What house did the Rat Pack rule? Who rocked the rhinestones? And who invited clowns to the party? From the lounge acts of the 1950s, to the nightclub residencies of today’s top DJs, we’re going to give you a crash course in the entertainment history of Las Vegas.
It began in a lounge
The entertainment capital started taking form in the 1950s as Las Vegas, a city of less than 50,000 people at the time, rapidly became THE destination to see the top entertainers. Visitors could catch growing stars like Liberace, Elvis Presley, Shecky Greene and Don Rickles in the lounges for as little as $5. The hour-long shows often included drinks, dinner, and a nudge to get back out to the casino floor.
At the Fremont Hotel and Casino in 1958, the future Mr. Las Vegas, Wayne Newton, then a high school student, booked six shows a day, an engagement that stretched out for five years. He would perform more than 30,000 shows in his new hometown over the next decades.
As Newton was growing in fame, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop – were turning the city onto its head. The draw of the Rat Pack was so high, marquees would play off of the group’s notoriety for crashing the shows of one another.
“Dean Martin, Maybe Frank, Maybe Sammy,” read a marquee at The Sands in 1963, according to an archived photo.
The spontaneity of these shows became a blueprint for acts in Vegas for generations. From pie fights to impromptu roasts and pranks, these bits of the unexpected kept visitors on their toes and left them feeling like they too were part of the pack.
“They weren’t out there just doing the same thing like everybody else was,” said Oscar Goodman, Las Vegas’ former mayor, who moved to the city in 1964. “They had their own personality, their own way of doing things. They were enchanting.”
Headdresses, rhinestones and high kicks
In the late 1950s, shows at the casino became more and more lavish as the venues tried to outdo one another.
Tall, beautiful and covered in rhinestones, showgirls emerged as a result. Previously serving as backup for headliners, the ladies were becoming the main attraction and would define Vegas’ style for generations.
These shows, inspired by the nightclubs of Paris, were uniquely Vegas. Expensive costumes and massive feathered headdresses shared the billing with the women’s synchronized song and dance numbers.
Goodman, often seen with a showgirl on each arm, said people still line up for blocks to get their pictures taken with the gorgeous women.
It’s synonymous with Las Vegas because it’s glitz, it’s glamour, it’s beauty, it’s energy, it’s electricity, it’s neon,” he said. “That’s what we’re about here.”
In later years, showgirls would become topless revues, modeled more closely after the European counterparts, a movement that started with Harold Minsky’s Follies at the Dunes Hotel.
Along with acts like Liberace and Elvis in the 1960s and 1970s, the showgirls rewrote the public’s image of Las Vegas to one of rhinestones, sequins and over-the-top showmanship.
Donn Arden’s Jubilee! at Bally’s Las Vegas, a $10 million production in 1981, would become one of the most well-known showgirl productions, running for 35 years until it closed in 2016. The show featured a 27-foot-tall bull, the sinking of the Titanic, and headdresses weighing in the double digits.
In the 1980s, Penn Jillette of the magical duo Penn & Teller, recalled seeing Jubilee! and a still-performing Dean Martin as the pair considered bringing their show to Las Vegas. They came in cynical of these Las Vegas institutions, but left blown away.
Jillette compared Martin to The Ramones; he subverted expectations with his lackadaisical and relaxed tone, Jillette said.
“It was one of the greatest shows that I have ever seen,” he said.
Jubilee! was unapologetic and unflinchingly pure in its presentation, he added.
“Seeing Dean Martin and seeing Jubilee! absolutely changed our perspective about what Vegas could be completely, but it did not change us,” he said.
The rise of the variety shows, magicians and circus performers
The 1990s brought new variety to Las Vegas, as magicians, circus performers, and even a group of men painted blue, captured imaginations. Here, acts could take risks that they could not in New York or Los Angeles.
Whether catching a bullet, or sawing a woman in half, Penn & Teller used sleight of hand that respected the audiences’ intelligence. They performed magic, but they weren’t afraid to explain the trick. They brought their show to Vegas in 1989 and became permanent fixtures in the community.
