Casino hopefuls -- Lounge lizards hunt for stardom in Las Vegas' smoky backrooms

By EW Staff
October 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Casino hopefuls

Despite claims that it’s been too cleaned up to deserve the name Sin City, Las Vegas is still a shortcut to hell. It’s just that the sin now is one of style rather than morality. In the temple of Frank, Sammy, Dino, and Elvis, corporate vipers have turned theme hotels into the town’s stars, and they will answer for it on Judgment Day. Same as every yutz who stands in the blistering heat to snap Polaroids of the city’s phony Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.

But the story of headliners playing second fiddle to Disneyesque ship battles and volcanic eruptions is a tired one. A better story can be found in the darkest, smokiest showcases of showbiz purgatory — the lounges. This is where the dwindling ranks of old-school crooners, no matter their degree of swagger and swing, no matter how direct their link to the spirit of Sinatra, are hanging on for dear life as Planet Vegas orbits further from Frank’s World.

”They’re just filling space,” says Paul Anka. ”When Frank and I started headlining in ’59 and ’60, we’d get off work at the Sands and go to the lounges, where you could see Louis Prima and Keely Smith. You had quality acts and the lounges were set up as choice boutiques. It was a whole different environment when the Mob ruled.”

Not that the lounge scene is kaput. It’s alive and well for Top 40 cover bands that swing easily from ”Proud Mary” to ”Livin’ la Vida Loca,” 10 minutes of which can make you want to run outside and throw yourself in front of traffic. But this story is about the guys down the hall, playing, half the time, to an empty room. It’s about Art Vargas, who suggests Bobby Darin. It’s about George Bugatti, who sounds like Tony Bennett. And it’s about Andrew James, who might just be the ghost of Sinatra. Forced to suffer a raft of nightly indignities, only one thing keeps the lowly Vegas crooner going in the year 2000. Like the lemmings who line up at the slot machines and craps tables, each one thinks there’s a chance of catching the break that changes everything. Who knows? This story could be it.

”Hey, baby, this is Andrew James,” says the cool tenor voice on the cell-phone message, and you know you’re about to warp back in time. It’s a world of juicy steaks thick as your fist, tequila shots with kick, and Cuban Cohibas copped from an underground source. If James doesn’t get back to you right away, it’s because ”I met a chick after my last set and she kept me up all night.” Or it’s because he’s busy with an executive workout. ”I take 10 or 15 minutes of steam to sweat the poison out of my body. After that I go to the tanning salon, which is the best place in Vegas to meet women.”

”Oh, look, my favorite entertainer,” the bartender says as James, 43, strolls into Ruth’s Chris in a suit stolen off the back of a shark. Isn’t the Rat Pack lifestyle dead in this town? ”It doesn’t die,” James says quietly, as if passing on a secret. ”It lives inside of you.”

James, who worked in sales most of his career and lived the single life in Southern California, was running several dating services six years ago. One day he plugged Sinatra at the Sands into his car stereo and discovered to his amazement, as he sang along, that he didn’t sound bad. ”I’d never sung before, swear to God.” Intrigued, he went home and worked out with a stack of Sinatra CDs and videos. ”I practically put my head through a window trying to figure out what he was doing with the phrasing. But when you get it, you’ve got it. It’s an easy little swing and slide he does.” When he was ready to go public, Carnegie Hall was booked. So James went to karaoke night at a Tony Roma’s rib joint in Tustin, Calif. He let rip with ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and ”they went nuts. I got a tremendous rush and I was hooked.” James went on to play cruise ships and piano bars, and in 1999 he won Dick Clark’s Your Big Break, a TV talent competition. But a bigger break came late last year at Monte’s Steakhouse in the San Fernando Valley, where he was discovered by a hairstylist. ”One of the customers comes up between sets and tells me she does hair in Vegas and knows a lot of people. She says, ‘You belong in Vegas.”’

”Yeah, that was my wife’s hairdresser,” says Steve Beyer, an agent, cabaret performer, and musical director for the recently closed Desert Inn. ”He came to the house on a Saturday morning and I popped in a tape because you can tell in 30 seconds whether a guy can sing or not. He did ‘Witchcraft,’ and you get goose bumps when a guy sings like that. I wanted to make sure I was hearing the real thing, so I moved him into the living room and played piano for him. He had it. You could tell right away. He’s got that edgy personality — your Rat Packer mentality. You could throw him back to that day and he’d be hanging out with the boys.”

