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[The Strip Sense]

Star Blight

Despite Dion’s run, Vegas is still basically where passé stars come to roost

I was pushing my editor at a major newspaper hard last week to let me do a piece on Donny and Marie Osmond’s surprising resurgence as a resident act on the Las Vegas Strip. She wasn’t buying it.

“This is typical Vegas,” she IM’d back. “They’re passé.”

But wait! No! Donny’s been on stage lo these many years, and Marie’s big again thanks to Dancing With The Stars.

“Passé,” she repeated. “It’s what Vegas does.”

That rankled me. I’ve always taken it on as one of my missions as a journalist to promulgate a more accurate picture of what Vegas is and does out there into a world transfixed by clichés and shorthand.

To some extent, Vegas has won the battle on several fronts, becoming well-known and respected for its impressive food scene, its beautiful hotel accommodations, its top-shelf shopping. You don’t hear much anymore about the $2.99 steak dinners, squalid rooms designed to propel guests back onto the casino floor or seedy T-shirt stands.

So here I was, taking up the battle. Vegas has changed, I insisted.

“Look at Bette, Cher, Manilow, Elton John!” I shouted back in all-caps.

But she then pointed out the obvious, the truth I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge but which has been there in front of me all along. “Passé, passé, passé, passé,” she wrote.

And all I could think of as those words appeared was: OMG! She’s right!

Ladies and gentlemen, at some point when we weren’t looking, the Céline Revolution was canceled. In fact, I think many of us forgot what the Céline Revolution was supposed to be.

When the French-Canadian chanteuse announced in 2002 that she would be settling down for a long-term gig at a custom-built showroom just for her in Las Vegas, it represented a major—many said historic—sea change. It wasn’t just that Céline Dion was a major star playing the Strip for an extended period of time, but also that she was a major young star at the height of her powers and career.

What was supposed to follow was other major music stars in their prime eschewing the touring circuit for massive showrooms, eye-popping special effects, enormous paychecks and stability. I was so cocky about these prospects that in mid-2005 in Newsweek I mocked Hootie & The Blowfish’s appearances at the Silverton and Billy Ray Cyrus’ shows at Boulder Station with this line: “Used to be, old acts went to die on the Vegas Strip. Now, in the Céline era, there’s not even room there.”

So eager were we entertainment writers who love Las Vegas to declare that it had moved on from that era that we overlooked a few important things: Céline was the only big star to do this. We conflated the long-term gigs of Elton John, Bette Midler, Cher and Barry Manilow with Céline’s choice. We deliberately overlooked the plain fact that all of these people, as monumental as their careers have been, are well past their own primes. We even pointed to Toni Braxton, many years past her small handful of hits, as a Céline successor of sorts. She, too, had nothing better to do.

Midler made a comment in December when she was settling in to get her Caesars Palace run going that I didn’t scrutinize enough at the time when I published it in this column.

“The [Céline] effect is absolutely huge, enormous,” she said. “She was a giant headliner, and she made a choice. It was a choice that a lot of other people wouldn’t have made at the time, and it opened a lot of people’s eyes to the possibility not just to the Colosseum but to all of Vegas.”

Really? Did it actually take Céline Dion’s experience to prove to Bette Midler or any of these other over-60 pop stars that the Strip was a viable option for them? Has a long-term Vegas deal not been a viable option for late-career major recording artists since the beginning of time? What did Céline teach Bette that Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley or Wayne Newton couldn’t have taught her?

No, the Céline example was supposed to deliver to us the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Coldplay, Justin Timberlake or Gwen Stefani, people of that caliber and level who are still cranking out major albums. Maybe Prince’s odd stint at the Rio was Céline-like, but more likely it ought to be argued that Prince, too, is on the declining side of his productive years.

There are rumors every so often, to be sure. But nothing ever comes to pass. Instead, we get Donny & Marie, a show that I have high expectations for but that certainly also represents the old model of the Strip as a place where acts rest on their laurels and exploit the nostalgia associated with them. That’s what’s behind the business concepts that would bring us, say, a Rod Stewart or a Michael Jackson extravaganza.

The Céline Revolution just never came to pass. She turned out to be a fluke, a wonderful and profitable confluence of conditions that led one of the world’s biggest recording stars to choose, for personal reasons, to keep her career going while tending to her family life in one of the few places on Earth where that could happen. Nobody else, evidently, was so motivated.

So it’s time for journalists like me to stop scolding the outside world for seeing the Vegas musical-headliner entertainment scene for what it is.

Say it loud, say it proud: We provide theaters and employment to older acts whose best days are behind them. For now, at least, that’s going to have to be good enough.

Head to ReadVegas.com to read Steve Friess’ daily blog, Vegas Happens Here, or catch his weekly celeb-interview podcast, The Strip. He can be reached 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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