Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2019

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Bellagio betting on entertainment

Steve Wynn calls it "the white-knuckle part of the business."

But it's not catering to high-stakes baccarat players, buying costly works of art or facing rival casino operators Donald Trump and Arthur Goldberg in their Atlantic City fiefdom that makes the Mirage Resorts Inc. chairman queasy.

It's the entertainment business, where the costs of entry are steep, the risks stratospheric and the rewards often as fleeting as a one-night bomb on Broadway.

Yet with gaming seemingly ubiquitous in the United States, entertainment has become essential to maintaining the allure of Las Vegas.

Without shows enticing enough, dining exquisite enough and shopping elegant enough to draw a new and different breed of visitor to the city, many of the new and most of the old resorts on the Strip will be begging for customers.

For Bellagio, there's no science involved in developing new entertainment draws. It's all art -- fitting, perhaps, for a resort boasting a $300 million collection of Monets, Picassos, Renoirs and Van Goghs.

Always subject to the whimsical nature of critics and audiences, a successful entertainment package nevertheless contains certain universal constants.

It must showcase the virtuosity of its performers and elevate the spirits of its viewers, stimulate their senses, stir their emotions, evoke laughter, tears and awe.

It can be a special-effects spectacular costing more than $100 million and staged in an 1,800-seat theater, or an intimate cabaret featuring artists at the peak of their careers, a one-night concert performance by a touring troupe or a long-running dramatic presentation.

What it won't be, at least at Bellagio, is ska, hip-hop or heavy metal -- music aimed at the young. Instead, it will be jazz, opera and swing -- music aimed at the young at heart.

For above all else, Wynn wanted Bellagio to be a monument to romance, an homage to a more elegant era, an escape from the harsher realities of life. And with entertainment playing such a crucial role in the resort's overall appeal, he insisted on offerings that complement its ambience.

"Bellagio is about fine arts, it's about gardens and flowers, it's about fashion," Wynn said recently. "It is a place about music and a whole bunch of things that are good for the soul.

"If we are to complete this process with a maturity in entertainment, and by that I mean we don't recycle old ideas and I don't mean old performers, but if we get innovative and creative, then it will be a completed symphony."

A symphony of soft sounds and soothing vistas that will, he believes, lead to a renaissance of the performance arts throughout Las Vegas.

It would begin with Bellagio's fountains, a free water, light and music show fronting the Strip that, as with The Mirage and Treasure Island, is designed to lure passersby into the resort itself to see what other wonders might be inside.

It would continue with Bellagio's lounges -- Fontana, Allegro and the Baccarat Bar -- and spread through to the resort's main showrooms. And, his comments about recycling old ideas notwithstanding, Wynn opted to adopt at least two Las Vegas standbys rather than rely solely on risky new genres.

Eschewed by most resort operators since the early 1980s, lounges featuring the likes of name performers such as Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Shecky Greene and Buddy Hackett once put the Strip on the entertainment map. Could it happen again with a similar caliber, albeit current generation, of star performers?

And with Siegfried & Roy and Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere" -- the two highest-grossing production shows in world history -- playing to sold-out audiences at The Mirage and Treasure Island nightly, why not stage something similar at Bellagio?

Ultimately, why not do something akin to an original Broadway opening, using the creative talents of a Tommy Tune or Marvin Hamlisch or Rob Marshall to build, from ground up, a completely new production show?

His goal firmly in mind, Wynn sought a guide, someone from the ranks of the New York or Hollywood show-business scenes, to lead Bellagio and the company's other resorts along the perilous route to redefining Las Vegas entertainment.

Wynn was talking to media mogul Barry Diller about his plans one day, and a long-time Hollywood talent agent's name came up.

"As I understand it, Barry said something like, 'I think Sandy Gallin has done the talent management and producing thing for 35 years, and he might be ready for a change,' " recalls Gallin.

Gallin, who'd started in the mailroom of an agency and worked his way up to co-owner of Gallin-Morey Associates, has known Wynn since he began booking performers for various Mirage showrooms 16 years ago.

The agency has represented stars such as Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Richard Pryor, and has produced 17 movies and a number of television series.

