The 25 greatest headliners in Las Vegas history
Thu, Dec 13, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: UNLV Special Collections
Shania. Santana. Cee Lo. Tim and Faith. They’re the latest names on the Vegas marquee, but they’re also part of a tradition as woven into the fabric of our city as blackjack and booze: the headlining residency.
For more than half a century, the venues of Las Vegas—lounges, showrooms, theaters and nightclubs—have played host to the biggest names in entertainment, world-famous stars who’ve halted their travels for extended runs on or near the Strip. But whose shows were the very best? Made the greatest impact? Helped to define Las Vegas the most? That’s what we at the Weekly set out to decide.
First, we needed criteria. Much as we love Cirque du Soleil and Jubilee!, we decided we were ranking headliners—specific names on a marquee—not shows, companies or casts. And to qualify, a performer had to have a significant Vegas run on his or her résumé; no popping in for weekends (sorry, Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld). After that it got rough.
For weeks we’ve moved names up and down and on and off our Top 25, trying to determine a set of rankings that felt … right. We specifically sought out trailblazers, game-changers and mavericks, while waging a series of mini wars between contenders (Milton Berle vs. Carrot Top? David Copperfield vs. Lance Burton? Penn & Teller vs. Siegfried & Roy?!). We shuffled and reshuffled, then scrapped everything and started fresh. Finally, we arrived here, at a list we believe does justice to our city’s entertainment history—past and present. So read, absorb and consider, and may the debates begin.
25. The Checkmates
In 1965 The Checkmates were a rarity: an interracial act headlining regularly on the Strip. Their Vegas career began at Pussycat A Go Go, a small casino near the old Desert Inn. Three members of the band were black, including core singers Marvin “Sweet Louie” Smith and Sonny Charles; the other two were white. They performed at Caesars, the Flamingo, International, Hilton and Sands. They toured with Frank Sinatra and Bill Cosby and recorded a Top 10 song, “Black Pearl,” in 1969. They sang the national anthem at the Thrilla in Manila, too. Months after Sweet Louie died in December 2007, Charles joined the Steve Miller Band. He’s still singing and dancing today, at age 72.
24. Carrot Top
Detractors will question how Carrot Top made our list when many famed comics did not. Because he is brilliant. Because no comic, save perhaps Gallagher, has ever blended the use of props so effectively with straight stand-up. Because he has sold out the Luxor’s 380-seat showroom consistently since 2004. Because he filled Hollywood Theatre at MGM Grand for 15 weeks a year from 1996 to 2003. Because he remains nationally relevant for his appearances on popular TV programs such as The Tonight Show and Craig Ferguson. But mostly, because no one does what Carrot Top does better than Carrot Top. If you aren’t laughing in the first 10 minutes of his show, you’re probably wearing a toe tag.
There were few artists in Vegas, or anywhere else, who matched Charo’s sex appeal and musical virtuosity. She longed to be taken seriously as a classical Flamenco guitarist, but her husband/manager, Xavier Cugat, wanted risqué costumes and her gyrating catchphrase “cuchi-cuchi.” Her physical beauty, low-plunging outfits and gift for comedy (boosted ostensibly by fractured English) were a hit in Vegas showrooms, and by the early 1970s she was headlining in the Sahara’s Congo Room. From there, she performed regularly on the Strip at such venues as Caesars Palace’s Circus Maximus, the Flamingo Showroom and the Tropicana’s Tiffany Theatre and made regular appearances on The Hollywood Squares and The Love Boat. Charo was one of the Strip’s hottest stars and one of its earliest crossover headliners.
22. Danny Gans
His arc was meteoric and historic. The first headliner at the Stratosphere when the tower opened in 1996, Gans was soon known as the city’s best value at just $30 a ticket. After a couple years, he took his songs and impressions—performed with uncanny accuracy—to the Rio, where he was the city’s first headliner to command a $100 ticket (O was the first $100 production show). Following a solid run at the Mirage, Gans brought his Middle America-friendly show to Encore (Steve Wynn was a huge fan), where it replaced Monty Python’s Spamalot. Gans died young, just 52, in 2009, cutting short a remarkably well-received and successful run.
21. David Copperfield
He’s vanished the Statue of Liberty, walked through the Great Wall of China, flown over the Grand Canyon (minus the plane) and sold more tickets than any other individual entertainer in history. Elvis, Madonna, Michael Jackson—Copperfield’s got them all beat. But unlike Siegfried & Roy and Penn & Teller, Copperfield doesn’t belong to Vegas; he belongs to the world. That said, he’s been doing 15 shows a week at MGM for some time now. And the guy shows no sign of stopping. Much the opposite, actually: He’s putting more and more new magic into his show every night.
