Friday, July 4, 2014 | 2 a.m.
It’s been an extraordinary global life story for veteran Las Vegas producer Dick Foster, who moved here full time in 1989 with his show “Spellbound.” What was supposed to be a 13-week run turned into an eight-year triumph.
Dick created the “bevertainment” program for the Rio and produced its “Show in the Sky” masquerade. Offstage and away from behind-the-scenes, he’s on the board of our beloved charity Opportunity Village and has helped raise million$ for the organization.
His show “Imagine,” which began in 1996 as “Mystique: a Magical Journey Through Time,” opened at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, played for three years at the Luxor and is still on a world tour 20 years later. Dick has amassed an incredible series of achievements since he began his showbiz career as a 3-year-old prodigy in New York City.
He’s worked with such stars as Judy Garland, Nancy Wilson, Rock Hudson, Bob Hope and his former mother-in-law, Peggy Lee. His Hollywood TV specials have won him three Emmy Awards and five nominations.
Dick’s company also produced the Britney Spears arrival event for her residency “Britney: Piece of Me” at Planet Hollywood. Now, though, he’s scaling back on his entertainment activities, selling his business and its wardrobes and props, but instead of full retirement he’s going to write a book about his life.
His friend David Gravatt, who worked for him for nearly 30 years, will now handle many of the Las Vegas productions. David worked for Dick’s first edition of “Spellbound” and then moved to L.A. to work on Dick’s production show for Olympic figure-skating champion Dorothy Hamill at Universal.
“The difference? In some ways I’ll be working for David rather than him working for me,” said Dick. “We’re both being freed up for different reasons.”
Here’s our conversation:
How many years have you been in Las Vegas, and why are you slowing down?
As a producer permanently I’ve been here since 1989. I came here with my “Spellbound” show at the old Landmark hotel, if you can believe it, but prior to that I came to Las Vegas as a producer and even before that as a performer. So for many years I’ve been coming here.
So why the decision to downsize and sort of move to California?
There are a couple of reasons. Mostly, it’s time for change. We have had for the past 11 years the “bevertainment” program at the Rio, which really was one of our larger ongoing projects. That has come to an end, so now I don’t have the need for such a huge staff. I thought what a wonderful opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to write the book that I promised to do for the past seven years and never got to. Tentatively, it’s titled “The Tap Dancer.”
You’ve still got your hands in shows though?
We’re still doing “Spellbound” with its world tours. Mostly this year in Southeast Asia. We still do the occasional “Imagine” production. My former COO David Gravatt is opening his own Epic Creative Solutions company, so all of that will go through him. We still do the T-mate program at the Rio Secco golf course, which is a lot of fun.
You set up shop in Las Vegas in 1989, and here we are in 2014. How do you view the changes?
There have been so many changes in our business. The change from going into the two-wall and four-wall leasing arrangements, those are things that changed the industry greatly. The production-show changes, the star-show changes. Unless it’s Cirque du Soleil, there are really few main show room production shows. There are not a lot of them anymore.
Why do you think that it changed? Who actually changed it? The accountants?
I think so. I think it’s still going on. The bean counters are in control of our market place, so financially everything has changed.
Resort hotels have become landlords rather than producers?
It’s a high-risk factor for the smaller producers, as it’s very difficult to sell shows. You’re almost in a different business. I was in a different business when I did bevertainment. I saw the changes and I saw the opportunity to move into a field that was unchallenged and still keep my fingers in the entertainment world, and it worked.
It worked really, really well, and I think it will continue to work that way. I think that they are now looking for themes and ideas in bar service and food service that make things more entertaining. I think we’ll still be doing a lot of that, but as far as major shows, it’s very difficult.
How many bevertainers did you have in the beverage program at the height of it?
A company of 110, but there was probably just about 100 bevertainers and a management staff that was probably eight to 10 strong. They’re all very good. They’re all great entertainers. You know the theory there was that it’s very easy to teach a good entertainer to serve beverages, but it’s pretty hard to have a beverage server that you have to teach to be an entertainer.
