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THE MOVABLE BUFFET

Caesars' Celine Dion gamble paid off

December 23, 2007|Richard Abowitz | Special to The Times

CELINE DION'S final night in Vegas a week ago Saturday was as over the top of any of her high notes, with its 45-minutes-late start (unheard of in Vegas), a maudlin and self-congratulatory introductory video, 11 standing ovations, 10 minutes of Dion's rambling to the audience about the various shades of meaning the night held for her ("It is amazing what believing and love can do. Most of us have left our families every night to give ourselves every night. I can assure you it was worth it.") and those 100,000 rose petals falling on the stage.

Dion's show grossed over $400 million in a run that stretched for nearly five years, and it was a regular sellout. "As a business model we could have kept this going for years," said a wistful John Meglen, president and co-chief executive of AEG Live/Concerts West, promoter for the show. But there is nothing that can be done when a star is ready to move on.

It is hard to remember now what a risk "A New Day" was when the partnership between Cirque du Soleil veteran Franco Dragone and the diva was announced. Caesars Palace agreed to build a $95-million, 4,000-seat venue for Dion's massive show, which would include a band, sets and more than 50 dancers. Harrah's chief executive Garry Loveman remembers thinking what a risk his competitor was taking bringing Dion to Vegas at such cost. "I was nervous," he admits now. Soon he'd have more reason for nerves -- by the time the show opened in 2003, Harrah's owned Caesars.

Never had so much been spent to lure an artist to Vegas. Recouping the investment would require selling a huge number of tickets each night at then-record Vegas prices (high-end tickets in this, Dion's final year, went for more than $200 each) -- then trusting that the crowds would stick around in the casino. Caesars got no direct revenue from the show. But Dion, a contemporary hit-maker with wide international appeal, was one of the rare talents to make a home in Vegas who was not decades past her prime, making the risk seem like a calculated one.

Though the show initially struggled, with reviews that were mixed at best, it quickly turned into a sensation. In fact, if anything, people who might not have paid to see her perform in their hometowns still wanted to see "A New Day" in Vegas. There was status connected to being able to find good seats to her show. "I am not a big fan of Celine Dion's, but I really wanted to see her show when I was here," was a common sentiment.

Call it a guilty pleasure or a holy pilgrimage: You had to see Celine Dion while in Vegas.

Looking back now on a show that brought close to 3 million people into Caesars Palace, Loveman still seems a bit surprised by how well everything worked out.

"This taught us a lot. I think it has taught everybody. The notion that you can have a celebrity of her caliber who can fill this kind of seats, this often, at these prices is something that had never been demonstrated in Las Vegas or anywhere else. So I think it opened everybody's eyes."

It's an understatement to say that things worked out between Caesars and Dion, and there is no better proof in a bandwagon town than to see who jumped on and what shows followed hers to Vegas. Elton John's "Red Piano" joined her at Caesars, and then Barry Manilow took up residence at the Las Vegas Hilton. Both shows mimicked her by offering a boutique retail store dedicated to the artist. For a while even Prince (the gold standard of artists who don't compromise) made his home performing at the Rio. It would be hard to imagine the Rio (also owned by Harrah's) taking a chance on Prince without Dion having proved that the model works.

Earlier this year, even Michael Jackson moved to town for a few months amid stories (depending on which side you believe) that he either started receiving unsolicited offers to be a headliner here or was shopping a Vegas show. Either way, this points to the major factor keeping more of the town from embracing the big-name headliner model with the fervor it has had for replicating nightclubs or Broadway shows: A good star is hard to find.

As if to acknowledge how tiny the talent pool really is, Caesars is bringing in Bette Midler, a more conventional Vegas entertainer of an earlier generation, to replace Dion. And though an official announcement is not expected until next year, Cher is widely believed to be joining the Caesars lineup too. Both performers had their biggest hits decades before Dion's career hit its stride; both have solid acting credits and a reputation for the sort of theatrical shows that are a good fit as Vegas productions. And both represent safe, though obvious, solutions to the tricky problem of finding someone who can appeal to 4,000 fans five nights a week.

But neither show marks a change in Las Vegas entertainment like the one Celine Dion brought to town. It truly was "A New Day."

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For more of what's happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.

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