Shutter one Strip production, nobody raises an eyelash. It’s the nature of Las Vegas, after all, where all that’s left of historic hotels is a neon sign. Life is fleeting here. We accept that.
But even by our standards, this is getting ridiculous. In less than two months, our city has lost nearly 100 years of entertainment, either due to scheduled closings or box-office anemia. It’s the kind of collapse that would have a Wall Street trader striking the agony pose when the Dow drops 800 points in a day.
It’s tempting to envision empty showrooms up and down the Strip, but Ira David Sternberg, vice president of communications for the Las Vegas Hilton, who has watched the evolution of entertainment here over the last 30 years, says that’s nonsense.
Yes, the number of show closures in such a short period is high, but Sternberg reminds that Las Vegas has never offered this many entertainment options. Meaning? There’s more competition for our dwindling dollar—and more to take a hit when times get tough. Though we might see fewer Folies Bergere- or La Cage-type productions, Sternberg theorizes that the industry will adapt to find shows that make sense economically—one-man shows, for example—to ensure that showrooms don’t stay dark long-term. “Does this mean the end of entertainment? No, but it does signal a change to entertainment,” Sternberg says. “In an economic sense, it’s a market adjustment.”
So who’s safe? The four-wallers, who pay for their space, their advertising and staff salaries? The solo performers, who need only their own voice/jokes/magic to pack rooms? The birds in gilded cages, multimillion-dollar shows for whom theaters were specifically built?
Sadly, the answer could be no one. The Valley’s December hotel occupancy rate plummeted 11 percent from 2007 to ’08. Last year’s rate of gaming revenue decline was the highest ever. Reports of nearly empty theaters have become commonplace, and discounted tickets can now be had for just about any show in town.
Few of the for-now survivors are talking. Blue Man Group’s Chicago company recently cut both its staff and show schedule, but a call to see if the local troupe might be affected yielded this terse answer: “It is Blue Man Vegas’ policy not to comment on human resource-related issues.”
Few have better perspective than Frank Marino, star of the long-running—and recently axed—An Evening at La Cage. “I’ve seen thousands of shows come and go during my time here,” he says, “and the best advice I could give these show producers is that they should get opinions from other people.”
Marino suggests, for example, that the Broadway-in-Vegas movement is doomed to failure. “I don’t know how many shows [Avenue Q, Spamalot, The Producers] have to close before they get the message,” Marino says. “My premonition is that The Lion King [scheduled to replace the very successful Mamma Mia! at Mandalay Bay] is not going to do well.”
Marino says warning signs that more productions might die off have been in place for some time. “When you go to half-price ticket booths and you see Cirque shows in there, you know everybody’s hurting,” he says.
Marino’s prediction? “The Cirque shows are the safest, because they’ve got millions behind them to weather the storm. Everybody else is in danger.”