Saturday, Aug. 24, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
With hopes of becoming an attorney, G. Barney Rawlings sang for $5 a night in a Utah club in 1947 to help defray the cost of attending the University of Utah during the day.
Rawlings got a Labor Day weekend gig at the Railroad Pass Casino in Henderson for $150 -- the most anyone had ever paid to hear his melodic voice. That three-day job set off a chain of events that forever changed his life.
"Hal Braudis, who was the producer at the Last Frontier Hotel (on the Strip), asked me to audition that Tuesday," the 74-year-old Rawlings recalled. "I didn't have any music or a pianist when I showed up.
"Eleanor Powell, who was the headliner at the Last Frontier, loaned me her pianist and I sang 'Begin the Beguine' and 'All the Things You Are.' "
An excited Powell congratulated the young crooner after a splendid audition, but all that Braudis would say was: "You'll be hearing from us."
"It was like, yeah, sure, don't call us, we'll call you," said Rawlings, a decorated World War II bomber pilot and longtime officer in the Air Force Reserve and Nevada National Guard. He drove back to Utah that night.
"I figured, I'd go home and become a lawyer and that was it," he said.
But that Thursday, Braudis called Rawlings and asked if he could be back in Las Vegas Friday to begin rehearsal.
"I went back to Las Vegas that day and never looked back," Rawlings said, noting that this Labor Day marks his 49th anniversary of involvement with the Strip entertainment industry.
Rawlings' 3,128 consecutive performances at the old Thunderbird Hotel in the 1950s remains one of the longest in Strip entertainment history.
Today, he is the owner of GEBARA Enterprises Inc., a television production company that provides crews to networks including HBO and ESPN. The company's technicians have won eight Emmy awards.
And while the 49th anniversary will pass quietly, Rawlings hopes to perform in a golden anniversary show next Labor Day that will, for many old-timers, bring back memories of Las Vegas' rich past and, for younger generations, show what those bygone days on the Strip stage were really like.
"We did big productions without all the special effects of today's Strip shows, simply because we didn't have them," Rawlings said. "We did it all ourselves."
Rawlings, who also worked in conventions and marketing for a half-dozen Strip properties, has kept his finger on the pulse of local entertainment since giving up his career as a singing emcee in the late 1950s.
Also, in two stints with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority totaling 10 years, Rawlings served first as assistant manager and later as executive director.
Though it has been a long time since his shadow has graced Strip stages, Rawlings has performed countless times at weddings ("I Promise You"), funerals ("The Lord's Prayer") and at ballgames and conventions ("The National Anthem").
Journalist/commentator Paul Harvey once wrote: "Newcomers should be made aware the Strip was built by people like Barney Rawlings and they deserve to be remembered."
The early days
When Rawlings talks about Las Vegas' early days, there is a gleam in his eye.
"It was true that you didn't have to lock your doors and everybody in town knew each other -- and everyone knew who was performing where," he said. "Locals could go to dinner and a show for about $5.50 per person."
The singing emcee controlled the tempo of the festivities, including rendering the opening theme and singing with the band during the 25-minute dance set before the actual show.
He then would introduce everyone from the opening acts to the headliner.
Rawlings earned about $75 a week for that job. If the position existed today, it would pay about $1,000 a week, he said.
Although he worked with many industry giants, including Duke Ellington, Rawlings recalls two lesser-known entertainers as being among the most talented ever to perform on the Strip.
One was a Los Angeles area singer named Arthur Lee Simpkins.
"You'd probably say 'who?' " Rawlings said. "But he was a beautiful tenor who, whenever he played Las Vegas, filled the house. How big was Arthur Lee Simpkins? Liberace and Joey Bishop opened for him -- that's how big he was."
Another man Rawlings looked up to was James Melton, regarded as the first opera-type performer to headline on the Strip.
"He had his own network TV show ("Ford Festival" on NBC Thursday nights 1951-52)," Rawlings said. "He came here and, in the dry desert air, blew out his throat."
Not wanting to disappoint the crowd, Melton brought Rawlings on stage to sing the higher registers.
"He stood there, with his arm around my shoulder and would sing one part, then I'd sing another part, then he'd sing and I'd sing, and so on -- it brought down the house," Rawlings said.
"Even when he got his voice back, we continued to do the number together. That's how unselfish an entertainer he was."
