Friday, Aug. 5, 2011 | 2 a.m.
German magician Jan Rouven is a bona fide star in Europe. His shows fill stadiums. Fans stop him for autographs at grocery stores and malls. Camera crews follow him around filming reality TV shows.
But his fame hasn’t carried across the Atlantic. In Las Vegas, Rouven is an unknown. He blends in with tourists on the Strip. He has to introduce himself onstage and explain his act. Here in the entertainment capital of the world, Rouven is just one of dozens of performers trying to make a name for himself.
Being relegated to the rank-and-file of wannabe Vegas stars has been difficult on the magician, Rouven’s manager says. So why come here?
“Vegas is every performer’s dream,” Rouven admits. “In 10 years, I’d like to be in a big hotel on the Strip.”
For now, Rouven performs six days a week at the Clarion, a dated off-Strip resort, where his magic show, “Illusions,” opened last month in a showroom cloaked in red velvet. Reviews have been positive — fellow-Germans Siegfried & Roy gushed that Rouven brings “new life” to magic — and the showroom is filled most nights. But it’s hard to tell whether the draw is Rouven’s tricks or the free tickets promoters liberally hand out.
Rouven is certainly a talented magician. His fame in Europe is evidence of that. But talent doesn’t guarantee success in Las Vegas (as a cadre of failed performers can attest to), and only time will tell whether Rouven will be the Strip’s newest darling or its latest casualty.
• • •
When Wayne Newton performed at the Hilton 20 years ago, the resort paid him $250,000 a week to headline two shows a day. Tickets sold for $12.50 a pop and included dinner or three cocktails, guaranteeing resorts saw little profit from the endeavor. The losses were of no concern. Casino operators made money in spades when audiences ate, drank and gambled before and after the show. Hotels such as the Frontier even charged higher room rates when big-name performers took the stage.
Today, entertainers are lucky if they can snag a showroom rent-free, let alone get a paycheck from the casino. None who know anything about the business expects to earn much of a salary. The modern Las Vegas business model is one of “four-walling,” in which performers shoulder the risks — financing their own shows and paying most if not all of the costs related to production, including renting the showroom itself.
Rouven is used to the old model. In Germany, hotels, auditoriums and other venues hire performers. Here, he is paying his own way, hoping for sufficient ticket sales to write himself a paycheck.
Resort owners make money whether a show succeeds or fails. They sell drinks and figure on luring customers to gamble while they’re there, which is where casinos make the real money. If a show folds, owners know another entertainer is waiting in the wings to take over and lure new audiences to the property.
“It’s almost a relative impossibility to make money unless you are a big name,” said Jack Wishna, president and CEO of consulting firm CPAmerica. “That’s the reason so many shows fail. The resort companies became Wall Street-type corporations where everything has to make a profit, so hotels have abrogated their responsibility to entertainment. The names you see on the Strip are the safe names. The hotels are only bringing in big enough names that pretty much ensure their success.”
• • •
Rouven, the son of a cook and railroad worker, grew up watching American magicians on television. He tried to emulate greats such as Johnny Thompson and Siegfried & Roy using a magic kit his grandmother gave him when he was 8 years old.
At 16, he began performing on a cruise ship. By 18, he was working consistently as a professional magician. He soon met up with corporate magician Frank Alfter, who became and remains his manager, and the pair began producing large-scale magic shows for theme parks and then showrooms across Europe.
It wasn’t enough for Rouven. “Germany is a small country,” he says. “After two months on tour, I saw every city. I was looking for a new adventure.”
For several years, Alfter and Rouven scouted Las Vegas. Rouven performed on Fremont Street during Oktober Fright Fest 2009 and 2010 and concluded the city would be a good fit. They bought a house, planning for their arrival.
