You’re about to be immersed in the phrase “Vegas is back!” It will probably include the exclamation point more often than not. This is a good thing—not the exclamation point, the other parts—that everyone should be excited about, even though Vegas won’t be all the way back for a little while longer.
On February 15, the rules changed for the first time since November. The maximum capacity permitted inside restaurants, bars, lounges, showrooms and other businesses and entertainment venues was bumped up to 35% or 100 people, whichever is fewer. More importantly, March 15 was set as the date for the next adjustment, returning those venues to 50% capacity or 250 people, giving them all a much greater chance of surviving what we all hope are the last months of this pandemic.
Since that change, almost all of the Las Vegas Strip production shows that had reopened in the fall and then closed again in November have announced plans to get back onstage in March. Among those comebacks are Absinthe at Caesars Palace on March 17, MJ Live at the Strat and Terry Fator at New York-New York on March 18, and David Copperfield at MGM Grand on March 21. And other shows at such smaller Strip venues as the V Theater at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood are expected to reopen next month for the first time in a year.
While all types of businesses have struggled through this thing, casinos have been open. Restaurants and bars have been open. Nightclubs and dayclubs have been open, though not operating in their usual way, and pro sports events have been happening, even if fans haven’t been able to buy tickets and fill arenas.
It’s important to recognize that when you see that “Vegas is back!” proclamation, the Vegas being talked about is live entertainment. Maybe it should be “Live Entertainment is back!”
The idea that there’s pent-up demand for the Vegas experience is based on the reemergence of the complete experience. After a year of COVID-19, we now know what Las Vegas looks like without concerts and shows. Live entertainment is the defining element, the spark of excitement that brings people here to enjoy everything else.
As bigger and better-known forms of live entertainment come back online, it’s important to acknowledge the other people and places that kept the electric spirit of Las Vegas alive during its darkest days.
There are artists who made great personal sacrifices and took risks to go back to work entertaining people, putting aside inner conflict to do so. They feel lucky and grateful. They feel badly for their many colleagues who cannot yet entertain again, and they worry, like the rest of us, about their families and their futures.
There are also small business operators bending and flexing and trying not to break while moving forward, meeting the challenges of ever-changing restrictions and mandates, and staying creative in order to keep those artists on the job and provide something fun for local and visiting audiences. Most of them are only making enough money to do it again the next day.
There are new venues, like Notoriety at Downtown’s Neonopolis complex on Fremont Street, which has fought its way forward and hosted a multitude of Vegas-style shows ranging from magic to music to comedy. There are local institutions, like the Italian American Club on East Sahara and the Sand Dollar Lounge on Spring Mountain, adjusting their programming and operations to provide a safe and friendly version of familiar entertainment that has been available for decades. There are casino venues like the Piazza Lounge at the Tuscany, holding it down when it seems like everything else is closed, sharing a few songs and warm hospitality when those simple things mean more than they did before.
“These venues are also small businesses that are struggling,” singer Jassen Allen says. “They’re trying to find their way, too, because it’s not Vegas without entertainment. Food, entertainment and gambling—if you take one of those elements away, it doesn’t feel the same.”
Allen is a rarity, an entertainer who has managed to stay busy during the pandemic. He landed a gig at Bellagio’s Mayfair Supper Club just as the Strip was shutting down last spring. The Iowa native and veteran of cruise ship entertainment returned when casinos reopened in the summer, resuming his musical duties for the Mondays Dark charity show. Then came gigs at the Tuscany, the new Vegas Room, the Italian restaurant Prosecco and more.
It’s been great, but it hasn’t been easy. “We don’t take performing in these times for granted. We know it’s a tricky and difficult decision to make on our end as well, and don’t think anyone out there is doing it to make a bunch of money, because that’s not happening,” Allen says. “These are our hearts and lives. When I perform, I perform in honor of all my friends and fellow singers who are waiting for it all to reopen.”
One of Allen’s musical homes is the Space (3460 Cavaretta Court, 702-903-1070, thespacelv.com), which was an empty warehouse and formerly a boxing gym owned by rapper 50 Cent until Mark Shunock, an actor who came to Las Vegas to perform in Rock of Ages at the Venetian in 2013, leased it to be the home of his monthly Mondays Dark variety show fundraising events.
