Playing Out of Pocket
To pitch his product, George Wallace has glad-handed every concierge in Las Vegas and talked up hundreds of taxi and limo drivers. He’s gotten up at 4 a.m. to do drive-time radio on the East Coast.
He’s pored over spreadsheets, working to stretch the hundreds of thousands of dollars he spends on billboard, newspaper and radio ads.
Then, shortly after 10 p.m. five nights a week, Wallace steps onto a stage he rents at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino and presents cocktail-sipping audiences with what he’s been selling: the George Wallace show.
Wallace, 53, is a comedian, a friendly bear of a man who once wrote jokes for Redd Foxx. Now he draws laughs with a grumpy shtick of his own, a harangue on subjects ranging from a nephew in baggy pants -- “I wanted to kick his tail, but I didn’t know where it was” -- to indulgent ministers who preach “six commandments and four do-the-best-you-cans.”
But to perform his comedy, Wallace also has had to become an entrepreneur of sorts. He takes a multimillion-dollar risk by literally paying to play in Las Vegas.
In Vegas parlance, Wallace is a “four-waller,” the term used when an entertainer pays for his or her stage time. It’s an increasingly common arrangement that guarantees the hotel or casino rent and puts much of the marketing and production onus on the performer, unlike the more traditional contract in which the performer receives a set fee.
For the entertainer -- often an aging star or perhaps one who never made the showbiz A-list -- four-walling is a huge roll of the dice, with odds of success that make the craps tables look inviting.
Performers like Wallace, who is entering his third year at the Flamingo, can make four-walling pay if they sell enough tickets to make their rent and payroll, which for him is no small matter. Wallace oversees a staff of 14, including stagehands, light operators and even the maitre d’ who seats his customers.
While some four-wallers can turn a profit, they can also lose big -- running through a bankroll in a hurry. And in the brutal economics of Las Vegas show business, even if they pay the rent, entertainers risk being tossed out if they do not bring in enough people. Casinos not only expect customers to go to the show, but also to arrive early or stay afterward -- preferably both -- and gamble.
Perhaps the most notable collapse of these self-financed arrangements happened with onetime heartthrob Robert Goulet, the singer and actor, who pulled the plug on his 2001 four-wall deal at the Venetian after just a month, calling it “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Expenses for his show, “Robert Goulet: The Man and His Music,” were far outstripping ticket revenue, he said. Among these were the $15,000-a-night cost of the Venetian’s Showroom stage.
“It’s a losing game, and it’s a shame Las Vegas has gone that route,” said Goulet’s wife and manager, Vera Goulet, who added that she still bristles at the experience.
“A man like Robert Goulet shouldn’t have to pay to perform,” she said. “He should be paid to perform.”
Neither party to four-walling particularly likes to advertise the arrangement, and financial details are often kept secret by mutual agreement. Some casinos run as many as four shows a day through a given stage.
And although casino executives say they use pretty much the same yardstick for four-wall deals that they would for traditional contracts -- an ability to draw a crowd -- four-walling has obvious advantages.
“Absolutely it’s less of a risk overall,” said Ira Sternberg, a vice president for community relations at the Las Vegas Hilton and host of a weekly radio show. Other casino executives describe the arrangement as a “more dependable” or “more straightforward” revenue source.
But the odds are against the performer, said David Saxe, a producer here who is also an adjunct professor in the hotel and casino school at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Saxe estimated that only about 10% of those who four-wall make any money. “It’s a tough town,” added Saxe, who produces “V -- the Ultimate Variety Show” at the Aladdin’s Desert Passage.
“If Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ came back together from the dead, they wouldn’t make it four-walling a show unless they had some really strong marketing,” Saxe said. “There is just constant competition for people’s attention.”
“To be blunt, you’re gambling against the house,” said another producer who has lost money four-walling. He asked not to be named because he will probably try it again and doesn’t want to be identified as a critic. “It’s just a very difficult thing to do.”
Wallace, the comedian, said he plows as much as $2 million a year into marketing his show, which he promotes with a grin and the line: “Go eat, go pee, then come see me.”
The 6-foot-4 Atlanta native was best man at comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s 1999 wedding, and his younger brother, Steve, won three Super Bowl rings as an offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers. The comedian once worked as an advertising salesman in New York, selling billboard space and ads in and on public buses. With that kind of background, he doesn’t mind making his own financial decisions.
But, he added, his first love is cracking jokes. He said he has been that way since he was in his mother’s womb. When it came time to enter the world, he said, the doctor knocked three times on his mother’s belly and said: “ ‘Five minutes to showtime, Mr. Wallace.’ ”
Wallace moves around a lot onstage at the Flamingo showroom, and he mingles among audience members as well, sometimes stopping in the middle of a routine to answer someone’s ringing cellphone. “Hello! No! He’s busy now,” Wallace said during one recent performance as the phone’s owner and others in the crowd laughed along.
A typical Wallace refrain is “Don’t get me started ... " Then, of course, he immediately gets started, complaining about everything from Michael Jackson getting away with “wearing pajamas to court” to the price of Starbucks coffee.
“I’ve had it with Starbucks,” Wallace says. “They should just call it Four Bucks.”
Another object of his professed ire: “What’s that little white table in the middle of the pizza for? The roaches?”
Tickets to Wallace’s show sell for about $50 to $70, and on a good weekend night he can sell out the 720-seat theater. But he also plays to weeknight audiences barely a third that size.
He plays Tuesday through Saturday, following a big-name 7:30 show that last year featured Gladys Knight and currently stars Wayne Newton.
Down the street at the Stardust Hotel and Casino, magician Rick Thomas said he makes it as a four-waller by squeezing in two performances six days a week, at 2 and 4 in the afternoon.
But the economics are daunting for him as well. He not only has to pay five dancers, two stagehands, and a light and sound crew, but also must care for his seven Bengal tigers -- three white and four orange -- and an array of exotic birds that appear in his show, “The Magic of Rick Thomas.” The animals live in a 2-acre habitat next to his home in Las Vegas.
“It’s hard; it’s a lot of work,” Thomas said during a break one recent afternoon as he signed autographs in the lobby and his cast sold DVDs of the shows. “But all I’ve ever wanted to do is be a magician, and for a lot of places in Vegas, the way you get to the stage is to four-wall.”
Thomas and Wallace insist they actually like four-walling, describing it as an entrepreneurial venture in which they control strategic decisions such as marketing and sales.
In a more traditional arrangement, well-known stars are paid a set fee. The owner of the theater or concert stage is responsible for selling the tickets.
Four-wall deals exist in other entertainment-oriented cities, but Las Vegas is the hub. Versions of the arrangement have been around for decades at smaller clubs, but in recent years they’ve migrated to many big stages on the Strip.
Wallace, who appeared in “The Ladykillers” with Tom Hanks and in several other films (“Batman Forever,” “A Rage in Harlem,” “Postcards From the Edge”), is a bachelor who lives in a suite at the Flamingo and has an office there too.
“I like it; I’m hands-on,” Wallace said early one evening over coffee at the hotel, where several people approached him for handshakes and autographs. The fans said they recognized him from his movies and television appearances -- and from seeing his face on billboards around town.
“I like joking and I like marketing, so I have the best job in the world,” said Wallace, who started doing his own stand-up comedy in the 1970s and has played in clubs large and small around the country.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and maybe I might write down an idea for a joke, or maybe I write down an idea for the business plan,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what. I’m working. I’m working all the time.”