The conventional wisdom is that Las Vegas is what destroyed Elvis Presley, launching him on a downward spiral of drugs, boredom, erratic stage behavior, and eventually his fatal overdose. But in Elvis in Vegas, Richard Zoglin takes an alternate view, arguing that Vegas is where the King of Rock and Roll resurrected his career, reinvented himself as a performer, and created the most exciting show in Vegas history.
Elvis’s 1969 opening night in Vegas was his first time back on a live stage in more than eight years. His career had gone sour—bad movies, and mediocre pop songs that no longer made the charts. He’d been dismissed by most critics as over the hill. But in Vegas he played the biggest showroom in the biggest hotel in the city, drawing more people for his four-week engagement than any other show in Vegas history. His performance got rave reviews, “Suspicious Minds” gave him his first number-one hit in seven years, and Elvis became Vegas’s biggest star. Over the next seven years, he performed more than 600 shows there, and sold out every one.
Las Vegas was changed too. The intimate night-club-style shows of the Rat Pack, who made Vegas the nation’s premier live-entertainment center in the 1950s and ‘60s, catered largely to well-heeled older gamblers. Elvis brought a new kind of experience: an over-the-top, rock-concert-like extravaganza. He set a new bar for Vegas performers, with the biggest salary, the biggest musical production, and the biggest promotion campaign the city had ever seen. In doing so, he opened the door to a new generation of pop/rock performers, and brought a new audience to Vegas—a mass audience from Middle America that Vegas depends on for its success to this day.
A classic comeback tale set against the backdrop of Las Vegas’s golden age, Richard Zoglin’s Elvis in Vegas is a feel-good story for the ages.
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Elvis in Vegas
In a town addicted to building things, blowing them up, and then building them all over again, the New Frontier Hotel in 1956 was a fine example of Las Vegas progress. It was originally built in 1942 and called the Last Frontier, the second resort to open on what would become known as the Las Vegas Strip. Like its predecessor, El Rancho Vegas, the Last Frontier was a luxury resort in old Western garb—“The Early West in Modern Splendor,” as its promotional slogan put it. Rifles and stuffed animal heads decorated the hotel lobby; wagon-wheel chandeliers hung on chains from the timber ceilings; cow horns were mounted above the beds in the guest rooms. There was even an ersatz Western village next door, filled with frontier artifacts and populated by life-size papier-mâché characters like Rabbit Sam and Sheriff Bill McGee.
But as ever more modern and luxurious hotels opened along the Strip, the Last Frontier decided it was time for an update, and in early 1955 the hotel closed down, gave itself a makeover, and reopened as the New Frontier. Gone were the stuffed animal heads and wagon-wheel chandeliers. Instead, visitors were greeted by a sleek new brick-and-glass façade, with a long canopy in front and a 126-foot-high steel-frame tower that bathed the hotel in colored lights at night. Inside, the old Western-themed showroom was transformed into the spiffy new thousand-seat Venus Room, with five tiered rows of booths and an expansive stage, “with sides running to such length that the whole thing looks like a gigantic cinemascope screen,” in the words of one awed reporter.
The hotel’s grand reopening in April 1955 was something of a disaster. Mario Lanza, the internationally renowned opera singer and movie star, was booked as the opening headliner, but he suffered a meltdown before the show—an attack of stage fright compounded by drinking—and never set foot onstage. After an hour’s delay, the hotel announced that Lanza had laryngitis, and Jimmy Durante appeared as a last-minute replacement. (Too last-minute for Las Vegas Sun columnist Ralph Pearl, who filed his review early to make his deadline and raved about Lanza’s phantom performance. “Seldom in the history of this town,” he wrote, “has a star done a greater show or received a greater standing ovation.”)
One year later the New Frontier played host to the Las Vegas debut of another, very different performer. He was nervous, too, but he did show up—though many in the audience were probably mystified as to what he was doing there. On April 23, 1956, Elvis Presley came to town.
