When the Gipper Played Vegas
© Murphy James, 1984, 2005
Published in San Antonio Express-News , Dallas Times Herald , and St. Petersburg Times
Long before Wayne Newton laid claim to the crown of Mr. Las Vegas, a B-movie actor and later-day politician saw his name illuminated in lights on the famous Sin City Strip.
The week the Gipper played Las Vegas did not go down in entertainment lore as a history-making event. Nor did it pack the house or pay big bucks, as some would later claim. But Ronald Reagan showed he was a real trouper who wasn’t afraid to work when work he must.
It was February, 1954 when Reagan did his thing on the stage of a local casino. The Las Vegas Sun reported, “Ronald Reagan, of all people, opened last night at The Last Frontier.” What the local newspaper didn’t print was that he played Las Vegas because he needed the money.
At about that time, Reagan’s show-business career was in a slump. He had made a series of mediocre films, including the famous flop, Bedtime for Bonzo. As he told his friend, former Warner Brothers publicist, Barney Oldfield, “They sent me five scripts at $75,000 a script. And I made them all. I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t cause any trouble. But nobody sent me a sixth script.”
Reagan didn’t work in films for more than a year. It was not an easy time in his life. He confided to Oldfield, “I’m living from guest shot to guest shot on television, and an occasional personal appearance.”
He also had a new wife, Nancy, infant daughter, Patti, and child support payments of $500 per month for Maureen and Michael, his children from his marriage to Jane Wyman. The problem was having enough money to cover these demands on his life.
In his book, The Real Reagans, Frank Van Der Linden cites other financial woes facing Reagan at this time. “He was still burdened with high income taxes overdue from his days of great prosperity,” Van Der Linden wrote. “He was paying for his ranch and his home in Pacific Palisades out of current income and carrying three mortgages. He was $18,000 in debt.”
At about that time Oldfield had dinner with Ron and Nancy at Chasen’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills . Oldfield reports that people were coming over to Reagan asking what he had been up to lately, and “other terrible things that Hollywood people say when you’ve been inactive for awhile.”
Oldfield was asking Reagan to narrate a public service film to be made by North American (later North American Rockwell Co.). Reagan told Oldfield, “I would like to do that, but here’s my problem. If I do this public services spot, I have to do it for scale -- $240. If the word gets out that Ronald Reagan’s only work is at scale, my price would go down, and I couldn’t make my house payments.”
Reagan confided in Oldfield, “I have a deal cooking.” Once that was set and his price re-established, he would be glad to do the public service spot. However, the General Electric Theatre contract, the deal in the works, did not come about until later in 1954, so Jack Webb narrated the film instead.
It was in this climate that the MCA talent agency, which handled Reagan, proposed a Las Vegas act. Reagan needed the money, so he agreed to it. Originally he was to play the El Rancho Hotel but then he discovered a stripper on the bill with him.
As Reagan writes in his autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?, “I’m sure the stripper was a nice girl – the kind you might even take home to Mama – but try as I would, I couldn’t come up with the idea of how we could work together, in front of people.” Reagan turned down the El Rancho offer, adding, “No harm done. In another twenty minutes, the boys (his agents) had a deal at The Last Frontier.”
The Continentals, a well-known quartet who were also handled by MCA and had played Las Vegas often, were teamed with Reagan. According to Ben Cruz, leader of The Continentals, “We were considered a high class, café-society act.” They had headlined The Last Frontier in the past, as well as the Mocambo in New York . They had also appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle shows.
Rounding out the bill were the Blackburn Twins, with Evelyn Ward, the Honey Brothers, and the Adorabelles, the house chorus line of The Last Frontier. Garwood Van and his orchestra completed the program.
As late as January 26, Reagan was still committed to the El Rancho show. The Continentals were booked into Los Angeles ’ Statler Hotel during the week of February 5 as a warm-up for the Vegas opening of February 15. There was not much time to rehearse.
According to Cruz, rehearsals took place at the home of one of the writers and also at a Hollywood studio. The Continentals had a highly choreographed and lively act and Reagan had to fit into it.
“He was a fast study,” says Cruz. He didn’t really do dance steps, like a two-step or a three-step so much as movement. The first day was a little rough. This was all new to him. But he picked it up quickly. He must have worked hard at home in the evenings after rehearsals.”
The show was to open on Monday, February 15, in the Ramona Room of The Last Frontier, the largest showroom at that time in Las Vegas . Marilyn Maxwell closed the night before. The Kirby Stone Four was performing in the lounge. The Reagan entourage was to do two shows a night, three on Saturday nights.
