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Headliners & Legends – Caesars Palace

From superstar entertainment to sophisticated nightlife, Caesars Palace is one of Las Vegas’ hottest after-dark destinations

by Rob Wiser

In our last issue, we told the story of Caesars Palace’s origins and its evolution into the premier hotel-casino in Las Vegas. In this next installment of the Caesars saga, as the resort celebrates its fourth decade, we’re going to focus on one of the key aspects that has defined it to the world over the decades: entertainment.

This tradition dates back to opening night in 1966, when Caesars Palace creator Jay Sarno pulled out all the stops to launch the most lavish resort Las Vegas had ever seen. The invited guests were treated to a performance by Andy Williams and Phil Richards, who both played Julius Caesar in a play that night. This was the inaugural show at the Circus Maximum showroom, which would go on to become one of the most famous venues in all of entertainment.

“Playing Caesars” meant you’d reached the top of your game. The biggest stars of music, comedy and magic performed there over the years; the roster included luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Woody Allen, Paul Anka, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Ann-Margret, Richard Pryor, David Copperfield, Tom Jones and George Burns. Film and stage star Tony Randall performed in a production of The Odd Couple; other famed shows included Sweet Charity and Fiddler on the Roof. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme performed together at Caesars for the first time in 1971, and were the final headliners at the Circus Maximus theatre when it closed on September 3, 2000.

Frank Sinatra, the legend who brought swingin’ sophistication to Las Vegas, had a longstanding association with Caesars Palace. The Sands had been Ol’ Blue Eyes’ stomping ground in the early 1960s (that’s where he and the Rat Pack filmed Oceans 11 by day and played two shows a night in the Copa Lounge). This changed when Howard Hughes snatched up the Sands in 1967. Hughes’ management team implemented stricter accounting policies, meaning Frank Sinatra could no longer run up debts in the casino. One night, his credit was cut off and he went ballistic, leaping onto a table and yelling. Legend has it that hotel vice president Carl Cohen was summoned to resolve the matter. When Sinatra hurled a chair at him, the tough guy casino boss decked Sinatra in the mouth, knocking the caps off his two front teeth.

An enraged Sinatra switched his allegiances from the Sands to Caesars Palace and began performing there. In 1971, he announced his retirement from show business; three years later he made a triumphant return to the stage, playing Caesars on January 25, 1974.

In the 1980s, Caesars became world famous for another form of entertainment: boxing. Throughout the decade the resort hosted a series of “super fights” featuring icons such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. (See sidebar for more details.) To millions of fight fans worldwide, Caesars Palace—and its distinct outdoor arena—became synonymous with legendary title bouts.

By the 1990s, however, Caesars’ reputation was fading. New, billion-dollar megaresorts had come to dominate the Strip, offering nightlife, concerts and sporting events on an even grander scale. And so, as part of a campaign to revitalize their aging property, Caesars execs refocused their attention—and budget—on the area that had once defined it to the world: entertainment.

In 2001, the resort announced a blockbuster deal with singer Celine Dion, worth a reported $100 million. The French-Canadian chanteuse would perform at Caesars five nights a week, 40 weeks per year, over a three-year period. Caesars would build a 4,000-seat venue, the Colosseum, just to house the show. But this deal—which was the lengthiest and most lucrative contract in the history of Vegas entertainment—was greeted with no small amount of skepticism. Dion’s recent albums had underperformed, and it was difficult to imagine any entertainer filling a venue that size night after night, year after year.

“It’s virtually impossible that (Dion) will pack that place,” one local industry insider scoffed to the Las Vegas Sun. “There’s just no way in a space that size.”

The prices for standard tickets—in the $100 range, placing them in the same league as “Siegfried & Roy” and “O”—invited further criticism. “If (Caesars) goes with those kinds of numbers, they’ll be shooting themselves in the foot,” the source said. “America isn’t ready to pay big bucks to hear the ‘Titanic’ song over and over again.”

But this would be much more than Celine belting out her signature hits. The production, titled A New Day, was assembled by Franco Dragone (who directed and introduced the cutting-edge Cirque Du Soleil productions Mystère and O. The show would feature performing on an immense stage along with a huge cast of dancers. Each song was choreographed as its own dazzling production, with an enormous video screen providing mesmerizing visuals and changing landscapes and Dragone incorporating surrealistic Cirque-style imagery. Because of Celine’s desire to be as close to her fans as possible, the design of the Colosseum gave it an intimate feel despite its grand scale; the farthest seat from the stage would be only 125 feet away.

