The following is an excerpt from Dennis Conrad’s upcoming book, A Life, Well, Lived.
Actually, the author hasn’t yet decided to write such a book, but if he does, the following will likely be an excerpt from it. If not, what the hell. The author does invite your comments on this supposed excerpt and if he does eventually write such a book, he promises to maybe give a free copy of A Life, Well, Lived to those who commented. If they liked it. OK, even if they didn’t. Maybe.
“The Blonde Elvis”
It was interesting being a marketing manager on the Las Vegas Strip in the 1980s. I didn’t know anything about marketing, but neither did anyone else. At the time, most casino executives thought marketing was advertising (some still do today). There was none of the current era’s sophisticated marketing analysis and marketing’s effectiveness was mainly judged on whether the joint was busy or not.
Our Holiday Casino (now Harrah’s Las Vegas) was always busy. Except in December. But that’s another story.
Our new Vice President of Casino Operations, John O’Looney (who would soon become my mentor), had recently transferred to the Holiday Casino from our sister property, Harrah’s Atlantic City. He didn’t know anything about marketing either, but he did know about all the things they did in Atlantic City to produce huge revenue days at the property. Major championship fights. Million-dollar slot tournaments. “Player parties” for top casino players. Top-tier entertainment with the biggest headliners. Senior executive hosts who made $500,000 a year to bring in and schmooze “their” players.
At the Holiday Casino, we had none of that. We had a nice little buffet, an inexpensive but quality burlesque revue (no nudity), friendly employees, and a Holiday Inn attached to the casino that had the most reasonable room rates on the Las Vegas Strip. Mr. O’Looney wanted to add to this successful formula (trust me, we had the highest operating margins of all the casinos on the Strip) by doing CASINO marketing and a lot of that crazy expensive stuff they were doing in Atlantic City.
The trouble was, we didn’t have any casino marketers, just a guy responsible for advertising. Okay, we did have two junior slot hosts, an executive host who mostly approved credit for certain players, and a guy with a fancy title managing “special casino programs”, essentially two golf tournaments a year. No, we weren’t Atlantic City, but John wanted some of that pizazz and needle-moving impact of going after bigger casino players. So my mentor put me in charge of making all of this stuff happen.
A little more than two years prior, I was a lowly dealer. Now I was the casino marketing manager, responsible for table-game and slot tournaments, gaming-instruction programs, in-house casino promotions, and VIP events. In less than two years, the Holiday went from doing no table- game tournaments to four major tournaments a year and three mini tournaments a week; from one major slot tournament a year to one a month; from no VIP events a year to a VIP player party every other month. And I was in the middle of all of it, a pretty heady time for a true casino-marketing newbie. I felt a little like a rat on the treadmill — with the treadmill moving faster and faster.
Putting on player parties involved inviting several thousand of your best casino customers (so that 200 or 300 would show up), giving them free rooms (most usually received free food as well) and throwing them a shindig. The Atlantic City way of throwing these parties was to hire a name entertainer whom VIP players would fly or drive in to see perform. I’d never booked a main entertainer, or any entertainer, for that matter. Plus, our budget for entertainment for these player parties was so small as to be almost laughable. We didn’t have the million-dollar players to justify bringing in a Tony Bennett for a two-hour performance for 300 VIPs.
But we did have Rocky Sennes. Rocky was the Holiday’s entertainment director, responsible for our burlesque revue, Keep Smilin’ America. Rocky had been around forever and knew everyone in the entertainment biz.
“Rocky,” I said, “I have a three-thousand to five-thousand-dollar budget for entertainment for these player parties. For that amount, can we get an entertainer that these players might even know, much less, like?”
“Sure kid,” he answered immediately.
And sure enough, over the next couple of years, Rocky Sennes used every angle and connection he had to get us really cool entertainment for our new VIP parties. We had Henny Youngman, nearing the age of 90. “A Rose for Mother’s Day” with Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Freddy Cannon, the one-hit wonder with “Palisades Park.” Jerry Van Dyke. Red Buttons. A female comedian named Pudgy from Atlantic City (whom my mentor had recommended and I felt compelled to book). And several others. Not A-list entertainers by a long shot. Not even B entertainers. They were more like “C” entertainers who still put a smile on people’s faces and could put on a great show.
We also experimented with out-of-the-box entertainment with “funmeisters” and entertainment concepts that no one had ever heard of. Some of these I even discovered or created myself. For example, a local Las Vegas media personality named Mark Richards conducted a couple of interactive games for our VIP players, one called Sex Trivia (“What is larger, the average American woman’s breast or a Big Mac?”) and the other was Sing for Your Supper (exactly what you think it is). A Mark Twain lookalike from Lake Tahoe, McAvoy Layne, did a bawdy 75-minute presentation as the author of Tom Sawyer. A reverse raffle was where the winner was the VIP with the last ticket drawn.
Which leads me to the Blonde Elvis.
The Elvis impersonator business was booming in Las Vegas in the 1980s. I thought about finding one for a VIP party, but it just seemed a little too old hat. Then I stumbled on Blonde Elvis. I wish I could remember his real name. I was walking down the Las Vegas Strip toward the Dunes one day (not yet imploded to make way for Bellagio) and I saw this 6’5” Blonde Elvis character in full Elvis garb handing out coupons on the Strip for his free afternoon show in the Dunes lounge. Intrigued, I caught the act. It wasn’t a complete Elvis show, but did finish with a flourish with three rousing Elvis classics.
Blonde Elvis was actually a talented performer who did a number of impersonations of famous celebrity performers. The one that caught my eye was his performing both Willie Nelson AND Julio Iglesias singing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” He accomplished this simply by having a double sided face-sized picture on a big stick, one face Willie and the other Julio. He simply flipped the stick in front of his face to correspond to the appropriate part of the duet he was singing. The crowd loved it.
So of course, I booked Blonde Elvis for a VIP party and for a fraction of the cost of a name entertainer. Several VIPs thought this was our best party ever. Go figure.
After the show, I asked Blonde Elvis where I could buy a flip-sided stick mask of Willie and Julio. I wasn’t sure what I might do with it, but my impulse was to have one. Always trust your creative impulse. Blonde Elvis graciously gave me his stick mask, saying he had several others. Many years later, I found a use for the Willie and Julio stick mask. I trotted it out for a karaoke party that we threw for 50 of our consulting clients and I sang “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” as both Willie and Julio, alternating voices with the flip of the stick mask. I killed it and received a standing ovation. And I can’t even sing. And all because of Blonde Elvis.