Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2019

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Luck of the draw: Howard’s ‘Stars of the Strip’ struggling to get noticed at Lady Luck

Danny Gans, Clint Holmes and Robbie Howard.

What do three of the more talented entertainers in town have in common?

They are relatively unknown outside of Las Vegas.

The difference is, Howard also is relatively unknown inside Las Vegas except among his peers and his many fans who return time and again to see him perform at Lady Luck.

While Gans and Holmes are fixtures on the Strip, performing in theaters bearing their names, Howard is still toiling away in a giant tent downtown where he produces, directs and stars in "Stars of the Strip."

"Stars," a revue heavy on comedy and impersonations, is as entertaining as many shows on the boulevard. But it suffers from snob appeal.

"If you open a show at The Mirage or Venetian, people will go in thinking it will be a great show because it is at The Mirage or The Venetian," Howard said. "They come into Lady Luck thinking just the opposite.

"Most of the reaction we get is, they can't understand why we are down here and not up on the Strip."

"Stars" is a low-budget afternoon production, in the same vein as Dick Feeney's "Viva Las Vegas" at Stratosphere and Breck Wall's "Bottoms Up" at Flamingo Las Vegas.

"People walk into all these (inexpensive) afternoon shows and think, 'Well, if it sucks, I still got a drink out of it and if it sucks, we'll leave,' " Howard said.

The price of admission to "Stars of the Strip" is just one drink.

"But if the show isn't any good, people won't come back, even if it's free," Howard noted.

Veteran entertainer Steve Rossi, formerly half of the comedy team of Martin and Rossi, is one of a list cast members who rotate every couple of weeks.

"Having been here 50 years, I've seen every show conceivable," Rossi said. "I've never seen one more interesting than this one. It's totally entertaining -- it's got comedy, impressions, and singing. It's got everything."

And it usually has a large audience. Some fans have seen the show a dozen times or more.

They come to see Howard (who says he is an entertainer who does impressions, not an impressionist), Rossi, Elvis impersonator Greg Miller, comic-magician Jeff Hobson and several other veterans of Las Vegas stages.

Hobson also is host of "V," a variety show that debuted at The Venetian last month. The production is similar to "The Ed Sullivan Show," in that there are several unrelated acts.

Howard, too, will be a "V" host from time to time, substituting for Hobson during the 8 p.m. show.

"V" is similar to shows Howard has been producing and performing in for more than 20 years -- revues that involve several acts.

"Since 1980, I've worked almost every night of my life," he said. "A lot of my friends, stand-up comedians and musicians, don't have that opportunity."

Howard's revue career started at Crackers restaurant/nightclub in Anaheim, Calif., where he produced a dinner theater that featured madcap comedy and music.

It lasted eight years.

"It was organized chaos," Howard said. "When we started, rib dinners were $7.95, and we'd sell 30 or 40 dinners a night. By the time we left, ribs were $34.95 and we turned away 200 people every Friday and Saturday night."

In 1991 Mickey Finn (of Dixieland Jazz and comedy fame) lured Howard and his troupe away from Anaheim to Las Vegas. Finn had the showroom at Main Street in downtown Las Vegas.

"He said the place would never close," Howard said.

But the casino closed in 1992 and Howard went on tour with Finn for a few months. Then he created "Hurray America" and settled in at the Westward Ho for six years, from 1993 to 1999.

"We had to work a little harder, being at the Westward Ho," Howard said.

It was that snob thing working again. Westward Ho billed itself as "The World's Largest Motel," not the best advertisement to entice an audience to a showroom.

"We drew in 500 to 700 people per night," Howard said. "The Westward Ho was a good chance to acquire a lot of material, to get a rhythm going, to get an identity."

The Westward Ho production changed each year.

"One year, we had Marty Allen and his wife Karon (Blackwell)," Howard said. "I opened for them, and then I was part of the ensemble after that."

In 1999 Howard moved "Hooray" to Lady Luck and renamed it "Stars of the Strip."

"I have always liked the variety format," he said. "That's what I grew up with. I don't know why we don't see more of it."

Howard says he isn't concerned about the future of his show, which most certainly will be affected in some way by the sale of the Lady Luck by Isle of Capri Casinos, a Biloxi, Miss.-based company, to AMX Nevada LLC.

The sale is still pending.

"The new owners have contacted me and asked for a proposal," Howard said. "They don't want to kick us out, but they aren't in show business and they don't want to pay for the show.

"I gave them a couple of options, however, they can't say yes or no because they don't own the property yet."

Howard said the tentative owners intend to turn the towers at Lady Luck into timeshare apartments, and to add another tower of timeshares.

"Their idea is to keep the tent until they can build a showroom in the new tower," he said.

However, business is business and not all deals are consummated, so Howard can't be certain about the future.

He wouldn't mind following in the footsteps of Holmes and Gans.

"But I still would insist on having another act with me," Howard said. "I don't know many people who want to sit and watch one act for an hour and 15 minutes, unless the act is a Paul McCartney."

Or maybe someone who impersonates McCartney.