One of Rawlings' duties as singing emcee was to have a song in reserve in case a main performer was late or if there were other problems that would delay the show.
One night, during Helldorado week, cowboy star Rex Allen was performing on stage, when his horse, Coco, dropped, as Rawlings put it, "a barrelful."
"The stage went dark, the pinspot hit me and I began singing 'The Evening Breeze,'" Rawlings said.
The irony was that there was nothing pleasant in that evening's breeze, as stagehands worked feverishly in the dark to clean up the horse droppings. The audience, becoming aware of what was going on, cracked up as Rawlings delivered the romantic number with a straight face.
Although Rawlings says he has lived a good life with lots of ups, there were two downs that tested his inner strength.
One was in November 1972, when he was forced to resign his then-$32,000-a-year post as director of the convention authority -- a job he had held since 1969.
Rawlings, addressing the issue for the first time in many years, said he pushed more for the building of the convention center's badly needed east wing to improve convention business.
The move was interpreted by some as opposition to the LVCVA building what is now Sam Boyd Stadium -- a pet project of some of the board members.
"I didn't oppose the stadium, I just felt that convention business was the wave of the future," Rawlings said, noting he was in a no-win situation and was being driven out solely for political reasons.
"It was better that Barney Rawlings disappear into obscurity than have the convention industry suffer by me doing something like filing a lawsuit," he said.
Ironically, the convention center did expand through a bond passed under Rawlings' leadership, and the stadium, originally called the Silver Bowl, was for a long time a financial headache to the LVCVA. Today, it is administered by UNLV.
The other low point in Rawlings' life came in 1989 when his wife of 49 years, Hazel (nee Palfreyman) Rawlings, died at age 67.
For months, a grieving Rawlings would spend evenings sitting in the dark in his living room, his lhasa apso Winston his only companion.
"As far as I was concerned, I had no future without Hazel," Rawlings said.
Asked to sing at a wedding in Utah, he reluctantly went and met Christine Ann Puff Russell of Tooele, Utah, a divorcee, who was 18 years his junior.
"When I saw her enter the room, I felt a pain in my heart, which meant I was either having a fatal attack -- which at that time would have been acceptable -- or was falling in love."
Having just recently relocated to Las Vegas, she knew nothing of his sterling military record, Strip entertainment history or hotel work.
"I had no intention of ever marrying again, and none of those things about him would have made me change my mind," Chris said.
"What impressed me was people telling me of the devotion and care he gave his wife when she was dying and how well he treated her over the years."
Barney and Chris were married in 1990. On Aug. 11, they celebrated their sixth wedding anniversary.
Rawlings is the father of four grown children and has 15 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
It has become a tradition for the grandchildren to be married in his Las Vegas home while he sings "Ave Maria" in Latin. The most recent of those weddings was on Aug. 10.
Rawlings also is the brother of Jim Rawlings, an ex-Union Carbide executive who helped bring prosperity to Alamo by opening the Emerson Mill and Tempiute Mine. He later served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. Jim Rawlings is retired to Connecticut where he is writing his memoirs.
Apparently far from retirement, Barney Rawlings looks back on his career in the hotel industry and often jokes that he never was able to hold down a job.
In the mid-1950s, Rawlings was convention director of the Thunderbird. From 1957-63 he served as assistant manager of the then-Las Vegas Convention Bureau.
From 1964-68, Rawlings was vice president of sales for the Riviera before taking the post of executive director of marketing for the Sands. At that time, he also was national director for Nevada's Hotel Sales Management Association.
In September 1969, he left the Sands for the LVCVA.
In 1973, Rawlings was director of convention sales for the Tropicana Hotel. A year later he was marketing director at the old Landmark Hotel.
In June 1981, Rawlings became director of marketing for Trans American Video Inc., and was named to head the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce's television-motion picture committee to entice productions to Las Vegas.
In the late 1980s, Rawlings started GEBARA, a name he got by combining the first two letters of his first (George), middle and last names.
As for his future in the Strip entertainment industry, Rawlings recalls the advice his old friend, the late centenarian entertainer George Burns, gave him seven years ago.
"George said don't ever retire," Rawlings recalled. "But I only want to be around as long as I can make a contribution in production work, as a singer, whatever.
"I never want to be a burden to anyone -- not to my family and not to the Strip industry."