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December 2, 2016

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New Planet Hollywood headliner Frankie Moreno wants to create modern Rat Pack

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Tom Donoghue / DonoghuePhotography.com

Stratosphere headliner Frankie Moreno performs during the Nevada Sesquicentennial All-Star Concert on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas.

Frankie Moreno

Frankie Moreno

Lacey Schwimmer and Kyle Massey

Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Frank Sinatra

He managed to keep the news secret for more than a month, but finally he announced it at his Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center concert Tuesday night. Frankie Moreno and his band have landed a residency at Planet Hollywood Showroom, putting him steps away from Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull and, soon, Lionel Richie.

That’s a powerful superstar lineup to now be a part of, especially considering when Frankie came to town 15 years ago, he once had an audience of just three in a then-shabby Stratosphere bar. Over the years, that fan base has multiplied time and time again and eventually took him to the Palms before landing him back at the main Stratosphere showroom for a nearly three-year run.

Now Base Entertainment (producers of “Rock of Ages,” “Jersey Boys,” “Absinthe,” Mat Franco and “Million Dollar Quartet”) and Planet Hollywood are backing him big time with much more than just a stamp of approval.

Frankie promises as of April 20 to deliver a production choreographed by former “Dancing With the Stars” pro dancer and girlfriend Lacey Schwimmer, who also will dance in the new production. It also will feature Joshua Bell, but we’ll get to that part of the story later.

Minutes after Frankie revealed his new gig, I chatted with Lacey and him in his dressing room at Cabaret Jazz after his “Under the Influence” concert. That name will travel to Planet Hollywood.

Big congratulations. It’s a major jump up the ladder of success and obviously a dream come true. It’s going to be a headline Strip production?

Big production but still keeping that raw touch. The best way I can describe it is everyone in Las Vegas tries to hold on to when Las Vegas was amazing. You know Elvis or The Rat Pack days. They try to rekindle that, but you can’t.

Well you do that in “Under the Influence.”

Yeah, but in a way that you’re more hinting at all of those things without being literal. So many groups are tribute bands or cover bands.

You’re definitely not that. While watching and listening to you tonight, I was thinking Elvis is back swivel hips and pelvis thrusts and all — but definitely Frankie, not Elvis.

If Elvis could have been in the showroom today, what would he do? Or Frank Sinatra? It’s not just the music; it’s the way they entertained. We’ve gotten so big in the production shows like the Cirque du Soleil productions in Las Vegas, which is awesome, but it’s too big. There’s not that connection like with a guy and a microphone.

So you’ll cut the Planet Hollywood theater down for more intimacy to 800 seats from 1,400, but you still use the gizmos and mechanical tricks that were in there for “Peepshow” with Holly Madison, CeeLo Green’s “Loberace” and Jeff Dunham’s ventriloquist characters?

Yeah, and a hundred times more. We’ve got all kinds of great stuff. But we’ll do it in a way where it’s not a musical or a play. It will still be our concert but done like a Las Vegas show would have been if it just continued on the way it was yesteryear.

If all the things didn’t come in and tweak what the scene was, if it would have continued on the way it was. So it’s still modern, but it’s that continuation of what that is.

For people who don’t know you and who are coming here, some of the antics that we know, playing the piano backward while lying down, all of that’s in and more?

Oh, yeah, all that and more. The way I look at it is this: I’ve had a glimpse of this before at the last go round in the Stratosphere, and you get it and things come and go for everybody. I want to take this and wring it out as much as I can and do all the razzle-dazzle I can do while I can.

But making sure it’s not the razzle-dazzle that didn’t work out for CeeLo when he was in that room?

No, not just any kind of razzle-dazzle. I mean Las Vegas back when it was something very unique for a time. I’ve lived in New York, Nashville, L.A., San Francisco. Every place has its thing and its time, and Las Vegas in the ’60s and early ’70s was the coolest place on the planet.

When a lot of those people passed away or retired or stopped performing here, there was no follow-up generation that came through.

That’s what you’re going to recapture? Is it Vintage Vegas without it being vintage?

Hopefully. I mean that’s the plan. The thing is that when people think of that, the first thing they go to is impersonations of old Rat Pack stuff, and it’s not going to be that. This will be the continuation of when it was great. We took a middle section where we started paying homage to what made our city cool. When I look at Nashville, it’s country music, L.A. is original alternative music, Austin is the blues, New York is jazz.

What’s Las Vegas? Las Vegas is entertainment, and we went so big and so grand with those huge budget productions that you miss that old vibe, when Frank Sinatra walked out onstage with a great band and sang music.

I’ve learned this the past year while we’ve been on our tour schedule: I’ve done a lot of Frank Sinatra specials, and you learn that the music is of the moment. It has nothing to do with the music; it’s the way it was done. I don’t even have to play a Sinatra song.

I mean I do and an Elvis song, but if I didn’t play that, you still see the hint of them. The songs are just to get into people who don’t know who I am, but it’s really the essence of what the show is supposed to be.

