TV stardom never ensured a Vegas hit

Nov 20, 2001 9:39 AM

One of the questions frequently asked by visiting media as well as tourists, is why more TV stars haven’t been successful headliners in Vegas.

One would think the high exposure of being a popular TV personality would ensure that people would pay to see you perform here. But that’s not always been the case, especially for those who weren’t nightclub performers with proven acts before they made it on TV.

Jay Leno is one of the very few who successfully plays here with any regularity. Dennis Miller has also done well here. (But, again, both were professional standup nightclub comics before TV notoriety.)

Even Jerry Seinfeld stays away from playing Vegas, although he, too, would fall into the former nightclub comedian category. He did well here as the opening act for Donna Summer over 20 years ago.

David Cassidy had some success in the context and as the star of the show “EFX” at the MGM. But, his own show “At the Copa” (even with the help of Sheena Easton) did not do well at the Rio and has long since closed.

What TV stars of today have learned from the TV stars of the past is that pleasing a live audience and getting them to pay to see you is not automatic. TV is free and you can change the channel!

Just a few examples of TV star flops in Vegas in the past few decades were MacLean Stevenson (M*A*S*H), Gary Burghoff (M*A*S*H), Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Jim Varney (Ernest “know what I mean Vern” in TV commercials), Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son), Jim Nabors (Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC), Carroll O’Connor (All In The Family and In The Heat of the Night), Dana Plato (Different Strokes), Mary Hart (Entertainment Tonight), Julie McCullough (Growing Pains) and Ted Knight (Mary Tyler Moore Show and Too Close For Comfort).

All of their gigs were disasters or near-disasters.

Only one performer comes to mind, who first achieved success in TV and then fluently made a transition to Las Vegas showroom star: Suzanne Somers.

Most, like Knight, were a very different story, though. Ted tried an untried act that included singing, jokes and even a little ventriloquism, with a dummy that was supposed to look like him. The room was so quiet you would have thought Marcel Marceau was onstage. Or, that 1,200 Marcel Marceaus were in the audience.

After literally and esthetically insulting the audience, he came backstage to his dressing room whining, “Why am I doing this? I’m a TV star, not a stage comic!”

Bernie Rothkopf, the MGM’s entertainment buyer at the time, agreed and quickly put him out of his misery by replacing him with Susan Anton the very next night.

Jim Varney, when he played the Maxim, made the mistake only a few made and that was trying to get away from the character he was famous for on TV. It didn’t work. The audience and critics were hoping Vern would show up and take Ernest home. Know what I mean?

However, it is Mary Hart, who may top the catastrophe list. She opened for David Brenner at the Golden Nugget in the late 80s. Local newspapers, the tabloids, Variety, lots of folks, had a field day with her act or lack of one. Not surprisingly, she never came back.

Her whole show was an amateurish, summer stock-like imitation of Juliet Prowse, replete with designer Bob Mackie shreds. Her incessant, syrupy patter about people constantly telling her how perky she was and how much she had her legs insured for, quickly bored the audience to the point of silently chanting, “E.T. GO home!”

Thus, the combination of a virtually extinct headliner policy on the whole in Las Vegas and a much wiser, albeit less daring, group of TV stars, keeps them from the stages of Vegas and, perhaps, wasting the “Days of Their Lives.”

And, if things fall through with “Lumiere” at the Aladdin, it may be the best thing Carmen Electra (Baywatch) never did!