Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Dubbed the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” Las Vegas has seen countless performances over the years. From unknown saloon singers to famed crooners, piano bar solos to big band concertos — there’s no arguing that our city has earned its reputation.
In the vast realm of Las Vegas entertainment, there are few institutions that have been as significant as the lounge act. And while the Rat Pack days are long past, lounge acts have continued to evolve with time.
“Small shows tend to attract big local crowds. Everyone wants to think they’re going to discover the next big thing,” said Monica Reeves, Director of Entertainment at Station Casinos.
Though many of today’s smaller-scale shows are markedly different, the motivating principles remain the same: the desire to discover new talent, an informal setting, unrehearsed surprises and a dedicated, local audience leading the charge.
Lounge acts of the early days
During the ’50s and ’60s, small, intimate venues were at the heart of Las Vegas’ entertainment industry. The Mary Kaye Trio was pioneering lounge performances at the Last Frontier Hotel and Casino. Louis Prima and Keely Smith were filling the late-night slot at the Sahara. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Nat King Cole were known to give unannounced, impromptu performances at nightclubs across the developing Strip properties.
During a time of rapid growth, Las Vegas was carving out a piece of its identity through the entertainers it was able to attract. The shows of that era were famed for being personal, electrifying and often improvised. This wild and unpredictable nature captivated audiences while bolstering Sin City’s growing reputation as a place where anything could happen — particularly after hours.
However, as these shows became increasingly popular, the demand for entertainment quickly outgrew lounges and clubs. Hotels were building larger showrooms, headliners were demanding steeper fees and popular concerts were selling out months in advance.
A changing industry
As the industry changed, many lounge acts retired from the scene. “I think people started to associate lounge performers with kind of clichéd imagery — a singer in the corner of a casino, doing the old standards in a flashy dress. Something to provide background music, but not really command attention,” Reeves said. “But the local market has much higher expectations than that, because they know how incredible the talent in Las Vegas is.”
A need for all shows big and small
While megastar residencies and big-budget Strip productions drive tourism, Reeves observes that many locals are seeking out smaller bands with whom they can make a personal connection. It’s a sentiment that seems to parallel those felt during the glory days of lounge acts, wherein performers would speak directly to their audience, engage with them throughout the show and even invite some to participate on stage.
The impact of social media
Unlike years ago, technology affords us opportunities to connect with the performers we love.
“All of our longstanding entertainers have steady fanbases that follow them from venue to venue. Social media helps facilitate that by getting the word out about upcoming shows,” Reeves said. But the real power of social media is in the ability to reach people who aren’t already fans. “For many new, young artists, marketing via social media is all they know. Their followers are completely organic, they’re intuitive about how and when to engage, and they personally understand their target audience.”
Social media interaction helps performers build intimate relationships with their fans, even in the absence of physical, close-contact shows. Though it may not carry the same mystique as a one-night-only cabaret, it gives performers a much larger platform to reach people — even from a small stage.
Cover music vs. original music
Las Vegas loves a good cover band, but Reeves asserts the importance of playing original music as well. “Classic rock and Top 40 cover songs are going to attract the most people, but bands should always try to put a couple original songs on their set list. People like hearing things that are new and unfamiliar,” Reeves said. In her opinion, the sweet spot is a 9:1 ratio, 90 percent covers, 10 percent originals.