They call Las Vegas the “Entertainment Capital of the World” and with good reason. From magicians to comedians, pop stars to circus acts, you can find it under the spotlights here. More recently, artists including Gwen Stefani and Bruno Mars have realized that an extended run in Vegas is a way to reach international audiences without going on the road. But no matter how many new acts come in for a few weeks or months, there are some legends whose names will always burn bright on Las Vegas’ marquees.
Cher’s first Vegas run was at Caesars Palace in 1979, after dumping Sonny and topping the disco charts with “Take Me Home.” It established what would always be Cher’s M.O. in Vegas and beyond: backup dancers and big set pieces, costume changes and comedy. Almost 40 years later, she’s still packing them in just a few hundred yards down the Strip at the Park Theater with a show that features burlesque dancers, animatronic elephants, 3-D projections, and, of course, Cher.
While technically not headliners—they played the Sahara’s Congo Room, not the big room—Louis Prima & Keely Smith were one of Vegas’ most exciting attractions. Prima’s horn-honking bluster, full-throated vocals, and energetic stage presence were a predecessor of rock n’ roll, but Smith’s ironic, detached style and cooled-down vocals could have been seen as an early version of what came after. The married pair packed the house from 1954 until their divorce several years later. Both returned for solo gigs, but it wasn’t quite the same.
Give it up for Tom Jones! The Welsh crooner first played the Flamingo in 1969, beginning a multi-decade reign as one of the Strip’s biggest headliners. His first gig was immortalized on the album Tom Jones: Live in Las Vegas, one of the better live albums of the era, with Tom in peak form backed by a crack band (including a guy who would go on to play drums for AC/DC). Jones’ powerful voice and showmanship made him a star, but the adoration of generations of shrieking, panty-throwing women made him a Vegas icon.
Ann-Margret got her start in Las Vegas as an opening act for George Burns in 1960—at the time, he said, “She’s going to be to Americans what Brigitte Bardot has been to Europeans.” And she’ll always be known as Elvis’ girl in Viva Las Vegas. But Ann-Margret also ran her own Sin City show, a singing, dancing whirlwind of talent who could put The Who and Cole Porter on her setlist and do justice to both. In the course of her career, she’s been nominated for Grammys, Emmys, and Oscars, but she’ll always have a place in Vegas.
To be insulted by Don Rickles was like receiving a blessing from the Pope. An icon to comedians everywhere, “Mr. Warmth” perfected the art of insult comedy, slinging barbs and putdowns, punctuating them with bits of soft-shoe and a shark-like smile. Yet Rickles was always an equal-opportunity hater, punching up and sideways in all directions but never down. “The Merchant of Venom” first played Vegas in 1959, and when he passed away in 2017, he still had future dates lined up.
Las Vegas may have always been magical, but Siegfried & Roy made it the town for magicians. The duo began as part of a show at the New Frontier in 1981 but became headliners in their own right with a mix of big-scale illusions and breathtaking animal acts. The Mirage even created Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden & Dolphin Habitat attraction, full of exotic creatures. The duo’s run ended in 2003 when a white tiger mauled Roy during a show. He survived, but the pair has remained in retirement ever since.
In showbiz, the phrase “triple threat” describes someone who can sing, act and dance. To encompass the talent of Sammy Davis Jr., one might need to conceive of the quadruple or sextuple threat. Davis first stepped onstage not long after he learned to walk and performed with a family act before going solo. He may be best known as a member of the Rat Pack, but Davis was a formidable talent in his own right, who starred on Broadway and had his own TV show, along with headlining venues around the world.
Before Elton and RuPaul, before Bowie and Gaga, there was Liberace, who brought flamboyance to the stage like no one else before, earning the title “Mr. Showmanship” and becoming the highest-paid entertainer in the world. He started with a candelabra and lame lapels and worked his way up to making his entrance in a rhinestone-studded Rolls-Royce while wearing 40 pounds of ostrich feathers and $50,000 in jewelry to grin through “Rhapsody in Blue” on a gold-leaf piano. While revered as a gay icon today, Liberace never came out, allowing the legion of small-town grandmothers who were his fans to believe he just hadn’t found the right girl yet.
Elvis Presley was a flop at the New Frontier in 1956, but when he opened at the International Hotel in 1969, he was an unmitigated smash. Even the new kings of rock n’ roll were impressed; after seeing the show, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant said, “From time to time, everyone says Elvis is rubbish, Elvis is no good, but they all have to own up in the end.” During his seven years in Vegas, Elvis Presley played more than 800 shows at the International Hotel—and ran up a half-million dollar tab at the pharmacy across the street. Vegas may have been the beginning of the end for Elvis, but it also included some of his greatest moments.
Elvis may be the King, but Frank Sinatra was the Chairman and Las Vegas. And in many ways, he still is. When people think of Las Vegas, they still think of Frank and the Rat Pack, striding through the Sands like they owned the place (which, in Frank’s case, he at least had a piece). As the director Billy Wilder once said, “Wherever Frank is, electricity permeates the air. It’s like Mack the Knife is in town, and the action is starting.” That electricity was focused onstage, from the Sands to Caesars Palace, for over three decades.