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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

He won acclaim but lost Vegas

September 24, 2006|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

APPLAUSE is one thing. But standing ovations, real standing ovations (as opposed to people still banging their hands together as they get up to leave), are far harder to get in Las Vegas than people think. On a recent night, as he does most nights, Clint Holmes got one at the showroom named after him at Harrah's.

As always, many of the tourists present had never heard of Clint Holmes before the night began. Maybe they got a discount with their room, were comped the tickets, followed a friend's recommendation or just got handed a coupon by a showgirl on the casino floor. Within Las Vegas, though, Holmes has become a sort of institution for his civic activities and for keeping a certain old style of entertainment alive on the Strip.

But while all things must pass everywhere else, change in Las Vegas is a process that is double-timed. So after giving more than 1,800 performances at Harrah's, Holmes gives his final show Saturday night. Harrah's is bringing in Rita Rudner and Wayne Newton to replace him, and Holmes is planning on bringing a show he has written to Broadway. But more than most headliners who come and go, there is a great deal of sadness over the closing of this show.

"He has amazing charisma on stage," says Mike Weatherford. A veteran entertainment reporter and critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Weatherford has seen Holmes bring a showroom to its feet many times. In a world of antisocial rock stars and diva headliners, Holmes, like his idol Sammy Davis Jr., is shameless in his old-fashioned desire to win over every last person in the audience. According to Weatherford: "There is no one else doing what Clint does right now. He really reaches out and connects with the audience. Clint is not doing shtick."

So it is no surprise that the new Flamingo headliner, Toni Braxton, whose show got off to a rocky start despite her fame and hits, has since been lunching with Holmes and going to his show picking up tips.

In Vegas, Holmes' particular challenge, as he puts it, was: "I never wanted to be the guy on stage singing 'My Way.' " And it certainly has resulted in one of the most musically sophisticated and adventurous shows in the history of the Strip.

DESPITE never achieving widespread fame, Holmes, 60, paid his dues before starting at Harrah's in 2000. He spent years on the road opening for Bill Cosby, worked Joan Rivers' short-lived talk show and had a No. 2 hit in 1973 with the novelty track "Playground in My Mind." Not that most people know he even sang it; the song is remembered for its chorus of children singing "My name is Michael; I have a nickel." The song is bubblegum, not really at all like Holmes' more jazz- and Broadway-inflected music of today.

In fact, for a long time he didn't even perform his hit at Harrah's. These days, before trotting it out he jokes to the audience: For a long time I didn't do this song. I was embarrassed, because I only have the one hit. Then I thought about it and realized that while I only have the one hit, how many do you have?"

In fact, he isn't the retro act he is often mistaken for. It isn't how he performs but what he sings that has made Holmes' show so special. With each passing year, Holmes' show has been built ever more out of original material and has developed a narrative arc built around his life's story -- a nightclub act in the tradition of Sinatra.

These days, a typical Holmes performance has moments of jazz, rhythm and blues, show tunes, serious scatting and even opera.

When he first opened, Holmes admits his show was more traditional. "I put together medleys of singers like Elton John and Billy Joel or whatever." But as he began to transform the show by mixing in originals he also began to find his audience.

"As time went by, the show became more personal. I decided my job was to be me. The songs now are all either original or fall into the story form. Everything I sing now is relevant to who I am as an artist," he says, relaxed and happy to talk about his career.

It probably helps that Holmes' life story is so unusual: His mother was a white British opera singer who met Holmes' African American jazz-singer father while he was serving in the military overseas. Holmes was raised in upstate New York and was about the only black person at his school (and when he started performing at Harrah's he was the only black headliner on the Strip).

Nowadays, Holmes brings his entire life, including a song written after a recent successful battle with cancer, into his Harrah's show. His life is also the basis for "Breathe!" a musical he is writing with acting coach Larry Moss that he hopes to bring to Broadway. Meanwhile, "An Evening With Clint Holmes: Live in Las Vegas" was released this month, preserving his now classic Vegas show.

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