Celebrating the headliners who helped shape Vegas entertainment

The Vegas residency is a double-edged sword. It means either one has reached the pinnacle of success, or that one has been demoted to the entertainment world’s version of purgatory. While the latter is hardly true these days, the sentiment persists. One such Justin Timberlake, despite the successful residencies of contemporaries like Lady Gaga, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, once scoffed at the idea of headlining in Vegas, claiming that he was not yet ready to plan his “retirement.” At surface level, Timberlake has a point. Look around and one will see stars of yesteryear plastered on billboards all over town: Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Cher, and the list goes on. Surely, one may think, Vegas is where careers go to die. But not so. Not any longer, at least. And, possibly, not ever.

Vegas is a copycat town. When one star strikes gold, others come rushing to the mine, and some casinos are all too eager to sign their own version of an Elvis Presley or a Celine Dion, hoping to achieve similar results. Indeed, some have done it better than others. But that’s not a knock on quality. Even some of the best residencies have failed to catch on with audiences, underscoring the fact that a modestly successful residency is punishingly difficult to produce. Some triumph, others flop, and many would feel lucky to simply keep a steady gig.

There’s no real formula or algorithm that determines how residencies succeed in this town. Some stars coast on name recognition, or they find themselves able to capitalize on nostalgia; some stars learn that audiences are yearning for their long-awaited return to the spotlight, while others just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Yet, one thing all successful, groundbreaking residencies seem to have in common is that they’re different. And while that may sound simple, if it were, a lot more stars would be doing it.

In Las Vegas’ rich history of entertainment, some headliners have stood above the rest. This is not to say one entertainer is better than another, but that what he or she accomplished helped elevate the idea of what a Vegas residency could be. We at Las Vegas Magazine want to celebrate the entertainers who helped shape our cultural landscape into what we know today, as well as reflect on how it was done. Thus, the following is our list of some of the most influential headliners to grace the Vegas stage.

Britney Spears: Fountain of Youth

Some may call Britney Spears’ residency a byproduct of Celine Dion’s. Perhaps that’s true, but their impact was starkly different. While Dion brought in star power and paved the way for older stars, like Elton John and Rod Stewart, to reinvigorate their careers through a Vegas residency, Spears’ residency proved there was a healthy market in Vegas for younger acts, which ultimately brought in a younger clientele. The earlier construction of The Cosmopolitan and City Center, along with a few modern casino renovations, hinted that the Strip was trying to adopt a more contemporary aesthetic. Arguably, Spears’ residency helped Vegas fully realize that venture, and it’s mostly been successful. If Spears had flopped, Backstreet Boys, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga residencies would have been, at best, unlikely.

Carrot Top: Prop Culture Icon

While many great comedians have graced the Vegas stage, such as Danny Gans, Don Rickles and Redd Foxx, Carrot Top doesn’t get enough props for being the most successful comedian in Vegas history. He’s performed his brand of prop comedy in town since the mid-‘90s, and he’s had a residency at Luxor since 2005. That longevity is rarely attainable for a Vegas headliner, let alone a comedian. How does he do it? He adapts. Though his schtick stays the same, the material constantly changes. He has a few greatest hits that stay in his act, but on the whole, the material is fresh, for he’s constantly taking notes on pop culture and incorporating it into his props.

Celine Dion: The Revitalizer

As the saying goes: If you build it, they will come. And that’s exactly what happened with Celine Dion and The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Before Dion, Vegas not only needed some star power, the city needed an attraction that could draw crowds from all over the world. Sure, Vegas had Cirque du Soleil and a few Broadway productions at the time, but people could see similar performances elsewhere. For a time, if you wanted to see Celine Dion, you could only see her in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, her original residency, A New Day…, was a massive success. What was supposed to be a three-year residency, turned into two successful residencies over 16 years, and changed the shape of Vegas entertainment to come.

David Copperfield: Game Changer

Not only is David Copperfield one of the most influential magicians in Vegas, he’s one of the most influential magicians ever. If making the Statue of Liberty disappear and levitating over the Grand Canyon are any indication, Copperfield brought large-scale, illusion-based magic into the mainstream, which clearly inspired fellow magicians like Criss Angel and David Blaine. But what makes his Vegas show so endearing is his ability to weave stories together through his magic, whether it involves a heartwarming tribute to his father, or an encounter with aliens inside the MGM Grand. And, most of all, even though he’s performed magic professionally for more than 45 years, he’s still not afraid to challenge himself or take risks, and that’s why his Vegas show never gets old.