From Germany, Alfter spent hours on the phone with entertainment managers to find a home for the show. Several deals were presented, but Alfter and Rouven were picky. They wanted a theater that would give them time to rehearse. They wanted nonunion workers because as Alfter put it, “I don’t want to work where I can’t open my own curtain.” In the meantime, they turned down contracts in Germany. Negotiations with the Clarion — on Convention Center Drive in the shadow of Steve Wynn’s Encore — lasted almost a year. They won’t discuss the details of their agreement.
The venue is ideal for a magic show, Rouven said. The seats, a mixture of cocktail booths and rows of folding chairs, are close to the stage, promoting an intimacy between performer and skeptical customers. But more than one industry insider cautioned the newcomers about the off-Strip location.
“Lots of shows failed here at the Clarion,” Rouven said. “But we came from Europe with an outside view, so we only saw the positive. We studied the market. The others failed because of the producers.”
In February, Rouven shipped his props from Germany in a 40-foot container. Customs agents hesitated when they uncovered his swords, knives and “Blades of Doom,” but a simple explanation cleared them for passage. Rouven invents and fabricates some of his illusions and buys others. Each can cost from $15,000 to $100,000.
In March, Rouven hired a public relations firm, began meeting with ticket brokers and rented a billboard trailer to carry his show’s poster down the Strip. He invested $100,000 in lighting to brighten his new stage. Today, he’s careful to note that he owns the lights, an important aside for someone who is four-walling a show. The equipment leaves with the magician if his curtains close permanently.
In April, Alfter and Rouven hired five dancers (and were pleased to find out that male dancers are far more plentiful in Las Vegas than in Germany), two backstage hands, two ushers, a technician and a box office worker. Rouven also mans the phones and sells tickets when needed.
“We do it the German way,” Rouven said. “It’s very personal. If there’s a problem, we can solve it.”
Rouven’s illusions are large and unmistakable: Women appear and disappear from trunks, dancers jam their hands and heads into the path of rotating propellers, swords fall from overhead and land between the magician’s legs. With a boyish, sometimes goofy quality, Rouven punctuates his magic with commentary and jokes. Setting up a trick that involves a brick wall, he deadpans: “Trust me, I’m from Germany. I have experience with walls.” When he pulls an audience member onto stage and instructs him to use his hand to crush a series of paper bags, one of which contains a switchblade, he jokes: “The blood stains are from last night.” Audience members laugh and gasp on cue and wonder aloud how the magic works.
• • •
In the old days of Vegas, performers cut their teeth in off-Strip lounges, much like Rouven is doing. When they became a big enough draw, they graduated to the Strip.
Money and egos have changed the model. Few entertainers have the luxury or desire to lurk in the shadows for the sake of learning or paying their dues.
Rouven and Alfter were loath to disclose the financial details of their show. They worried they might tip off competitors. But they say with great satisfaction they have no investors, a rarity for a four-walled show in Las Vegas.
Backers came knocking, but Alfter turned them down. “People offered to invest,” he said. “We could have made the show bigger, but they want to make a profit. Our way is to do it on our own.”
The risk is all theirs now, but so will the profits if they succeed. Neither would say how Rouven pays for the show except to note that he is famous in Europe and his success has afforded him resources.
So far, the German team appears to be doing everything right. There’s no secret formula to conquering the Vegas entertainment scene (except having a name such as Cher) but a few things are essential: patience, because it takes time to build word-of-mouth and create buzz for a show; innovative marketing, because studies have found that a person needs to see a show advertised three times before they consider buying tickets; financing, to sustain a show in its early days; and plain old luck.
“If you have a great idea, you can probably make it,” said Nancy Gregory, an entertainment consultant and director of “Nunsense” at the Las Vegas Hilton. “And you always have to go for it, but boy you better have all your ducks in a row. Vegas is a business in and of itself.”
Rouven says he would be happy just to make it at the Clarion. But neither he nor his manager can help but look two blocks over, to the Strip.
“I still hope someone shows up and says, ‘That’s the new generation of magician. We’ll pay $1 million a week!’ ” Alfter said. “That’s why we came. If you’re not here, people won’t see him.”