Ahhhhhh, the good old days.
This town isn't what it used to be. You should have seen it back in. . . .
That's what many old timers were saying while waiting in line at Bally's to get into the showroom to see Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis' opening over the weekend. The pairing of the two stars marks Las Vegas' most ambitious attempt in years to re-establish the big-name entertainment policy that contributed to the city's glamorous image before a variety of factors changed the nature of the shows here.
Now only four hotels offer star entertainment in their showrooms regularly: Caesars Palace, the Las Vegas Hilton, Bally's (formerly the MGM Grand) and the Golden Nugget (which is trying to lure customers to the less glitzy downtown area). Hotels like the Desert Inn, the Sahara, the Riviera and the Flamingo--with the occasional exception--aren't in the star-showcasing business anymore.
"I remember in the '60s and '70s when you could come to this town and have your pick of seven, eight, nine good headliners at the hotels," said Tom Jacobs, 62, of St. Louis, as he waited for the showroom doors to open. "The prices weren't that bad, either. You could get a dinner--not a great dinner--with the show too. Now you pay $30, $35 a show and you get two watered-down drinks with it."
Bob Jacobs, 52, of New York City, complained about the quality of the entertainment. "A lot of these people in the showrooms now ain't stars," he noted with disdain. "These are second-raters calling themselves stars. There's a lot of these younger people that I don't want to see. There's nobody around like Liberace anymore. Now there was a star."
Louise Raymond of Chicago added, "There's no choice here anymore. You might have one or two decent stars here at any time. Now I really don't want to see this show. I don't even like Jerry Lewis. But if you come to this town, you see shows. It's the thing to do. I don't want to see those other shows. I'm not into naked women."
She was referring to the production shows that have taken over the stages of Las Vegas. These relatively inexpensive extravaganzas have become the staple of the '80s here. They cost much less than stars and present fewer problems for hotels.
"Dealing with stars and their egos can be a hassle," noted John Fitzgerald, president of the Las Vegas Hilton. "With production shows you avoid that and save some money too."
What happened to showcasing stars in Vegas showrooms?
"Three problems," explained Tom Pilkington, the entertainment director of Caesars Palace. "The town lost a little business to Atlantic City (which opened its casinos in 1979).
"Then the recession of the early '80s caused some cutbacks because people weren't coming here like they used to. Business was down. The showroom count was down. It didn't make sense paying those big star salaries if the public wasn't coming.
"And the stars didn't help. Their prices had gone sky high. Nobody could afford them. Some of them priced themselves right out of the market."
During the hard times in the early '80s, only Bally's and Caesars maintained a fairly regular star policy in their showrooms, though Caesars did turn to a production show, "42nd Street," for a few months in 1982 during the peak of the recession.
But now things might be swinging back. The Hilton resumed the star policy last June, after four years of production shows. And now comes the Sammy and Jerry splash. Why the turnaround?
"Stars are part of the image of this town," said the Hilton's Fitzgerald. "There's a glamour and excitement that's missing when you don't have star entertainment. People like to be where the action is. There's an electricity in the hotel when there's a big star appearing. You can't put your finger on it, but it's there. We missed that for years when we didn't have the star policy."
There's another sound reason to maintain a star policy in the showroom. "Stars attract the high rollers," said Caesars' Pilkington, referring to gamblers who play for high stakes.
"The image is part of what attracts the high rollers, and stars are important to the image. At Caesars, we go after the high rollers more than any other hotel. So we really can't afford to be without stars."
But even hotels that have stars can't afford them.
"Stars don't pay for themselves," said Stephen Allen, publicity director of Bally's. "The showrooms operate at a loss when you pay those big salaries. But stars are important to the image, so you pay the price. You have to have that image."
The Sammy Davis-Jerry Lewis show, which runs through April 1, turned out to be an entertaining two hours. Besides marking their debuts at Bally's, this is the first time they have appeared in a show together. It was truly a co-headliner show--they worked separately in addition to doing several bits together.
In his segment, Davis sang standards like "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Satin Doll" and "Birth of the Blues." Backed by a terrific orchestra armed with superb charts, he performed very well.
Lewis, whose lowbrow, buffoonish comedy can be embarrassingly bad, was in good form too. Many of his jokes were very silly, but were delivered in such a high-spirited, self-deprecating way that they were funny instead of irritating. Some of his routines--like the bumbling opera singer and the clumsy composer--were ancient but still effective.
When Lewis and Davis were together they did a lot of racial and ethnic jokes (both are Jewish) and amusingly got on each other's nerves. Davis was much less gushing than usual and considerably more mellow--possibly because, by his own admission, he's been off alcohol for three years.
By Vegas standards, this was an enjoyable show. It even put you in the mood to head out for another show. But there isn't a big selection of quality midnight shows in this town anymore--not like in the good old days.