The twenty-one-year-old rockabilly sensation from Memphis was in the midst of his phenomenal breakthrough year. Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi (in later years he began using the more common spelling of his middle name, Aaron), the son of a doting mother and a sporadically employed father who once served jail time for check fraud. The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was thirteen. In high school he was a greasy-haired, flashy-dressing misfit, who played the guitar and entertained in school talent shows. He began hanging out at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records studio, making a few country and gospel recordings. When one of them, a rocking version of Arthur Crudup’s old blues song “That’s All Right, Mama,” caught on with country-music stations in the South, Phillips signed him to a recording contract. Soon Elvis was touring with the Louisiana Hayride and creating a frenzy among teenage audiences across the South. He was mainly a regional phenomenon until December 1955, when RCA Records bought out his Sun contract and launched a major campaign to sell America on this white country boy who sounded black, drove teenage girls wild, and was pioneering a new kind of music—a revved-up mix of country and rhythm and blues that people were starting to call rock ’n’ roll.
He recorded his first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” in January. By April he had the No. 1 record in America; his gyrating TV appearances, on Tommy Dorsey’s variety show and The Milton Berle Show, were the talk of the country; and Paramount Pictures had signed him to a movie contract. Still to come was The Ed Sullivan Show (where he was shown, notoriously, only from the waist up), a string of chart-topping hits like “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “All Shook Up,” and a virtual revolution in popular music and American culture.
But first, Elvis played Vegas.
The idea was his manager Colonel Tom Parker’s, and not a very good one. Elvis’s frenetic rock ’n’ roll performances, which were causing such a sensation in the rest of the country, were hardly geared for a crowd of middle-aged Vegas showgoers. Yet there he was at the New Frontier, touted as “The Atomic-Powered Singer” (in a town where people could watch real atomic tests taking place in the Nevada desert nearby), the “extra added attraction” on a bill headed by Freddy Martin’s orchestra and comedian Shecky Greene. Elvis got paid $15,000 for the two-week gig, and the Colonel asked for it in cash. “No check is any good,” he said. “They’re testing an atom bomb out there in the desert. What if someone pushed the wrong button?”
The audience at the New Frontier must have thought someone had pushed the wrong button. Freddy Martin, whose “sweet music” orchestra was known for its pop versions of classics like Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat, opened the show with several of his instrumental hits and a medley of songs from the musical Oklahoma! Next came Shecky Greene, a Chicago-born comedian just gaining notoriety for his raucous Vegas lounge act; Variety called him “easily the talking point of this show.”
Elvis was the closing act. Backed by his three-piece rhythm group—guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D. J. Fontana—Elvis performed four songs and was onstage for just twelve minutes. The response was polite at best. One high roller sitting at ringside, according to a witness, got up midway through the show, cried, “What is all this yelling and noise?,” and fled to the casino. The critics weren’t much kinder. “Elvis Presley, coming in on a wing of advance hoopla, doesn’t hit the mark here,” wrote Bill Willard in Variety. “The loud braying of the tunes which rocketed him to the big time is wearing, and the applause comes back edged with a polite sound. For the teenagers, he’s a whiz; for the average Vegas spender, a fizz.” Newsweek said the young rock ’n’ roller was “like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party.” For Elvis and his backup group, accustomed to the pandemonium they were causing in concerts across the country, the response was sobering. “For the first time in months we could hear ourselves when we played out of tune,” said Bill Black. “They weren’t my kind of audience,” Elvis would say later. “It was strictly an adult audience. The first night especially I was absolutely scared stiff.”
Shecky Greene got friendly with Elvis during the run and could see that the kid was out of his element—unable to relate to the audience and lacking the stage experience to win them over. He didn’t even dress right. “He came out in a dirty baseball jacket, just shit,” Greene recalled. “I went to Parker and I said, you can’t let him come out on the stage like that.” The Colonel apparently took Greene’s advice; for the rest of the engagement, Elvis and his band wore neat sport jackets, slacks, and bow ties. But after the first night, they no longer closed the show. Shecky Greene did.
