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September 1, 2014

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Keeping pace with the Vegas holiday weekend is a labor of love

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Steve Marcus

Entertainer Jerry Lewis reacts to the final tally of donations during the 43rd annual MDA Labor Day telethon at the South Point in September 2008.

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Air Supply's Graham Russell, left, and Russell Hitchcock.

Welcome to Labor Day weekend in Las Vegas, where your choices include: Air Supply, Frank Sinatra Jr., Bill Cosby, Three Dog Night and Jerry Lewis.

Variety is the spice of life, eh? In this case, it might be old spice, but all of these gigs have interesting side stories. At least they’re interesting to me:

*Air Supply has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 billion albums and somehow I don’t own any of them. But today this yin-yang duo has a strong Vegas connection, as founding members Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock recorded their most recent release, “Mumbo Jumbo,” at the lavishly designed Odds On Records & Studios on Sunset Way in Henderson. Their backing musicians on the project featured Frankie Moreno and members of his band (which is appearing nightly this weekend at Rush Lounge at the Golden Nugget and which also tours with Russell and Hitchcock), along with musicians who have performed with the Las Vegas Philharmonic. Click here for this memorable column/multimedia blog for what this crew sounds like live. Don’t be surprised to see Russell (Graham) return to Rush Lounge sometime this weekend. He loves it there.

*The 65-year-old Sinatra Jr. has a very good voice and tells many interesting tales about his legendary father. Here’s a quick once-in-a-lifetime tale of my own: I met Sinatra Jr. in 2002, after one of his shows at the MGM Grand Hollywood Theatre. It was Ira David Sternberg (repping Sinatra Jr. at the time), myself and … Tim McDarrah. To the core of my soul, I feel that collection of people will never be in the same place at the same time again. We talked for about 20 minutes, and for the life of me, I can’t recall anything that was said.

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Frank Sinatra Jr.

Anyway, even today the Sinatra surname remains such a draw that both of his dates at the Suncoast have sold out, totally. All single tickets were scooped up by Thursday afternoon. Note to anyone who has never seen Frank Jr. in action: Don’t expect a lot of action. This is not a heavily choreographed production. He usually sings with a full orchestra, but for the Suncoast dates, he’ll be backed by only an eight-piece band. The shows at the Hollywood Theatre worked in large part because the power of the orchestra helped overcome Frank Jr.’s stoic, plodding stage manner. Part of his shtick: As he leans forward to sing, he bops his forehead with the mic. Boink! When the audience laughs, he says in mock angst, “And they laugh!” But the music, that’s good.

*Three Dog Night’s Cory Wells jokes that the band once topped the record charts; now it tops the medical charts (hey-oh!). But they still sing well and can be caught, free, as the Fremont Street Experience closes out its “Summer of ’69: Vegas or Bust” series. The event runs through Monday night, click here for the sked. TDN (I think that’s how veteran groovesters refer to the band) takes the stage Sunday at 9 p.m. Odd Vegas fact: Three Dog Night was once the subject of a joke made by Bette Midler during her show at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace. To illuminate the venue, she encourages fans to wave their cell phones “or lighters, if the last concert you’ve been to was Three Dog Night.” But soon after TDN appeared at Primm’s Buffalo Bill’s Star of the Desert Arena in December, that joke had been tweaked and the band Midler now names is Jethro Tull. Maybe that’s because Three Dog Night is still, in fact, performing in concert. Say this for the long-in-tooth rockers: They still sing really well. And if you can do that, it’s worth waving a cell phone … or even flicking a Bic.

*This year’s Labor Day Telethon, which begins at 6 p.m. Sunday and ends at 3:30 p.m. Monday (broadcast locally on KTNV Channel 13) is the first since 1973 not to feature Ed McMahon as emcee for the characteristically Vegas-rich showcase. The event was actually moved back to Las Vegas fairly recently (it was long held at the Sahara, Caesars Palace and Cashman Center) from the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2006. The change was made largely because Lewis and South Point owner Michael Gaughan are longtime friends, and this is a very Vegas-centric turn of events. When Gaughan, the son of Vegas pioneer Jackie Gaughan, took over ownership of South Coast (selling his stock in Boyd Gaming in exchange for the property) and renamed the hotel South Point, one of the first high-profile moves he made was to lure the telethon back to Vegas. Essentially, the deal with Gaughan and the MDA is to bring the telethon back each year for the rest of eternity or until someone decides to end the deal. Somewhere, a document noting all the legal details exists. Probably.

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Entertainer Jerry Lewis points to members of the media as Michael Gaughan, chairman and chief executive officer of Coast Resorts, looks up during a news conference with Lewis announcing his 20-year contract with the Orleans hotel-casino Tuesday, August 14, 2000.

There was a lot of discussion, even three years ago as the show returned to Vegas, about who might one day take over for Lewis as MDA’s national chairman and telethon star. Tony Orlando, for decades a performer on the MDA show and a member of its Board of Directors, has been a favorite to take over the role that has been occupied by Lewis since 1966. This year, Orlando will host the New York remote segments of the telethon. He plays South Point in late December, too.

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Host Jerry Lewis waits to go on the air during the 43rd annual MDA Labor Day telethon at the South Point hotel-casino on Labor Day 2008.

Most intriguing among the list of artists to appear this weekend are Moreno, with violinist Joshua Bell; the two are friends, and Bell is among the entertainers who catch Moreno at the Golden Nugget. That pairing should be fun. Also slated to appear on the telethon are comic ventriloquist/impressionist/vocalist Terry Fator, comic non-ventriloquist/non-impressionist George Wallace; comic ventriloquist/impressionist/not-so-much-a-vocalist Ronn Lucas; and the non-comic non-ventriloquist/non-impressionist/but all-vocalist Las Vegas Mass Choir. The Mass Choir is one of our city’s busiest choirs, owning the unique distinction for performing for events starring President Obama (at The Colosseum) and the eminent Erich Bergen (at last weekend’s JackoPalooza tribute at the Palms). Oh, TDN’s performance from Fremont Street will be simulcast on the telethon broadcast, too.

The MDA’s monetary goal is to surpass the record of $65,031,393 set last year -- $65,031,394 or higher. Only three times (1982, 2004 and 2005) has the telethon raised less than the prior year. But I’ll bet on Vegas to cover.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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