Wayne Newton probably said it best. When people see each other on the plane on the way to Las Vegas, the first they ask is, "Who are you going to see?"
We know the reason Las Vegas has always had entertainers...it's to attract people to come to Las Vegas and into the casino. In fact, you can't really get a hotel's showroom without having to snake around a casino floor. But from this has grown a cultural life form all its own...the Las Vegas Showroom and Lounge Performer. This species, easily identifiable with its trademark tuxedo, acts much like the town itself...a little slick, a little bit risque and a little bit over the top. Okay, sometimes very over the top.
The entertainment business has changed since the Classic Vegas days, and more than a few people miss those days. It used to be that entertainers would mingle with hotel guests, as well as attend the shows of other performers. Performers like Dean Martin would actually deal Blackjack after his shows (and made sure you won regardless of your cards). Part of the magic that the Rat Pack had was not just their individual talents, but it was clear that they all enjoyed working together, and communicated that enjoyment to the audience. It wasn’t just a business deal put together by agents, but entertainers who had fun onstage together.
Of course, its necessary to distinguish between Showroom and Lounge performers. Wayne Newton, for example, you can describe as being lounge act, but he would take issue with you. Wayne is an example of the Main Room or Showroom performer, the guy who people pay to see and gets the huge letters on the outdoor marquee. A true lounge performer works a small room near the casino, where gamblers can take a break and listen without having to pay an admission charge. They also get billing on the outdoor marquee, but you may need glasses to see them. In the old days, a good lounge performer could work himself up to showroom status.
The first major entertainer to play the town was Sophie Tucker (“Last of the Red Hot Mamas”) in the mid ‘40s. More entertainers followed, and Liberace created a sensation at the New Frontier and Riveria hotels.
When the Sands Hotel opened in 1952, the hotel bosses Hotel hired Jack Entratter (to Frank’s left in the picture), the manager of the famed Copacobana nightclub in New York City, to become the Entertainment Director for the new Sands Copa Room. Entratter knew how to handle the fragile egos of celebrities, and attracted the likes of Red Skelton, Judy Garland, Paul Anka, and Nat King Cole, among others. Jerry Lewis said, "We wouldn't go anywhere in Vegas but where Jack was. The performers that played the Copa-Sinatra, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett-he got them all to play the Sands."
Frank Sinatra became a major figure at The Sands, and later was sold a percentage interest in the hotel. Frank and his friends made the Sands became their own playground in the desert; Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne called The Sands their home 15 years.
Perhaps the high point in this late period was period when Sinatra and his Rat Pack filmed "Oceans' Eleven" by day and worked the Copa Room at night, with all 5 of them performing together, goofing with each other and the audience. A young Senator running for President, Jack Kennedy, came to the show and took a bow. With their routine lampooning racial prejudice and show business protocol, the Copa Room became Ground Zero in show business cool.
Most importantly, it put Las Vegas on the map for middle class America as a destination, and gave the town an aura of glamour that it still trades on today. Las Vegas had always had questionable image, but the resulting publicity from The Rat Pack, "Ocean's Eleven" and other showroom stars really helped spark the growth the of the town.
Today we remember mostly The Sands, but many other hotels also had a stable of stars that gave Las Vegas its title as the Entertainment Capital. Perforners as varied as Red Skelton, Betty Hutton, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Phil Silvers and others became common sights on Vegas marquees. Mae West even had an act with a supporting cast of body builders. Even Jack Benny had his own private slot machine at The Flamingo (it took only pennies).
Another important milestone happened in 1969, when Colonel Tom Parker made a deal for Elvis to appear in Kirk Kerkorian's new International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton). Elvis was a sensation, and attracted a younger audience new to Las Vegas. While rock acts never took over big main hotel showrooms, it did usher in a new phase of Vegas performer, and performers like Tom Jones thrived.
Things change, of course, especially in Las Vegas, where if a hotel isn't the latest and greatest its blown up. The Sands was imploded and replaced by The Venetian...the Dunes is gone, and soon the Desert Inn. In the 70s many hotels discontinued their star policy when they calculated that production shows, amortized over many years, were cheaper than paying huge salaries entertainers demand. And while there are still a few genuine lounge performers, today you're more likely to find a guy or gal in the lounge with a synthesizer covering Kool and the Gang and getting drowned out by slot machines.
But, if you look for it, there's still a little bit of Classic Vegas left...Jerry Lewis signed a long term deal with The Orleans...Wayne Newton signed with the Stardust...Tom Jones still performs...there's always an Elvis playing somewhere..."The Pack is Back" plays at the Sahara...and, of course, Classic Vegas swings on the Internet.