By happy chance, a recording of Elvis’s 1956 Vegas show exists—taped by an audience member on the last night of the two-week engagement. Freddy Martin makes a polite, if rather patronizing, introduction, noting that it’s Elvis’s last performance: “We hate to see him go; he’s a fine young lad and a fine talent.” Elvis opens his set with “Heartbreak Hotel”—slower and bluesier than the recorded version, with Elvis playfully changing the lyric to “Heartburn Motel” in the last verse. His patter with the audience is disarmingly modest; Elvis is acutely aware that he’s a fish out of water. “We’ve got a few little songs we’d like to do for you,” he says at the outset, “in our style of singing—if you want to call it singing.” He alludes to the difficulties he’s been having in the engagement: “It’s really been a pleasure being in Las Vegas. We had a pretty hard time—uh, a pretty good time. . . .” He makes a few awkward, country-boy jokes, asking the orchestra at one point if they know his next song, “Get out of the Stables, Grandma, You’re Too Old to Be Horsin’ Around.” After three more numbers—“Long Tall Sally,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Money Honey”—it’s over.
Elvis’s only chance to connect with his real audience came on a special Saturday matinee, scheduled by the hotel expressly for the teenagers who weren’t allowed into the casino for the evening shows. For a $1 admission (the proceeds donated to a local Little League baseball program), the kids got a free soft drink and a chance to shower Elvis with the kind of screaming adulation he was getting almost everywhere but in Las Vegas.
“The carnage was terrific,” reported Bob Johnson in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. “They pushed and shoved to get into the one-thousand-seat room and several hundred thwarted youngsters buzzed like angry hornets outside. After the show, bedlam! A laughing, shouting, idolatrous mob swarmed him; he fled to the insufficient sanctuary of his suite. The door wouldn’t hold them out. They got his shirt, shredded it. A triumphant girl seized a button, clutched it as though it were a diamond. A squadron of police had to be called in to clear the area.”
A few of the old-timers in Vegas tried to get hip to the new music phenom. “This cat, Presley, is neat, well gassed and has the heart,” wrote Ed Jameson in a tongue-in-cheek column for the Las Vegas Sun entitled “A Cat Talks Back.” “His vocal is real and he has yet to go for an open field. He is hep to the motion of sound with a retort that is tremendous. These squares who like to detract their imagined misvalues can only size a note creeping upstairs after dark. This cat can throw ’em downstairs or even out the window. He has it.”
Though it was a tough engagement for him, Elvis enjoyed Las Vegas. He didn’t gamble much, but he checked out other entertainers in town (among them Johnny Ray, the Four Aces, and Liberace), went to the movies, and rode the bumper cars at the Last Frontier Village next door. He kept company with Judy Spreckels, a sugarcane heiress from Los Angeles, and Vampira, the campy TV horror-show host who was appearing in Liberace’s show at the Riviera. An Elvis fan from Albuquerque, Nancy Kozikowski, was on a vacation in Las Vegas with her parents and ran into Elvis several times during her stay—in the hotel lobby, at the restaurant, and one afternoon when he was wandering alone at the Last Frontier Village. “He recognized me and was very nice,” she recalled. “We took pictures in the twenty-five-cent picture booth together and alone. We also made a very funny talking record together. . . . Elvis was very nice, very gentle, a perfect gentleman.”
Elvis’s first visit to Las Vegas had one unexpected by-product. Among the lounge acts Elvis went to see was Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, a sextet from Philadelphia that did a kind of slicked-up, finger-snapping, nightclub-friendly version of early rock ’n’ roll. (The group had a bit role in the movie Rock Around the Clock, which had just opened in theaters.) One of the highlights of their show was an up-tempo version of “Hound Dog,” a blues number that had been a hit in 1953 for Willie Mae (“Big Mama”) Thornton. Elvis was so taken with Bell’s performance that he began doing the song in his own act and recorded it later that summer. “Hound Dog” became Elvis’s fastest-selling record yet, and his signature hit.