Shunock didn’t originally plan to turn the little venue just off the Strip into a bustling black box theater and event rental spot when he took control in 2017. He also didn’t know the Space would become a hub for pandemic-era livestream shows when he began outfitting his main theater with cameras and other gear in late 2019; that project started so he could broadcast shows to his Canadian parents back home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Since last year’s shutdown, the Space has hosted two Mondays Dark shows every month; a livestream telethon rounding up dozens of Vegas entertainers to raise more than $120,000 for unemployed local performing arts workers; pay-per-view shows by Strip headliners like The Righteous Brothers, the Thunder From Down Under crew and The Bronx Wanderers; and more recently, limited live audience and livestream broadcast hybrids featuring popular performers from Vegas and Broadway.
“The willingness of the artists to want to work in a time when there was no work” has given the venue a boost, Shunock says. “Our effort has been on creating a safe environment when we only have six staff members, getting everyone tested, following CDC guidelines and just being able to get it out there, having the technology in place so these performers of all walks can earn a few bucks.”
A partnership with Broadway World expanded the Space’s livestream visibility, especially when stage favorites like John Lloyd Young, Adam Pascal and Syndee Winters (who performed with Grammy-winning bass player Ben Williams in January) broadcast their own performances live from Las Vegas. “That’s a big deal for us in the sense that it put the Space on the map in the eyes of the Broadway community,” Shunock says. “It immediately says to them that the Space is a home for us and we can do shows here, and as restrictions lighten up, I think that’s going to get better.”
This week brings shows from David Perrico’s Pop Strings Orchestra on February 26 and Grateful Dead tribute act Catfish John on February 27, and Strip comedian John Caparulo will kick off a monthly series on March 9.
Perhaps best known locally as a host for Vegas Golden Knights games, Shunock has seen his career in Las Vegas evolve from entertainer to producer and theater operator, but like many artists, he’s been working on personal creative pursuits during the pandemic. He’s also looking ahead and planning the next evolution of the Space, which might include new staff to take over music programming with an eye on independent regional touring acts.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is being able to keep our team employed during the worst possible time we’ve all experienced,” Shunock says. “We haven’t had 300 people in the building, but our crew still had the chance to pick up two or three shifts a week during COVID from April on, and that’s because of [livestream shows]. We’re a tiny business and a tight-knit family, so it was nice to do that. And we’re excited to go back to some normal sense of putting butts in seats and keeping our scene and our culture alive.”
It’s not easy to build a specific culture in Las Vegas or anywhere else. The Space had the foundation of Mondays Dark, a familiar name that has been entertaining local audiences for more than seven years and has raised more than a million dollars for local charity groups. A few miles away at Commercial Center on the other side of the Strip, another specific culture is being built at a venue born during the pandemic.
The Vegas Room (953 E. Sahara Ave., 702-206-7059, thevegasroom.com) was already on its way to becoming a throwback supper club and listening room before the virus complicated everything. Musician-turned-promoter Tom Michel, chef David Robinson and their team opened its catering operation in 2019 and quickly pivoted to combine great food with intimate entertainment based on early response and the place’s unique setting.
It officially opened with intimate dinner and Sunday brunch shows in June, serving audiences of around 40 people, and quickly became a go-to spot for top talent from Vegas shows and lounges, including Serena Henry, Michelle Johnson, Randal Keith, Amanda King, Ruby Lewis, Rita Lim, Skye Dee Miles and Janien Valentine.
“A listening room is a great way to describe it, because it’s almost as if the artist has invited you to their living room to sing for you,” says Allen, who performed at the Vegas Room twice before joining the team as entertainment director in December. “With something as intimate as this, people want to hear you sing and see you dance, but they also want to see your humanity. That’s where the Vegas Room shines.”
Allen’s plan for the venue is to continue curating local and regional acts—“incredible performers and maybe haven’t had the opportunity or the right venue or chance. And as Michel explains, those artists will find creative freedom awaiting them at the Vegas Room.
“We don’t tell performers what to do. We let them set their own show,” he says. “A lot of them tend to be semiautobiographical, so you end up not only with music but stories that intertwine. I think that goes back to the current COVID [conditions]—we’re all a lot more exposed to what people are dealing with right now, and people are looking for that kind of common humanity.”
Dinner at the Vegas room starts at 6:30 p.m., and the show begins at 8. “We don’t serve during the performance,” Michel says. You don’t hear talking and drinks and slot machines, “which is unusual.”
Next up are The Doo Wop Kings on February 25-27, then Nieve Malandra takes over for brunch on February 28. The future’s all about expansion. A shuttered 7,000-square-foot nightclub space at Commercial Center is set to become the Nevada Room and is under construction to create a piano bar-bistro for more retro-style dinner shows (expected to open in April) and a showroom for larger acts and productions (slated for the fall).
