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October 25, 2014

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The State of Entertainment: Disappearing acts

Where have all the Strip shows gone?

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A leather-clad Steve Wyrick atop a motorcycle.

Most places, it’s customary to turn the lights out when you leave. Not here, not in Las Vegas.

Last month, the grandly-titled Steve Wyrick Theatre and Entertainment Complex went out of business—went dark, as they say in showbiz.

But the lights are still on, night and day, blazing away. You’d never know that the theater is mired in financial suckage, and that the acts it housed—including Wyrick’s own Real Magic—have vanished.

But that’s part of the illusion in Vegas entertainment—“we’ll be right back, folks!”

Wyrick’s empty theater is emblematic of the state of entertainment on the Strip in early 2010. The keyword: attrition. The last months of 2009 saw a slow leak of talent from the Strip’s showrooms, with acts from household-name headliners to has-beens and once-wases alike making for the exits.

It looks like business as usual at Wyrick complex, embedded in the chaotic cacophony of the Miracle Mile shopping strip at Planet Hollywood. Box office signs sparkle, backlit posters tout magician Wyrick, pictured astride a chopper, and a reunion of some configuration of the Platters, Coasters and Marvelettes. Like many Strip showrooms, the 500-seat theater was host to a variety of acts at different hours, from afternoon to late-night.

Peer through the mesh curtain that encases the theater complex during off-hours, and you’ll see Wyrick-branded magic kits strewn on a countertop, the white marble countertop at Triq bar aglow from within, ready for customers. The only indication that something’s amiss is a small sign on a countertop that reads “Unfortunately tonight’s performances are canceled. All refunds will be provided by our ticket provider/broker.”

The sign also provides a number to call. The chipper-voiced recording makes no mention of any difficulties. A click on SteveWyrick.com goes directly to a generic server page.

The first leaf fell from the Strip’s showbiz branch late last year: In September, Caesars Palace announced that its Comedy Festival would go dark in 2010, in what would have been its fifth year.

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Charo performs at the Riviera in Las Vegas on July 15, 2009.

Mamma Mia! closed, and was quickly replaced by The Lion King at Mandalay Bay. But the disappearing acts continued: Venerable Folies Bergere flew back to France before hitting its 50-year-mark, leaving its showroom sadly feather-free. The eternal and seemingly indestructible Charo put her open-ended gig at the Riviera on ice; the Riv’s figure-skating revue Ice: The Show From Russia met the same fate, leaving yet another casino showroom chilly and dark. The Scintas split from the Las Vegas Hilton. Wayne Brady canceled all his fourth-quarter dates at the Venetian because of “vocal strain.” The vocal duo Zowie Bowie opened at Monte Carlo, broke up, then folded up their act. The cast of Freaks packed their broken-glass canapés and flesh-piercing spikes and slithered out of the upstairs room at O’Sheas. The Harmon Theater lost three of its variety shows, including Cashetta’s Magic’s A Drag, and earlier this week filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

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Showgirl Janu Tornell, left, rushes onstage for the final number of Folies Bergere.

Of course, these and other losses could be attributed to the normal cycles and churn that affect the entertainment industry like any other. But it’s clear that the chilling villain is, duh, the economic downturn, which has distinctly dimmed the Strip’s showscape. Visitors are down—you can feel it in the traffic, in the parking lots, on the casino floors. And those who do come are gripping their ATM cards tighter, selecting their entertainment by what they can get for cheap or for free.

One-night bookings continue to appear—Caesars will surely find someone to fill the substantial Bette- and Elton-shaped holes in its calendar. But smaller-scale residencies are going begging, and more showrooms are likely to go—and stay—empty.

Strip properties may want to plug the holes, but with what? Who is going to invest in producing a new show at this moment in time? What performer has the money to stake themselves? Mounting a show, after all, isn’t plug-and-play—choosing an entertainer, plopping them on a stage and turning on the “Now Playing” marquee.

Without the top-of-mind recognition and marketing muscle of a juggernaut like Cirque du Soleil or the Colosseum, and with an audience that’s now looking for deals uber alles, the Strip is a bleak environment for starting and nurturing new shows, even for troupers suffused with a “hey kids, let’s put on a show!” spirit.

Bundle up and brace yourself: The losses aren’t over. More Strip acts are certain to vanish—or just never happen.

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