His 1956 Las Vegas engagement is regarded by most Elvis chroniclers as a rare misstep in a year of meteoric success, otherwise orchestrated to perfection by Colonel Parker, the onetime carny promoter and manager of country star Eddy Arnold, who became Elvis’s manager and career guru early that year. The Colonel would later defend the booking, saying it gave Elvis a chance to reach a new audience and pointing out that the New Frontier couldn’t have been too disappointed, since the hotel asked him back for a return engagement. Shecky Greene—who thought Elvis was a “wonderful kid,” but turned down an offer from Colonel Parker to tour with Elvis as his opening act, finding the prospect faintly absurd—never quite understood what all the fuss was about. One day he ran into Bing Crosby, who was in Vegas during Elvis’s engagement. “What is the thing about this kid?” Shecky asked the elder statesman of American pop singing. “He’s a nice kid, but . . .”
“Shecky,” Bing replied, “he’ll be the biggest star in show business.”
“Man, I really like Vegas,” Elvis told a reporter when he got home to Memphis. “I’m going back there the first chance I get.” And he did. He returned to Las Vegas later that year, in November, just before flying to New York for the premiere of his first movie, Love Me Tender. He stayed again at the New Frontier and saw a few shows, including Liberace’s at the Riviera; the popular Vegas headliner introduced Elvis in the audience and later posed for some publicity photos with him. And for the next thirteen years—with an enforced break for his two-year hitch in the Army—Vegas became Elvis’s favorite getaway and playground. He would typically go there to unwind after his movie shoots were finished. He was there in the summer of 1963 filming Viva Las Vegas, probably the most famous of all Vegas movies. He got married there in 1967, to Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of a US Air Force officer whom he had met while stationed in Germany. And in July 1969, after nearly a decade away from the stage, he would make his long-awaited return to live performing in Las Vegas, at the newly opened International Hotel.
Elvis’s comeback show was a landmark event, both for Elvis and for Las Vegas. For Elvis it was a big gamble, a last-ditch attempt to revitalize a career that had fallen into disrepair—treading water in a sea of bad movies, records that no longer made the charts, and a decade of increasing irrelevance in the fast-changing world of rock ’n’ roll. For Las Vegas, it was a transformational moment: the biggest show (Elvis was backed by a six-piece rhythm band, two vocal groups, and a forty-plus-piece orchestra), in the biggest venue (the International’s two-thousand-seat showroom was double the size of any other room in Vegas), heralded by the biggest publicity campaign (Colonel Parker’s handiwork, naturally) that Vegas had ever seen.
And it was a monumental success. A record-breaking 101,000 people saw Elvis during the engagement—two shows a night, seven nights a week, for four solid weeks, every show sold out. The reviews, from the trade press to some of the nation’s top rock critics, were nearly all ecstatic. Rolling Stone pronounced Elvis “supernatural, his own resurrection.” The show not only revived Elvis’s career, but it changed the face of Las Vegas entertainment.
The years in between Elvis Presley’s two Las Vegas appearances—up-and-coming rock ’n’ roller in 1956, reborn superstar in 1969—spanned the golden age of Vegas entertainment. They were the heyday years of the classic Vegas show, an era of high-rolling glamour, all-night excitement, and a convergence of show-business talent—stars from Hollywood, television, Broadway, nightclubs, burlesque, Paris music halls—that fully justified the title this self-promoting city loved to bestow upon itself: the entertainment capital of the world.
Vegas entertainment was born in the 1940s, when the few hotels that had popped up along US Route 91, the highway leading south from downtown Las Vegas toward Los Angeles—soon to be known as the Strip—discovered that star entertainers were the key to attracting customers to their lucrative casinos. It came of age in the 1950s, as the hotels multiplied and the city became a gathering place for the biggest names in show business. By 1960 it was entering its glorious maturity. The city’s first great building boom was over, the Strip now lined with nearly a dozen resort hotels, all competing for top entertainment. Nonstop air travel from the East Coast, inaugurated in 1960, was making Las Vegas more accessible for visitors from across the country. (And Havana, once a rival destination for high-rolling gamblers, was now off-limits, following Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959.) Big-city nightclubs were on the wane, hurt by changing tastes in music and growing competition from television. Yet television was actually helping Vegas—providing a fresh pool of stars to fill the showrooms, home-screen favorites who were instantly recognizable to folks from the Midwest who never went to nightclubs.