Frankie Moreno at Carnegie Hall

Las Vegas headliner Frankie Moreno performs at the Launch slideshow »

Frankie Moreno and Joshua Bell at the Hollywood Bowl

Violinist Joshua Bell & friends perform at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, California on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Frankie Moreno Performs at Stratosphere

Frankie Moreno performs in the showroom at the Stratosphere Tuesday, Feb 11, 2014 Launch slideshow »

So how does Lacey describe how she’s going to work in the choreography?

L.S.: This music is very high energy, and when you go to choreograph something, you want to match its energy level with movement. However, none of these guys in the band are dancers, so it’s one of those things where how far do we go with the dance steps, or is it more movement to what the music is telling us to do?

As much as they can dance, we’re going to do it, but like Frankie said, it’s crazy staging, it’s elevators and things that move forward and back and down. It’s going to be a lot of fun staging it.

Will there be more dancers like you?

Frankie’s band is going to be doing most of the staging and moving and dancing. I’m dancing in it. We’ll see if we decide to add other dancers later on.

F.M.: She’s featured two or three songs where she comes out and she does full-on “Dancing With the Stars.” I don’t even have to say anything. She comes out and dances. People who know her from what she’s done will love that.

People who don’t know her are going to see some crazy stuff. It’s hard to get musicians to dance, but all that old stuff, too, they did. If you watch all those old videos. It’s not necessarily dancing; it’s movement.

Choreographed staged routines, like the days of Louis Prima and Sam Butera?

Exactly. And the staging like she’s talking about with the elevators and fireworks and all that stuff is not going take away from the music of the show. It’s just using certain things to keep people’s interest. It will be a tight 75-minute show.

It’s a big deal and light years from the bar when only three people showed up to throw money in the tip jar.

The Crazy Armadillo at the Stratosphere, the day after I moved here. They called me to play Billy Joel stuff, but I didn’t know any. I played my own original music. It took years to get people to hear it. The Armadillo was 15 years ago, and Rush Lounge at the Golden Nugget was probably 13 years ago.

I played every lounge in town. Our mutual friend John Katsilometes started writing about us, and all of a sudden the room started filling up regularly. We were doing exactly what we’re doing here at the Smith Center with 42 sold-out performances and three left to go. I haven’t changed anything since I’ve been 10 years old.

Did you do this act at New York’s Carnegie Hall, or was it more tuxedo and tails?

Actually, I think I dressed less. I think I wore leather pants at Carnegie Hall, but they wanted it to be wild for some reason. They wanted to change it up. And that’s all thanks to Joshua Bell. He’s joining me in our new show — not in person, but thanks to some magic.

There are a lot of special moments. The whole show is basically ultimately why I’m doing what I’m doing. Why is this guy who nobody knows playing in Las Vegas on the Strip?

Do you think you’re still an unknown star?

No. I’m finding out as we travel, I’m not. But it’s taken 16 years to get that so-called overnight success. I’ve only recently brought on a manager and only recently worked with a producer. Before, I did it all myself. It’s safe to say April 20 is overnight success after 16 years.

The Stratosphere was a good platform for me because it put me into a new level, showed me the discipline. We had a theme, but nobody told me what to do. It taught me the discipline of a show, but there was no management, no production. They said, “Here’s a room. Play.” I decided to move it to a 90-minute show to construct this thing out of nothing.

I had nobody telling me what to do. I’d never been in a showroom. I didn’t necessarily want to. I was touring and playing with country bands on the road. Everything I was doing was so different. That gave me a discipline, which then I understand as it goes by what works for a Las Vegas crowd.

There’s playing music you want to play, then there’s selling tickets. Selling tickets is not anything to do with playing music, and that taught me that. This new situation, we really designed a system for that. The goal is I want to turn it back around. Louis Prima, huge star, played the lounges. Bobby Darin played the lounges.

But the lounges back then were subsidiary showrooms.

I know. Well, they were different. It was a different thing. A guy like me playing this was very common in the ’60s. Bobby Darin was playing lounges, and he was a big recording star.

I want to see Las Vegas happen again. I want to be the guy who starts organizing things happening where people are playing these numbers, and the guys singing are out on the town and singing with other people, and making it to where you could walk into any lounge any hour and go, “Man, that’s exciting.”

Not just, “Oh, they’re playing ‘Brick House’ and ‘Mustang Sally’ because they’re supposed to. I don’t know how that started. Nobody wants to hear that. That’s why nobody is in the lounges.

You put a Louis Prima in the lounge singing original music and Frank Sinatra in the showroom, then Frank Sinatra will go watch Louis and jump up on the stage. That’s how The Rat Pack was formed.

So you’re going to have a new Rat Pack? Replace the cool of Sinatra, Sammy, Dean, Joey and Lawford?

I hope so. I’ve got to find the right guys, but I hope so.

Do they exist?

Not yet. In six months, maybe.

* * *

Tickets are on sale now for “Under the Influence” with Frankie Moreno at Planet Hollywood Showroom starting April 20.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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