Friday, March 26, 1999 | 10:03 a.m.
The first sign that something is awry in the Monte Carlo is actually several signs, all carrying the same ominous warning to casino visitors.
At first, the posted caution is remarkable for what it ignores. It does not forewarn tourists of gaming risks such as "Pumping hundreds of dollars into an 'Elvis' slot machine is no guarantee he'll actually sing for you."
Instead, it's a no-nonsense caveat to anyone venturing into a sequestered area illuminated by tanning booth-quality stage lights and patrolled by Monte Carlo's finest.
The notice: "A television program is being filmed in this area. By entering this area, you consent to your likeness being used in the program without compensation and you release 20th Century Fox Film Corporation from any liability on account of such usage.
"If you do not wish to be subject to the foregoing then please DO NOT ENTER INTO THIS AREA. Thank you."
If it sounds like a sinister missive befitting the surrealistic TV show "The X-Files," you hit the jackpot. The popular Fox television series lurched into the Monte Carlo earlier this week to film an episode starring the show's "Lone Gunmen," Ringo Langly (Dean Haglund), John Fitzergald Byers (Bruce Harwood) and Melvin Frohike (Tom Braidwood).
In an episode entitled "Three of a Kind," the trio is in town to infiltrate the annual International Defense Contractors' Convention to flesh out various black ops posing as contractors during a card game. It marks the first on-location production in the show's six seasons, and it's no accident it happened in Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas is a very user-friendly town for the type of work we do," Michael Watkins, co-executive producer of "The X-Files," said. "We had heard various good things from other shows and how hospitable everyone in Las Vegas is. But what's really important is how adept it is at handling change and volume at a moment's notice."
That unique malleability was apparent at Monte Carlo, when the casino was able to accommodate a half-dozen cameras, lights, extras and support staff without disrupting the activity on the casino floor. Aside from a few gawkers (and even a handful of groupies hoping for a Langly autograph), it was business as usual for chip-toting tourists and hotel employees.
"We did not want to literally shut down the casino," said Doug Dresser, the show's location manager, who spent nearly three weeks in Las Vegas prepping for the filming. "The reason we wanted to be here was for the simple elegance, the international look of a classy hotel. I looked out at the casino floor the other night and it looked like the scene out of a James Bond movie, and you can only get that here."
But it's not just TV shows trying to depict other-worldly intrigue that happen upon Las Vegas for distinctive set scenery.
We've got it all
For action-adventure fans who once tuned in weekly to watch babe magnet Dan Tanna (Robert Urich) cruise up and down the Strip in his tricked-out red Ford Thunderbird in "Vega$," the Tropicana is serving as the set for a pilot of "The Strip." The still-to-be-cast TV show is being produced by Hollywood heavyweight Joel Silver, whose credits include the "Lethal Weapon" series and Bruce Willis's "Die Hard" blastfests.
The Tropicana was also the site for the season-ending installment of UPN's time-travel series "7 Days," which was shot last month.
Veteran hit-maker Aaron Spelling is also jumping in with a one-hour action pilot written by "Twin Peaks" creator Mark Frost, hoping to duplicate his "Vega$" success of the late '70s in a fall action series. Spelling is also producing a sitcom centering around Rio workhorse Danny Gans, and that pilot will be shot in October at a site to be determined.
Naturally, the city attracts the more obtuse forms of entertainment, and Richard Simmons has chosen Las Vegas for his syndicated "Richard Simmons' Dream Maker," which debuts in the fall (again at a location to be determined), and Penn and Teller are awaiting word from cable's FX on the fate of "Sin City Spectacular," the dazzling (but expensive) variety show taped at three Las Vegas hotels in its first season.
Also, "Wheel of Fortune," the top-rated game show entering its 16th year of syndication, has made two Las Vegas appearances, and The Nashville Network staple "Prime Time Country" was in town in 1997 during the National Finals Rodeo and again in April of '98. Both shows were taped at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Add Fox's "Hidden Camera," which began shooting two episodes this week and will be in town through April 10, and open auditions for the Game Show Network's "Extreme Gong" earlier this week at the Fremont Street Experience, and it's clear that Las Vegas draws and accommodates television shows of any ilk.