Also in town were Kathryn Grayson at the Sahara and Freddy Martin and his Orchestra at the Flamingo. Tallulah Bankhead was appearing at the Sands in a flimsy, see-through dress that shocked even Las Vegas . In her act was a young singer by the name of Merv Griffin.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal anticipated Reagan’s arrival noting that “the personable” Reagan would be “well-prepared.” He was credited with “shrewd showmanship” for selecting The Continentals as co-performers. The newspaper went on to point out that Reagan “has long been one of Hollywood ’s most vigorous public-minded citizens,” who “fought communism from the day he detected it,” and served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. The article concluded, “He is respected by every studio head for his honesty and reliability.”
The Continentals were a “hot” act, and they opened the show. Variety reviewed them in this way: “Top honors belong to The Continentals who sock over their material with gusto for applause reaction. From the ‘Dragnet’ opening to ‘Donkey Serenade’ to a whistled ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Bob Garsen, Medley of Spirituals and the ‘Birch Tree’ in Russian. Topper is ‘Casey at the Bat.’”
After a 20 minute opening stint, The Continentals went off-stage to return with a new, fifth member: Ronald Reagan. Variety noted: “Ronald Reagan makes his nitery bow here with no particular act, yet the affable film star displays such a winning personality, as he weaves in and out of show between acts, that his presence gives it a lift into the hit class.”
Variety continued: “Reagan opens with some solid humor and response loosens star to point where he is grinning all over. Irish and Dutch brogues get a workout. He introduces all the acts and makes strongest appearance with The Continentals in ‘Sweet Adeline’ barber shop vocal. He shines in Dutch-jargon bartender in a beer-selling bit, a scene that is actually dangling, which with cutting to a punch finish would prove a standout.”
The Blackburn Twins, with Evelyn Ward, did “Reflections in a Mirror,” and “A Fine Romance.” The Honey Brothers did an acrobatic dance routine, and the “beautifully costumed” Adorabelles p09/30/2005
There was some slapstick in the show that involved Reagan, who closed with a poignant, semi-humorous piece by George Bernard Shaw on the worth of actors. The show lasted about 90 minutes.
The act was well-received by the Las Vegas newspapers as well as by Variety. Local Reviewer Les Devor wrote, “The question of what can Ronald Reagan do in a night club act has been answered . . . he can entertain.”
At that time, Reagan was making about $75,000 per film. In Where’s the Rest of Me?, Reagan notes that he was paid almost as much for the two-week stand in Las Vegas as he was for his latest picture, Prisoner of War.
“That makes sense,” says Larry Barnett. Barnett was the head of the variety division of in 1954, the unit which booked Las Vegas acts for its clients. Ben Cruz of The Continentals points out that his group received a total of about $3,000 for the two weeks. Cruz points out, “Only the very top acts got as much as $5-6,000 per week in those days.”
Nancy Reagan accompanied her husband to Las Vegas and caught every show from a booth in the back of the showroom. Ralph Pearl, of the Las Vegas Sun, reports that the act did only “fair biz.” However, Nancy Reagan, in Bill Boyarsky’s Ronald Reagan, says, “He broke the record.” In his book, Reagan writes that the act was a “sellout” every night. Ben Cruz confirms the recollections of the Reagans. “We were full every night. We couldn’t even get our friends in.”
The Reagans were not night club or casino people. They returned to their hotel room after each show and spent their days reading, lounging by the pool, and visiting Lake Mead . According to Boyarsky, “They only went into the gambling casino once, on their last night, cautiously bringing only $5 with them.”
Reagan was offered other night club dates, but declined them. According to Variety, Reagan was “reluctant to get further afield from Hollywood than he is right now. His love – as always – is the picture biz.”
1954 was the turning point in Reagan’s career. The Las Vegas act was under his belt, his last two movies, Prisoner of War, and Cattle Queens of Montana, with Barbara Stanwyck, were in play. He signed with General Electric Theatre for $125,000 per year. The Gipper was on his way to bigger and better things.
Like many of us, Ronald Reagan experienced some strange bounces in life. One of them was a two-week gig as a headliner in Las Vegas . In accepting it, he proved himself human: he needed the money. In carrying it out, he proved himself a professional. He put everything he had into it.
As Ben Cruz says, “Here was this nice guy with a loving wife, working alongside of us. It was no big deal at the time.”