wants to step up as producer.

"It’s about time I try to do my own thing," he said Tuesday. "I’m going to sit down with the Riviera hotel and see if we can work something out."

He said he would retain the same format and many of the same celebrity impersonators. "Hopefully I will be able to get these kids work again," he said.

Marino said that if he remains at the Riviera, the show will be his under a different title and Aleman will not be able to come back and reclaim the room.

But Marino said the two could iron out an arrangement to combine forces, such as "taking the winner of his (reality) show into my show as part of the reality show."

The producer told the cast in person after Monday’s show and took the members for drinks at a Riviera restaurant.

Jimmy Emerson, one of the show’s veteran performers, said he skipped the party because he was insulted about the show ending with no notice or severance pay.

"We worked for 20 years with no benefits whatsoever. There was no paid vacation, no such thing as taking off for your birthday. Literally, the only excuse for missing the show was if you were in the hospital," Emerson said.

The cast agreed to a salary cut in December and had been doing extra work passing out discount coupons during the daytime hours, Emerson added. Despite the lack of notice for the cast, the final paychecks had been cut in time to distribute with Monday’s announcement, he said.

Aleman was vague about the timing of his decision, but he said the long-term picture was pessimistic enough that the upcoming three-day weekend was not enough of a factor to delay it. Aleman said that there have been 80 more layoffs at the Riviera in the past two days and that room occupancy at the hotel has tumbled.

"We sincerely regret the decision to close La Cage, but fully understand the economic pressures forcing the situation," Riviera President Robert Vannucci said in a statement. "We wish the producer and the cast well and hope in the near future that conditions will change and encourage reinvesting into the show and its reopening. In the meantime, we are in negotiation with several different show producers and hope to announce a new Riviera show very soon."

The Strip property saw revenues decline 13.2 percent the first nine months of 2008 while cash flow dropped 31.4 percent. Entertainment revenues in the third quarter dropped 13.5 percent because of "lower ticket sales … as a result of lower occupancy and the weaker economy," according to a November filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Riviera still has six shows under its roof, an unusual number for a property its size.

Aleman said he will keep the other one he produces, "Crazy Girls," at the Riviera. It reopens today after sitting out January. It has a lower budget with a cast and crew of eight people compared with 18 in "La Cage."

"Right now I’m in shock," Marino said Tuesday as he cleared out his dressing room. "I’ve never had another job in my entire life. I know nothing else."

The show opened in September 1985, with Marino hosting all but the first few weeks in the guise of Joan Rivers. Other veteran cast members include Chris Woods as Diana Ross and Steven Wayne as Cher.

"I feel right now like the kid who’s got to go off to college," he added. "He knows all about staying home, but he wants to be set free and he has his own way of thinking about how he wants to live, and I feel like a bird being nudged out of the nest to say, ‘Go ahead and fly.’"

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288. Review-Journal reporter Arnold M. Knightly contributed to this story.

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