This is the story of the stand-up comic, the rock group and the big hotel. Let's meet them in reverse order:
The big hotel was a big hotel in Las Vegas. It's still in Las Vegas and it's still a big hotel. We shall call it, to
maintain some semblance of anonymity, The Big Hotel.
The rock group was quite big in their day — several hit records, many sold-out concert appearances — but that was some time
back. Their fans grew older and they picked up few new ones. They still put on a very good show and over the years, they had played The
Big Hotel and surrounding venues many times, always to packed houses. But their days of topping the charts were behind them. For the sake
of this tale, we shall refer to them as The Rock Group.
Which leaves us with the stand-up comic whom we shall call The Stand-Up Comic. He's a young, popular comedian with all the
requisite skills to make an audience guffaw and a rather full dance card of bookings. The week of our story, he was shooting a part in a movie
that was filming in L.A.
The Rock Group was booked to play The Big Hotel, opening Friday night and continuing for seven days. Another comedian was to have
been their opening act but at the last minute, something came up and he had to bail. The Stand-Up Comic was called because he owed the hotel a
week on an old contract: Could he quickly arrange to fill in?
The film he was doing didn't need him in the evenings or even very early most mornings. He decided he could do both if The Big
Hotel would provide him with a fistful of airline tickets so he could fly back and forth, Vegas-to-L.A., along with the customary hotel room for if
and when he opted to sleep over. This was all arranged and his name went up on the marquee — not as big as that of The Rock Group but
impressive, just the same. He was what you call an opening act.
Being an opening act means you're in on a pass. You do twenty or thirty minutes, get your check and go home. The headliner
act carries the show. If the double-bill is a flop, no one blames the guy in lead-off position. Of course, he doesn't get much credit
when the offering's a smash but there's always that chance to shine. The last time I saw Jay Leno in Vegas — this would have been
mid-eighties — he was opening for Patti LaBelle at Caesar's. Every reviewer said that the bill was inverted; that Leno should be
headlining. And the next time Jay played there, he did.
Some comics love it: No pressure. Others simply won't do it. Steve Martin once said it drove him nuts, early in his career
to be opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He said, "You don't count. Even if you had Frank Sinatra opening for Bozo the Clown,
everyone would be there to see Bozo and they'd be impatient for the Italian kid to stop singing 'dooby dooby doo' so they could get to Bozo."
On the other hand, Woody Allen, the last few times he ever did stand-up, actually opened for singers like Johnny Mathis and Tony
Bennett. This was after Allen was a comedy superstar, but he owed one hotel a few weeks on an old contract. With his career taking off
and film deals happening, the only weeks Woody had free to play Vegas were weeks that others were already booked to headline. Sheepishly,
afraid of offending a major star like Woody Allen, the hotel's Entertainment Director asked him, "Uh, well, I suppose you wouldn't want to open for
someone else..." (If you said that to some stars, you'd wind up out in an alley being beaten within a micrometer of your life...)
To their surprise, Woody not only agreed...he loved the idea. Perhaps because he'd already decided to forever put stand-up comedy
behind him, he happily played off his contracted weeks opening for others. More than a few people must have paused, looked at the big sign out
front and gone, "Gee, did they put that up upside-down?"
So The Stand-Up Comic was going to open for The Rock Group at The Big Hotel and would be commuting from L.A.
Early Friday afternoon, he phoned me and said that his wife had been planning to accompany him to Vegas that evening for the opening
but she had the flu. "I have free air-fare for two to and from Vegas for a week, plus a free hotel room. Want to come along?"
Sounded good to me.
He said he was going to fly back that evening after the second show. I could either return with him or I could stay over in the room
the hotel was providing. Opting for the latter, I packed a small overnight bag and met him at the airport in time for the 5:00
flight. He had an even smaller bag containing everything he'd need to perform that evening: A change of shirt.
Our flight got to Vegas at 6:00 and we were met by a limousine that whisked us to the hotel. We were taken in a back door and led
to the green room — a plush backstage lounge. The Stand-Up Comic was handed the key to his complimentary suite and he surreptitiously
passed it to me. I ran upstairs and stashed my bag in what turned out to be a very nice room. So far, everything was fine. But it
wouldn't be fine for long.
It was around 6:45 when I returned to the Green Room and witnessed The Big Crisis erupt.
The Rock Group had been setting up all day. Their act involved elaborate set pieces, special effects and costumes, along with
their own sound equipment. This was a full-scale production, well worthy of appearing before seats with a then-hefty $24.95 price tag.
I was amazed at how many people they carried with them. There were at least thirty, maybe forty — including road managers,
sound engineers, lighting specialists, their own stage manager and several errand-runners, along with the musicians themselves. On the way in,
I'd seen two moving vans parked outside, along with a full-sized bus. That's what it took to get this entire act there.
Actually, there was a Small Crisis that preceded the Big Crisis. The Small Crisis was that they'd been setting-up all day and
running sound-check after sound-check...and the technical problems had their engineers frantic that they would not be ready by 8:00, when the first
show had to commence. I later learned that this Small Crisis occurred everywhere they went. Indeed, that it seems to occur anywhere any
group goes to perform. There is always this Small Crisis and it is always solved just before the deadline. The Big Crisis wasn't so
The members of The Rock Group were in the green room, finalizing some details when the Entertainment Director sauntered in. This
was the gent who'd hired them and was in charge of keeping the casino's showroom filled with the top acts. I will call this man Mr. Beef and
if you'd seen him, you'd understand the name. Just trust me on this: The man was Mr. Beef.
"Sad, sad," Mr. Beef was muttering. Everyone asked him what was so sad.
"I just checked some of the other hotels," he said. "Johnny Mathis is sold out over at Caesar's. Don Rickles is sold out
down at the Sahara. The Everly Brothers are just about sold out over at Bally's. Everyone in town is selling out tonight...
