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Las Vegas bets on Celine Dion for its recovery

The hugely popular singer, who last played Caesars Palace three years ago, returns to a city fallen on hard times.

April 03, 2011|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Celine Dion will open a new show in Las Vegas, which some are hoping will help save the city's economic woes.
Celine Dion will open a new show in Las Vegas, which some are hoping will help… (Kirk McKoy, Los Amgeles…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — — Caesars Palace, or so the story goes, has no apostrophe in its name because its founders wanted it to be a resort for all, not a palace for one. But a few nights ago, there wasn't much question whose house it had become — again.

In case anyone had managed to miss the news, there were massive signs posted, reading "CELINE'S BACK" under a photo of, well, Celine's back. The $95-million Colosseum theater had never looked finer, the acreage of its stage draped with lavish velvet, superimposed with images of vines and lilies.

Everyone was in place — wealthy "whales" who had dropped enough dough in Las Vegas to meet the star herself; her husband René Angélil, who discovered her at age 12 and has remained the man behind the curtain for 30 years; Ken Ehrlich, the producer of the Grammy Awards who signed on as her director. And, of course, the Quebecoise chanteuse herself: Céline Marie Claudette Dion, who ascended the stage in a glittering, floor-length gown, her left hand clutching a microphone, her right over her heart, taking in the applause of a sold-out theater to launch a three-year contract that will reportedly pay her more than $20,000 per song.

You could make a pretty good argument, though, that one of the most important people in the room — in the eyes of Las Vegas — was back in Seat 414. There, a gray-haired man in a sturdy plaid shirt was smiling blithely at the music, tapping his hands on his jeans and occasionally responding out loud in a lilting French accent. When Dion nailed the high note in "The Power of Love," 64-year-old Michel Turcotte rose to his feet with the rest of the audience. He'd flown with his wife from Dion's native Quebec to see the show, to a town that desperately needs that sort of thing, and now he leaned over conspiratorially, as if sharing a guarded secret: "The people — they love her. No?"

They do — here, certainly.

Dion is a divisive figure. Some music aficionados hail her five-octave voice as a divine gift, and with more than 200 million copies of 23 albums sold, Dion is one of history's most successful recording artists. To detractors, she serves up a plasticine stew of schmaltz and pathos. Few artists better illustrate the gap between professional critics and the masses of listeners. "My Heart Will Go On," the theme song from "Titanic," is one of the bestselling singles of all time; it also, one critic wrote, causes "eye bleeding."

Now, a curious thing has happened in Las Vegas: Dion, 43, is not just viewed as another performer, or even another top-billed performer. In a town where the economic devastation is severe even by the standards of the rest of the nation, Dion is viewed as almost a savior.

Dion's previous run at Caesars Palace, "A New Day," drew 3 million customers from 138 countries between 2003 and 2007, sold out 723 times and grossed more than $400 million, putting her in the select company of Elvis and Sinatra — artists who intertwined their fortunes with the fortunes of Vegas itself.

Economy's collapse

It was not her fault, of course, but it is inescapable that the sharp decline of Las Vegas seemed to coincide with the end of Dion's last run at Caesars — Dec. 15, 2007, when she took the stage with her crew and family members as red rose petals rained around her.

After that, Dion left town for a world tour and to give birth to fraternal twin boys, Nelson and Eddy. Back in Las Vegas, meanwhile, the bottom fell out. Vegas had overestimated its mandate from the public, flooding an already saturated market with new homes, casinos and hotels. From that moment, virtually every economic indicator dropped markedly — hotel occupancy rates, home prices, traffic at the airport, state gambling revenues, which tumbled 9.7% in 2008 and a record 10.4% in 2009. Granted, the overall U.S. economy suffered a dramatic dip over a similar time frame, but presently Vegas's unemployment rate is at 13.7% — and a full quarter of the workforce is still either unemployed, underemployed or has given up looking for work, analysts estimate.

The economic activity of the Las Vegas region, despite its woes, still clocks in at $88 billion a year; it's preposterous to think that any single show could save an economy of that scale. And yet, with that context, it's easier to digest some of the hyperbolic response to the opening of Dion's new show — like that of Carlos Perez, the manager at Spago, the high-end Wolfgang Puck restaurant inside Caesars, a couple hundred yards from Dion's theater. Perez said that when he learned that Dion was returning, the first thing he did was look skyward and thank God.

Indeed, even if Dion fervor might seem a bit overwrought, hers is a famously disciplined commercial engine. There are suggestions that her return is already having an effect.

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