Smoke & Giggles... Exploring The Business Behind The Biz

If it costs me my very last dime
If I wind up broke up, well
I’ll always remember that
I had a swingin’ time

“Viva Las Vegas”
words & music by
Doc Pomus and
Mort Shuman

Vegas is not a place to
come to learn.

— Kevin Burke

No matter where you are in the world, people know Las Vegas. Every major city in Europe has a casino named after our fabled town. And if you mention you’re from here, it gives you an instant cachet, as if you had rubbed shoulders with gangsters, learned how to figure odds in high school math classes and played poker for extra pocket money. If America is the dream, Vegas is the Inception-like dream within the dream. It’s an extraordinary place and fuels the desires of a vast multitude of people. As a tourist, it offers mysteries and adventures, things not to be spoken of Monday morning at the water cooler. As a local, it offers access to fine restaurants and 24-hour bowling. But there is one thing it offers everyone, across the board – Las Vegas offers possibilities.

For an entertainer, Vegas is Mecca, Lourdes and the Wailing Wall all rolled into one. Sure, if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere … except Vegas. Vegas isn’t a sure thing even if New York is eating out of your hand. Long-running shows on Broadway have a hard time filling seats in the mega-casino-encased showrooms. And, yet, there are more than 100 shows now calling Las Vegas home. Tourists can find themselves part of an audience in almost any type of entertaining diversion, anytime from the early afternoon through the late evening.


So how does one go about becoming part of this industry? How do you find your name on the marquee and your talent glowing in the spotlight of adoration, basking in the applause of yet another sold-out crowd? Get help.

That help can come in a variety of guises. Vegas mainstays Penn & Teller are now hosting a show for British television titled Fool Us. Groups of talented magicians each come onto the stage and do some sort of magic trick in an attempt to “fool” the duo. If these magicians succeed (and it’s not easy) the prize isn’t cash or appliances or a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni. It’s an all-expenses-paid trip to … you guessed it … Las Vegas – to perform the winning effect on the Penn & Teller stage at the Rio, before a P&T audience.

Anything to perform in Vegas, right?

The more traditional route, however, involves something different. “You need two elements,” explains Kevin Burke. “You need a show that is ready to go and you need a producer who knows how to produce a show in Las Vegas.” Burke would know. He holds the title of hardest-working entertainer in Vegas, and he’s not shy about telling you how he got the sobriquet: “I’m the only entertainer in Las Vegas history to star in two completely different solo shows that are both running full schedules at the same time. Nathan Burton was doing variety spots (running between two different showrooms at opposite ends of the Strip to do magic numbers in ensemble shows). Nobody has ever run two full-schedule solo shows at the same time.” His shows are Defending the Caveman at Harrah’s and Kevin Burke: Mind Blowing Comedy downtown at The D (formerly Fitzgerald’s). Both have been running simultaneously for four years, and both are produced by John Bentham. As far as Burke is concerned, it’s his partnership with Bentham that makes it all possible. “I suppose I could learn John’s job, given time and intensive training, but I could never do John’s job. I don’t have the temperament or the instinct. I’m blessed to have him as a partner.”

“Vegas is a small town,” explains Seth Yudof, founder of the Vegas-based production company UD Factory. “It’s important to align yourself with the right people. It’s good if those people are wired in and know the community here.” Yudof is precise in his choice of words, differentiating producing elsewhere to producing in Las Vegas. “The perception is that Vegas is very big, because there’s giant buildings everywhere that everyone sees. But it’s such a close-knit community, especially within the circle of entertainment or of nightlife or whatnot. There’s no one answer for every show, whether it’s ticket brokers or time shares or special marketing techniques … you just need to make sure you have people that know the land.”

The importance of this knowledge cannot be stressed enough. In a place like Vegas, performers are a dime a dozen. But a producer, a good producer, is worth his weight in gold. “He’s negotiating ad rates in publications outside of The D,” answers Burke when asked about what Bentham does for the comedy mindreading show downtown. “He’s dealing with the ticket brokers; he’s doing all of the accounting that goes along with those ticket brokers. There’s the taxes that have to be paid, the salaries that have to be paid. Yes,” he laughs, “his ongoing work is more essential than mine, really. I got a guy who comes in on Wednesday nights, my night off, and does a show in my place. John’s part is more essential to this than mine.”

All kidding aside, Burke’s statement really brings up the main issue of what’s happening in the Las Vegas entertainment scene: What is the best way to approach a show from the business side of things? What role does the performer play in the production? How, in this economic climate, do you open and sustain a show?

One of the first myths to dispel is that the casinos are backing the shows. “There is no quality control like there was 10-20 years ago,” laments Arian Black, a magician who has had two casinos hosting her magic show Secrets.

Shows “used to be a loss leader in the casino,” she says. “It was something they would give (away) tickets to their high rollers. Yes, they would sell tickets, but it was something they were never ever worried about making money on because they knew the value of having a really good show. It drew people into their casino. It was something people talked about and something that they got great advertising with.”

“Yeah, I heard rumors of those days, too,” Burke says, laughing.

Listening to Black, whose show once occupied the same room as Burke’s Mind Blowing Comedy does now, you can tell this is something she’s passionate about. And from a performer’s point of view, what’s happening in the casinos is quite worrisome. “Because it’s run by corporations, and they don’t want any type of loss leader (on) their books, they now have changed those showrooms,” she explains. “Now it’s whoever can pay the most for the showroom. With showrooms, they let people compete. ‘Well, you know, this other person wants the showroom and they’re willing to pay this or they’re willing to spend this much on advertising.’”

