Orson Welles: Vegas’s least likely headliner
All manner of showbiz greats have played Vegas. From Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack to the Jason Orange-less Take That, a Sin City residency remains among the most coveted of entertainment fixtures.
This is in large part due to how lucrative a regular Vegas gig can be. While Caesars Palace is currently paying Elton John $330,000 for each performance of his Million Dollar Piano show, Britney Spears’ two-year deal with the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino is believed to be worth upwards of $9 million per annum.
Since such acts have a crucial role to play in attracting holidaymakers to the gambling oasis, the venues are happy to pay the exorbitant fees. But you’d be wrong if you think glitz and glamour are the only things that bring in the punters. Back in the 1950s, people flocked in huge numbers to watch a corpulent man perform magic tricks and recite speeches from The Merchant Of Venice and Julius Caesar. No, this wasn’t your average Las Vegas showbiz extravaganza, but then Orson Welles wasn’t your typical Sin City performer.
Although he spent his later years sporting a particularly nifty Fedora, George Orson Welles wore a wide selection of hats over the course of his life. The man who directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in Citizen Kane – still widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made – Welles petrified America with his radio version of HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds and caused a stir in Harlem with his highly inventive voodoo-inflected Macbeth. The big man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, also directed big-screen Shakespearean adaptations and starred in classic movies such as Jane Eyre and The Third Man – all this after spending his teenage years acting on the stage in Dublin and fighting bulls in Spain. If you’ve met anyone who’s lived a more colourful, you clearly know James Toback.
If he was good at living life to the full, Welles wasn’t much cop with cash and it was this, together with the fallout from a poorly received New York staging of King Lear, which brought him to the desert in February 1956. Welles – who had taken to financing his movies out of his own pocket – needed money and he needed it fast.
All of which made the $45,000 offer for a three-week residency at the Mafia-run Riviera Resort as welcome as it was unexpected. But how to entertain the great unwashed? Having long been obsessed with magic (see above), Welles quickly resolved to spend the first half of his show sawing women in half and making a range of bird life disappear. And after that? Why, he’d hit them with Shakespeare’s greatest hits, of course!
A fan of the Bard since back when he was still in short trousers, Welles remained a devotee of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s favourite son despite the disappointment of the New York Lear, his misconceived movie Macbeth and a film adaptation of Othello that, though excellent, took the better part of four years to complete. It was therefore easy for him to call to mind a clutch of killer soliloquies. It just remained to be seen whether the people would come…
It didn’t take long for the fears that Welles’ programme was too sophisticated to evaporate. Though the first night ran to an infernal length, the great showman soon had his act down pat. What’s more, while the magic was appreciated, what the audience went positively wild for were the Shakespeare readings. The very people who the night before had been enjoying the comedic stylings of Joey Bishop simply couldn’t get enough of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’.
There was an irony here in that Welles was known to remark that, “Nowadays we sit through Shakespeare to recognise the quotations.” Whether it was the desire to fit in a little education among all the hedonism or simply a chance to see a big name performing the classics, a la, say, Sinatra and ‘My Way’, the audiences came in numbers so vast, the rest of Las Vegas had to sit up and take notice.
The proof of just how successful Welles had been in Vegas came at the end of the residency. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, two of the performers most heavily associated with Sin City, were back in town just across the road at The Sands. “How best to steal their thunder?” pondered Orson’s paymasters. “Why, by extending Orson’s run!” And so it was that Orson Welles played two further dates so ensuring that Martin and Lewis’s opening night, though a sell-out, wasn’t the undiluted triumph the double-act had been counting on.
Alas, as with all good things, Orson Welles’ Vegas adventure came to an end. In his most recent Welles biography, One-Man Band, author and actor Simon Callow lists the Sin City stint as one of the great man’s few completely unqualified successes. Welles had been such a hit that it was surprising that he never played Vegas again. But with an insatiable appetite to make films, the desire to get behind the camera would always eclipse the appeal of holding court.
Orson Welles wouldn’t entirely remain a stranger to the Strip, however. In 1982, a young BBC producer called Alan Yentob and the acclaimed documentary filmmaker Leslie Megahey caught up with Welles in Vegas to discuss his career. The resulting interview – broadcast on the BBC’s Arena strand as The Orson Welles Story – is never less than utterly compelling. And in it, our hero alludes to the money woes that had brought him to Las Vegas the first time around.
“I have wasted the better part of my life looking for money,” Welles tells Yentob. “I have spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s been about 2% movie-making and 98% hustling. That’s no way to spend a life.”