The Las Vegas residency show is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, its origins trace back almost eight decades to 1944, when Liberace debuted in the Ramona Room at the Hotel Last Frontier, where he’d been hired for $750/week.  Following the wildly positive response after the opening night, the Last Frontier’s entertainment director, Maxine Lewis, famously called the 25-year-old pianist to her office, where she tore up the contract and presented him with a new one for $1,500/week (it was raised again, a couple years later, to $2,000/week).  Adjusted for inflation, that’s nearly $26,000/week. 

“Entertainment has always been a part of Las Vegas,” explains historian, author, and UNLV Professor, David Schwartz, Ph. D., “even going back to the ‘40s and ‘50s—and especially in the ‘60s—because, they all offered pretty much the same games, the casinos really used entertainment to differentiate themselves.”

In 1952, Jack Entratter, the former managing partner of New York’s Copacabana nightclub, became the manager (and later, the president) of the newly opened Las Vegas Sands, where he designed the Copa Room with the intent of hosting the cream of the entertainment crop.  The following year, Frank Sinatra made his debut at the Sands, where he would perform a few times each year.  It was in the Copa Room, during the three-week filming of Oceans 11 in 1960, when the film’s stars—Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford—performed together on-stage, in performances billed as the “Summit at the Sands;” whereupon the group we now know as the Rat Pack came to prominence.

According to UNLV Associate Professor, Michael Green, Ph. D., this was all part of a strategic gambit by Entratter to lure the high rollers to the casino, in that they’d been hired based on “whether they brought in the big players,” adding “there were some big-name entertainers who flopped.  These guys brought in the whales.”

Then, in 1969, Kirk Kerkorian opened The International Hotel, where entertainment director Bill Miller signed Barbara Streisand to perform for one month, in the 1,600-seat Showroom Internationale, for one million dollars; and signed Peggy Lee to perform for two years in the 500-seat Casino Theater, also for $1 million.  And then along came Elvis.  Miller had booked Elvis Presley to perform 57 shows over four weeks (more than two shows each day!) in the Showroom Internationale, beginning on July 31, immediately following Streisand’s run.  The next day—following Elvis’ opening night, during which he received three standing ovations from the 2,200-person audience—Miller finished negotiations with Col. Tom Parker, and the resulting 5-year contract found Elvis performing at The International Hotel for two months each year (February and August), for $1 million per year (or roughly $8.2 million when adjusted for 2023).  During the course of his residency at The International, Elvis performed 636 sold-out shows.

Some 28 years after his debut at the Last Frontier, in 1972, Liberace signed his now-historic contract with the Las Vegas Hilton [formerly The International Hotel], wherein he was paid a whopping $300,000/week for sixteen weeks each year—more than $1.5 million/week in 2023 dollars—making him officially the highest paid entertainer in town.  Many refer to this era, from 1944 to 1972, as the Golden Age of Las Vegas Entertainment.

Then, for the next few decades, Las Vegas became something of an entertainment wasteland (Cher once referred to Vegas as ‘an elephant graveyard where talent goes to die’); a stigma that remained until quite recently.  Siegfried & Roy ushered in the age of the grand entertainment spectacle, followed by prestidigitators as Lance Burton and David Copperfield, which evolved into the Cirque du Soleilification of Las Vegas Boulevard (at its peak, there were eight Cirque du Soleil shows running concurrently on the Strip).  And while all of this was going on, a gentleman named René Angélil came up with an idea—centered around his wife, Celine Dion—that would completely shift the paradigm.

Dion’s A New Day… residency, for which Caesars Palace built the 4,000-seat Colosseum at Caesars, would not only restore luster to the residency artist in Las Vegas but married the idea with Cirque’s awe-inspiring visuals by enlisting Franco Dragone, who had directed Mystère and O.  “This was René’s genius,” explains John Nelson (SVP, AEG Presents Las Vegas).  “He put them together and created something larger than life, thereby initiating the new era of resident stars.  And it had to be bigger, as these new theaters held four or five times more people than had the theaters at the Frontier or at the Sands.  Everybody thought it was crazy because singers establishing a residency in Las Vegas and seeming cool was very much a thing of the past; but René re-established that with Celine. And then, we did it right away a second time, with Elton.”

Even the name of Dion’s residency, A New Day… would prove to be prophetic, in that the show heralded a new era on the Strip.  A New Day… (717 shows, 2003-2007) and Elton John’s The Red Piano (247 shows, 2004-2009) would be joined in The Colosseum at Caesars by Bette Midler’s The Showgirl Must Go On (170 shows, 2008-2010), and Cher’s eponymous Cher (192 shows, 2008-2011).  At this point, Celine re-upped with her new, self-titled residency, Celine (427 shows, 2011-2019), and Elton traded The Red Piano for The Million Dollar Piano (197 shows, 2011-2018); and they welcomed Rod Stewart’s Rod Stewart: The Hits (140 shows, 2011-2023).  But the Strip was about to see another shift in the residency model.

Off-Strip, meanwhile, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino [now, Virgin Hotels Las Vegas] was hosting a number of rock residencies in The Joint [now, The Theater at Virgin Hotels Las Vegas], commencing with Santana’s Supernatural Santana: A Trip through the Hits (72 shows, 2009-2011), followed by shorter residencies including Mötley Crüe’s Mötley Crüe in Sin City (12 shows over two weeks in 2012, and 12 shows over two weeks in 2013), Guns N’ Roses (12 shows over three weeks in 2012), Def Leppard’s Viva! Hysteria (11 shows over four weeks in 2013); then, each with nine show-runs over three weeks, Guns N’ Roses, again, with No Trickery! An Evening of Destruction (in 2014), KISSKISS Rocks Vegas (in 2014), and Journey (in 2015 and again in 2017).  What set these mini-residencies apart is the way the entire property would transform into an extension of each group during that residency so that the Hard Rock became a fully immersive Mötley Crüe, GNR, or KISS experience.

Continued in Part 2...

[Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in Business Traveler, August 2023 (ink Global)]

A decade later, this article's message rings truer than ever before... Yes, I’m a man. Yes, I wear a lot of jewelry. No, I do not want your oily mitts all over it!