“In Vegas, we got stronger, we got weirder, we got braver,” Jillette said.
At the Rio Hotel and Casino, Penn & Teller also got stability, staff, their own theater, and the trust of their financiers. They never felt constrained to simply stick to tried and true material in Vegas.
“When we announce at the beginning of our show that we’re doing mostly new stuff tonight, the audience cheers,” he said.
The duo holds the record for the longest running headliner in the city after 17 years at The Rio.
Not long after Penn & Teller got their start, the thrilling Cirque du Soleil made its Las Vegas debut with Nouvelle Expérience under a tent behind the Mirage Hotel. The successful run drew the attention of resort mogul Steve Wynn, who asked Cirque’s owner and founder, Guy Laliberté, to bring the production permanently to the then yet-to-be-finished Treasure Island Hotel.
Mystère opened in 1993 in a theater built to the production’s specifications, allowing for extravagant designs. Today, Cirque has seven shows playing in Vegas on a permanent basis, including shows in partnership with The Beatles, the Michael Jackson estate, and magician Criss Angel.
“Zumanity, Cirque’s adults-only show, was its biggest departure, and a risk for the more family-friendly brand, but it found a niche in Vegas,” said Jerry Nadal, senior vice president of Cirque’s resident shows division.
Offering a mix of the circus, acrobatics, theater and opera, Cirque’s various shows offer an escape to an awe-inspiring world with fantastical settings and stunts. Its massive productions have something for everyone, appealing to audiences from every generation and any culture. Cirque avoids using real languages to immerse the audiences in the action.
“It starts at the front door, and we have you enter into an entire world for 90 minutes,” Nadal continued. “These are one-of-a-kind shows. You cannot see them anywhere else in the world.”
Following one show, Nadal received a letter from a woman that thanked him for helping her forget about her cancer for the first time in three years.
“That’s what our entertainment provides: escape,” Nadal said.
The return to residencies
In the early 2000s, Las Vegas circled back to booking the biggest entertainers for pumped up residencies: Cher, the Backstreet Boys and Enrique Iglesias.
As pop artists filled arenas, electronic dance music rose in popularity in Las Vegas’ underground scene. Small, more mainstream events would pop up throughout the 2000s, but everything would change when Paul Oakenfold took up residency at the Perfecto at Rain in 2008. With light shows, aerialists and stilt walkers, Oakenfold’s show came with a uniquely Vegas flashiness.
Electronic dance music-focused clubs popped up one after another, as these mega residencies became the norm. They packed nightclubs and swimming pools throughout the Strip. Today, Las Vegas rivals Ibiza with its ability to draw in big names like Tiesto, Zedd, Diplo and Steve Aoki.
One of the big turning points for electronic music scene came when Electric Daisy Carnival moved to Las Vegas from Los Angeles in 2011. The music festival draws more than 400,000 people each year to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and continues to grow. With a different theme each time, the show features carnival rides, sky-high art pieces, complex light shows and pyrotechnics.
“It helped contribute to it being the epicenter for dance music lovers and travelers who were willing to venture to see their favorite artists,” said Pasquale Rotella, the founder and creator of Insomniac, in 2016. “Las Vegas will continue to find innovate ways to be the entertainment capital of the world and dance music will always be involved in that.”
Las Vegas has never followed the trends; it has set them. And, by all accounts, it’s expected to keep doing that in the future.
The city has made moves to secure the future Las Vegas Raiders as its NFL team, and work is underway for a possible NBA franchise.
We’ll likely see the fruits of Cirque du Soleil’s purchase of the Blue Man Group, and maybe some new offerings from Cirque itself.
For Jillette, of Penn & Teller, the future of Las Vegas is a funky arts scene. He imagines a time when Las Vegas is known as an importer and exporter of talent.
“I think in the next 10 years, you’ll see another level, which is not just good acts coming into Vegas, but good acts being created by Las Vegas,” he said.