The event that really ignited Vegas’ 1960s golden age, however, was the famous Rat Pack shows in January and February of 1960. Frank Sinatra, a top draw in Vegas since the early fifties, was booked to appear at the Sands Hotel during the filming of Ocean’s 11, a caper film about a band of former Army buddies who plot a Las Vegas casino heist on New Year’s Eve. At night, after the day’s shooting was over, he would be joined onstage by four of his costars—Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—for a freewheeling session of songs, jokes, drinking, and ad-libbed antics. Their four-week run at the Sands’ Copa Room was a sensation: the hottest ticket in Vegas history, a magnet for celebrities (among them the handsome Massachusetts senator running for president, John F. Kennedy), and a stroke of promotional genius. Over the next few years, separately and together, the Rat Pack ruled Las Vegas and came to embody the swinging, boozing, broad-chasing image of Vegas cool.
The bounty of top entertainers who could be found on the Las Vegas Strip on almost any given week in the 1960s would be hard to imagine today. A visitor on the last week of June in 1964, just to pick a typical example, could have seen George Burns headlining at the Riviera Hotel, joined by Hollywood glamour girl Jane Russell; movie song-and-dance man Donald O’Connor at the Sahara; television favorite Red Skelton at the Sands; jazz great Ella Fitzgerald at the Flamingo (with Jewish-dialect comedian Myron Cohen as her opening act); and legendary French entertainer Maurice Chevalier making a rare US appearance at the Desert Inn. And that was just in the main showrooms; among the acts filling the smaller, open-all-night lounges were jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, insult comic Don Rickles, Bob Hope’s longtime sidekick Jerry Colonna, and Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra featuring a new boy singer named Frank Sinatra Jr. All that plus three lavish, French-accented production shows—the Folies Bergere, Lido de Paris, and Casino de Paris—and a full-scale Broadway musical, High Button Shoes.
Nearly every major nightclub performer in America turned up on a Vegas stage at one time or another during the 1960s. Show-business legends like Marlene Dietrich and Ethel Merman. Broadway stars like Carol Channing and Anthony Newley. Virtually all the great pop singers of the era, from Judy Garland to Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole to Barbra Streisand. Most of the top comedians—not just Vegas regulars like Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, and Buddy Hackett, but the new wave of more cerebral satirists, like Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, and Woody Allen. Baseball stars like Maury Wills and Denny McLain would hang out in Vegas, and sometimes even entertain. Muhammad Ali defended his heavyweight boxing title against Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas in 1965. Evel Knievel staged one of his most famous daredevil stunts there, an attempted motorcycle leap over the Caesars Palace fountains on New Year’s Eve, 1967. Evel crashed, but Vegas soared.
Vegas’ population in 1960 was just fifty-nine thousand (plus an average twenty thousand visitors a day), and in many ways it was still a small town. The entertainers would hang out together and go to one another’s shows; if one star got sick and had to cancel a performance, another was usually there to fill in at the last minute. Sammy Davis Jr. would host all-night parties for the showgirls, dancers, and other performers in town, often capped off by a breakfast of Chinese food in the Garden Room at the Sands. Singer Buddy Greco was leaving a party late one night when he heard a local DJ’s voice on the radio: “Buddy Greco, if you’re hearing this, get home, your wife is looking for you.”
“The town was so much fun,” said Norm Johnson, a former newspaper reporter who came to Vegas in 1965 and did publicity for Robert Goulet and other Vegas entertainers. “It was friendly, looser. Everybody knew everybody. Nobody had an entourage. The stars hung out after the show. Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin would be dealing cards in the casino. Pearl Bailey would kick off her shoes onstage at the Flamingo. It was glorious.”
Flush with profits from the casinos, the Vegas hotels could pay their stars more than anywhere else in the country. And treat them like royalty: lavish suites or bungalows for their stay, spreads of food and drink in the dressing rooms, liberal credit at the casinos. “You told ’em what you wanted for dinner, it was waiting when you came off after the first show,” recalled Pete Barbutti, a trumpet-playing comedian who moved to Vegas in 1960 and entertained there for years. “There was always a setup in your dressing room with all your booze, hors d’oeuvres. Anybody you wanted to get comped got comped. Needed a car to drive, had a car. There was nothing like it in the world.”