A New Day opened on March 25, 2003 and quickly silenced the skeptics. From the high-energy opening numbers, to the poignant Sinatra medley (in which Ol’ Blue Eyes appears on the giant screen to sing a “duet” with her), to her soaring rendition of the “Titanic” theme (which America apparently is, in fact, ready to hear over and over again), A New Day is more than a great Vegas show: it’s an artistic triumph.

Some of the numbers are grand extravanganzas, with spectacular special effects and dozens of costumed dancers onstage; the most magical moments, however, come when Celine stands alone in the spotlight and simply sings. Her voice, broadcast through the Colosseum’s state-of-the-art sound system in an acoustically perfect room, sounds phenomenal.

Celine turned out to be the perfect choice to headline Caesars’ comeback, selling out most of her performances. According to Pollstar, in just the first half of 2005, Dion sold 322,000 tickets and grossed $43.9 million. (Her contract has since been extended, keeping her at Caesars until at least October 2007.)

“When it comes to entertainment, everyone’s got an opinion as far as what will work, and what won’t work,” says Scott Schecter, the property’s vice president of entertainment. “It was an ambitious undertaking, with Caesars spending $95 million to build a 4,000-seat custom venue, and making an investment equal to or greater than that for the show itself.”

In retrospect, Celine may have been the only performer in the world who possessed all the elements to make this enormous gamble pay off. Not only does she have a massive international fan base, having sold over 175 million records worldwide, but she’s proven to be extremely durable. The mental and physical demands of starring in such a show are tremendous, and with millions of dollars riding on every performance, Celine has exceeded all expectations, according to Caesars executives.

The design of the Colosseum, which is located just off the casino floor, has ensured a huge additional amount of foot traffic through the property. “All 4,148 people who enter the building on a nightly basis come out those doors into the middle of Caesars Palace,” says Schecter. A good percentage of those Celine fans are then heading for the restaurants, or the slot machines and tables—boosting revenue numbers property-wide.

“Celine, as an artist, has done something that has never been done at this level,” Schecter adds. “She’s got over 500 shows under her belt. It’s so tight, and she sounds great each night. I still get goose bumps when I watch the show.”

Caesars doubled down on that winning bet by striking another mega-deal with Elton John, creating what Schecter calls a “one-two punch.” The flamboyant Rocket Man, who has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide since the 1960s, performs for several weeks at a time while Celine takes her breaks. His deal, which runs through 2008, is worth an estimated $50 million.

Every bit as impressive as A New Day, Elton’s show, The Red Piano, was designed by famed photographer David LaChapelle and uses giant video screens and sets to marry eye-popping visuals to Elton’s most famous songs—from tender piano ballads to full-throttle rockers. When Elton and his band blaze through “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting),” and the audience is invited to stream onto the stage and dance around his piano, it’s one of the most joyous, electrifying numbers you’ll ever witness.

Throughout its history, Caesars has opted to bring in headliners for extended runs, rather than booking them for a single night as other properties do. “We didn’t want to be in the one-off concert business,” Schecter explains. “That’s not our philosophy. Caesars has always been about forging relationships.” The property has another ongoing relationship with a third superstar—Jerry Seinfeld. Two months after the Colosseum opened in March 2003, the comedian became the first performer other than Celine to grace its stage. Since then, he’s typically spent three weekends a year performing at Caesars.

“Beyond that, truthfully, there aren’t that many dates available to fill in the building—which is a good thing for us,” says Schecter. “We’ve had the odd [open] week here or there, and had artists step up and want to play the building.” The Colosseum has hosted limited runs by stars such as Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Luciano Pavarotti (who was accompanied by a 66-piece orchestra).

“Each property adopts its own philosophy as far as entertainment; some of our competitors have staked a claim with Cirque du Soleil,” Schecter notes. “You need something that’s going to cut through the clutter. In Las Vegas, there are almost a hundred different shows on any given day, ranging from $7 to $250. The moment you step off the plane, then in the baggage claim and during the taxi ride to your hotel, it’s an overwhelming barrage of advertisements saying ‘Come see our show.’ There’s great value in having a signature entertainer like Celine Dion, Elton John or Jerry Seinfeld. They’re household names. Their fan bases are international. If you’re only going to see one or two shows while you’re in Las Vegas, you’re going to have to make a decision—and having our headliners helps close the deal.”

