Backstage with Ron Onesti:
A ‘religious’ Thanksgiving in Sin City
As many times as I have been to Las Vegas, this year was the first time I spent Thanksgiving here. Strangely so, but it just happened. It’s OK, though, because in this industry, there are few places on the planet that truly define my world the way this “Entertainment Capital of the World” does.
As I reflect on all the blessings that have been bestowed upon me personally, I also think about the professional experiences I have had over the years that I sometimes just shake my head and smile about.
Each time I approach the landing strip at the McCarran Airport, I look forward to the vision outside the left side of the plane. It is like landing on a life-size Milton Bradley game board, dodging the game pieces representing an Egyptian pyramid, a Statue of Liberty, an Eiffel Tower, a Roman Colosseum, a Washington Space Needle and so much more.
But what really gets me every time is the cab ride from the airport. I tell the driver to take the same route every time. Making that right turn off Tropicana Avenue onto the Las Vegas Boulevard, I religiously pay homage to my favorite sight on the strip … a sign in front of the MGM that proudly proclaims “THE CITY OF ENTERTAINMENT.” I know I am home.
At 52 years of age, I still have memories of much of “Old Vegas.” I started out in the business of entertainment at a very young age and traveled to this city on many occasions as part of the dues I was to ultimately pay toward the development of my career. When more “mature” individuals talk about those “glory days” of the all-night lounges and showrooms, I can truly envision the horn sections, cigarette girls, shiny white leather shoes, smokey rooms and wide polyester lapels.
My first foray to the “Sin City” was in 1980 traveling to the old Riviera Hotel. A few of my buddies and me paid a little extra every week into our bowling league so at the end of the season we would all go there for the weekend, all celebrating our 18th birthdays. It was a very innocent experience, one that will remain sacredly secret between my colleagues and me for life. But I was definitely bitten by the showbiz bug, returning to Vegas every chance I had, creating memories, making friends and learning about the business.
A bittersweet memory for me happened on Nov. 26, 1996 (eighteen years ago to the day, as I write this). Being a Rat Pack devotee, I made the pilgrimage in to witness the demolition of the once Howard Hughes-owned Sands Hotel. It was the home of the legendary Copa Room where Ol’ Blue Eyes and the King of Cool (Frank and Dean, of course) held the famed “summit” with pals including Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Bobby Darin, Red Skelton and Louis Armstrong. They may as well have blown up the Vatican, as far as I was concerned!
Anybody who knows old Vegas knows the legendary duo of Louis Prima and Keely Smith. I was fortunate enough to manage Louis’ daughter, Lena Prima, for several years. After learning that Louis and Keely opened the Sahara Hotel’s famed Casbar Lounge (with shows all night long, including breakfast shows at 5 a.m.) in 1954, I approached the property with a 50th anniversary show idea in 2004 starring Lena. The hotel loved the concept, and it resulted in a “Ron Onesti Presents” on a Vegas strip marquee, a trophy for guys who do what I do.
Each time I would visit Vegas, I would always make sure to stay over a Monday night so I could catch the show at The Bootlegger, a bistro on the far south side of Las Vegas Boulevard that only the locals knew about, even though it opened in 1949. Lorraine Hunt, Nevada’s former lieutenant governor and her husband, Vegas showman Dennis Bono, were the hosts. On Monday nights, one of the most respected names in classic show business, Sonny King, would emcee a kind of open mic night for Vegas performers who were off. It was a chance for the entertainers to let their hair down, Rat Pack style. King, who was Dean Martin’s roommate for five years and Jimmy Durante’s stage partner for almost 30 years, came to be a mentor of mine. And, oh the stories HE would tell!
A few years later, I used my connections at the Sahara to bring the popular Beatles tribute band from Chicago, American English, to Las Vegas. It was the band’s dream to do so, and since I was managing them at the time, I made it happen. But the cool thing was I arranged for them to stay in the room at the Sahara where the actual Fab Four stayed on Aug. 20, 1964, before their show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. This was a little known fact at the time, since most thought they would stay at the Las Vegas Hilton, adjacent to the convention center.
Since then, I have produced many corporate events in Las Vegas, including Super Bowl parties for 2,000 crazy people taking over two floors of the Venetian Hotel. I still do business in the Vegas of today, but there isn’t a trip I make to the strip without pausing a moment to relive those final days of the “Ocean’s Eleven” era.
Yes, I have made my small mark in Vegas. I have my stories and am one of the millions who are thankful for Las Vegas … OLD Las Vegas. Long live the magic of the strip — the Elvis weddings, free Tom Collins, $1.99 T-bone steak dinners, endless lounge acts and tilted fedoras.
To Bugsy, Frank, Dean, Sammy, Shecky, Henny, Elvis, Buddy, Wayne (and even Charo), thanks for helping me “double-down” on the memories.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.