Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 | 2 a.m.
As the sass-spitting host of his drag revue “Divas” at Imperial Palace, Frank Marino doesn’t shy away from his opinions, eliciting laughs and gasps from audiences with his racy pop culture critiques and confessions. When it comes to this year’s presidential election, however, the Strip veteran is loath to speak out.
“My act is totally politically incorrect, but I’m never gonna sell a lifestyle or a political endorsement,” he says. “I’m an equal opportunity offender!”
Jokes aside, Marino says voicing opinions about politics, much like religion, is largely taboo in the Las Vegas entertainment scene.
“It could really make or break whether someone likes you or not. People take those two things so seriously, so you’re just setting yourself up for backlash,” he says.
Marino isn’t alone in his hesitation. Unlike their outspoken Hollywood brethren, Las Vegas-based entertainers and celebrities have remained all but silent when it comes to the current election season. Flamingo headliner Marie Osmond recently told the website the Daily Caller that she’d “rather have food poisoning” than endorse a presidential candidate; her brother Donny also has spoken about his aversion to the political arena.
The subject of politics seems to be so sensitive that comment requests for this article were declined or unanswered by many local entertainers, including the Osmonds, Holly Madison, Wayne Newton, Carrot Top, Frankie Moreno and Rita Rudner.
“You could say one thing one day, and it can ruin your career the next day,” Marino says. “Almost any entertainer in the business will tell you they’re only interested in making friends and fans.”
That attitude marks a departure from a tradition of political endorsements from Las Vegas headliners. Local activism dates back a generation to Wayne Newton’s famous photo ops and fundraisers with then-candidate Ronald Reagan and continued through the 2008 election, when entertainers including Cher, Bette Midler and Siegfried and Roy supported Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama’s bids for presidency.
“If you’re a hugely popular entertainer, like Bette Midler or Madonna, then they have the personal prerogative to get behind whatever they want to get behind,” says producer Adam Steck, whose Strip productions include Human Nature at Imperial Palace and Thunder From Down Under at Excalibur. But in Las Vegas’ niche entertainment market of live shows and spectacles, most of today’s local headliners simply don’t have the luxury of such star status.
“Superstars have no problem losing a few fans if they have to. It’s not fair because the average Joe can’t do that,” Marino says, adding that the economy has made performers more wary of taking risks. “It used to be you could just go get another job if someone didn’t like you, but it’s not like that anymore.”
As a result, performers must be more sensitive to the sociopolitical climate on the Strip. That can mean considering those who write their paychecks, such as vocal Republican supporters like Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson. It also means being mindful of the transient, diverse audiences for whom they perform who often travel here as an escape from day-to-day life -- including politics.
“You have in Vegas the most heterogeneous audience you’re gonna get anywhere in the country,” says Penn Jillette of “Penn and Teller” at the Rio. “In Boston, Chicago, Miami, you know who goes to the theater. In Vegas, you have people who only see one theater show a year, and it’s in Vegas. So you have a very, very broad spectrum of audience. And let’s say you wanted to [appeal to] all the Democrats, you’d cut your audience in half.”
Jillette is one of the only local stars to endorse a candidate this year, libertarian Gary Johnson. In addition to the risk of audience isolation, he believes the lack of political activism in the local entertainment community has to do with the evolving nature of Las Vegas entertainment itself.
The issue, he says, may not be a lack of politics but rather a lack of people: Today, many of the Strip's biggest stars aren't individual icons, but stage productions featuring fictional characters and large, often anonymous ensemble casts. With Cirque du Soleil and similar shows dominating the Strip, there might simply be fewer headliners living in Las Vegas to make their voices heard.
“Ten or 15 years ago, headliners played here and lived here. Cirque du Soleil has ended that. They have interchangeable people now,” he says. Today, many superstars who have headliner status in Las Vegas — such as Elton John and Garth Brooks — don’t call Las Vegas home.
“Those people might be active in their communities, but their communities aren’t Vegas. Vegas is just where they make money,” Jillette says. “I wish we had more headliners in Vegas that lived here that you could bust for not making political statements. I would love that.”