A robust raking of the scene has turned up the following:
• A few years ago, just before one of the news conferences leading up to the Miss America Pageant at Planet Hollywood, a person seated in the media section asked Miss America President and CEO Art McMaster a question about pageant rules.
The question actually, and errantly, pertained to the rules of the Miss USA Pageant, not Miss America. McMaster cut the questioner off tersely, saying, “You are thinking of a different pageant.”
Miss America Organization officials are always working to keep their brand, contestants and Miss Americas distinctive from Miss USA, or any other competition or showcase that also promotes beautiful women. Miss America has always stressed that it is first a scholarship competition. The contestants must be able to prove they can answer a question with some measure of intelligence. They must show they can entertain an audience for about two minutes. It’s not just a modeling contest, they argue, and thus their contestants are more well-rounded than those who compete in Miss USA.
But Miss America arrived in Las Vegas seven years ago with a significant image dilemma. The brand was becoming tired, archaic, irrelevant. It had lost its network television deal. Viewers no longer massed around TVs to watch the broadcast with the same excitement of a generation ago. Understanding this, the pageant moved to Las Vegas in 2006 to remedy those problems, to become more contemporary, energetic, sexier. And it worked.
Since moving to Las Vegas, Miss America has regained much of her stature and is back on ABC, having incorporated elements of reality TV and using our city’s landmarks as appealing backdrops. It was expected the pageant would remain at Planet Hollywood indefinitely, but Miss America officials could not have been pleased when Miss USA also moved its show into PH Live last year. That decision only intensified the comparisons between two factions that can barely stand to share the same continent, let alone theater.
So Miss America, emboldened after a solid and recuperative run in Vegas, is going back to its original home in Atlantic City. This decision caught Las Vegas tourism officials unaware, but Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokeswoman Courtney Fitzgerald did issue a conciliatory statement: "Las Vegas is honored to have hosted the Miss America Pageant for the past seven years. We understand that moving the televised event to various cities showcases America's diverse destinations which represent our great country.”
In a follow-up e-mail Friday morning, when I asked how the LVCVA planned to fill the void left by Miss America’s departure, Fitzgerald expressed confidence that the city was equipped to meet that challenge.
“The beauty of Las Vegas is that there is always something new. Our resort partners do a tremendous job of keeping the entertainment options fresh and providing additional reasons for visitors to come to Las Vegas,” she said. “Just in the past year, we have seen the addition of 'Soul2Soul' with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Shania Twain, ‘Zarkana’, Boyz II Men and countless other reinvestments taking place.”
Righteous. And that doesn’t even list “Rock of Ages” at Palazzo, “Million Dollar Quartet” at Harrah’s, the upcoming Broadway Series at The Smith Center, the revamped Human Nature show at The Venetian, on a list that seems endless. Oh, “Pin Up,” at Stratosphere, too, and the new Michael Jackson/Cirque du Soleil show at Mandalay Bay. “Funhouse” by Steve Wynn is another possibility, if he decides to pony up the USDs to make that production a reality.
But McMaster, speaking for Miss America, seems only too happy to leave Vegas. In the news conference in Atlantic City on Thursday morning, he said, “It was always my dream that this would return here. Sadly, this organization went west for a while. That sadness is over. We are back to the city where the Miss America Pageant began, where the Miss America Pageant was raised, and where the Miss America Pageant belongs.”
Sadness? Really? In the years Miss America visited Vegas, contestants and officials gleefully traversed the city, enjoying attractions across the Strip, Cirque productions, Fashion Show mall and such headline performances as Terry Fator’s show at The Mirage. I didn’t detect a lot of sadness then, only smiles. Miss America got what it needed out of Las Vegas, no question.
Word is that the new commitment to Atlantic City, and to ABC, is three years. A lot can happen in three years, and if Miss America needs another makeover, I expect we’ll be up for it. We’re not going anywhere.
• The contract extension signed by Penn & Teller and Caesars Entertainment officials to keep the duo performing at The Rio through 2019 has prompted some debate about what is and is not a headliner in Vegas. As Caesars Entertainment exec Gary Selesner, who is the head of The Rio, announced the contract extension last weekend from the stage in the duo’s theater, he noted that the new commitment made the duo the longest-running headliners at the same property in Vegas history. It would be 18 years, form 2001 to 2019.
But that claim discounts Frank Marino’s unbroken, 24-year run as the star of “An Evening at La Cage” at the Riviera. Counting his role in “Divas Las Vegas,” Marino has actually been a Strip performer for 28 years.
These guys are all good friends, so this is not an attempt to poke at any embers here. But after hearing from both camps, I think it’s clear that the distinction is Penn & Teller consider themselves independent performers — they are the sole headliners in their own production and are not part of any cast. Marino can be defined any number of ways (“icon” among them), but he has been a member — the lead member, naturally — of an ensemble production. Both sides can make that longevity claim, but to give each side equal credit takes some deft handiwork. Sort of like when Teller cuts away at the silhouetted flower.
• The Amazing Johnathan is no longer performing his comedy/magic show in Vegas, but worth noting is his new podcast online at Vegas Video Network. “Burn Unit TV” airs live at 9 p.m. Wednesdays. It’s unscripted, uncensored … and unfettered, I expect. Need to check it out. The show’s description refers to Johnathan as “the longest-running comic magician in Las Vegas history,” a claim that, as we are reminded, can be a little risky.
Johnathan also has been hitting the scene with Gallagher lately, or at least hitting “Absinthe” at Caesars Palace, where the two comic visionaries were spotted Sunday night. Johnathan says Gallagher, who also is semi-retired from stage performing, has a great idea for a slot machine. No details, but maybe one day we will see that slot on the casino floor at Las Vegas Club.
• In a development sure to make those volunteering for “One Night for One Drop” reach for the nearest glass of water, Cirque du Soleil does plan to stage annual charity shows in Las Vegas beginning with the March 22 show at Bellagio’s O Theater. The idea is to rotate these shows benefiting the One Drop water conservation foundation at all of Cirque’s theaters on The Strip. This is an ambitious, and massive, undertaking requiring several hundred volunteer hours. Shuffling the Cirque employees who are donating their time would be a good idea. Try not to use anyone in consecutive years, if possible, as many Cirque staffers are sacrificing their vacation hours to put on “One Drop.” The last thing the company wants from a water charity show is … burnout.
• Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Saturday show, “Mardi Gras in Las Vegas,” featuring guest conductor Steven Javri and featured artist Byron Stripling, is a chance for the orchestra to perform as a giant swing band. Maybe we’ll see a re-enactment of the traditional Mardi Gras bead toss? The donors up for that?
Regardless, the show is one of the more lively on the Phil’s schedule. Stripling, artistic director of the Columbus (Ohio) Jazz Orchestra, is a terrific trumpet player and great showman, too. Sitting in on the Hammond B3 organ is Bobby Floyd. The last Hammond B3 came off the assembly line in 1974, and ask any keyboard player in town: Rare is the individual who can make the old Hammond swing. It’s a dying art.
• Marc Savard, the swift-selling hypnotist at V Theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, chose an apt event — Valentine’s Day — to announce that his wife, Joanna, and he are expecting their fourth child. The due date is Aug. 20 (as we say, the don’t date does not apply to these lovebirds). Joanna is going to deliver the baby while under hypnosis. It is a totally drug-free process, with Marc performing the technique. The couple’s other three children were delivered with Joanna hypnotized to help block the pain. “It’s a very intense process,” Marc says. “All the people who work at the hospital know Joanna as the woman who delivers babies while hypnotized.”