Striking a sad note
A new book looks at the history of Strip music and the 1989 strike that broke up the bandsBy Scott Dickensheets
When Janis McKay came to town 21 years ago and got a job playing bassoon behind Tony Bennett, the band’s older cats regaled her with stories about the grand old days of Strip entertainment. But those tales had a dour subtext: “I was always hearing, ‘You missed it,’” she says. “‘It’s all over.’”
Two things about this.
One: “These stories were not being preserved,” says McKay, a professor in UNLV’s music department. The daughter of a journalist, she knew what happens to uncaptured stories: They vanish. So she enlisted Dad to help interview musicians with the idea of compiling a book, sticking with the project after he died.
Two: What doomed those good old days was, mainly, a 1989 strike by hotel musicians, during which casino corporations — eager to replace musicians (who are expensive) with recorded music (which isn’t) — outlasted the players and broke up the house bands. It was a drawn-out, acrimonious affair, front-page stuff thanks to the celebrities involved and the central role that showroom entertainment plays in the city’s swank image.
These rich veins of local history come together in McKay’s new book, Played Out on the Strip: The Rise and Fall of Las Vegas Casino Bands, from University of Nevada Press. Along with some surprising details — such as the existence of a Musicians’ Wives Club, which raised money for charity and sponsored jazz in the parks — her interviews and archive-foraging confirmed the wisdom of the old cats: Things were better back in the day.
“It’s clear we used to have a much richer cultural life than we did when I came here,” she says. Musicians drawn to the Strip’s steady checks formed jazz and chamber groups on the side, performing in community venues. As corporations took over casinos from individual operators and began bottom-lining such things as hotel orchestras — first they moved the players out of sight, under the stage or piped in from another room, then scrapped them after the strike — those cultural perks waned. “Things changed dramatically for the worse,” she says. “It was a really dark period after that.”
But she thinks something of a happy ending may yet be at hand. Thanks to Cirque shows, Smith Center productions and a few resort spectacles that embrace the aural intimacy of actual musicians, “there’s been something of a resurgence of live music,” she says. “I’m cautiously optimistic that things are getting better.”
00000184-2ffc-d624-afed-bfffd0b70000Sense of Place
You can go back, but you can't go back all the wayBy Damon Hodge
First of an occasional series in which local writers muse on meaningful locations in the valley. J&J Apartments and Woodhaven Homes, two neighborhoods nearly seven miles apart, continue to exert a gravitational pull on me. J&J, a low-slung, one-story complex at the southwest corner of Lake Mead Boulevard and H Street, is largely unchanged from my adolescent years there in the mid-1970s. I drive by several times a month, occasionally parking and walking through the complex, facetious explanation at the ready in case someone questions me. The exercise jogs memories, good and bad: Hooping at Doolittle Park next door and trips down the street to Nucleus Plaza for clothes and knickknacks; men settling beefs with their fists and addicts stealing nearly every new television my mom bought. Though danger was palpable, I never felt fear. In 1984, we moved into a house in Woodhaven at Alexander Avenue and Lamb Boulevard, two miles west of Nellis Air Force Base. The brown two-story with a backyard might as well have been a Summerlin mansion. But time has been less kind to the Wood’. Some homes are fraying. I visit monthly, parking across from my old house and reminiscing: the front-yard wrestling matches and backyard kissing sessions; touch football in the street and knocking on doors and running; my first fight (I won) and my second (chased by a bully I’d gotten the best of — so, a tie); afternoons secretly ogling boobs on The Benny Hill Show. I linger longer on my Woodhaven visits, looking at families and wondering if the neighborhood still provides similarly rich life experiences. I love each place, but it took years of visits to drop the cultural-anthropologist/looky-loo shtick and see these timeworn and careworn neighborhoods for what they truly are: the foundation of my life and important parts of our communal fabric.
00000184-2ffc-d624-afed-bfffd0b90000Test your knowledge!
In what movie …?
In honor of Viva Las Vegas, which turns 52 this month, a quiz about Sin City cinemaBy Michael T. Toole
1. In which Preston Sturgis comedy does this exchange happen?
Character A: “What’s in Las Vegas?”
Character B: “Everything; it’s an education.”
a) The Mighty McGinty
b) Sullivan’s Travels
c) The Palm Beach Story
a) The Thin Man
b) Safe in Hell
c) Mad Love
d) Little Caesar
a) Irene Dunne and Loretta Young
b) Myrna Loy and Loretta Young
c) Irene Dunne and Joan Crawford
d) Jean Arthur and Myrna Loy
4. Which five casinos did The Rat Pack plan to heist in the 1960 classic Ocean’s Eleven?
5. What is Elvis’ occupation in Viva Las Vegas?
b) Casino mogul’s son
c) Race car driver
d) International gambler
6. In Miss Congeniality 2 (2004), Sandra Bullock must save a pageant winner who is being held captive in …
a) The ship on Treasure Island
b) A boat in the Hoover Dam
c) A closet in the Eiffel Tower in the Paris
d) A utility area in Lake Bellagio
7. In Hey Boy, Hey Girl, this popular music duo performs a church benefit for a summer camp for underprivileged kids in Las Vegas …
a) Paul and Paula
b) Louis Prima and Keely Smith
c) Peaches and Herb
d) Etta James and Harvey Fuqua
a) Las Vegas Hillbillies
b) Las Vegas Hillbillys
9. This indie flick was set in Las Vegas but shot in Reno …
a) The Cooler
c) Miss Congeniality 2
ANSWERS 1-b. 2-c. 3-a. 4-Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, the Flamingo. 5-c. 6-a. 7-b. 8-b. 9-a.