A New Era of Vegas Acts: Stars Who Aren't Just Has-Beens

With Celine leaving Vegas $100 million richer, a new crop of performers step up.

April 15, 2008 -- Since 2005, Barry Manilow has set up camp for extended runs at the Las Vegas Hilton, where he has drawn crowds for months on end. How does he do it? "Taxi drivers' word of mouth," Manilow quips. Actually, he's not kidding. Before launching his Manilow: Music and Passion show, the crooner put on a free performance for hotel employees and … cabbies. No fool he.

But that little bit of old-school marketing aside, performers increasingly are seeing that playing for long stretches on the fabled Strip could be one of the safest bets in town.

Though the enduring image of the King of Vegas is Elvis — who reigned at the Hilton from 1969-76 — the new queen is Celine, whose recently completed five-year romp netted the diva a reported $100 million.

What's more, Celine Dion's A New Day stint permanently buried the notion that gigging in Vegas was only for has-beens looking to squeeze a few more ducats out of a fading career. Now, playing the Strip means dispatching with the rigors of touring and having your fans come to you.

Signing up for that gig are Bette Midler — whose over-the-top The Showgirl Must Go On is playing at the 4,100-seat house that Celine built, the Colosseum at Caesars Palace — and Cher, who will sub in for Midler starting May 6, as Elton John did for Dion. Midler's opening run sold out, and tickets for shows in June and July are selling briskly, the show's promoter says. Demand has been high for Cher tickets, too; a fresh block for shows in September and October go on sale Sunday.

Touring industry experts say they expect to see more legends playing Vegas' musical stages in the years to come.

"What this arrangement does is print money," says Ray Waddell, who covers the touring business for Billboard. "The stigma that only old acts do Vegas is dead, thanks to Celine. The casinos realize that they're now looking for the next generation of gambler, so I'd expect them to branch out more in terms of the kinds of acts they book."

But there's a difference between who can sell out a few shows and the kind of performer who can —à la Celine — fill thousands of seats at $100-$250 a head, year after year. Waddell says the latter group is as select as they come.

"When you look at the incredible array of entertainment options available on any given night in Las Vegas, you see that it takes a star with not only a huge number of hits, but also a real sense of performance," Waddell says. "I don't see a band like Metallica pulling something like that off."

Entertainers who do fill that bill include Prince and Jon Bon Jovi, both of whom recently managed to lure fans for their extended runs in London and New Jersey respectively, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the touring industry magazine Pollstar. "The appeal of sitting in one place, using incredible sets that could only be built so long as they didn't have to be broken down nightly, and having your fans come to you is huge," he says.

His current pick for the ultimate Vegas long-haul show? "That's easy: Led Zeppelin," whose December reunion show in London drew millions of requests for tickets from around the world. "There's no question you'd get people planning a trip to Las Vegas to see them for some time to come," he says.

In fact, though only 10% of Vegas tourists come from overseas, "that segment is growing faster than any other," says Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace, whose successful gamble with Dion ($95 million was spent on constructing the Colosseum) has left him "struggling with the question of what other performers can follow in those footsteps."

Selesner says artists with a shot at that crown must have impressive album sales, appeal to a global fan base and be popular among a wide demographic.

"But maybe most of all, they have to have a proven commitment to producing true spectacles," he says. "You can't just stand up and sing. Because, really, you're competing with the (Mirage) volcano, the Forum Shops and anything else Vegas offers as a distraction."

Helping Caesars come up with names such as Midler and Cher are the folks at AEG Live, who also have been hired by Boyd Gaming to run 4,000- and 1,500-seat venues at Echelon, a five-hotel complex now in construction on the Strip.

"Celine did a lot for the image of the long Vegas run, but I actually credit the various Cirque du Soleil shows for helping make Vegas really hip," says John Meglen, president of AEG Live/Concerts West. Though he agrees that the stigma of Vegas as a repository for cornball lounge shows is gone, Meglen says many stars need reminding of that fact.

"It really depends on how recently they've been to Vegas, but we do find that we have to tell some (artists) that the buffets have been replaced by the world's top restaurants, and the trinkets have been substituted by high-end stores," Meglen says. "Vegas tried to be a family destination, and that didn't work. Neither did bringing Broadway here. So what we have now is a place that is all about shows that are bigger than life."

His personal wish list for long stage residencies include acts such as the Rolling Stones, Madonna, U2 and David Bowie, who still have a variety of tour options open to them.

If he has a message for any of those legends, it isn't so much a plea to their creative souls as it is a siren call to their wallets: "Just remember, Las Vegas is a place where people save their money to then come and blow their money."

And when it comes to what they want to lavish that hard-earned cash on, it's not the spectacle itself, but the personality at its circus-like center, says stage veteran Manilow.

"No matter how many light bulbs are on the stage, it always boils down to the talent of the star."

Contributing: Edna Gundersen