Elvis Presley: The Comeback Kid

By the late 1960s, The King had lost his groove. His music wasn’t selling, and he spent much of his time making unwatchable movies. At the time, it might have even been accurate to have called Elvis a joke. But, little did people know, he was on the verge of a resurgence. Elvis’ iconic ’68 comeback special on NBC reminded everyone that he was still cool. Soon after, he inked a deal with the International Hotel (now Westgate) and kicked off a legendary residency, one that would not only revitalize his career, but show other singers and stars that Vegas was a place where people could reinvent themselves.

Frank Marino: The Ultimate Diva

While he wasn’t the first drag queen in Las Vegas, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Frank Marino helped popularize the modern drag show on the Strip. As the emcee of An Evening at La Cage and, more recently, Divas Las Vegas, Marino became known for his stellar impersonation of comedian Joan Rivers. Not only did he create a fun, vibrant environment for his audiences, but so did his ragtag team of drag queens. And since the cast all played Vegas-headlining divas like Cher, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears, if you couldn’t get a ticket to one of their concerts, you could always find the next best thing at Divas.

Liberace: The Flash

Liberace routinely annoyed stodgy music critics with his grandiose piano playing and showmanship. But it’s that flashy, excessive persona that made him so endearing, as well as excessively rich. Regarding the criticism, he’d often quip that he cried all the way to the bank. (By the late-‘70s, he was reportedly making up to $300,000 per week at the Hilton.) His over-the-top antics, such as riding across the stage in a Rolls-Royce and wearing exotic (some may say ridiculous) costumes, essentially defined what the Vegas residency would become: an in-your-face spectacular. But, more importantly, he had an innate ability to connect with audiences, not only making them think they were seeing a show, but rather the performance of an old friend.

Penn & Teller: Truth Seekers

What Penn & Teller do so well is demystify magic. Yet, somehow they still find a way to make magic mystifying. To them, magic is not an illusion, it’s a trick. They don’t want audiences to think for a moment that magic is real, because everyone knows that it’s not. Rather, they want their magic tricks to be good enough that even when audiences know they’re not real, the tricks are still interesting. That may seem subtle, but it makes a difference, because some modern magicians all too often make a mockery out of magic. Newcomers to the Strip, such as Piff the Magic Dragon and Mat Franco, seem to follow the Gospel of Penn & Teller, for they similarly strive to make magic fun and meaningful, rather than something one has to believe in to enjoy.

Rat Pack: Vegas Personified

If one were to describe the founding fathers of Vegas entertainment, the list would likely include Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop—that’s the Rat Pack that ruled Vegas in the ‘60s. All were individually successful in Vegas, and while it would be good-natured to say they all have their place in Vegas history, it’s Frank, Sammy and Dean that everybody remembers. With that said, the Rat Pack personified Vegas. They were the total embodiment of the boozy, schmoozey, smokey, classic Vegas that many long and lust for. It’s an attitude that helped build this town, which makes their influence almost inescapable. And who would want it any other way?

Santana: Art of Intimacy

Santana is known for being the first true rock band to have a Vegas residency, and the group has been in Vegas for more than a decade. Since then, we’ve seen other rock acts find their place in Vegas, such as Aerosmith, Billy Idol and David Lee Roth. But more than simply ushering in a new wave of Vegas entertainment, Santana has mastered the art of intimacy. They perform in one of the smaller venues in town, House of Blues, making the band feel more up close and personal than if they were playing at, say, The Colosseum. It allows for a reciprocal relationship between artist and audience, making each individual performance unique to each audience.

Siegfried & Roy: Tiger Kings

In his book God, No!, Penn Jillette made one of the most astute assessments on the impact of Siegfried & Roy: “When you take something easy and safe and make it look difficult and death-defying, you are a cheesy circus act. When you take something impossible and make it look easy, you’re an artist … What they do looks easy and simple and, well, it just happens to be close to impossible and stirs your heart to the very depths.” Siegfried & Roy elevated the typical Vegas magic show, so much so that the typical Vegas magic show became a copycat of Siegfried & Roy, replete with gaudy showmanship, tigers and dancing girls. But no one did it better than them, and no one ever will.

Wayne Newton: Mr. Las Vegas

Everybody knows Wayne Newton is the unofficial ambassador of Las Vegas. His name is synonymous with this town. But how did he achieve such wild success? He had a few hits, a boyish smile and a distinctive high voice. Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any concrete reasons one can pinpoint that would account for such triumph. Yet, like other successful Vegas headliners, he was a highly charismatic entertainer who displayed top-notch showmanship. At age 16, he started playing in town with his brother Jerry. Six shows a day for 51 weeks. While kids his age were busy being teenagers, he cut his teeth in showbiz at Vegas clubs, eventually learning how to masterfully work a crowd. Unlike Liberace, he was successful without gimmicks, and unlike Elvis, he was successful without colossal fame. What he achieved in this town was unprecedented, and Vegas likely won’t see anyone like him ever again.

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