20. Redd Foxx
Born John Elroy Sanford, Foxx was not only one of the first comedians to incorporate race relations, graphic sexuality and taboo language into his stand-up, he was also one of the first black comics to play to predominantly white crowds on the Strip. Foxx felt such an affinity for Las Vegas that he filmed two specials on location and even moved to the city following the end of his 1970s hit NBC sitcom Sanford and Son. Having lived in Vegas for more than 40 years, Foxx was buried at Palm Valley View Memorial Park following his 1991 death. (His ghost is now rumored to haunt 5460 S. Eastern’s Redd Foxx Mansion.)
19. Lola Falana
The name alone is emblematic of vintage Vegas. During the 1970s and early ’80s, Falana was the glittery spokeswoman for Strip sizzle who appeared repeatedly on The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin and The Mike Douglas Show. She was remarkably beautiful, but Falana had talent, too. A disciple of Sammy Davis Jr., she was a soulful and sexy singer who, at her peak, regularly sold out the Copa Room at the Sands. In the late-’70s, she was offered a contract by the Aladdin to appear 20 weeks a year for $100,000 a week. That made her, at the time, the highest-paid female performer in Vegas history. She was the queen of Vegas, no question.
18. Phyllis Diller
Outlandish outfits, towering headpieces (or, in her case, wigs) and a backstory designed to suspend reality: Phyllis Diller was a showgirl in her own right. The Midwestern housewife who transformed herself into the world’s first female stand-up made her Vegas debut in November 1964 at the Flamingo and returned regularly with self-effacing one-liners, piercing cackle and prop cigarette holders in tow. In May 2002 the Suncoast Showroom hosted Diller’s final live performance, filmed for the 2004 documentary Goodnight, We Love You. She also appeared in Penn Jillette’s The Aristocrats and attended the 2005 CineVegas Film Festival’s Las Vegas premiere. Diller died this past August at age 95.
17. Tom Jones
He hasn’t performed at the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theatre since August 2010 and isn’t booked there at all next year. So maybe he’s done in Vegas, but what a ride it’s been. You could open a chain of second-hand lingerie stores with all the undergarments that have been tossed at Jones through the years. He dates to the days of Elvis in Vegas, a one-two machismo punch unmatched on the Strip since. Even as Jones approached age 70, he could still thrill a crowd. For decades, when you visited Vegas, catching a Tom Jones performance was of the highest priority.
16. Frank Marino
Marino has been a Strip headliner for more consecutive years—27—than any individual, carrying for far longer the drag-queen persona initially made famous by Kenny Kerr. And Marino, first with his Evening at La Cage role at the Riviera and later in Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas at Harrah’s, has perfected the cross-dressing/comedy/impressions production on the Strip. His show features males impersonating such female stars as Celine and Cher, and as emcee Marino never disappoints. A sample: “This dress is like a bad hotel—there’s no ballroom!” After all these years, Marino is still beautiful.
15. Don Rickles
The man nicknamed “Mr. Warmth” and “The Merchant of Venom” is also known as the godfather of insult comedy, ringleading raucous live shows featuring lightning-fast crowd work, biting put-downs and withering comebacks. Counting Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin among his supporters, Rickles began headlining Strip venues in 1959 and, at age 86, continues to make regular Vegas appearances, most recently at the Orleans in October. Among his many decades of notable talk-show appearances and acting roles, Rickles also portrayed the manager of the fictional Tangiers (based on real-life Golden Nugget and Stardust manager Murray Ehrenberg) in Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
14. Jerry Lewis
Instead of relying on rehearsed skits, comedy duo Martin and Lewis played off their natural chemistry for in-the-moment laughs. The pair rose from nightclubs and radio to television and film before Lewis achieved solo acclaim in big-screen comedies highlighting his exaggerated expressions, nasal voicework and slapstick physicality. Although a 1965 fall from an onstage piano at the Sands Hotel would lead to decades of subsequent health problems, as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Lewis hosted annual Labor Day telethons from 1952 through 2010, broadcasting live from the Sahara, Caesars Palace, South Point and even the Cashman Center.
13. Donny & Marie
America’s sweethearts are headlining at the hotel envisioned by Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and brother if it doesn’t work. Donny & Marie are hard-wired to entertain, having plied their craft since they were infants. The unexpected: Marie uncorks an operatic moment, while Donny comes across as a genuine badass during “Wild Horses.” They dance terrifically—he insistently reminds of his victory on Dancing With the Stars—and the montage near the end of the performance, showing them with legendary entertainers they have known over the years (from Sonny & Cher to Milton Berle), is staggering. These are real people putting on a really impressive show.
