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Facing the Music : As Vegas Hotel Turns to Tape, Band Players March Picket Line

Times Labor Writer

All Eddie Arnold wanted to be from the day he left Valley High School was a musician, and he made it. He spent half a dozen years traveling with singer Lola Falana’s band and the last half-dozen playing bass in the Tropicana Hotel for the famed Folies Bergere musical show.

The last thing Arnold, 33, ever expected to be doing was walking the pavement around the Tropicana in 115-degree heat with a picket sign reading, “Honk If You Like Live Music.”

But that’s how he, the other 13 members of the Folies Bergere orchestra and dozens of sympathetic musicians have been spending their time during the last 35 days. In numbers, theirs is a small strike but it has touched a surprising number of nerves, sparking debate on everything from the cultural future of Las Vegas to the wisdom of technology.

That’s because Eddie Arnold and the rest of the Folies Bergere band have been replaced by a reel of recording tape.

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Hoping to fire a substantial part of the band, whose payroll amounts to about $600,000 a year, the Tropicana this spring demanded that Local 369 of the American Federation of Musicians give up traditional contract language that prohibits displacement of musicians by taped music. The union resisted and, ultimately, walked out.

The Tropicana--along with four other major Las Vegas Strip hotels, all of them represented by the same Washington labor lawyer--wants to eliminate work rules it sees as outdated and expensive. It is the kind of demand that management has been making of all kinds of unions with increased success during the 1980s.

The dispute has produced considerable community rumination on the relationship between art and money. “The Tropicana is comparing this to an assembly line in Detroit. Art is not like that,” complained Dr. Loren Little, an ophthalmologist and occasional jazz trumpeter who says he frequently discusses the strike with his patients. “With robotics the way it is, who can say we can’t replace the dancers in five years, too?”

Tropicana officials insist that they were merely trying to utilize new technology to improve the quality of sound for the 30-year-old show and had offered lucrative severance packages to all musicians who would be displaced.

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Even before problems at the Tropicana began, these were troubled times for musicians just about everywhere.

Las Vegas’ hotel corporations, a number of which borrowed heavily to finance the Strip’s construction boom, have closed showrooms in numerous hotels during the past decade. In Atlantic City, many hotels long ago replaced live music at “production shows” with tape. On Broadway, producers extracted a concession from the musicians union two years ago that permitted unlimited use of synthesizers, which can simulate a wide variety of instruments. And in recording studios throughout the nation, thousands of musicians have been replaced by advances like the computerized “digital interface,” which allows a synthesizer to mimic an entire orchestra.

Despite this handwriting on the wall, leaders of the Las Vegas musicians union said they never expected to strike over the tape issue when negotiation on new five-year contracts began. Although hotels had sought the right to use taped music in past years, their negotiators had always eventually dropped the demand. The union believed that Las Vegas’ self-proclaimed status as the entertainment capital of the world would present public relations problems for any hotel that junked its band.

They were wrong.

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Negotiations broke down June 2, the day after the old contract expired. The next day, convinced that officials of the Tropicana were the most intransigent, leaders of Local 369 ordered a strike. The band walked out and hotel officials--having yet to prepare a replacement tape--were forced to shut down the Folies. With its relatively modest nudity, the show is a favorite with Las Vegas tour groups and a crucial marketing tool for the Tropicana.

Audience Acceptance Is Key

It was not until June 25 that the hotel was able to restart the show with taped music, setting forth a protracted war of aesthetics in which audience acceptance will apparently dictate who wins.

“In the end it will be our audiences that will decide,” predicted Tropicana President John Chiero.

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“We don’t think the patron gets the right bang for the buck if he comes to see this French spectacular played to a record,” said Mark Tully Massagli, president of Local 369.

Las Vegas’ major newspaper, the Review-Journal, warned in an editorial that displacing house bands would mean an exodus of the kinds of musicians who fill the city’s symphony orchestra and small jazz bands, making Las Vegas “a different place, a more prosaic place, a poorer place.”

On Thursday, at the request of the union, five celebrities--Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Robert Goulet, Shecky Greene and Tony Orlando--held a press conference to plead for an end to the dispute. Each said he was worried about the implications of the hotel’s proposal and the possibility that taped music might spread to the celebrity rooms they play.

“Las Vegas has changed radically. . . . Corporations have now taken over,” Greene said. “They’ve got to have a warmth and understand that this town was built on entertainment, not on championship fights, not on a championship basketball team. . . . We can’t lower our standards at all. And that’s what (the hotels) want to do.”

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No negotiations have taken place for three weeks, when the hotels--the Tropicana, Caesar’s Palace, Bally’s, the Las Vegas Hilton and the Flamingo Hilton--made their last offer. It would guarantee jobs for only two to four musicians at each hotel. Though musicians are still playing at the other four hotels, their jobs are likely to be eliminated by the end of the month.

The union says bands at the other hotels may strike before the layoffs begin.

The Hilton Nevada Corp., the owner of the two Hiltons, fired a shot of its own recently. After the Las Vegas Symphony helped sponsor a newspaper ad backing the showroom musicians, Hilton withdrew financial support from the orchestra.

Two-Hour Shifts

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The dozen or so pickets, many of them shirtless, walk outside the Tropicana for two-hour shifts in the searing heat. They include several people for whom the strike is powerfully symbolic--a former air traffic controller who lost his job during the 1981 controllers’ strike, a Phoenix lounge musician who came into town last week to visit his ex-wife and was so outraged by the Tropicana’s proposal that he now pickets daily, and a pianist-student at the University of Las Vegas at Nevada.

“It’s a life and death struggle for us. . . . They’re (the hotels) intending to kill us,” union leader Massagli said.

On Wednesday night, however, the Tropicana’s showroom was 80% full--as full as it was before the strike--when the curtain lifted on the Folies Bergere. Some spontaneity had clearly been lost with the absence of live music. Some singers, for instance, lip-synced to prerecorded tunes. However, the coordination between performers and the taped music seemed precise.


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