Maitre d’ three-step was a costly waltz

November 13, 2001 7:36 AM
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I was lucky enough to move here 25 years ago and catch the tail end of a special era in Las Vegas. And there IS one thing I miss: the showroom waltz. Not the Tennessee Waltz or the Blue Danube. The showroom waltz.

I first learned of this extraordinary dance ritual, native to the Vegas showrooms and lounges of the 1950s through early ’80s, when I got my first “real” job in Vegas in 1977 in public relations at the old MGM Grand (now Bally’s).

The showroom waltz went out of style in the late ’80s along with most table seating, cocktail service and reservations “in red” (the term used for a comp or “freebie”). If your name on the seating chart of the maitre d’ was written in blue, he knew you were an average schlep, who had to pay to see the show. During the days of the showroom waltz, the maitre d’ was the musical director; the captain, the person who actually escorted you to your seat, the lead dancer; and, you were the mark”¦er”¦waltzee!

As you finally got to the top of either of the two showroom lines (one was for VIP comps and the other, well, for those regular schleps), the maitre d’ carefully examined his chart, as though a prime seat had already been picked out. He then summoned the next of several tuxedoed captains to come forward and take you to whatever number seat or table he offered up. In reality, he was just handing you off as the next potential dance partner for the captain.

The captain’s first instructions to the customer were always the most telling, though most never realized the significance. He would always say, “Watch your step” and then motion you to follow him. That’s when the music began and he started leading, or “waltzing,” you around the room (one, two, three”¦one, two, three).

First to the worst seats in the back until, he saw you take a folded piece of U.S. currency from your pocket. Then, he changed direction and started to head towards a little better seat along the outer rim of the middle of the room (one, two, three, one, two, three).

If you made the denomination of the bill obvious by properly displaying it between the forefinger and middle finger of the hand, and it was a $20 or larger, you went directly towards the center of the showroom (one, two, three, one, two, three).

If you flashed a $50 or $100, the music rose to a crescendo and you were seated, depending on your request, either on the lip of the stage, in the second to front tier of booths or the first, and best, row of booths in “King’s Row.”

That wasn’t what I missed about the waltz, though.

The first day on the job at the MGM, was an opening night of a two-week engagement for comedian Shecky Greene. My boss asked me to host the media dinner, show and reception in Shecky’s dressing room afterwards. In those days, every time a headliner opened a new engagement (which was usually two shows a night for 14 straight days), the media were all invited, had dinner at special tables and were taken to the star’s dressing room for drinks and a “meet and greet” afterwards.

That night, as a captain “waltzed” a customer past me, he tried to slip a nicely folded bill a customer had just given him into his side jacket pocket, but missed. It fell directly at my feet, as I sat on the aisle at the top of the media table. Rather curiously (as well as surreptitiously), I picked it up and unfolded it. It was a crisp $50 bill! Yikes, I thought, this, just for taking a guy to a seat down front? Man, I’ve got the wrong job!

Sorry, I know you want to know if I gave the bill to that captain or the maitre d’, but I haven’t survived here 25 years by not knowing when to keep my trap shut.