Furthermore, Celine Dion and Elton John don’t merely perform concerts—they’re the stars of their own epic productions which can only be seen in Vegas. “Touring shows come through town all the time,” says Schecter. “The difference with Celine and Elton’s shows is that they’re designed for our building and our city.”

Rumors have begun to swirl that Cher will replace Celine once her contract extension is up. There hasn’t been any official announcement yet, however, and given the success of the Caesars-Celine alliance, it wouldn’t be surprising if the resort winds up signing her for another lucrative year or two.

Another element of Caesars’ return to the top of the A-list has been its nightlife. For several years prior to 2005, Caesars sat on the sidelines during Las Vegas’ nightlife revolution. Its competitors were opening multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art nightclubs and chic “ultra lounges” left and right, as Vegas casinos sought to capture the young, affluent demographic. These clubs did more than bring additional traffic into the casino; with their cover charges and “bottle service” at several hundred dollars a pop, they were also huge revenue generators.

Caesars’ only nightclub to speak of was Cleopatra’s Barge, a “floating lounge” that replicates the craft that carried the royalty of Egypt across the Nile River. In another city, this might have qualified as a hot spot—but compared to amazing Vegas nightclubs such as Rain (The Palms), Light (Bellagio), or Tabu and Studio 54 (MGM Grand), nightlife at Caesars was feeling awfully dated.

But when Caesars finally did join the nightlife revolution, it did so in stunning fashion. PURE opened on New Year’s Eve, 2005, with Celine Dion, Andre Agassi and Shaquille O’Neal among its financial backers. PURE is pretentious, expensive, outrageously lavish, and contains VIP rooms never glimped by average mortals—which on the Vegas Strip, meant it possessed the exact ingredients required to make a smash hit.

The famous and fabulous flock to this gargantuan 40,000-square-foot, two-story nightclub, which incorporates four distinct experiences into its design. Each of its four sprawling “rooms” features its own decadent style and resident DJ (one of which is DJ AM, the most in-demand turntable wizard in the country). The second floor is accessed via a glass-enclosed elevator, or by a twisting staircase; upstairs is where you’ll find the 14,000-square-foot Terrace, an enclave that boasts its own oval-shaped dance floor and stunning panoramic views of the Strip. Downstairs, the main room—awash in dramatic white, cream and silver tones—features three separate bars and a dance floor surrounded by plush bed seating. VIPs can retire to the Red Room, which is appointed in red and champagne colors and features upholstered walls, chandeliers, and ultra-private booths where you might spot the biggest stars of film and music sipping champagne from $500 bottles and soaking up the scene.

E! Entertainment has hailed PURE as the top club in the country, and with the introduction of “PURE Tuesdays,” a night geared towards locals, it has become as popular with young Las Vegans as it is with visiting Hollywood royalty.

Adjoining this mega-club is the Pussycat Dolls Lounge, an intimate room which can be accessed from PURE’s main lounge. Here, seven nights a week, the elevated stage features the Pussycat Dolls dancers, an ultra-sexy burlesque troupe that originated in Hollywood. Throughout the evening, the dancers emerge in scandalous outfits to entertain the crowd with short, high-energy performances. The red walls are decorated with photographic portraits of the celebrity guests who have performed with the Dolls, including Paris Hilton, Charlize Theron and Christina Aguilera.

Throughout Caesars are other dramatically designed bars and lounges. They include the sensual Shadow Bar, where “flair” bartenders juggle bottles and twirl glasses and female dancers are seen in silhouette, gyrating provocatively behind screens. It’s an ideal spot for cocktails, conversation and appetizers; the menu includes sushi platters, smoked salmon, fresh oysters, and Beluga caviar.

Another charming spot—and an ideal place to join friends for drinks before an evening of full-bore hedonism at PURE—is the Seahorse Lounge, which features a giant aquarium in the center of the room and oval-shaped “virtual” aquariums built into the walls, in which fish captured with high definition cameras swim back and forth in perfectly fluid, eye-popping color. The Seahorse Lounge also offers an appetizer menu and exotic specialty drinks.

With two of the world’s greatest performers headlining its Colosseum, and one of the biggest, most extravagant nightclubs in America, Caesars Palace delivers entertainment like no other casino. And when Celine and Elton aren’t scheduled to play, there’s no telling which superstar the resort might book next—since “playing Caesars” once again represents one of the pinnacles of showbiz success.

From superstar entertainment to sophisticated nightlife, Caesars Palace is one of Las Vegas’ hottest after-dark destinations.

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