The Hangover : Diva Las Vegas!

Richard Burnett
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I pretty much didn’t draw a sober breath for five days when I visited Las Vegas this past summer with a motley crew of some of the world’s finest gay journalists. It was also my birthday, so I had a legit excuse.

But after listening to Old Vegas stories from my buddy, onetime chorus line dancer Michael Doughman, pretty much any excuse is reason enough to party in Vegas.

“Like any high-tourist town, local people tend to band together,” Michael told me. “They have their little groups and aren’t anxious to mingle with passers-though, invest time in people just for a few days and never see them again. Tourists are star struck when they come to Vegas, so there’s that starfucker mentality going on: ‘Oh yeah, I slept with one of the guys from this show or that show.’”

Michael knows of what he speaks: He got his start in Vegas in 1970 dancing one season for Ann-Margret (“She had a very a strong work ethic and didn’t make us feel like we were slaves to the star”) before moving on to the Folies Bergeres for the next seven years.

“There were between four and six of us sharing an apartment [on Paradise Road] at any given time, but there was this great cul-de-sac off Sombrero [Drive] where Totie Fields, Mitzi Gaynor and Eydie Gormé all lived. They would gather from time to time with the neighbourhood girls,” Michael recalls. “I [also] met Liberace several times. Lee loved hanging out with the chorus kids. I never went to his house, but I did meet [his lover] Scott [Thorson] who I really think was fond of Lee.”

Michael didn’t think much of Debbie Reynolds (“She was a bit difficult”), liked Carol Channing (“That voice is for real, maybe a little over-accentuated on stage – the only time it disappears is when she gets angry and then she cusses like a sailor!”) and adored Joan Rivers. “We became well-acquainted,” Michael says. “In those days Joan was undoubtedly the hardest working and most-driven performer in Vegas. She would open for anybody. Off the stage she could tell true-life stories and make them very funny.”

Michael moved to Dallas in 1980, where he became an LGBT community pioneer and today runs the Dallas Tavern Guild which organizes Dallas Gay Pride. Meanwhile, Vegas morphed into one of the world’s premiere playgrounds, and not just for the rich and famous.

As Michael says, “I miss the old Vegas, but I still like going to see shows at the MGM because they still have the lavish old-style productions with the showgirls, feathers, beads and jewels. Now Vegas is all mega-shows like Celine. Not that there’s anything wrong with that … “

Fittingly, the week I was in Vegas I stayed at the fabulous MGM Grand – centrally located smack in the middle of the strip – and I also got to check out Celine Dion’s newest show at Caesar’s Colosseum. A decade after she opened the joint and silenced the naysayers, nobody does Vegas cheese better than our Celine.
Vegas also boasts a sparkling constellation of drag stars, thanks to trailblazing female impersonator Kenny Kerr, who died on April 28 at the age of 60. Kerr was the bad girl Las Vegas fell hard for in the 1970s, and became a Strip star at a time when over-the-top and garish were the town’s defining characteristics.
“He paved the way for all female impersonators working on the Las Vegas strip today,” says my friend, female impersonator and Vegas legend Eddie Edwards of The Edwards Twins.

Cher also hired drag queens J.C. Gaynor and Kenny Sasha to perform with her at Caesar’s Palace back in 1979. “The crowd thought the drag queens were actually Diana Ross and Bette Midler—they had no clue,” Cher says today.

When I arrived in Vegas, the Strip’s longest-running headliner was hands-down Joan Rivers-impersonator Frank Marino, who’s long-time partner and Divas Las Vegas associate producer Alex Schechter proposed to Marino onstage on July 3.

But if it’s down-home trashy drag you want, look no further than one of my all-time fave drag bars, Drink & Drag on Fremont Street, heart of the Old Vegas still anchored by the Golden Nugget casino across the street. The bar staff here are all drag queens.

Next door to Drink & Drag, you’ll find Krave Massive, which at 80,000 square feet (!!!) is the world’s largest gay nightclub. The Go-Go boys here may even persuade you to forget exploring Fremont Street below Las Vegas Blvd. which is quickly transforming into a hipster neighbourhood.

The boys are also pretty hot at Temptation Sundays, the gayest pool party in town, at the Luxor, in a city known for its outrageous pool parties (you might also want to check out the straight-but-entertaining Palms Casino Resort’s pool parties).

My fave stop on this trip was hands-down the U.S. National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement, better known as “The Mob Museum.” It’s all here – the original wall from the St Valentines Day Massacre, the barber’s chair in which Murder, Inc. co-founder Albert Anastasia was murdered, Lucky Luciano’s fedora and a section devoted to James Gandolfini of The Sopranos.

But I’ve kept my fave Vegas story for last: One boozy night I lost my iPhone in a nightclub on the Strip. Unbelievably, some angel found it, gave it to security at The Mirage Hotel and Casino who went beyond the call of duty and shipped it to me via UPS.

Which just goes to prove, what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas.

WHERE TO STAY

The MGM Grand Hotel & Casino is centrally located on the Vegas strip. Excellent service and spotless rooms. Surf to http://www.mgmgrand.com/

WHERE TO EAT

Chef Shawn McClain combines farm-to-table produce, artisanal meats and sustainable seafood in a classy setting. Surf to http://www.arialasvegas.com/dining/restaurants/sage. Best burgers in Vegas at Park on Fremont. Surf to http://parkonfremont.com/. Best brunch: Simon’s at The Palms: http://www.palms.com/casual-dining/simon.

HOW TO GET THERE

Several airlines fly direct from Montreal to Las Vegas.

GAY VEGAS

Get more Gay Vegas info from http://www.thecenterlv.com/ and http://gaylasvegas.com/.

Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://blogs.montrealgazette.com/category/montreal/pop-tart/.

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.