"Our vision is to have long-term projects come to Las Vegas," Mimosa Jones, president of the Las Vegas Entertainment Development Corporation, said. "We like having movies, pageants and special events, but most of the projects that are long-term are television-based."
The EDC, a nonprofit organization of more than 50 local business representatives, serves as a conduit between Hollywood and Southern Nevada in an attempt to tap into Hollywood's annual $27 billion entertainment industry. The EDC helped arrange the Tropicana's agreement for "The Strip" pilot, for example.
The EDC promotes the obvious benefits of filming or taping projects in Las Vegas: More than 300 days of TV-friendly weather, no state, corporate or inventory tax, the option of working off hours in a 24-hour town and a generally low cost of lodging and materials compared with other metropolitan areas.
"It's easier to do things in Las Vegas than in most places," Jones said. "It's an entertainment city that's used to accommodating all sorts of productions."
Spelling sold on Vegas
Spelling's production company has long been sold on the trappings of Las Vegas, beginning with the quintessential ode to '70s hipsters, "Vega$."
"When we first started out, it was an old script hanging about that Aaron had," Duke Vincent, vice-chairman of Spelling Television Inc. and a colleague of Spelling's for 25 years, said. "It looked at the dark underbelly of Las Vegas. It was a very dark show, not a show that had the glitz and glamor as the focal point."
After holding the script for several years, Vincent refurbished much of the original script.
"We liked the basic story and loved Las Vegas, but we wanted it to be brighter, flasher, like the city," Vincent said. "We had the suave detective in Robert Urich, who we knew from his days on 'S.W.A.T.,' and we added the T-Bird convertible with the car phone, which no one had in those days. But the biggest thing was the exposure for the city.
"People in Tokyo who had never seen Las Vegas were now seeing it for the first time in their living rooms every week."
Spelling returned to Las Vegas in the early '90s with the ill-fated "Jack of Hearts," which centered around Caesars Palace and was a sort of "Love Boat" theme, landlocked in Las Vegas. The Gans project, however, seems more destined for success, given the star's ample stage capabilities and Las Vegas credits.
Gans has a show
It was after Spelling took in a Gans performance at the Rio over the summer that he told Vincent he wanted to make Gans a sitcom centerpiece, "no questions asked."
"He told me to drop whatever I was doing and to get my butt to Las Vegas," Vincent said. "We wanted to build a show around him instantly."
The plot's details are still to be hammered out, but it's likely the Gans show (also still to be titled) will resemble a Las Vegas-set version of "Seinfeld," in the sense that the formula is largely biographical.
One idea is for Gans to be settled with his family in Las Vegas, probably living in a hotel-casino, after a long career of grueling work on the road.
"If people remember 'Make Room For Daddy,' the old Danny Thomas show where he had a family and was in show business, they'll see those similarities," Gans said. "My favorite idea is to be set in the casino, and when the kids go to play in the back yard it's actually the hotel's pool area, that kind of thing.
"You get to know the guys in valet, the cocktail waitresses, the dealers and pit bosses, and you have a lot of opportunities for funny character development."
The pilot is tentatively set to be shot in October and ideally would air in late January or early February if its picked up by a major network. Coincidentally, Gans' contract with the Rio also ends in January and he hasn't indicated what he'll pursue when the deal expires, other than his stated goal of someday performing as a headliner on the Strip.
In the meantime, Gans has been flying to Nashville on his days off to record a CD of original material in his own -- not his impressionist's -- voice. But he doesn't plan to leave town any time soon.
"My goal is to stay in Las Vegas," Gans said. "I've had a lot of offers to do (television shows) in L.A. and I've turned them down. I didn't want to leave Las Vegas."
The man who sweats to the oldies and has dealt color-coded diet cards to a weight-conscious public is realizing a dream in Las Vegas.
Simmons, the excitable diet guru (and frequent punching bag for David Letterman) announced in January that his new project, "Richard Simmons' Dream Maker" will use Las Vegas as a launching pad for its fall debut for the Tribune Entertainment Co. The show premieres in August and will be shown locally on KTNV Channel 13.
