Saturday, June 22, 2024

Days in the lives of black performers on the Strip

Reva Rice is starring in “Vegas! The Show” at the Saxe Theater in Miracle Miles Shops at Planet Hollywood.

Invariably, the words Las Vegas conjure up images of the Strip and the entertainment that can be found there every day of the year.

African-American entertainers — legendary names like Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Redd Foxx, George Kirby, Barbara McNair, Josephine Baker, The Treniers, Dorothy Dandridge and The Nicholas Brothers come to mind — were essential to not only building its reputation as the world’s entertainment capital, but helping set a standard for the advancement of equal rights.

Today, a new generation of black performers are on stages all over the Strip, playing a central role in attracting an estimated 2.5 million visitors to Las Vegas each year.

“I think Las Vegas is the ‘West Coast Broadway’ and has the same status,” said Boonville, Mo., native Skye Dee Miles, a singer/entertainer who performs weekends at the Tropicana hotel. “When I was growing up, I always heard about the great black performers who performed here. Now, as a performer on the Las Vegas Strip, I feel a part of that history.”

With the advent of modernized hotel properties and other amenities, the Strip’s growing reputation as an “adult Disneyland” has brought a growing number of people to the city in search of a good time. But in the eyes of some, the explosion of venues has resulted in a sometimes negative impact on black performers.

“When I first moved here five years ago, there was an abundance of live bands and black performers on the Strip, and entertainers made a good living,” Miles said. “Now, there is a lack of live music and (fewer) African-American performers in the lounges. I am so glad that the management at the Tropicana decided to bring live music back to their lounge, which has given me the opportunity to do what I love. I don’t think that there are many African-American entertainers working on the Strip at all anymore. I think the hotels decided to put more of an emphasis on opening nightclubs, to reach a younger demographic. Some of the young music producers today don’t even use live music in their songs. The … tourists are underestimated in my opinion. Sometimes they do want to sit down and listen to good live music and be entertained.”

Adding to the angst, many Strip performers now work without contracts — meaning they often work on a day-to-day basis. Miles says the situation has resulted in an atmosphere where the competition is fierce among entertainers hungry for consistent work.

“It is a constant hustle being an entertainer these days,” she said. “Most of us don’t get long contracts anymore, unless you are in a big show. I am an independent contractor working for myself, and from the moment I wake up, I will be on the phone or the computer promoting myself and looking for another opportunity. Attending auditions is also an ongoing process, because you are constantly in the (mode) of finding work. Especially now, because … work is so scarce now because of the economy. And after I perform at the Tropicana, I am usually hanging out — not partying, but networking and socializing. That is how I have gotten most of my work in Vegas.”

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Reva Rice has performed around the country. She arrived in Las Vegas in 1994 to star in the show “Starlight Express.”

“I was actually going to move to Los Angeles after performing in London, and then I was asked by (the) ‘Starlight Express’ producers if I wanted to be the lead in the Vegas show,” Rice recalled. “I accepted, and when I came to Vegas I fell in love with it.”

Today, she is a headliner in the well-received “Vegas! The Show” at the Saxe Theater in Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops. The show pays tribute to such renowned entertainers as Sammy Davis Jr., Tina Turner and Gladys Knight.

“It is a wonderful show that talks about the history of Vegas, traditional showgirls and (it features) something that is not seen any more in Vegas — a full 11-piece orchestra. There are 30 performers that will take you back in the day,” said Rice.

Asked about the hectic lifestyle of a Las Vegas entertainer, Rice described a typical day.

“’Vegas! The Show’ usually ends at 10:30 p.m., and I am in bed between 1:30 a.m. and 2 a.m. Nevertheless, I always wake up (by) 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. When I am not working, I am usually promoting myself and I am very excited about my new CD called, ‘What is Love?’ I am shooting a video and releasing my first single, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ which is a classic made famous by Frank Sinatra. I am a very diverse performer and sing in five different languages. I have my own lounge band and we perform Top 40 hits as well as classics.”

Performing in Las Vegas can also be a family affair. Kip Mungin and his fiancée, Anika Ellis, have established the KAM Entertainment Co., which is comprised of such bands as Yellow Funk and 3.0. The energetic couple performs both original songs and covers, with Nungin serving as a lead vocalist and drummer in the ensemble.

D’La Vance, from left, Anika Ellis, Kip Mungin, and Rhoney G.

“When I first came to Las Vegas, I was performing with a band called Isis, at The Mirage hotel in the lounge,” recalled Mungin, who composed a song about Hurricane Katrina shortly after arriving here from Biloxi, Miss. “It was very exciting and was the launching pad for me to go on and perform with such artists as Barry Manilow, Prince and a show at the Las Vegas Hilton called ‘The Sunset Strip.’ Things have changed some since then, and if you are a performer, you, have to evolve. It is a hustle and bustle as an entertainer … very competitive. There used to be a lot of black performers on the Strip, but then came (what is called) the ‘black out.’ That is when many black performers, such as Darcus Speed and Gi-Gi, were cancelled. When things like this happen, you look around for black ownership to come in to give you options. But there is no black ownership on the Las Vegas Strip, so you have to conform and innovate other options,” says Mungin.

A trained dancer who attended New York University, performed with Alvin Ailey and appears regularly with K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Ellis faces challenges with a spirit of optimism.

“I feel — as an artist, musician, performer — every day is an opportunity to create and get your voice out there,” she says. “Whether it is through performing with a band, recording or exposing your music on YouTube, you are keeping your feelers out there for someone … who can make a difference in your career. There is no break in this industry — even when you are not performing, we are writing music, recording and listening to other music for inspiration. Coming from New York, Las Vegas is very different. But you must adapt and take it for what it is. I strongly believe that if you believe and love what you do, you can make it anywhere.”

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