Vegas in the sixties was an exciting last hurrah for the fading world of swanky, big-city nightclubs. The stars wore tuxedos onstage, and the audience dressed up too—the men in jackets and ties, the women in their fanciest outfits. Gorgeous, feathered showgirls adorned the stage in almost every show—and stayed around afterward to decorate the casinos and attract the big gamblers. The mob-connected tough guys who were often on hand added a frisson of danger. The town buzzed. “Vegas was kind of an adult Magic Kingdom,” wrote Paul Anka in his autobiography, My Way. “It was another world, a dream world, the Sh-Boom Sh-Boom Room where everything is mellow and cool, where life could be a dream sweetheart. The soft pink glow from the little lamp on your table, hot chicks, champagne on ice. Torch-song paradise. It’s my version of the American Dream.”
Yet Vegas entertainment never got much respect. Even in its 1960s heyday it was all too often patronized, made fun of, dismissed as schlocky, mass-audience kitsch—almost the definition of bad taste. Vegas in the 1960s was where every showroom singer seemed to have a syrupy rendition of “The Impossible Dream” or “What the World Needs Now Is Love (Sweet Love).” Where cuff-linked comedians told stale gambling jokes and complained about their nagging wives. Where Eddie Fisher would open his show from the back of the showroom, sashaying down the aisle singing “Let Me Entertain You.” Where Liberace, the all-time champ of Vegas glitz and schmaltz, would send middle-aged matrons into ecstasy by parading around in red-white-and-blue hot pants, or being lowered onto the stage by wire from the rafters, the Peter Pan of camp overkill.
Every hip magazine writer took a shot at the place. “It’s syrup city, soppy city, woozy, sentimental city,” wrote Ron Rosenbaum in Esquire. “People go there for nostalgia: to help them make it through the night, to cry a tear for the good times they’ve lost.” Hunter Thompson didn’t have much time for showgoing in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but he was predictably appalled when he saw Debbie Reynolds at the Desert Inn—“yukking across the stage in a silver Afro wig . . . to the tune of Sergeant Pepper, from the golden trumpet of Harry James.” (“Jesus, creeping shit!” cried his attorney-companion. “We’ve wandered into a time capsule!”) Among the burnt-out cases that John Gregory Dunne encounters in his semiautobiographical novel Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season is a desperate stand-up comic named Jackie Kasey (modeled on a real stand-up comic, Sammy Shore, who opened for Elvis), who has worked his way up from dives in Peoria to the showrooms in Vegas, only to realize that “his act was not working and there was still no one who knew his name.”
“Dante did not write in the age of malls,” wrote the journalist and Dean Martin biographer Nick Tosches, “but he would have recognized Las Vegas, in any age, for what it is: a religion, a disease, a nightmare, a paradise for the misbegotten. It is a place where fat old ladies in wheelchairs, like wretched, disfigured supplicants at Lourdes, roll and heave in ghastly faith toward cold, gleaming maws of slot machines. A place where Jerry Lewis maketh the heart merry with the guffaw of the abyss, where Barbra Streisand lendeth wings to the soul with the unctuous simulacrum of pay-as-you-go sincerity.”
And that doesn’t even count Wayne Newton, “Mr. Las Vegas,” a homegrown product who started out as a teenage singer in the downtown Fremont Hotel and grew up to become the longest-running headliner in Vegas history. His phenomenal success in Las Vegas was as much of a mystery to outsiders as it was an inspiration to the fans who flocked to his over-the-top shows, which often ran past two hours and featured everything from Wayne singing “God Bless America” accompanied by a patriotic slide show, to his soupy version of “MacArthur Park,” complete with a cake being drenched in a fake rainstorm. “The biggest no-talent dork to simultaneously be the biggest thing in contempo-squaresville make-believe,” wrote the rock critic Richard Meltzer—and who had the nerve to argue?
