As a world-class, centralized home for the performing arts, The Smith Center brings something new to the Valley. But high culture itself goes back a long way in Las Vegas—even on the Strip. And to this day, the priorities of casino moguls and arts patrons aren’t as disconnected as you might think.
Early on, Strip casinos experimented with plenty of acts that didn’t involve feathers and sequins. In 1955, the Desert Inn brought playwright, director, singer, actors and all-around sophisticate Noël Coward to its showroom for his American nightclub debut. There was considerable anxiety about paying Coward $40,000 a week to headline a space usually taken up by more straightforward acts such as Billy Eckstine or Frank Sinatra. But he was a hit with gamblers and vacationers alike; his performances were so successful that they were subsequently released on LP.
In that same year, opera singer Helen Traubel was the opening attraction at the Royal Nevada, and tenor Mario Lanza was slated to open the New Frontier, but did not perform because of last-minute difficulties. Since then, a variety of opera singers have performed in Strip showrooms and even arenas. There’s no danger of Rigoletto replacing one of the Cirque acts, but casinos haven’t shied away from showcasing acts well out of the Top 40.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Strip casinos also committed themselves to scaled-down versions of Broadway shows. The Thunderbird even billed itself as “The Broadway of the West,” bringing shows like Flower Drum Song, Anything Goes and High-Button Shoes to its showroom. Other casinos followed suit, with Bye, Bye Birdie showing up at the Riviera, The Odd Couple and Fiddler on the Roof at Caesars Palace, and Hair at the International (today the LVH). Today, of course, a string of Vegas-size Broadway hits, from Phantom to Jersey Boys, are regular attractions.
There has been plenty of high culture action off the Strip, as well. As far back as the 1930s, the organization that later became Southern Nevada Community Concerts was staging classical music concerts in the War Memorial Building. Starting in the 1960s, Antonio Morelli, bandleader at the Sands, who performed with such luminaries as Nat King Cole, Danny Thomas, and Frank, Dean and Sammy, was long an advocate for classical music, and he organized free concerts with the Las Vegas Pops.
That’s why The Smith Center isn’t so much a departure from the past, as an intensification of it. If you’re going to define high culture as the sorts of things that will happen on Grand Central—traveling versions of Broadway shows and performances by artists such as Béla Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma—then it’s hard to say that the Strip has never embraced it. But it’s true that no Strip resort has offered a consistent lineup like the one coming to The Smith Center.
So how will The Smith Center and the Strip coexist? Several downtown casinos have been eager to link themselves with the Mob Museum, one way or another. Will the same happen with The Smith Center?
It’s quite possible that there will be quite a bit of interplay between the Strip and The Smith Center. Certainly, industry executives have been key to the center’s construction; the chairman of the center’s board, current UNLV Harrah Hotel College dean Donald Snyder, was once the CEO of Boyd Gaming. The board’s other gaming figures include former Harrah’s Entertainment vice chairman Charles Atwood and Caesars Entertainment CFO Jonathan Halkyard; Wynn Resorts general counsel Kim Sinatra and executive director of design and development Roger Thomas; and MGM Resorts International board member Rose McKinney James and senior vice president of public affairs Alan Feldman. Sure, they’re supporting The Smith Center in their off-hours, but that support will probably surface on the job, too.
Casinos around the country book seats for a variety of events, from hockey to opera, for their invited guests. Many have already reserved blocks of seats for Smith Center events. They’re embracing the venue not as a competitor, but as an added amenity.
The real value for casinos, though, runs deeper than show tickets for VIPs. One of the reasons so many gaming industry figures became so involved with The Smith Center is that they recognized it would boost the quality of life of all Las Vegans; those residents make up a slice of the casinos’ customer base—and they represent 100 percent of their employees. The presence of The Smith Center may lead to happier employees who feel more connected to Las Vegas. And it will be a boon for retaining and recruiting staff. We sometimes speak as if the Strip isn’t “ours”—but it’s a central part of the Las Vegas community, and it makes sense that it will have connections with The Smith Center. Our city’s resorts have long had a hand in bringing culture to the Valley—their continued support of The Smith Center would carry this tradition forward.