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Tropicana

[The Strip Sense]

Tropicana’s decision to headline Gladys Knight is a real head-scratcher

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Hey, we love Gladys Knight, but is she really going to bring the Tropicana into the 21st century?
Photo: Chuck Cook | AP

Until last week, the Tropicana’s new management had been firing on all cylinders. It’s impossible to overstate the miracle they have pulled off in just 18 months, turning a decrepit and tragically mismanaged joke of a Strip institution into a resurgent, widely re-embraced remnant of Old Vegas.

They cleaned it up, first of all. Then they pursued a South Beach branding effort that included the Nikki Beach pool redesign and the addition of some food and beverage options. Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club provided a splash of low-cost celeb appeal and the Las Vegas Mob Experience offers a neat, gee-whiz attraction to round it out.

But on March 18, the resort announced the new face of its property, the person deemed its marquee entertainer. Keep in mind how important this position is and behold what Celine means for Caesars Palace or what Donny & Marie do for the Flamingo.

Who is the Trop putting forth as its Garth? Why, that au courant hipster, Gladys Knight.

Commence head-scratching.

The widespread puzzlement that broke out after this announcement was not an attack on Gladys. It’s true she didn’t have a particularly smooth tenure in her most recent Strip gig at the Flamingo, where she routinely canceled her shows at the last minute. But I’m quite fond of her and her hard-driving, old-school performing style, and if, at 66, she’s still in good voice, it’ll be a terrific show.

But the Trop didn’t simply say she’ll do some shows. They went all in, rechristening the Tiffany Theater, maybe the oldest showroom on the Strip, as the Gladys Knight Theater. The press release hedged by calling her upcoming run—and this seems like new Vegas parlance—a “multi-month engagement,” but who renames a classic venue temporarily?

No, this move is being positioned as the big exclamation point to all of the Trop’s otherwise excellent changes. “We are extremely excited to add Gladys Knight as part of our overall transformation,” Trop president Tom McCartney said in a statement.

Last May, Gloria Estefan told me she was on the brink of a deal to bring a biographical musical scored by her hits to the Trop, an idea that meshed perfectly with the whole South Beach effort. That deal, it seems, never happened, and so the best they could do is sign a yesteryear performer whose last real chart-topper came 20 years ago?

Sadly, the press release tries to provide Knight some modern cultural relevance by claiming she had a “hit” last December, some tune called “Settle.” As it happens, that song was on the For Colored Girls film soundtrack, which spent just one week on Billboard’s soundtracks chart at No. 8. It also spent two weeks on the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, peaking at No. 20. “Settle” did not chart as a single. Not exactly Bieberland, or even Manilowville.

Taken together, the whole thing amounts to a very odd business decision by a resort attempting to modernize its image. There’s nobody else around to advance the notion that this isn’t your great-grandfather’s Trop? Or were they just too cheap, after spending $100 million on physical upgrades, to get someone who could actually persuade tourists that something new and fresh was happening on that long-neglected corner?

McCartney and his gang have pulled the Trop back from the brink, for which they deserve plenty of plaudits. Many wouldn’t have wagered three years ago that it would outlast the Sahara, whose deep-pocketed new owner pledged serious reinvestment that he never delivered. Now the Sahara will close in May as the Trop ramps up for pool season.

Gladys Knight, however, sets the Trop’s effort back. She may consistently sell out—although I doubt it—but even if she does, they’ve just announced to the world that they’re in the business of very shop-worn nostalgia acts.

“We’re changing everything,” the Trop’s slogan bellows. Really? Can someone explain what exactly replacing Wayne Newton with Gladys Knight changes?

Follow Steve on Twitter @TheStripPodcast or head to VegasHappensHere.com for his blog and weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. E-mail him at SteveFriess@aol.com.
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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