Yet there was something irresistible, even essential, about Vegas entertainment in its glory years. Listen to any of the “Live from Vegas” albums from the 1960s and you can hear some of the greatest pop singers of the century—Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin—at their very best, backed by sumptuous, swinging orchestras and energized by live, appreciative audiences. Watch any of the flamboyantly over-the-top musical numbers on the annual Grammy Awards telecast, and you can see Vegas glitz and bombast updated for the hip-hop era. Even when it’s used as a pejorative (“He’s so Vegas”), the Las Vegas esthetic has become ingrained in American culture, its influence seen in everything from Broadway megamusicals to Super Bowl halftime shows. No one with a love of all-out, all-American showmanship can hate it. No one who appreciates the craft of putting together an hour’s worth of music and patter for an audience of cocktail-sipping nightclub patrons can dismiss it. No one who wants to understand the enduring appeal of American popular entertainment can ignore it.
What was Vegas entertainment? First of all it was big: big voices, big productions, big emotions. Vegas shows were brash, upbeat, and high-energy—particularly in the freewheeling (and for many years free-of-charge) lounges, where constant action, ad-libbing, and audience participation were part of the package. Tumult was the word used to describe high-voltage acts like Louis Prima and Keely Smith—the raspy-voiced bandleader and his deadpan vocalist wife, who rocked the Sahara lounge in the late fifties, probably the most influential of all Vegas lounge acts.
The comedians were fast, loud, and in-your-face. The singers tugged at the heartstrings and cuddled up to the audience—but were careful not to put a damper on the heady, high-spirited atmosphere. Vic Damone, the Sinatra-influenced singer who performed in Las Vegas and nightclubs across the country throughout the 1950s and ’60s, discovered that he had to cut down on the love songs for the Vegas crowd. “You gotta do a lot of up things,” he said. “Nothing that’s maudlin or a downer. Because it’s a party. When people go to Vegas, they want to have a good time.”
Despite the slick presentation and packaged emotions, Vegas shows had an appealing intimacy and informality. In between numbers, the singers would talk to the audience—about the hotel, the gambling, the desert heat, all the experiences they were sharing in this exotic resort town. The stars would talk about one another too: introducing fellow performers in the audience, sometimes even bringing them up onstage. It’s no accident that impressions were a big part of so many Vegas acts (Sammy Davis Jr., Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Bobby Darin—even José Feliciano, for gosh sakes, did impressions). It was a way of making the audience feel clued in, with it, part of the showbiz crowd too.
Vegas entertainment was comforting and familiar—never edgy or disruptive. “There was no experimenting,” said Dennis Klein, a TV comedy writer (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; The Larry Sanders Show) who began his career writing jokes for Vegas comics such as Jack Carter and Pat Henry. “Vegas is about smoothing out the rough edges, doing only what you think the audience wants or expects.” Yet Vegas entertainment also had a transgressive side, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in the broader, mass-audience culture. Comedians like Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles used words and racial epithets you could never hear on television. Nudity made its first appearance on a mainstream Las Vegas stage in 1957, when the Dunes Hotel introduced a new edition of Minsky’s Follies featuring a chorus line of topless showgirls. The Lido de Paris, Folies Bergere, and other production shows followed, making bare-breasted showgirls a Las Vegas staple. It was “naughty” entertainment for sheltered Middle America, helping to loosen the puritanical standards of the Eisenhower-era fifties and opening the door to the more audacious taboo-breaking of the late sixties.
By that time, however, Vegas was struggling to keep pace. The arrival of the Beatles, the rise of the counterculture, the era of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, all combined to make Vegas in the late sixties look dated and square, your parents’ entertainment. Vegas singers might cover a Beatles song or two, but they stuck mainly to the pop standards from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. None of the major rock groups or solo stars of the era—the Rolling Stones or the Doors, Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin—wanted anything to do with Las Vegas. Hip young comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor took a stab at Vegas early in their careers, but either got drummed out of town or left in frustration. At the beginning of the 1960s, Sinatra and the Rat Pack were the coolest guys in show business. By the end of the decade they were looking stale and worn, like a cigarette-stained shag rug from last night’s party.