It was more than just dancing on a little stage with tables. They were dancing, singing and serving. It worked very well, and for eight of the 11 years that we were there, we had the best cocktail servers in Las Vegas and were voted best of the year for three consecutive years.
I am assuming in this book, “The Tap Dancer,” you obviously go back to the start of your career. You are the quintessential story of the performer who became his own producer, right?
Pretty much so. I’ve always said that I think the production end of it is where I was meant to be, and I truly love it. I had a great time performing, but I
retired as a performer at age 24. I’ve been in the production business for a long time. I started with Bob Banner Associates.
I was the head of television specials for his company for a number of years and also traveled a lot with my former mother-in-law, Peggy Lee. I traveled a great deal with Peggy. We had a great production. I was a performer with her and also her company manager.
Among the other projects that you’re going off to do, at least one involves Peggy?
Well, there are actually two. There’s a young lady by the name of Stacy Sullivan who is based out of New York. She won this year’s Cabaret Award for best singer and best show, and she does a Peggy Lee tribute. It’s not like a “Legends”-type tribute; it’s a tribute where she does it in her own way and her own voice and does a story line about Peggy and her life and career.
I saw her show in New York and fell in love with it. We did a charity show with her in Mexico last October. We raised funds for an orphanage, and she was just terrific. I became heavily involved, and I think we’re going to bring her show here to Las Vegas. We’re also going to do a BBC special the next time she goes to London next year.
Peggy passed away in 2002. She would have been 91 now. She was a remarkable woman and entertainer. She was a perfectionist, and she was a great songwriter, not just a good singer.
With your planned move to California, are you selling everything, or are you going to keep something going here?
I sold my building and the studios, and I am going to keep an office here. I do have another office building that is smaller and close to here. I’m going to keep it. It’s not going to be the main office because I’ll be based mostly in L.A. I have a son who lives here and is involved in a lot of the technical aspects of the industry, so he’ll look after the office here, and then I will have an office out of L.A.
What happened to all the costumes and wardrobe over the years?
A lot of them we donated to theater arts departments, to Opportunity Village, of course, and some of them were sold.
With this new chapter of your life, are you looking forward to it? Are you hesitant about it, or are you really welcoming and embracing the change?
I am welcoming and embracing the change. I’m so excited about writing this book. What I’ve done so far has been fun, and I’m going to lean on a couple of experts in the L.A. area to assist me, but I’m really enjoying it. I’ve had such a wonderfully, successful career that it’s nice to be able to do this. I won’t have to work quite the hours that I work right now.
So in a sense it’s gone fishing, but not retirement.
Not retirement, no. There’s some consulting that I’ve been asked to do, as well, and that’s exciting, too. There is some possibility of getting involved with personal management, too.
The book is not going to be a tell-all, but can you drop a couple of names that you’ll be mentioning that you’ve worked with over the years?
Well of course there’s a lot on Peggy Lee, and some of the stories of some of the stars were derived because of that relationship with her. There will be some really fun stories of Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Perry Como and Flip Wilson. I did a lot of stuff with Flip, I did a lot of Peggy Fleming’s TV specials, a lot of John Davidson’s. These are full stories, not just a star’s meet-and-greet.
Las Vegas has been good to you, and you’ve been good to Las Vegas. You obviously loved living and working here.
I have indeed. I’ve met some wonderful people, and I have some great relationships and will continue to keep those with a lot of wonderful folks. I’m going to stay on the board of Opportunity Village even though I will not be living here. I will still come in for the meetings. I’ve changed from the foundation board to the advisory board, so instead of meeting every month, we only meet three or four times a year.
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Listed as one of Nevada’s Distinguished Men, Dick, who appeared on “The Mickey Mouse Club” and in several movies, including “Gypsy” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” summed up: “It’s been a wonderful run for my life in Las Vegas and around the world. I may be moving closer to Hollywood, but my heart will always be here, and I know that our events and productions will keep on entertaining the city I will always love.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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