“Fast-forward to maybe December, when COVID is hopefully more in our rearview than not, and we have three choices,” Michel says. “Maybe you want to see our Christmas show in the Nevada Room, or just go and have dinner at the piano bar, or maybe another entertainer just put out an album and is doing something more intimate at the Vegas Room. You can take your pick.”
Between innovative venues like these and “ambient”—i.e., unticketed, background—entertainment at restaurants, bars and lounges across the Vegas Valley, live music has persevered throughout the pandemic. But traditional casino-style production shows have been performed during the COVID-19 era, too—you just have to know where to look.
It doesn’t have a casino or any superstar headliners, but the Alexis Park Resort (375 E. Harmon Ave., 702-796-3300, alexispark.com) suddenly became a serious hub for recognizable Vegas entertainment in 2020. Admit VIP Entertainment began producing shows like male revue Black Magic Live and the burlesque Comedy & Dolls there in 2018, but when the all-in-one entertainment company’s other venue partners struggled to reopen last summer, everything was funneled into this off-Strip hotel.
Admit VIP CEO Pete Housley says he partnered with Alexis Park to renovate its Pegasus Showroom with new ceilings, lights and sound, but the 150-seat venue doesn’t work for live shows under current restrictions—particularly the required 25-foot setback between stage and audience—so attention turned to ballroom spaces. Now, the makeshift Athena Showroom hosts the Motown Extreme tribute show (soon to be replaced by All Motown), the family-friendly Big Little Variety Show, male revue Rock Candy and sexy variety show BurlesQ, while the Apollo Showroom houses Amazing Magic With Tommy Wind, mentalist Alain Nu’s The Man Who Knows, Jokesters Comedy Club and the adult-oriented Late Night Magic. You can access them through the company’s own sales portal, Ticketkite.com.
“Both rooms are hybrid showrooms with cameras to do live broadcasts, so soon enough you’ll be able to come see Rock Candy and also watch it live on TV,” Housley says. “It just makes sense. I can have a million people watching on livecams, and I don’t have to worry about seating regulations or other COVID stuff.”
Meanwhile, the Pegasus space has been repurposed for virtual shows from various local producers and performers, expanding Admit VIP’s network.
Many of these performances have been consistently selling out. That might not sound impressive while audiences are capped at 50 or 100 people, but keep in mind many Vegas visitors aren’t aware any shows are open these days, simply because big casino productions have been closed.
“A big part of the battle is letting people know it exists,” Housley says. “The way we used to market is tremendously different from what we do now, but we also don’t have as much competition, plus the cost of advertising is not what it used to be.
“But there are still a lot of people coming to Vegas, so we’re still trying to come up with different productions—and trying to find something for everybody.”
Meanwhile, the upstart Mosaic on the Strip (3765 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-444-7622, mosaiconthestrip.com), which brought shows back to the Strip first in October, has a different blueprint in place.
The freestanding theater on Las Vegas Boulevard near the Showcase Mall occupies the space once home to Club Utopia, Krave Nightclub and Empire Ballroom. As Mosaic, it’s operated by promoter Dean Coleman, who opened male revue Aussie Heat and classic rock tribute Queens of Rock in the fall, using an independent-minded model. By offering each production company a flexible, a la carte menu of promotion and support, Coleman keeps costs down while making shows more sustainable.
And, “we’ve developed our own ticketing platform, so we can do direct marketing to the people who only want to look at entertainment, not Grand Canyon tours or renting scooters or stuff like that,” he explains.
Mosaic has the advantage of its Strip location, a spacious venue and plenty of parking. Coleman plans to add his long-gestating Michael Jackson tribute show, MJ the Evolution, to the rotation soon, and while Mosaic’s shows certainly compete with what’s happening in casino showrooms, he’s still excited about the Strip entertainment reopening push.
“All I really care about is the entertainment aspect, focusing on the shows and adhering to the guidelines to be as safe as we can,” Coleman says. “I welcome all the shows coming back and welcome the change. It will help our shows as well, because it makes people more aware.”
The Strip’s casino-resorts still drive live entertainment in Las Vegas. They always will. But there are important lessons to be learned from a bizarre, quiet year in this essential industry.
“I really hope casinos and hotels remember that entertainment was something else,” Admit’s Housley says. “Until the ’80s and early ’90s, Vegas hotels generated traffic based on entertainment. It was, ‘I want to go to the Dunes or the Sands because Frank Sinatra is playing.’ That was a conscious decision. Hopefully, after all this, we’ll see entertainment as a critical component that you need to have.”