Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2014

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Morality in between the lines

The morals clause in a performer's contract. It got George Carlin fired from the Frontier twice and Linda Ronstadt escorted from the Aladdin.

It has popped up again in discussions of magician David Copperfield. When a 21-year-old woman recently accused Copperfield of rape and the FBI raided his Las Vegas warehouse, observers wondered whether the MGM Grand would invoke a morals clause to drop his popular holiday appearances - even though he's denied the allegations and no charges have been filed against him.

The media speculation didn't stop Copperfield from appearing on stage Thursday night to begin a run of shows through Jan. 2. Ticket sales have been brisk.

Morals clauses are included in contracts to protect companies from being associated with bad behavior by entertainers and athletes. How often they are invoked is anybody's guess.

When Carlin and Ronstadt were given the boot, the public knew because their runs were cut short. But because casino industry executives would not talk to the Sun about morals clauses, it's hard to know whether any Las Vegas entertainer has been banned for behavior offstage.

Legal scholars trace the clauses to early 20th century scandals involving the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball team and silent screen star "Fatty" Arbuckle on through the McCarthy hearings of the '40s and '50s and to today's Las Vegas show rooms.

Casinos and resorts "don't like to get into specifics about what agreements they have with various entertainers," said one casino executive, who asked to remain anonymous.

Generally, contracts contain clauses allowing casinos to void agreements if the performers' behavior violates standards set by the management, the executive said.

"The entertainer can't put the property's license in jeopardy," the executive said. "And in a broader context, the property can say to the artist, 'We don't want you making fun of religion or politics or whatever.' "

That was the case in July 2004 when singer Ronstadt, during her performance at the Aladdin, praised liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, who was courting controversy with his highly political film "Fahrenheit 9/11." She was whisked off after the show and told by President Bill Timmins she no longer was welcome.

At that time Planet Hollywood was negotiating to buy the Aladdin, and its chairman, Robert Earl, issued a statement saying that she was, in fact, welcome.

Community standards vary not only from community to community, but venue to venue.

That seemed to be the point that Carlin was making - at least the second time he was fired by one Strip casino.

"Carlin got fired twice by the Frontier," said Richard Zoglin, a senior editor at Time magazine and author of the upcoming "Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America."

"The first time he used the word 'ass,' believe it or not. It was in a routine he did."

Carlin, who was opening for the Supremes, had a routine about his not having a butt and how black men made fun of him in the Army. But his audience was made up of golfers who were in town attending the Howard Hughes International Golf Tournament.

"They were particularly uptight," Zoglin said. "The routine upset them and the hotel ended the engagement."

But not Carlin's contract. He returned in August 1970 and was fired again for using scatological slang - the first of his infamous seven dirty words.

Zoglin described the routine:

"I don't say (blank)," Carlin says. "Down the street, Buddy Hackett will say (blank) and Redd Foxx across the street, he'll say (blank) but I don't say (blank) - but I'll smoke a little of it."

Zoglin said he isn't sure why Carlin got the ax from the Frontier (which became the New Frontier in 1998 and was imploded Tuesday).

"Maybe it was the drug thing, talking about drugs so blatantly and the fact that he used them," he said. "But at that point I think he was courting it a little bit. He was pushing the edge. It was not just about the word, it was his attitude, thumbing the nose at middle class audiences in Las Vegas. I think they were just uncomfortable with Carlin."

The same month, Richard Pryor walked away from a gig at the Aladdin, citing restrictions on what he could say.

"He was kind of having a breakdown anyway," Zoglin said. "It was drugs or whatever. I heard stories about him being crazy offstage as well as on. I don't think anything he said onstage got him fired. I think he just got fed up. He talked about how he hated doing stuff that was only OK with the white people - he couldn't do his material."

Barry Levinson, a Las Vegas entertainment attorney, said morals clauses are probably enforced more than the public knows.

"They keep it quiet because there could be a confidentially agreement in the contract," he said. Or both parties simply want the problem to go away with as little publicity as possible.

The clauses are "wishy-washy," Levinson said. "What you need to do in the morals clauses is define them a little better. What, specifically, is the breach? Is it public lewdness? Is it being arrested? You just need to define it, otherwise anything can be immoral."

Comedian David Brenner, who has performed in Vegas for more than 30 years, agreed.

"Morals clauses have become common, but they are nebulous," Brenner said. "You have to define the term. You have to define the possible violations. What's interesting to me, if a singer does something in Los Angeles of question, she gets paid more money for appearing at a party in Vegas.

"So the morality appears to be at the border of the city. If you do it somewhere else, it helps you get gigs here, it helps you pack rooms. But if you do it within the confines of the city there's a chance you'll be dismissed from your job."

Brenner said he ran afoul of management when he tried to use showgirls in sandwich boards to advertise his show at the Golden Nugget about four years ago. At the time MGM Mirage owned the Nugget.

"It was a good attraction and it helped my business," he said. "But then I got a call from MGM that it was not in the image of the corporation. It's such a hypocrisy."

Brenner said his contracts here include a morals clause.

"But I've never seen the clause outside of Vegas," Brenner said. "If you do something really outrageous, I don't think you need a morals clause."

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