"...except you guys. I just checked and it looks like we're only gonna be at about half-capacity for both shows tonight...and on
a Friday. Looks like you guys ain't a draw no more."
The group's manager immediately jumped in and complained that the hotel had done insufficient publicity. They always say
that. In show business, from a performer's standpoint, there is no such thing as sufficient publicity.
"We did the same amount we did last week for Lou Rawls," said Mr. Beef. "The same amount we do for everyone."
The leader of the group spoke up. "When we played here last January, we sold out every night."
Mr. Beef grunted. "That don't prove anything. That was during the Consumer Electronics Show. With a convention that
size in town, my Aunt Tillie could stand on-stage and knit for two hours and sell out. No, this week proves if your act has any drawing power
and you ain't close to sold out. If you were sold out, it would be a different story. But as it is, I don't think we can ever book you
again. And when word gets around of how badly you did, I wouldn't count on you ever playing Vegas again."
By now, the manager was turning the color of Ovaltine. "What do you expect us to do?" he demanded.
"Do whatever you have to," said Mr. Beef as he walked out of the room, having maintained his casual demeanor throughout the entire
verbal assault and battery. He had just pulled the pin on a grenade and he knew it.
It was 7:00 — one hour until the first of their two shows that night. The Rock Group had just been put on notice that if
they didn't sell-out this week (or come darn close), they would never play The Big Hotel again and might never get a booking in Vegas. The
Small Crisis on stage was put on hold for a moment while all the principals in the operation huddled there in the green room, considering what to do
about The Big Crisis.
They talked for no more than five minutes. There weren't a lot of options to consider: They could hope for the best...or they
could buy their way out of this.
Let's do the math on that second option together, shall we? The showroom could house 1,200 people for a performance. They
were about half-sold for each show tonight so that's 600 empty seats to fill each performance.
But maybe 100 seats each show are reserved for guests of the hotel, guests of the performers, reviewers, etc. So that left 500
per show to fill.
The tickets were twenty-five bucks (today, they're probably forty). So we're talking about $12,500 worth of
That's per show.
There were two performances that evening so double it. To
buy out their own house, The Rock Group had to pay $25,000.
That's just for one night.
They were in for a week, remember. They'd probably sell a little better Saturday night and the hotel wouldn't expect them to go
absolutely clean on the mid-week nights. But packing the place for the week could easily run from $100,000 to $150,000. So to keep the
Vegas door open would be expensive.
They debated quickly. The consensus was that this week was not indicative of their true drawing power. Several conventions
were in the city, their themes unlikely to attract the kind of audience that would flock to see The Rock Group. "It's just a bad week," the
manager said. "Next time we come back, we'll be more careful about checking what's in town...and we'll spend a few bucks of our own on
They decided to buy their way out of it. The manager sat down and wrote out a check for that night's tickets. An assistant
ran to the box office and completed the transaction.
But that was only a partial solution to The Big Crisis. The hotel, being a Vegas hotel, was less interested in selling those
seats than they were in having people sit in them — especially people who would gamble on their way in or out.
Instantly, every spare member of The Rock Group's entourage was summoned and the tickets were divided up. "Give them out to
anyone who promises to use them," the manager shouted. "And make sure you give out the eight o'clock tickets first!" They all scattered
in different directions.
Some headed out into The Big Hotel Casino. Others ran to nearby hotels to pass out their freebies. Still others approached
tourists out on the Strip, out on Las Vegas Boulevard. "Would you like to see The Rock Group tonight? Absolutely free?" they'd ask
passers-by. Inevitably, some thought it was a scam of some type...but lots of folks go to Las Vegas for the freebies, few and far-between
though they may be.
That night when he opened the show, The Stand-Up Comic walked out to a standing-room-only house. I was out there in it and I
couldn't help but think how fortunate he was to not have had all the headaches of packing the house. I also marveled at the stark contrast
between what it took for him to do what he did and what was required of The Rock Group. The musical act needed instruments and amps and
engineers and special effects and special mixers and a staff of 30-40 people and two trucks and a bus. My friend just changed his shirt, went
on and kept the crowd thoroughly entertained for his entire stint.
When he came off-stage, I joined him and we got some food and played Blackjack until it was time for him to do the 11:00 (also
fully-packed) show. After he took his bows, he headed straight for the airport and back to L.A. I stayed in Vegas 'til the following
afternoon, making use of the free room, winning a few bucks, seeing friends. A trip is so much more pleasurable when you aren't paying for
On my way out of the hotel the next day, I ran into the manager of The Rock Group and he told me that Mr. Beef was quite pleased with
how they'd filled the room the night before. He also told me that they were contracting with one of the bus-tour companies to distribute some
of the tickets they'd likely be giving out for the rest of their run. "What you're doing here is kind of expensive," I said.
"True," he replied. "But if it buys us a contract renewal here, it will have been worth it." (It didn't. In fact,
I think that week was the last time The Rock Group ever played Las Vegas.)
Ten days later, The Stand-Up Comic sent me an article that had run in one of the Vegas papers. Headlined, "Seasonal Slump Socks
Showrooms," it discussed how poorly all of the shows in Vegas had fared the previous week. It noted that, of Johnny Mathis, Don Rickles, the
Everly Brothers and The Rock Group, only The Rock Group had filled its seats and that they had only accomplished this by "papering the house"
(i.e., giving out free tickets). The other showrooms, they said, were all at half-capacity every night.
"What does this mean?" I asked my friend.
"It means," he said, "that Mr. Beef found a way to get his showroom filled and to get The Rock Group to pay for it."
The Big Hotel didn't get to be The Big Hotel by being dumb.