James, who had already quit the dating-service job to give his singing career an honest shot, says there was a message from Beyer when he got home to Ventura, Calif. He’d already lined up an audition for James’ first gig. Viva Las Vegas! James had the world on a string, but eight months and six casino jobs after packing up and moving, he’s found out there’s somethin’ stupid going on. ”You’ve got the sound technician, some young Nimrod with a decibel meter, telling you to turn it down so you don’t disturb the gamblers. You’ve got some assistant manager with an ass as big as all outdoors — so she’s pissed at the world — telling you she’s looking for a different vibe after you’ve tripled the volume they’re doing every night. So maybe they go with some lame R&B band or they bring in some cheeseball Bill Murray wannabe. In the beginning, the lounge was a place to keep people in the casinos when they wanted a break from the tables, but the people running these places don’t know what they want from one minute to the next. They don’t know whether to s— or wind their watches. We’re wallpaper to them. Chewing gum. And what better chewing gum than the mindless Top 40 band that requires nothing but blind obedience?”

Then there’s the clientele.

”Look at this,” James says while strolling across a casino floor. ”It’s like a casting call for the Jerry Springer Show. You’re putting your heart into a song and you’ve got Junior wandering in with his Reeboks, and the five kids are standing there with their fingers up their noses. What the f— are you doin’ in a casino, pal?”

For now he’s at least found steady work — the upstairs bar at New York, New York. It is hard to find, unless you happen to be shopping at the Houdini magic shop across the hall. But for all of that, five nights a week, accompanied by background tapes and a live pianist, Andrew James is in show business.

”Summer Wind” swings into ”I’ve Got a Crush on You” as his set opens at 9 p.m. Less than a dozen people are in the room, but three of them have gone slack-jawed. James has got the chops and he’s got the tough-guy banter down pat (”Do I sound like a f—ing soprano to you, pal?” he once asked a customer who requested Michael Jackson’s ”Thriller”).

”You’ve got to deal with a lot of BS,” James says, ”but I’m getting paid to stand up in Vegas and sing Sinatra. You can’t have a better whack-off fantasy than that. My dream? I’d like to get a CD out, and maybe put a 10-piece orchestra together and headline somewhere. But I don’t think they even know what they want to do with this room. See if you can use your influence for me, will you, babe?”

(Start spreading the news. Just before presstime, Andrew James took another step on the stairway to the stars, bolting New York, New York for the London Room at the Aladdin.)

”Do you feel the love in the room?”

The man who has just posed this question does. A better question is, Why? Art Vargas, 35, recently married to a casino marketing executive, is on stage at the Bellagio’s Fontana Bar. It seats 250, but 230 of the chairs are empty despite the aerobic crooning, strutting, and imping of Vargas, backed by a five-piece band. A terrific ”Mack the Knife” can’t cut them away from the nearby bank of slots. An emissary from who-knows-what-backwater calls out a request: ”We Are the World.” The only people who raise their hands when Vargas asks if there are any Italians in the audience leave halfway through ”Mambo Italiano.” He does a wedding song for a couple who dance like Clydesdales. And now, feeling the love, he’s sliding bravely into Jobim’s ”quiet thoughts and quiet dreams/and the window that looks out on Cor-co-va-do.”

”I’ve had casino bosses literally say, ‘Do you see that slot machine over there? It’s more important than you, so turn it down,”’ says Vargas. He grew up in Detroit and came to Vegas in 1987 expecting a little more respect. Expecting, in fact, that Vegas might launch him to stardom. Thirteen years later, he’s still waiting for liftoff. ”The thing I don’t want is to end up becoming the king of the lounges.”

