Headliners and headgear return to Las Vegas. Will tourists follow?

LAS VEGAS – Penn Jillette, one half of the magic and comedy act Penn & Teller who has been shaping the nightlife in Las Vegas for decades, jumped on stage the other day and looked at a maskless, but socially distant audience that overran the theater Scattered around the theater was the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.

“We have just done 421 days without a live show,” he said, referring to the forced sabbatical that lasted until the end of April, with his silent partner Teller at his side again at last. “Boy, it’s nice to see people in the theater.”

The next morning, less than a mile away, a group of Cirque du Soleil acrobats whizzed through the air, all in masks as they warmed up on a steel-framed ship that swung over a 1.2 million gallon pool awaiting reopening . O ”in July and a second show,“ Mystère ”, later that month. By the end of the year, they hope to have seven Cirque du Soleil shows back to full capacity.

Fifteen months ago, this busy desert tourist destination closed almost overnight when theaters, restaurants, and casinos went empty and Las Vegas faced one of the greatest economic threats in its history. The stakes couldn’t be higher as the Strip seeks to step out of the shadow of the pandemic and the first series of shows faces a challenging reality: it’s hard to open shows without tourists, and it’s hard to attract tourists without shows.

But a stroll through the busy sidewalks last week suggests an explosion of activity that – in its extravagance and risk-taking of this city – matches what Las Vegas has always made what it is. The change since last spring, as measured by the return of swelling crowds from morning to midnight, is a headache. While only 106,900 tourists visited Las Vegas in April 2020, around 2.6 million people visited this April, according to the Convention and Visitors Authority – a big recovery, but still close to a million of what attracted the city before the pandemic.

“You are in a city that was previously very irresponsible,” said Jillette in an interview about the exuberance of the reopening. “Not the residents, but the people who visit Vegas. People who don’t smoke cigars smoke cigars. People who don’t drink martinis drink martinis. People who don’t have irresponsible sex have irresponsible sex. They are proud of that. “

Las Vegas began to fill its theaters ahead of New York, where most Broadway shows won’t reopen until September, and other cities, though many are now catching up. “I don’t know if that’s culturally good,” said Jillette. “But I’m telling you that I think we’re right this time.”

The city’s tourism-fueled economy was shaken during the pandemic as Americans avoided planes, restaurants, theaters, and crowds. Those days seem to be over.

“As soon as the governor and county said we could open, the resorts wanted us to open,” said Ross Mollison, producer of Absinthe, an adult cabaret and humor show whose website calms guests down by adding says: “When you get to Absinthe, the green fairy promises dirty fun in a spotless place.”

Penn & Teller got off to a slow start when they reunited an act whose first show in Las Vegas began in 1993 out of consideration for the needs of their cast members and for state and local health regulations. Her first show was on April 22nd after both men were vaccinated. Until last week, 250 people were scattered in its 1,475-person auditorium when the lights were dimmed shortly after 9 p.m. one evening. But with Nevada Covid-19 restrictions lifted from June 1 by order of Governor Steve Sisolak, the show is growing to capacity: every seat is expected to be sold by the end of summer, producer Glenn S. Alai said.

You are facing a parade. David Copperfield is in operation, as is Absinthe, the Australian Bee Gees, Rich Little and a Prince tribute show. A six-show Bruno Mars residence at Park MGM in July is sold out, and Usher, Miley Cyrus, Donny Osmond, Barry Manilow, Dave Chappelle, Garth Brooks and Bill Maher are all coming to town. Star DJs were lined up by the city’s mega clubs.

Show business has always been big business in Las Vegas, but it has become even more important in the decades since the region lost its near-monopoly on legal casino gambling. Before the pandemic, Las Vegas had more than 100 theaters with a total of 122,000 seats, as well as 18 arenas that can hold an additional 400,000 people.

