After taking in Bellagio’s fountains and a $13 Peach Bella drink with raspberries on a swizzle stick, my friend and I move to a table directly in front of the dance floor, a few steps from the stage. On this night at the resort’s Fontana Bar, the rock-ish band Fuse is set to play. Lead singer Candace Martin, wearing a black vest and tight black pants, busts out a Blondie song. Moments later the keyboard player takes over the mic and covers a Rob Thomas song. We are quickly lost in the exquisite space between earnest fun and ironic awesomeness, between the horror of knowing every song on the adult-contemporary playlist and the deliciousness of Vegas camp.
To our ever-increasing delight, a couple comes to the dance floor and knocks out some fine ballroom moves. Both are wearing dance shoes; she’s a little older than he is, and he’s moving like Maks on Dancing With the Stars. We decide he’s an instructor and she’s a student, and they’re out to show the fruits of their labor. A gray-haired couple holding hands joins them and grooves with time-perfected steps and turns and swooshes—and big smiles.
It’s both charming and reminiscent of a too-long wedding reception. Then some twenty-somethings get out there—a guy, a girl hanging on him and a third wheel—and they can’t dance for shit, but they’re having fun and drinking longnecks throughout. There’s a sense that nobody’s worried who’s watching, and it’s liberating, which is kind of what Vegas is meant to be, right?
Bellagio’s Fontana Bar, which is closing July 5, is a choice setting for such people-watching. A Vegas lounge of a dying breed, it has no cover charge, a variety of house bands, a dance floor and a great Strip view. It also has a slew of notably older or delightfully dressed-up people drinking tall fruity drinks, and a swanky aura that promises something fun, or funny, is about to happen. It opened with the hotel in 1998, and is being replaced by an ultra-lounge—a setback to those who treasure the classic Vegas lounge experience, which is increasingly difficult to find on the Strip.
“It’s a shame,” says Mark Verabian, a Sinatra-style singer who plays the Fontana, “because there are a lot of people who don’t want to go to the clubs and hear techno beat. They want to get dressed and come to hear live music.”
The M’s Ravello Lounge has similar musical offerings, he says, but most of the other free, upscale live music lounges are farther off-Strip now, which leaves tourists challenged to find the experience he describes as “vintage Vegas.”
That vintage expectation informs the Fontana. Even when the featured band is covering classic rock instead of crooning, the crowd is swayed by the ambience of the room—fountains outside, dignified table seating, the red curtain around the stage.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Fontana is one of the best rooms in town to play,” Christine La Fond, lead singer of the Fontana rock band Odyssey, says. “We have a lot of real loyal locals, plus tourists. A lot of them come here to ballroom dance, and they’ll dance to anything. You can break out Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ and they’ll ballroom dance to it. It’s great.”
In its 13 years, there have been “different faces to the Fontana,” says singer Dian Diaz, who has performed on that stage since the first curtain was raised.
“When I first started, we wore long evening dresses, and it was even more intimate, and we did Brazilian jazz,” she says. “Then we went to salsa with horns. Then to the big band thing. … I’d keep changing my format to keep up. Then we got into the adult-contemporary thing. Then they moved me to late night and I became a dance party band.”
The changes didn’t bother Diaz; instead she considered it a “blessing” to have “the opportunity to elaborate” on her talents. The versatility of lounge acts was part of the appeal—a place where everyone is welcome, and all kinds of live music is provided. Being in Bellagio was another appeal of the Fontana—some of the well-heeled made it a regular jaunt, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Beyoncé. Once, Andy Garcia jumped onstage to sing with Diaz, and later, Whitney Houston showed up three nights in a row—a particular thrill for Diaz.
“I grew up listening to her, I aspired to sing like her. I didn’t even know she was in the audience when I sang ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ and then found out she was there. I went out to meet her and I was so nervous. She said, ‘You were amazing.’” Diaz says. “That’s something that can’t happen just anywhere.”
With a few exceptions, the bands have changed over the years—Tony Bennett-style lounge singers, high-energy rock. But the feel of the place, which at turns is serious and elegant, and at others ludicrous and lovable, stays the same.
“To me it was the most beautiful room on the Strip,” Diaz says. She will move on to play some Station casinos—she’s already playing Red Rock. “But I’ll always love the Fontana.”
Fuse’s last song is a Lady Gaga number. My friend and I are worried about this choice, but Martin belts it out with impressive passion and vocal range, and soon we are moving to the groove of a Vegas lounge cover band doing Gaga. The camp factor trumps the actual Gaga—as Vegas should—but on another level, it’s just plain fun live music and un-self-conscious dancing. A middle-aged couple is doing what looks like country swing to Gaga. The keyboard dude is swaying back and forth. A young couple in the back of the lounge is making out.
At the end of Fuse’s set on the small stage, a big, heavy red curtain lowers to cover them in their final poses before they leave—exquisite extra drama. I order another wildly overpriced fruity drink and raise a toast to the free, live-music Vegas lounge.