The Fontana is the most beautiful lounge in Las Vegas and the absolute worst to perform in. That’s because the window doesn’t look out on Corcovado, but on the casino’s real headline act: the eruption, every 20 minutes or so, of the dancing water fountains on what is supposed to be Lake Como — or is it the Mediterranean? Whatever, the Fontana Bar is the quickest route to the lakeside patio, and half of America, in all its tank-topped, flip-flopped glory, comes cattling in off the casino floor the moment they see the flumes. Vargas plows on, ignoring a stampede that nearly surpasses, for sheer determination, the daily spectacle at the buffet line. What else can he do?

”Vargas’ act is terrific, but he’s probably better suited to do private events, where he’ll get people who are there for the show,” says Foster Wilson, vice president of entertainment at the Hilton and Park Place before he went into the booking and consulting business. According to Wilson, lounges flourished until about 1970, when corporate bean counters replaced them with keno lounges. In the early ’90s, a new set of geniuses realized keno was a bore and so they reinvented the lounges. Crooners had a nice little run because Rat Pack-and-martini nostalgia was in, Wilson says. But Vegas is built for the masses, and fewer patrons connect each year with the golden era of jazz and pop standards.

”My ego has been worked over,” Vargas says. ”But I’ve done well and worked pretty steadily. I’m not an alcoholic and I haven’t tried to kill myself.” And for all their gripes, lounge performers can take home between 4 and 10 grand a month. But in a city where you’re nothing if your name isn’t lighting up the Strip, that’s just enough respect to make you crave more. ”I’m waiting for the day when someone calls and says, ‘Guess what? From now on, you’re opening for Natalie Cole. And we think your concept for a TV variety show is great.”’

By his third set, the sun is setting on Lake Como. Vargas has the Fontana Bar three-quarters full as he races through ”Just a Gigolo,” trying to beat the next water show. Given the hydro fascination, he takes a drink of water and reminds them they’re in a desert. ”I don’t think we’re even supposed to be here,” he says, and the line is better than anyone knows.

George Bugatti was playing the Peninsula in Beverly Hills one night several years ago when a gruff gent called out a request from the back of the room. ”But Not for Me” was the tune he wanted to hear. ”In E flat.” Then, Jack Daniel’s in one hand, cigarette in the other, he came up on stage to sing it himself.

Frank Sinatra.

”It was surreal,” says Bugatti, 35, two years into a Bellagio Hotel lounge act in which he plays piano with a velvet touch and sings as if he wrote the songs. ”Sinatra says, ‘Come on, sing along with me, kid.’ We did ‘But Not for Me’ and then ‘One for My Baby.”’

Tony Bennett used to come by too and chat with him on breaks, offering advice on phrasing. Once, at Bennett’s own concert, he invited Bugatti up to sing two numbers.

It was supposed to be this way. At age 5, Brooklyn-born Bugatti went with his parents to see Man of La Mancha on Broadway and he insisted on climbing the stage afterward so he could belt out ”The Impossible Dream.” He studied classical piano at Juilliard, got a theater degree from NYU, and studied acting with Stella Adler. And all this scholarly preparation has delivered him to the Allegro Room in the Bellagio, where he competes nightly with a margarita blender, cascading slot-machine coins, and requests for schlock tunes from the songbook of the great unwashed.

Bugatti is the right voice, wrong time. In a hip-hop world, he’s working a Carrot Top town where Cirque du Soleil is the hottest ticket in years. Despite this, or maybe because of it, he remains in love with the past, and stubbornly insists on performing little-known gems because ”there’s nothing new to bring to ‘My Way’ or ‘New York, New York.”’ This might go over if, while singing, he were sawing a woman in half or standing in the fountain.

Bugatti, Vargas, and James can probably survive indefinitely in Vegas as nostalgic curiosities. But they want more, and wonder if they’d find it in New York or Atlantic City. ”We’re at the end of an era,” Bugatti says. ”I got to sing with the people who blazed the trail, and I see myself carrying the torch for them.” His wife, Mary, wonders why he can’t be a male Diana Krall or perhaps the next Harry Connick Jr., whose recent career choices she questions. ”Harry Connick’s leaving it wide open for George,” she says with the heart of a lounge singer’s wife.

It’s midnight in Las Vegas. The ice crusher begins to grind away. A drunk at the bar says, ”Hey, tough guy,” to no one in particular. George Bugatti, his silky voice half hope and half despair, sings ”Where or When.”