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April 25, 2014

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‘Showbiz Roast’ sets zingers for Zowie Bowie, but is it built to last?

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Gabe Ginsberg/Vegas Kool

Chris Phillips of Zowie Bowie performs during the “Our Town for Newtown” benefit concert held Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 at Railhead at Boulder Station.

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Production designer Andy Walmsley at the set he designed for Human Nature at the Venetian on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013.

One of the fun facts I like to recite to those on the scene around VegasVille is that I was the first person in town to write about Zowie Bowie. I talked to Chris Phillips in March 2006, five weeks before he and his then-fiancée and onstage collaborator, Marley Taylor, opened Rocks Lounge at Red Rock Resort.

You know what Phillips was hoping to forge seven years ago, before even moving to Vegas?

Instilling that maverick spirit of Las Vegas.

As Phillips said at the time, “We want to maintain that spirit of Las Vegas — my goal as a kid was to have the hottest show in Vegas, not to go to Hollywood and make records and tour.”

Phillips is the target of a hot show in Vegas, and his conspirator is affable Brit and accomplished set designer Andy Walmsley. On April 23, Phillips will be the first Vegas celeb put on the skewer in the “Showbiz Roast” at the Stratosphere. Walmsley is the stated producer of this show, though Phillips will be involved in herding the roasters and roastees. The first event is to start at around 11 p.m. (or, closer to midnight if we’re using Phillips’ timepiece) with a red carpet set for 10 p.m. and “mingling” at 10:30.

The lineup of roasters has not been set, but the Ubiquitous Robin Leach (first to write of this event) has been asked and accepted. Yours truly has been asked and will take part, too. Sometimes, you just gotta dance.

Sharing Phillips’ Rat Pack-ian sensibilities, Walmsley has been talking of a Vegas celebrity roast for quite a while and hopes to stage one of these roasts every eight to 10 weeks. The Stratosphere was an easy sell for the free-admission event, as it keeps the bar tab and reaps the ancillary media attention. In an unlikely evolution, the Stratosphere is growing into a kind of new-era Sands. It’s a distinctively designed property that is home to some classic, high-caliber entertainment.

To ignite these roasts, Walmsley picked the right roastee. We’ve had a lot of fun with Phillips over the years, for his rollercoaster professional and personal relationship with Taylor, which not only affected the act, but became the act. I’m sorry, but when you lose your partner twice to members of your band …

But Phillips is to be admired for his tenacity and focus on his stated goal upon arriving in town, and his dance show at Rocks Lounge is a great night out and has been a consistently popular draw among locals. He has been true to his original ideal of reviving the genuine Rat Pack vibe in Las Vegas. Talk to Phillips about Las Vegas long enough, and he’ll inevitably return to the “maverick spirit” theme. He was the rare kid who started his stage career as a rock drummer, but whose favorite performer was Mr. Las Vegas Wayne Newton.

Phillips has tried just about every angle to return to that maverick spirit, too. He’s donned a tux and sang standards in front of big bands directed by Lon Bronson and David Perrico. His effort to put on a “Vintage Vegas” production at Monte Carlo in 2009 was at once ambitious and heartfelt. Bronson collected some of the best musicians in the city and Taylor was never more effective in her high-arching voice and low-cut gowns. Phillips even lured rocker Vince Neil to the stage to sing “Fly Me to the Moon” on opening night.

But nothing has quite taken hold in Phillips’ singular quest for the maverick spirit, even as he keeps plugging away. Phillips' most recent endeavor: A couple of months ago he fronted a massive one-night event at Windows at Paris Las Vegas, slipping back into the tux and once again recruiting Perrico to head up the band.

It was a late-starting, long-running night of great music that featured the Bella Electric Strings (including Phillips’ new life and stage partner, Lydia Ansel), and an impressive collection of singers. The emerging vocal group BBR (Tara Palsha and Savannah Smith of “Vegas! the Show” and Anne Barr of “Bite”) and Nieve Malandra, who sings at Marche Bacchus in Summerlin. Neil sang, again, “Fly Me to the Moon,” and rocker Paul Shortino belted out the Etta James classic, “At Last.”

It was great fun, but so far it's one and done. There is an ongoing discussion among producers and Caesars execs on the possibility of making this a weekly showcase. Nonetheless, we’ve had a lot of these events in Vegas, a cool, late-night, throwback event that could not be sustained. Stifler at the Lounge at the Palms was like that — a roaring night in Vegas that, for myriad reasons, has not been resurrected (in that case, Strat officials were not happy to learn after the fact that headliner Frankie Moreno was the man behind Stifler).

This new-old concept of roasting entertainers, of course, hearkens to the days of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, where the dais was laden with such stars as Nipsey Russell, Phyllis Diller and Joey Bishop. A typical line from those roasts was from Martin, during the roast of Sammy Davis Jr. “This is the biggest night in Vegas since Gladys Knight hit the craps table and lost two of her Pips!”

The obstacle for the Walmsley-Phillips project is, in part, where it is being held. Attracting entertainers from competing properties to the Stratosphere won’t be an easy sell. Walmsley and Phillips are going to need to have an answer for this question: “Why would MGM Resorts or Caesars Entertainment, or any other resort chain or property, be OK with one of their headliners being roasted at the Stratosphere?”

One way to work around this competitive issue is to make the “Showbiz Roast” a recurring philanthropic event. Take donations at the door for the roastee’s chosen charity. Or, investigate a move to a more neutral site, such as Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center. Staging the show at Smith Center would give the roasts more of a Friars Club vibe, and would fulfill the goal of Smith Center President Myron Martin to bring in a regular, local showcase that would create buzz around town about Cab Jazz.

But would Smith Center be as receptive to a no-admission celebrity roast as has the Stratosphere? Maybe not. At the moment, the “Showbiz Roast” has its venue. It has its ideal roastee. It has generated a lot of talk around the scene, already.

This effort to revive the maverick spirit of Las Vegas will work — at least once.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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