For a diva, it's home
To visitors, Las Vegas equals glitz. To entertainers, it means family.
LAS VEGAS — The rest of the world flocks here for gluttony and debauchery, to eat, drink, and be merry. Céline Dion is descending upon Sin City for the exact opposite reason: To be ordinary.
Indeed, as the world's top-selling female recording artist begins her three-year run at the Caesar's Palace Hotel-Casino next Tuesday, she joins a performing community dominated, ironically, by homebodies. A city built on fast times and loose morals, it turns out, is one of the few places where those who strut their stuff on stage can find stability and normalcy.
Ms. Dion herself is departing from the usual trajectory for a pop star of her magnitude by hunkering down in a $95 million, 4,000-seat theater for an extended period. She's told countless interviewers that her aim, aside from the new creative challenge of starring in a Vegas-style spectacle, was to be able to play mom to her toddler son by day, diva to her thousands of adoring fans by night.
That's a decision familiar to comedienne Rita Rudner, who adopted a daughter, 8-month-old Molly, last year with her husband, Martin Bergman. Ms. Rudner, now 46, put off having a family for decades as she built her career, which she said required constant travel and odd hours.
When she landed a permanent show at the New York-New York Hotel-Casino in 2001 that included a theater built just for her, she and Bergman realized she could be a star and a good parent at the same time thanks to a fixed schedule and a mere 10-minute commute to her "office."
"In Las Vegas, we can live and work in the same place here, which is very unusual for entertainers," explains Rudner, who will start taping a half-hour syndicated talk show, "Ask Rita," here this spring. "When you're a comedienne, you usually are on the road constantly to make a living. Here, you stay in one place and the people travel to you."
The worst-kept secret about southern Nevada is, the performers say, that there's a surprisingly livable community beyond the blinding neon of the Las Vegas Strip. Even as 4,000 people a month continue to move to this fastest-growing region of the United States, most Americans scratch their heads at the idea of living within proximity of such decadence.
"When I take visitors and show them what the Las Vegas Valley can offer and what the surrounding area can offer, they understand that this place is more than just the Strip," says Tina Walsh, star of "Mamma Mia!," a version of the ABBA-based musical also playing on Broadway. "It's really a beautiful part of the country."
One reason well-known performers like Dion and Rudner are willing to settle in for long runs in Las Vegas is that the age-old stigma of the Strip as a graveyard for fading show-business careers has been replaced with a hipper and more youthful image.
Ms. Walsh, who once believed she'd need to move to Los Angeles or New York to prosper, has instead capitalized on the changing trend in the 17 years since her arrival from her native Dallas. From more modest beginnings as a dancer in the perennial showgirl act, "Jubilee!" Walsh graduated to co-starring in major shows that matched her on stage with Broadway legends Michael Crawford and Tommy Tune.
All the while, she and her husband have been able to raise their 11-year-old son on a desert ranch about six miles from work.
"I can actually come in and perform before 1,700 people every night and then get in my car and go home," says Walsh. "It's quite fantastic. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's not that many places where I can do that - just go home and be Mom."
She's not wrong, says magician Lance Burton. For some forms of entertaining - particularly comedy and magic - there's no place else in the country to land a steady gig because there's no market for it on a continuous basis, Mr. Burton says.
"Las Vegas has been for a long time the one place where you can go and be an entertainer and have a seminormal life," says Burton, a Louisville, Ky., native, now into the seventh year of his 13-year contract at the Monte Carlo Hotel-Casino. "Most entertainers move from city to city every night, seeing nothing but the inside of hotel rooms and the venue. I live a very simple life here."
Many headliners become involved in rather ordinary activities and mundane civic concerns. In 1998, Teller - the silent half of the famed comedy-magic routine Penn and Teller who appear nightly at the Rio Hotel & Casino - spoke out alongside his neighbors at a series of county-commission meetings to thwart the placement of a garbage transfer station near their homes. Laboring to show he was at one with the people, Teller told a local newspaper the episode was "a real good example for Las Vegas that when there's a problem and your neighbors make themselves heard, it can really count."
For her part, Walsh recently brought along two of her "Mamma Mia!" costars to her son's public school during Nevada Reading Week to read to his fifth-grade class. They threw in a performance of the ABBA hit "Dancing Queen" for good measure, something kids growing up elsewhere are unlikely to get from bringing their moms to school.
Rudner and Burton say that despite their celebrity status, they move quietly and unharrassed as they pick up groceries or walk their dogs. Local Las Vegans are accustomed to having celebrity in their midst.
Still, there are some perks, Rudner admits. "What's really scary is that all the salesladies at the malls know me, so when something goes on sale that they know I like, they hide it for me and call me," says Rudner. "It's like having my own personal shoppers all over Las Vegas."