"We had many conversations over a seven-month period," Gallin says. "The opportunity seemed exciting, interesting and a little scary. And it had the potential to be very rewarding financially."

As the Hollywood rumor mill revved up, Gallin began receiving calls from "hundreds" of entertainment personalities, he says.

"They said they could understand the career change and the new challenge, but a move to Vegas? I told them I was ready for a challenge. And every business and creative person I know has made major changes in their lives."

When he was offered the post of president of the company's new subsidiary, Mirage Entertainment & Sports Inc., along with a rumored seven-figure annual salary, Gallin made his decision.

"Steve said he wanted to raise the entertainment levels at all his hotels," Gallin says. "And we could eventually get into TV, movie and theater productions, though I consider my first course of business the product at all our hotels."

Gallin got a running start thanks to Wynn's insistence more than two years earlier to include brand-new Cirque du Soleil productions at Bellagio, the company's new Mississippi resort, Beau Rivage, and at its Le Jardin hotel-casino in Atlantic City.

By the time Gallin was hired, the new Cirque show at Bellagio had been in rehearsals for months.

With a price tag approaching $100 million, "O" is the most ambitious and -- according to those who've seen it -- the most spectacular production show ever staged in Las Vegas.

It features an $80 million set modeled after the Paris Opera House, a 1.5 million-gallon water tank, live music, synchronized swimming, diving, aerialists, acrobats and more.

"Imagine you have the performance and the money and ingenuity to create a theater and stage with every kind of technology," Wynn says. "If you put a great piece of entertainment in this environment, then you take the audience to a place they've never been before.

"It becomes a journey that's not about thrill rides or motion simulators or virtual reality. It's about something far more powerful and deep -- the movement of the spirit and the soul. It's about your imagination."

"I've seen 'O' 10 times," Gallin says. "It is the most magnificent and beautiful piece of live theater I've ever seen, and I've seen just about everything that been done in the past 30 years."

Gallin's comments, while they might be expected from a Mirage executive, are echoed by dozens of others -- including performers at competing Strip shows who've been afforded sneak previews of the production.

Gallin immediately began criss-crossing the country to scout the hottest new talents available to anchor Bellagio's elegant lounges. And he's succeeded in getting some of the best, according to Mirage Resorts executive Alan Feldman.

"Our view of the Fontana Bar is that it's actually another showroom," says Feldman. "It's a place that's hip and sophisticated. Maybe you have to be in the know to fully appreciate who's performing there, but that's okay. Those who do know will go there.

"We're putting in artists who have established themselves at the highest levels, performers such as Lorston Harris, John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein, award-winners who have helped define the lounge and nightclub scenes in New York and elsewhere.

The pianist Feinstein recently played New York City's famed Rainbow Room "and sold out four weeks of shows in just 12 hours," Feldman says. "I don't know of a finer interpreter of Gershwin's music performing today."

Harris is a jazz pianist who will anchor the Allegro Bar. "He's not only a fabulous pianist but a great singer," says Feldman.

And Pizzarelli is a highly sought after guitarist and vocalist who'll be playing hits from Mercer to McCartney, as well as original compositions, Feldman says.

"Even though there are some very good performers, the lounge scene in Las Vegas has been flailing, at best," he says. "There are a few that have a following, but it's a small following.

"We're talking about bringing in major names, people who haven't performed in lounges but whose craft is perfectly suited to the intimate setting of a 200-seat lounge."

Beyond the hip will be the historic, with artists such as virtuoso American pianist Van Cliburn and Andrea Bocelli, the acclaimed Italian opera singer whose voice graces the Bellagio TV commercials now being shown nationwide, appearing in the resort's showrooms. Bocelli is scheduled to perform at Bellagio's New Year's celebration.

After lining up lounge talent for all the company's properties, Gallin will concentrate on longer-term projects.

"We've been discussing the possibility of originating new theater pieces here, full-blown Broadway-type musicals with long runs that could eventually wind up in New York, London and elsewhere," he says.

"I believe that before too long, Las Vegas will have as many theatrical premieres as Broadway."

If so, entertainment may join fine dining, upscale shopping and, yes, slots and table games, in a rebirth of Las Vegas as a destination resort attracting increasing numbers of visitors each year.