Nobody saw this one coming: arguably the greatest live performer of his generation, freewheeling inside the Rio for a few months in late 2006 and early 2007. He worked without a setlist, brought guests like Chaka Khan and Larry Graham to his stage and reminded us why he’s one of the baddest guitar players on this or any other planet. Dude even opened his own restaurant. And how cool was it seeing that giant symbol towering just west of the 15? In predictable Princely fashion, the show closed before we were ready, with most of us wishing we’d seen it two or 10 more times. But in our hearts we’ll always have Club 3121, one of the weirdest and most wonderful experiments ever to hit our town.
11. Penn & Teller
Too many Vegas acts are big, dumb and flashy. Penn & Teller, by comparison, are smart and opinionated. They wear gray three-piece suits. They look like high-powered accountants. Doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for Vegas entertainment success, but it is, because some of us prefer to be challenged, poked, prodded and amazed. Penn & Teller carry on the proud tradition of Houdini and Randi: They use their skills as magicians to masterfully expose psychics, mediums and other bullsh*tters. They’ve been doing it at the Rio for more than a decade—and in Vegas for two.
10. Garth Brooks
Steve Wynn loaned Brooks a stage and a theater, and gave him a private jet to shuttle back and forth from Brooks’ home in Oklahoma. And in return, Brooks delivered a spellbinding one-man show of musical storytelling—just a cowboy and a guitar. Brooks played songs, or snippets of songs, from the artists who inspired him, sampling George Jones, James Taylor, Ricky Skaggs and Bob Seger. Then he dove into his own career, making self-effacing jokes about his inability to tune a guitar, or sing nearly as well as Taylor. He closed in November after three years of sold-out nights at Encore Theater. A man and a guitar. He didn’t say, “Top that” when he left, but the message was clear.
9. Louis Prima
With Keely Smith at his side, Prima didn’t redefine lounge entertainment in Vegas. He defined it. His act at the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge beginning in the mid-1950s was dubbed “The Wildest Show in Las Vegas,” with Prima’s manic stage act and fierce horn playing tempered by Smith’s cool demeanor. Backed by saxman Sam Butera and The Witnesses, Prima was such a force in Vegas that he signed a recording contract with Capitol Records as a result. Prima and his band were known to wade into the crowd while playing their instruments, mindful of the parades in Prima’s hometown of New Orleans. The song “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” and the medley of “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” were fine-tuned at the Casbar, where Vegas’ lounge style was born.
8. Bobby Darin
Those in the audience as Darin performed at the Sahara or Flamingo knew they were watching one of the era’s greats. He had a range that could inspire such rising stars as Wayne Newton, to whom he bestowed the hit “Danke Schoen,” and Darin even dovetailed into a folk period in the late-1960s. The Vegas headliners who have covered his groovin’ classic, “Mack the Knife,” are too many to count. Any singer interested in achieving a cool sense of phrasing and rhythm should start with Darin, and those he influenced range from Michael Bublé to Brian Setzer. The man who said he wanted to be a legend by age 25 was just 37 when he died of heart failure, but he was a star for the ages.
7. Paul Oakenfold
Surprised to see Oakie in the top 10? Don’t be. When the DJ, producer and musical clairvoyant set his sights on Las Vegas in 2008, putting electronic dance music in the main room of a major club (on a Saturday, no less!) was unthinkable. But Oakenfold has a knack for staying ahead of the curve, and Planet Perfecto was a nightlife game-changer—a must-see spectacle of music and entertainment more like a space-age Cirque du Soleil show than a typical club night. The Palms party held strong for three years at Rain and paved the way for headlining DJs who now command six-figure paychecks for Vegas residencies. You might not see Oakenfold’s face on the club billboards lining the I-15 these days, but a closer look reveals that he’s behind every single one.
6. Wayne Newton
He’s the face of the Las Vegas’ entertainment history—the man who estimates he has performed more than 30,000 shows in the city and was long ago dubbed “Mr. Las Vegas” for very good reason. Originally part of the Newton Brothers act at the Fremont Hotel, Wayne broke out on his own and played every major hotel in the city—most of which have since been imploded. He was known to fill in for Sammy Davis Jr. at the Sands when Davis called in sick (which was often), and Newton was headlining the Frontier, thus regularly playing multiple showrooms in different hotels in a single evening. Unfailingly gracious in his stage and personal manner, Newton is still the stylish, magnanimous ambassador of the Strip.
