Its an American icon, the sign welcoming the world to Fabulous Las Vegas.
But until you actually stand beneath it, in all its flashy neon fabulousness,
you can have no idea how hard it is to get to.
It rises from a median on what is essentially a six-lane highway at the southern end of Las Vegas Boulevard better known as the Strip. Its 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon and weve just made the mad dash to the sign across three traffic lanes in the company of Steve Connolly, a Massachusetts native and the man recognized as the top Elvis Presley tribute artist in Sin City.
Connolly is in costume, sort of a Paradise,Hawaiian Style look, with a bright floral shirt, light slacks, and boots. Its very hot and humid as a thunderstorm bears down on the area, but Connollys makeup and hair are holding up well.
There is a crowd of fellow daredevils already at the sign excitedly taking pictures of each other. They erupt in ecstasy as someone strongly resembling the King of Rock n Roll arrives everyone wants to take home a shot featuring an Elvis and the sign. Camera flashes fire left and right. Connolly is extremely accommodating, striking a pose and smiling for one and all.
Its good to be a kind of King.
Connolly, who was born in Winchester and grew up in Malden and Worcester, has been living and working here for 10 years. He has witnessed a lot of change. Ive seen all the new hotels being built: The Venetian was the Sands, the Bellagio was the Dunes. Its an amazing transformation.
We asked Connolly to give us an insiders look at Las Vegas not necessarily all the glitz and glamour, but the places hes come to know and like and a bit about how the town works. And maybe tell us some of the things he misses about Massachusetts. Over the course of 48 hours, we got about as much as we could handle.
Our day started at Connollys home in a new suburb south of the Strip, where he lives with his wife, Tia, and their young children. Similar housing developments are popping up around the city, now the fastest growing area in the country. The stucco house is distinguished by the guitar-shaped pool in the backyard and the massive portraits of Elvis painted by Connolly who attended the Worcester Art Museum School on display in the living room.
Connolly, who wont give his age but looks to be thirtysomething, got his start in music playing in pop metal bands around Boston. He began making appearances as Elvis during the early 1990s at Dicks Last Resort in the Hub and made the leap to Las Vegas as a jumpsuit-period Presley in a Legends in Concert show.
As we drove to the Bootlegger Bistro, Connollys pick for a late lunch, he said hes seen the fortunes of Elvis tribute artists in Las Vegas rise and fall like the hotels on the Strip. When I got here in 96, there were two Elvises, then three, then the place was saturated, he said. Now, Connolly says his is the citys only full-time Elvis show in a casino showroom. Most Elvises survive doing weddings, he said.
At Bootleggers, an Italian eatery that has been in the city since 1949 and at its present location near an outlet mall since 1999, Connolly orders his favorite: orange roughy francese with a side of angel hair pasta and extra Bolognese sauce. He likes Bootleggers because the fish is fresh, he says, and otherwise you really cant get good seafood in Vegas, except at the high-end places.
Bootleggers is owned by the family of Lorraine T. Hunt, the former showgirl and lieutenant governor who recently failed in her bid for the governors office. Connolly says it is also a popular latenight hangout for performers like Vegas legend Clint Holmes and Tom Jones, when hes in town. You never know who will show up and sing, he said.
The next night, we catch Connollys show at Fitzgeralds Casino Hotel downtown, in the original Glitter Gulch a few miles north of the Strip. Connolly performs five nights a week in a showroom that seats around 200 and is certainly not fancy; there was no waitress service the night we were there. But he puts on a great show, channeling virile late 60s Presley in a well-paced, dynamic set, with an informed distancing for the enthusiastic audience as he reminds them, Im not Elvis.
His encore includes his original ballad Good Night, which won honorable mention in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and is included on Connollys Truth CD. The song gets a warm reception before Connolly wraps up the evening by vowing Elvis has not left the building and launching into a crowd-pleasing version of Suspicious Minds.
After the show, Connolly, still in makeup and now dressed in a black shirt and sport coat, takes us to Limericks Steakhouse at Fitzgeralds because the clam chowder reminds him of home. Its a little too glutinous for us, but the steaks are fine. Connolly recommends people ask for the aged ribeye, which is not on the regular menu.
Later, we step outside Fitzgeralds and into the middle of the Fremont Street Experience, a fiveblock, open-air entertainment area canopied by a sound and light show that features 12Æ million synchronized LED modules. Connolly has worked all over the city, but hes now a supporter of downtown Vegas. The old Vegas vibe is becoming a novelty for people who romanticize the good old days. Its good to be part of that, he said.
As we stand on Fremont Street, the overhead screen explodes into an ear-shattering display featuring racing cars zooming in all directions. Despite the sky full of distractions, many in the 11 p.m. crowd stare at Connolly and pose with him for pictures. He continues to accommodate. Its my job. When Im not working, I conceal my hair under a Red Sox or Patriots cap. But Im a people person if I want privacy, I can stay home, he said.
Its good to be the King. Kinda.
Its closing in on midnight when we hop into Connollys Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab pickup and head for the Strip. He rarely drives on the Strip too much traffic so we take Industrial Road, which parallels it. As we cruise the slightly seedy back way, Connolly offers gambling advice (Always bet the maximum on slots), and makes recommendations on some of the strip clubs that appear on both sides of the street.
Our next stop is the New Frontier Hotel and Casino, one of the Strips original hotels and where 21-year-old Elvis Presley made his first Las Vegas appearance in 1956. We stop in at the Smokin Ass Cigar Shop, a subsidiary of the coffee company with a similar name and a shared smiling donkey logo that sponsors Connollys show. (He admits to mixing the Rockin Ass Hawaiian coffee with the Dunkin Donuts beans he has shipped in from Boston.)
On his nights off, when he doesnt have child care duties, Connolly likes to come to the cigar shops walk-in humidor and enjoy a hand-rolled stogie with a blend of Hawaiian and Dominican tobaccos. Business is slow at the cigar shop, which is open past its normal closing time, but things are hopping at nearby Gilleys Saloon, Dance Hall and Bar-B-Que, which features bikini bullriding this evening and mud wrestling on other nights. We pass because we have a date at Studio 54 at the MGM Grand, where Connollys wife works as a hostess and is waiting for us.
The MGM Grand is massive and parking is a problem even as the clock closes in on 2 a.m. We move through the crowded casino and the diehards look up from their blackjack hands as Connolly strides quickly by. At Studio 54, Connolly is on the guest list and Tia, a former cheerleader with the Indianapolis Colts, greets him with a hug. Were escorted to the VIP lounge, where we nurse a nightcap and watch the dancers writhe on the floor below while Connolly dances and chats with waitresses and friends.
We are running out of gas.
At 3 a.m. Connolly takes pity on us and drives us back to Fitzgeralds, where our car is parked. Asked if he would ever move back to Massachusetts, where he has many fans and plays sold-out concerts at Mechanics Hall in Worcester and the Berklee Performance Center, he chuckles softly.
Id have to have a fleet of SUVs and helicopters if I ever went back East, he said. Because I used to get stuck in the snow. A lot.
For now, Connolly says he wants to pursue his painting and songwriting and record another album of his own material. Things are changing in Elvis world; media mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman has bought everything Presley-related except Graceland itself and is talking of licensing tribute artists. He shut down Elvis-A-Rama, a Las Vegas museum attraction, at the beginning of this month. Connolly says hes not worried.
Ive been given an opportunity to pay tribute to one of the great artists of the last century, he said before driving off. I make a good living, Ive got a great family, and, man, I love this town.
Its kind of good to be King.