Vegas itself was changing as well. In 1967 Howard Hughes began buying up hotels on the Strip, replacing the old mob bosses and initiating a new, more cost-conscious corporate era. Caesars Palace opened in 1966, the first of the “themed” hotels that would ultimately remake the Strip and transform Las Vegas into a more family-friendly tourist destination. Even Sinatra, the town’s most celebrated star, was losing his luster—as his mob ties drew unflattering scrutiny, his longtime relationship with the Sands Hotel came to an abrupt end, and his cultural preeminence was threatened by a new generation of singers who wrote their own songs, styled themselves as anti-establishment rebels, and were idols of a younger audience who had no interest in Las Vegas.
So, in a town that got blindsided by the rock revolution, it was only fitting that Vegas would turn to the original rock ’n’ roller, Elvis Presley, as the agent of its reinvention. With his spectacular 1969 comeback show at the International Hotel, Elvis supplanted Sinatra as Vegas’ signature star and most bankable attraction. He would return to the hotel—later the Las Vegas Hilton—every six months for the next seven years, and each of his sellout engagements was a bonanza for the city, bringing in visitors from around the world and giving a boost to business all over town.
Las Vegas was also a witness to Elvis’s sad, oft-chronicled decline: the ballooning weight, the mounting drug use, the gradual deterioration of a star who grew increasingly bored and isolated in the Hilton’s thirtieth-floor penthouse suite—a prisoner of the town as well as its savior. His shows grew more bombastic, his performances more lazy and undisciplined. Even before his death in Memphis from a drug overdose in August 1977, Elvis had become a parody of himself. “For many,” wrote Dylan Jones in Elvis Has Left the Building, “Vegas Elvis was already Dead Elvis.”
Yet, in that 1969 comeback show and for at least a year or two after it, Elvis was at his peak as a stage performer: trim and still impossibly handsome, his voice richer and more expressive than ever, his onstage charisma undimmed by age and the years of absence. He was no longer the transgressive young rock ’n’ roller of the 1950s. But he reinvented himself, expanded his range, and deepened his artistry in a way that few other entertainers have.
Elvis’s comeback show at the International Hotel had a huge impact on Las Vegas. It raised the stakes, both in terms of money (his $125,000-a-week salary was a record at the time, soon to be surpassed) as well as production scale and promotional hype. He showed that Vegas audiences could be receptive to a broader range of music than the city was usually accustomed to—not just rock (at least in limited, nonthreatening doses), but also country, rhythm and blues, and even gospel. Most crucially, he created the model for a different kind of Vegas show: no longer an intimate nightclub encounter for an audience of a few hundred, but a big-star extravaganza, playing to thousands. He paved the way for the lavish shows of stars like Cher and Dolly Parton—and, much later, Céline Dion, Elton John, and a new generation of pop stars enlisted for Vegas “residencies.”
Elvis, moreover, attracted a new kind of audience to Las Vegas. His fans were not the high rollers and sophisticated nightclub patrons who came to see Sinatra or Dean Martin. They were middle-class folks on a budget, thirtyish housewives who had screamed for Elvis when they were teenagers, families from the heartland who made Elvis the centerpiece of their once-a-year vacation splurge. It was the same audience that would later flock to Vegas for the extravagantly staged magic shows of Siegfried and Roy, the acrobatic spectacles of Cirque du Soleil, and the theme-park hotels re-creating the canals of Venice, the pyramids of Egypt, and the streets of Paris. In a sense, Elvis sounded the starting gun for all the changes that would transform Vegas over the next couple of decades, from a gambling-and-nightclub town for adults into a vacation destination for the whole family.
Elvis, of course, never really left the building. Decades after his death, the city’s most famous star still looms over Las Vegas—in the Elvis impersonators and Elvis wedding chapels still sprinkled around the city, in the Elvis tribute shows and Elvis festivals that keep his memory and music alive. And why not? It was a fruitful relationship for both. Las Vegas saved Elvis, at least for a little while. And Elvis showed Vegas its future.