LAS VEGAS, Dec. 17, 2011 -- In a suite at the Bellagio, Claire Kahn pulls out pages with hand-written lyrics to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, each line accompanied by her sketches of how the resort's famed dancing fountains could bring it to life.
Picture yourself in a boat by the river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies…
Then she powers up her Mac and shows an outline of the Bellagio's man-made lake plus step-by-step images of how the Beatles hit might play out on the fountains. Now she's choreographing to the music "like an animated storyboard," she explains.
For the first time in six years, The Fountains of Bellagio — the Strip's most famous free attraction — will add new songs to their repertoire. Lucy, Michael Jackson's Billie Jean and the '40s Glenn Miller hit In the Mood are due to debut starting next week. To the thousands who watch day and night from the Las Vegas Boulevard sidewalk or on Bellagio room TVs, the shows — typically every 15 minutes at night, 30 minutes in the afternoon and early evening — may seem like simple narrative pyrotechnics.
Water, lights and 'shooters'
In fact, choreographing a song on the fountains is "capturing the spirit (of the song) rather than being literal," says Kahn, 56. It may take a week just to get two minutes to her satisfaction, says the executive designer for the California-based WET firm. The Stanford University design major and two teammates have been creating Bellagio fountain extravaganzas since the resort's 1998 opening, and her spurting depiction of the poignant Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli hit Con Te Partirò (Time to Say Goodbye), is one of the more crowd-pleasing of the fountains' current 29-song repertoire.
Kahn, a brunette dressed in a sweatshirt and brown Lapland headband in preparation for testing Lucy on the fountains on a cold Friday evening, passionately explains her creative process. She has been designing songs for the Bellagio fountains since the hotel's first owner, Steve Wynn, decreed that the resort should have the biggest, best and most romantic display on the Strip. He nixed colored lights for the fountains in favor of more elegant white ones, Kahn says.
She started her current task by listening to Lucy over and over, followed by a few weeks of work on WET's proprietary computer program that simulates the fountains, "so we can essentially sketch the choreography offsite," she explains. She and her partners are turning the other two songs — chosen by Bellagio executives from a list submitted by WET — into jaw-dropping Vegas-worthy productions.
The set is an 8½-acre body of water, illuminated at night by about 5,000 lights. The players are 798 "minishooters," 208 swaying "oarsmen," 192 "super shooters" and 16 "extreme shooters" capable of gushing nearly 500 feet in the air. Each fountain can be programmed, and Kahn knows their various quirks. A fog system also helps designers create moods.
Backstage, so to speak, a team of 30 — headed by "front feature manager" Gene Bowling — includes engineers, lake maintenance staffers and divers to fish out coins and wedding rings. (Some joker even threw in a catfish.) Boats are poised to rescue the occasional drunk who decides to take a swim. Two vacuums on a barge suck up coins tossed in the lake for luck. They're dried in a cement mixer and donated to Habitat for Humanity. (The Bellagio doesn't disclose the amount, but sandbag-sized plastic sacks of quarters, dimes and nickels fished out nearly fill a locked cabinet in the resort's basement.)
Wind can wreak havoc
The "heart and soul" of the fountains, Bowling says, is the control room in a Bellagio tower topped by a cupola reached via a maze of catwalks. Stacks of what look like stereo equipment monitor every element of the show, from sound level to song groupings to wind speed. "In 13 years, we have never missed a show due to a technical issue," Bowling says proudly. Performances have been canceled because of inclement weather or high winds that play havoc with the airborne water.
Above the electronics is the show control room, reached by a scarily tall metal ladder. There, on a recent night, engineer David Drew is ensconced at a computer overlooking the lake and the glittering Eiffel Tower of the Paris resort. "It's the best seat in the house," he says as he allows a visitor to press the green button to start a show, tantamount to ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Next to that button is a red one used to stop the action in case of a jumper in the water or other safety issue. Drew wields binoculars to scan for problems.
Fountains have 'their own idea'
Outside, Kahn, nervously chewing gum, leans against the stone railing by Lake Bellagio in a roped-off area where the WET crew is spending one of many evenings testing new songs. "Whenever we arrive, it's never right," Kahn says. "The fountains have their own idea what to do."
A ring of fountains slowly rises from the still waters of the lake as the ethereal opening strains of Lucy begin. The ring opens, blossoms and closes. Lights circle the surging fountains as the song speaks of "a girl with kaleidoscope eyes."
"I like it," Kahn says, smiling as she watches this part of show. "It's so much better than it was yesterday." Then comes the rousing "Lucy in the Sky" chorus. On the lake — where songs play out on a grander scale than on the computer — her work at this point looks "boring … dumb … it's dumb," Kahn berates herself, waving her arms, even though the average viewer can't see flaws.
After more run-throughs, the team calls it a night at 9:30. Sometimes designers work till midnight in the race to have songs finished. "I'm going to get a good sleep and get back to it (on the computer) in the morning," Kahn says.
Colleague Peter Kopik will figure out how to capture Jackson's signature moonwalk in what's shaping up to be a mesmerizing version of Billie Jean. Kahn hopes to come up with a slam-bang finale, maybe involving fog and noise, and evoke Lucy's hallucinogenic trip. "When a song ends with a whimper, it's no good," she says. "And I will put in diamonds I don't know how yet — but I will."
Based on the polished crowd-pleasers the team has turned out in the past, that's a good bet.