“Over half of the 21, 22, 23 million visitors we have each year go to a show,” said Steve D. Hill, president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s a huge draw, it’s a huge part of the city. It’s part of what the energy of this place is. “

Ana Olivier, a designer, and her husband Van Zyl van Vuuen, a data scientist, bought tickets to four shows when they came here from Atlanta for a week-long vacation.

Updated

June 10, 2021, 9:50 a.m. ET

“Honestly, we just want to get out of the house,” said Olivier as they waited to enter Penn & Teller.

Las Vegas marks this moment with characteristic excess: on Independence Day, fireworks will light up a long section of Las Vegas Boulevard, a coordinated staging (produced by Grucci, of course), choreographed from the roofs of seven casinos.

Most Broadway producers’ more cautious approach reflects the differences between the two cultures. Broadway theaters tend to be older and smaller, with cramped lobbies, bars, restrooms, and seating. For pure economic reasons, it is not possible to distance yourself socially and to sell enough seats to cover the costs.

Las Vegas theaters are typically huge and spacious and integrated into sprawling casino complexes.

The pressure from business and politics to reopen it was enormous. Shows are a powerful sales driver for casinos, not just through receipts, but the way they attract tourists and typically require customers to wander through an enticing maze of slot machines, table games, restaurants and bars to get around the Way to the entrance of the casino to find the theater.

For many shows, it’s been a slow climb to reopen as they dealt with changing regulations and sizing up the crowd’s eagerness to return. “Absinthe” tried to open in October, but since it was only allowed to sell a small fraction of its 700 seats, it was soon closed again: The producers decided that a show with a large cast and crew was not economically feasible. It reopened in April when it was allowed to increase capacity.

For all the optimism that is in the air, there are still memories that this remains a moment of uncertainty.

Performers, crew members and visitors to the “O” samples had to undergo coronavirus tests in order to enter the theater. Performers wore masks during their aerial acrobatics or went to underground locker rooms to try on costumes and wigs that had stood untouched for more than a year. f. (The mask requirement has been abolished for swimmers and scuba divers.)

Penn & Teller had to make adjustments. They no longer rush to the door to shake hands with fans when they leave, a tradition for 45 years. And now, when they look for audience volunteers to come on stage, refer them to a chair at the end of the stage, away from Jillette or Teller.

“You won’t find me strolling around a supermarket without a mask for a while,” Teller said in an interview. “I will stick to the most careful protocols there is. We really want to have people on stage. Of course we won’t get into it until we are convinced that this is safe. “

Signs posted in casinos indicate that vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks, but that those who have not been vaccinated must cover their mouths – not enforcers walking down the casino floors asking for CDC vaccination cards. This means that the cast and crew of “O” are leaving the highly precautionary Covid-is-still-with-us environment of their theater and stepping into the decidedly looser world of the rest of Las Vegas.

The travel and recreational audience alone won’t be enough to ensure that Las Vegas entertainment returns to what it was. The key question now is whether the convention business will return after the Zoom era. Alan Feldman, a fellow at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he was watching this most closely, although he said the rising interest in tourism was a good sign. “There is clearly some catching up to do with Las Vegas,” he said.

The producers, who have weathered the toughest period of their careers, hope that in the coming weeks Las Vegas will show the world that it is safe to return to something normal.

“I am very confident,” said Daniel Lamarre, president of Cirque du Soleil. “We’re selling at a pace that’s twice as fast as normal. It shows me that people are just crazy to go out and see people. ”

Tourists make up the overwhelming majority of people who come to the Strip, but some Las Vegas residents venture out as well. John Vornsand, a retired Clark County planner who lives in nearby Henderson, hadn’t seen a show here since Rod Stewart’s 2019 appearance at Caesars Palace. He was recently back with his wife Karen for Penn & Teller.

“I bought the tickets the first day they were outside,” said the vaccinated Vornsand. “I said, ‘It’s her birthday and that’s it.'”

“We don’t feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Even though I have a mask in my pocket.”

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