Saturday, April 25, 2015 | 5:10 p.m.
Not so long ago, the only evidence Elvis Presley was at the hotel where he famously headlined was a bronze statue at the entrance and tribute show in Shimmer Cabaret.
The statue remains, even with its inaccurate notation of Elvis’ streak of 837 consecutive sellouts (more about that in my column in The Sunday). Not so fortunate was the show starring longtime Elvis tribute artist Trent Carlini, which has been unplugged and disassembled for a massive Elvis revival all around the hotel.
Elvis is back in the building — just ask anyone wearing a name tag at the Westgate. Given the choice of full Elvis or no Elvis, hotel owner David Siegel and his posse have opted for the former. Team Siegel is fairly swaggering around the property, forging an attitude that reminds of the original crew who wore those gold “TCB” necklaces Elvis used to hand out. Taking Care of Business is what that meant, with a lighting bolt to emphasize power and speed.
In less than a year, Westgate has undergone a propertywide “TCB” overhaul that is impressive for its efficiency and attitude. The new “Graceland Presents Elvis: The Man, The Show, The Experience” is the most famous and obvious example of the swashbuckling approach Westgate officials have taken at the hotel since taking over July 1.
Siegel has a frame of reference regarding Elvis that dates to the late '50s, when he first heard the name “Elvis Presley” and thought, “Who would name their kid Elvis?” and soon learned what all the fuss was about. So it has been easy to understand why Siegel would wield his authority and wealth at the former International, Las Vegas Hilton and LVH and return Elvis to the marquee.
In that process, Siegel has left little doubt that this is a full-blast Elvis revival. The exhibition space covers nearly 30,000 square feet and is loaded with the best Elvis artifacts. The display is intentionally heavy on Las Vegas exhibits, including photos and video footage of his days at the showroom, large selection of jumpsuits and even coveralls he wore as the mechanic Lucky Jackson in “Viva Las Vegas.”
The theater has been renamed the Elvis Presley Theater. “The Elvis Experience,” a stage show handpicked by Priscilla Presley starring Martin Fontaine, is a detailed presentation of an Elvis show just as it would have been performed in the early 1970s. Fontaine has obviously studied Presley’s stage movements and mannerisms, the famous curl of the lip and asides to the band.
The 24-piece band is dressed groovily in' 70s attire — long-haired wigs and white suits with wide lapels. You come away from that show realizing just how exaggerated the King’s dance moves and such offhanded phrases as “thank ya very much” have become over the years. By the time Elvis opened at the International, he had smoothed out the way he moved onstage and developed the karate kicks he’d learned in studying martial arts. But for most of the show, Elvis simply moved gracefully, in rhythm with the music.
The wild moments were not so frequent, and Fontaine performs those moves impressively. The show is further filled out by some great vintage video footage of the Presley family, especially little Lisa Marie, and some of his more famous TV appearances (including the regretful turn with an actual hound dog on “The Steve Allen Show.”
The entire setlist, from such Elvis classics as “C.C. Rider,” “Burnin’ Love” and “Blue Suede Shoes” to covers of “Proud Mary” and “Unchained Melody,” are copped from the original Elvis performances.
What the show requires is a boost in the sonic quality of its band and some way to effectively fill the dead spots when Fontaine pauses to pump water (maybe some chatter from the band or guitar riffs or drum fills or something, but these dead spots in the show don’t quite harken to the explosive performances Elvis engineered in that room). But visually and conceptually, “The Elvis Experience” does pay righteous respect to the concerts the King put on in the International and Hilton days.
Elsewhere, Siegel has recruited Suzanne Somers to star in the old Shimmer Cabaret, which is to be renamed for her. Siegel remembers Somers primarily as a TV star from “Three’s Company” and also knows of her history performing in that very room in the 1980s. It’s yet another throwback decision, as is the lobby bar at the front — named the International Bar, or IBar — and the new 24-hour cafe, Sid’s, is off to the side of the casino floor. The gift shop is at the start of the hallway leading to the north entrance/exit of the casino, not at the end, when it was hundreds of feet away from the collective mass of hotel guests.
This plan is far from original — it follows the blueprint of the International in the Kirk Kerkorian era.
After the premiere of “The Elvis Experience,” Westgate official Mark Waltrip stood near the front of Tempo lounge, which is a nicely appointed bar and smallish nightclub that regularly operates in the red. He grimaced as he talked of the ideas to open that bar instead of the one near the lobby, which is routinely buzzing with activity (the nearby blackjack tables help draw a crowd, too). He noted the consolidation of amenities near the hotel, the new carpet (and any change in carpeting at the old Hilton was a welcome change), and how the great chandelier work over the casino has been preserved.
“Kirk Kerkorian originally designed this hotel, and we’re going back to that design,” Waltrip said. Then he paused and said, “Kirk Kerkorian opened this hotel, and what he did was genius.”
No doubt. And Westgate Las Vegas is hooking its past, and its future, on the genius of the King of Las Vegas Resorts and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Whether it is a bold return to the golden era of Las Vegas resort hospitality or a risky and impulsive investment in nostalgia is yet to be determined, but it’s the summer of ’69, all over again, at Westgate Las Vegas.