5. Siegfried & Roy
Siegfried & Roy embody the American dream: They emigrated from Germany and wound up with their own headlining magic show, their own zoo and their own (short-lived) cartoon series. The pair met on a cruise ship in the late ’50s—Siegfried was a cabin steward and amateur magician; Roy was a waiter and animal lover. How much did Roy love animals? The guy snuck a cheetah onboard. Siegfried and Roy combined forces and began using animals in a magic act. Steve Wynn saw something special and snapped them up. The duo combined Liberace’s flair with Doug Henning’s aura of wonder. They were the perfect Vegas combination. Their act came to an abrupt end in October 2003, when a tiger mauled Roy onstage. But before that happened, 5,750 lucky Las Vegas audiences got to see what Wynn had seen decades ago: the magic of Siegfried & Roy, Masters of the Impossible.
4. Celine Dion
One of the great Strip showrooms, Circus Maximus at Caesars Palace was taken apart to make way for the Colosseum. The star recruited to fill that room was Celine Dion, and in two residencies since 2003, she has met every artistic and ticket-sales watermark on the Strip. She is the rare superstar who hit town to perform regularly not as part of a comeback effort, but at her artistic peak. With one of the finest voices ever to grace the stage, Dion has alternately incorporated Cirque-style acrobats and dancing, dazzling video work and a lavish orchestra. Her success has led to similar extended runs from such stars as Elton John, Bette Midler, Cher and, most recently, Shania Twain. But it was Celine, first, who proved that taking a shot in Vegas at a venue of that size and scope was worth the risk.
In terms of live performances, Elvis pitched a career perfect game at the International and Las Vegas Hilton: 837 consecutive sellouts from 1969, when he opened at the then-International (four years after starring in iconic film Viva Las Vegas), through 1976, after the hotel was renamed the Hilton. His shows were not so much concerts as happenings. More than 2,000 fans turned out for opening night in July 1969, and the line leading into the city’s largest showroom stretched to the hotel’s front lobby. During each show he was mobbed by fans near the front of the stage as he handed out scarves, and the scratches on his forearms were ever-present. Members of his inner circle kept buckets of ice water offstage to soothe those wounds. The Elvis-in-Vegas period is forever captured by the mass of impressionists—kindly referred to as Elvis Tribute Artists by Elvis Presley Enterprises—who have followed the King’s run. They come in all shapes and sizes, from those who portray Elvis in Legends in Concert at Harrah’s to those who perform wedding ceremonies at Elvis-themed chapels. You see Elvis at the store, walking through McCarran International Airport and even holding business signs on the side of the road. He’s turned into a caricature, in many ways, but no one rocked our world like Elvis himself.
2. The Rat Pack
Independently, the quintet of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford were famous figures across the country. But they hit on a vibe in the early-to-mid 1960s at the Sands’ Copa Room that’s still felt here today. This crew had it all: Sinatra, Martin and Davis were considered three of the greatest entertainers of their time, and many today rate Davis as the finest entertainer in history. They were all funny, with Bishop mapping out the Rat Pack’s crisp and hip stage banter. They were backed by the best band in the land, the Count Basie Orchestra, and rolled a portable bar to the stage. They smoked onstage, too, and made off-color jokes (Dino famously cracked, while holding Davis in his arms, “I want to thank the NAACP for this award”), but away from the showroom they led the effort to integrate the Strip. Members of the Rat Pack legendarily dropped in on solo appearances by fellow members. Their shows drew the wealthiest gamblers and most famous celebrities of the day, and their style—tailored tuxes and Sinatra’s iconic fedora—is still emulated today. As a group, they lasted only half a decade at the Copa Room, but the Rat Pack’s collective swagger lives on.
Before the Rat Pack and Elvis and Siegfried & Roy and Wayne and Cirque and Celine, there was Liberace. He stood alone as the preeminent Vegas headliner of his era, and in our view, of all eras.
At a time when classically trained pianists performed in tuxes and tails, he opted for handcrafted suits and capes dripping with jewels. Why play a black piano when you could outfit one with rhinestones and mirrors? Decades before the city was overtaken by Cirque, Liberace literally soared through performances—ascending over the stage and audiences while supported by thin cables hooked to his lavishly appointed costumes.
Every facet of stardom and entertainment mastery can be traced to, or through, Liberace. He connected personally by wading into the audience to show off his jawbreaker-size diamond rings, famously saying, “I hope you like ’em; you bought ’em!” He was a master showman, “Mr. Showmanship” a richly deserved nickname. He played the piano at the highest level, having trained under classical masters from age 16. He brought Vegas glitz to national TV with his own variety show and regular televised specials from the Las Vegas Hilton, where he was joined by such superstars of the day as Debbie Reynolds, Sandy Duncan and Phyllis Diller.
He understood staging and pacing as well as any performer—master of the grand entrance and stunning exit. During the years when young Elvis was faltering at the New Frontier, Liberace commanded a record-breaking $50,000 weekly salary at the Riviera, a pretty tidy sum even by today’s standards. Back then, it was astronomical. And so was Liberace.