Yudof’s company is partnering with Sin City Comedy producers John Padon and Kevin Kearney to open a 300 seat showroom on the mezzanine level of Planet Hollywood at the end of the month, being anchored by Sin City Comedy. But there are still time slots available for up to three more shows. So with a string of successful launches under his belt, he gets what Black is saying. But as a producer, he puts it more into a business context. “We need to know that you have sufficient funding to market (your show). Generally, no one asks for a specific dollar amount, but they ask that there’s ample enough of a campaign.”

At the same time, even if you have the money, there’s more to it than that. “We’re going to be renting the time slots out to some producers, and we’re considering producing one or two shows on our own also,” says Yudof. “Our goal is to put shows in there that are good. I don’t want this to be a revolving door of shows, like some other theatres in town. We want to have solid shows that stay for a while. We’re trying to come up with interesting ideas that will stand out. Whenever a small venue opens up it gets populated with a hypnosis show, a comedy show, and an afternoon comedy/magic show. You know what I mean? It’s a formula of low cost shows that just appear whenever a small venue becomes available, and I’m just trying to avoid that.”

“Good” is the operative word here. In the glory days of Vegas, back in the ’50s and ’60s, your entertainment choices were much more limited. You had your headliners, your Franks and Deans, who were in the showrooms, hosted by maître d’s holding their hands behind their backs before leading you to a front row or back aisle, depending on what folded currency greased the palm. And in the lounge, there was Rickles or Prima making you laugh or dance. All told, you had a couple of shows per hotel and you only had a few hotels. Today is very different.

“We’ll have 2-4 shows,” continues Yudof. “But there are about 100 shows in Vegas, and that’s a problem. Night clubs are over-saturated too. That’s part of why I said we don’t want to throw in another show. We want to find shows that we think will genuinely attract people. If you can stand out, then there will be people there.”

“On any given night,” agrees Burke, “your audience has the choice of going to see Elton John or a Cirque show or Phantom of the Opera or Jersey Boys or Donnie and Marie, or Saturday night they could have gone out on Fremont Street and seen Dennis DeYoung from Styx play the music of Styx for free. Nowhere else in the world do you have that level of choice as an audience member. Your show has to be f…..g good. You have to be ready when you get here.”

Burke sums it up: “You don’t perform the show for the first time on your opening night in Las Vegas.”

This is what a producer faces when trying to put on a show in Las Vegas. “The sheer volume of shows and noise and clutter that you have to cut through to get people to even know about your show … it’s enormous,” he says. “And there’s negotiating rates with publications, ticket brokers and taxi tops and billboards and all the things that you need to do. The ‘vacation club’ places that sell you time shares. There’s just all kinds of people that need to be dealt with.”

Yudof concurs. “People just don’t realize the money, the funding you need to set aside in order to give your show enough time to gain momentum. By the time you pay for theater rent and marketing and, especially if it’s a union room, your crew costs, you need four to six months of funding put aside. Some of the shows come through here, ticket brokers don’t jump on board right away, until they know a show is going to stick around. You’re not going to get great deals on advertising if the publications don’t think your show’s gonna stick around. Why would they give you a discount if you’re only gonna be there for three weeks? You have to wait out that period of people getting familiar with your show, brokers finally picking up your show, getting your marketing to become affordable. I’ve seen a lot of shows open and close. Just when they’re catching on, they ran out of money.”

And it’s not just the obvious costs. The hotels, in addition to charging rent for the room (and some charge for in-house advertising) there’s also a per ticket fee, which can be as much as $10 a piece, even for tickets that are purchased off property, at discount ticket brokers. These costs, by necessity, get passed along directly to the consumer. Black, who has been waiting for a new venue to open for the past two years, is concerned about this. “People are coming to Vegas, they don’t have the money they used to. They have a certain amount that they’ve allotted for gambling, they have a certain amount for the convention or the holiday they’ve planned and then they have this extra left over for restaurants and shows. People are actually saving (up) money to go see shows in today’s market.”

So what’s a producer to do? Be as prepared as possible. Make sure your show is ready to go from day one. Burke, whose Defending the Caveman will pass Phantom of the Opera as the longest running Broadway show in Vegas history later this year, had already been performing the show for four years on the road before Bentham produced the popular Vegas edition. His Mind Blowing Comedy (which will also have a new name later this year) had been road tested as well. “The only thing that can substitute for a strong producer is an unlimited pile of cash,” Says Burke. “If you have a Gringott’s Vault full of gold, then…But even that won’t substitute forever, it’s just temporary. Eventually your cash will run out. There’s a difference between opening a show and being able to advertise a show and making the show be able to pay for itself. Sheldon Adelson has said he lost $20 million on Phantom of the Opera. There has to be a producer/show combination. That’s how I work with John.”

Unfortunately, I think what it takes to put a show up in Vegas is it takes a lot more business acumen, Vegas based business acumen than it does creativity,” agrees Yudof. “The days are all but gone of clever ideas being the reason a show is successful. It’s all about knowing how to move tickets and how to operate on a lean budget, or budget that makes sense for your size show. There are a lot of crappy shows that make it a long time, and there’s a lot of good shows that just don’t make it.”

By Jaq Greenspon

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