The ambitious format should not surprise anyone familiar with the tireless, even manic, prince of vanishing cellulite. For one hour in the afternoon, five days a week, he merely makes people's dreams come true.
It could be arranging family reunions, giving a star-struck fan a chance to meet his or her favorite celebrity (Cook E. Jarr?), filling in for a day of work for a lucky audience member, or providing dazzling makeovers.
Co-executive producer Vin Di Bona, creator of ABC's powerhouse "America's Funniest Home Videos," now in its 10th season, said Las Vegas is the perfect locale for any rainbow chaser.
"What we've settled on is a sense of what Las Vegas is about," Di Bona said. "It's about giving people dreams. It's a mecca, a gathering of people from around the world. And why do you go to Las Vegas? To hit the jackpot."
Di Bona said Simmons has narrowed his choice of showroom to "three or four," with a targeted studio audience capacity of around 600. Spirits surrounding the show are high, and for good reason -- Simmons is a proven audience-grabber with four daytime Emmy awards for his "Richard Simmons Show" and more than 12 million copies sold of his "Sweatin' To The Oldies" video series.
"It will be a different kind of show compared to what Richard has already done," Di Bona said. "This will be a very spiritual effort."
Harry Friedman played "Wheel of Fortune" once.
He got killed.
"I lost a lot of money," Friedman, producer of the country's top-rated game show, said. "I tried to put the losses on my expense voucher. They wouldn't reimburse me, unfortunately."
Friedman is speaking of the slot machine that populates Las Vegas casinos. He's had better luck with the game show, which last visited the Las Vegas Hilton in January.
Co-hosts Pat Sajak and Vanna White have taped two weeks' worth of shows over a two-day period (five shows per day) before capacity audiences in the hotel's 1,500-seat showroom.
"What Las Vegas offered us was a chance to go somewhere where you can tie the name of the show in with 'fun,' " Friedman said. "The audiences had a great cross-section of people from around the country, people on vacation who normally watch the show at home, and the wheel itself reminds people of roulette and games of chance. It's a natural connection."
"Wheel of Fortune" has traveled to more than 20 locations, including Seattle, San Francisco and Hawaii. The production runs particularly smoothly in Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas is very TV savvy," Friedman said. "The know how to turn a showroom that might've had a show the night before in to a big TV studio. It's very smooth, very professional and the people who work with us have a lot of experience."
Country and 'Sin's' future
For the son of Dick Clark, Las Vegas has meant a huge boost in ratings for TNN's highest-rated weeknight series, "Prime Time Country." TNN reports that ratings increase by 60 percent when the show hits town.
"We see a big jump because of the excitement of Las Vegas," said Rac Clark, the former co-executive producer of the show, who was recently promoted to senior vice president of dick clark productions. "For us, it's like a big field trip."
This year, "Prime Time Country" is traveling to Houston, Orlando and Las Vegas. Its home is the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn.
"There are a lot of country music connections in Las Vegas in it's a very country kind of town," Clark said. "You've got the New Frontier (hotel) with Gilley's, and obviously the NFR. We like to try to be in town when all the country folks are there. We go where they are."
But as country music programs and game shows come and go, one of the more identifiable links to Las Vegas is awaiting word on its future. "Sin City Spectacular," a mutation of traditional carnival acts ("See the circus geek shove nails up his nostrils!") and defunct television variety shows such as Ed Sullivan's has not yet been renewed by FX.
The Penn and Teller-hosted "Sin City," which was costly to produce, drew critical acclaim, but FX might choose not to fund the weekly hourlong showcase of elaborate acts and special effects. The show was taped before live audiences at the Hilton, Luxor and MGM Grand in its first season.
"We had a blast doing the first season. It was a real adventure," Teller said. "I'm pretty proud of how funny the whole ensemble got and the fact that this was really the first comedy show in recent memory to broadcast weekly out of Vegas. We're waiting on word from the network about whether we'll be doing another season."
Penn and Teller should learn of their fate in a month or two, which is the reality of make-believe productions in Las Vegas: Nothing is forever. But always, someone new is willing to jump into the game.