9 Greatest Las Vegas Debuts
The stories behind the stars who made Sin City and how they got their start here
Hard as it is to believe now, some of Las Vegas’ most legendary headliners were once just fine print on a marquee. But with perseverance and a little bit of luck, they made a name for themselves and transformed a fledgling desert town into the Entertainment Capital of the World. But it all started for each with one performance, the night the lights first shined down on greatness.
1. Liberace (Last Frontier, Nov. 24, 1944)
Seventy years ago, the 25-year-old piano player took the stage along with his famous candelabra. The furs and the fans would soon follow, as Liberace became one of Vegas’ flashiest figures. A decade later, Liberace became the city’s highest-paid entertainer, earning $50,000 per week.
2. Frank Sinatra (Desert Inn, Sept. 4, 1951)
Long before he became Chairman of the Board, Sinatra hit the Las Vegas stage for the first time in 1951. His Desert Inn debut would be the jumping-off point for his long love affair with Sin City. Just a couple of years later, Sinatra would return to Las Vegas with a few friends to rule the neon roost.
3. Elvis Presley (New Frontier, April 23, 1956)
More than a month before his famous performance of “Hound Dog” on The Milton Berle Show catapulted the 21-year-old singer into superstardom, Presley played a two-week engagement at New Frontier, billed as the “Atomic Powered Singer.” In the following years, Presley would become synonymous with the city of Las Vegas.
4. The Rat Pack (Sands, Jan. 20, 1960)
While in town filming Ocean’s Eleven, The Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford—performed onstage for two nights in the Sands’ Copa Room. From that moment on, the city became the Pack’s playground as the tuxedoed group popped up all over town and put on impromptu shows, their personas defining what it meant to be Vegas cool.
5. Wayne Newton (Fremont, May 16, 1959)
Before he became known as Mr. Las Vegas, Wayne Newton and his brother Jerry performed six shows a night, six nights a week at the Fremont downtown. The less-than-glamorous schedule called for the brothers to play 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off into the wee hours of the morning. They earned $400 a week for their troubles, a sum Wayne no doubt surpassed once he became a solo headliner.
6. Siegfried & Roy (Tropicana, 1967)
Although the magical duo and their exotic cats signed a nearly $60 million contract to perform at the newly opened Mirage hotel in 1990, the pair got their start as a 15-minute specialty act in the famed Folies Bergere at the Tropicana in 1967. The duo was responsible for ushering in family-friendly entertainment in Las Vegas and by 2000, Siegfried & Roy had signed a lifelong contract with The Mirage. Sadly, only three years into the contract, the show closed permanently after Roy suffered a near-fatal injury onstage.
7. Barbra Streisand (Riviera, July 2, 1963)
In her first Las Vegas appearances, Streisand was the opening act for Liberace’s popular residency. Her powerhouse voice and onstage persona were so well received that by 1969 she was a headlining act herself. While Streisand returned to Vegas numerous times, it was her 1999 MGM Grand New Year’s Eve concert that set an all-time single concert box-office record.
8. Don Rickles (Sahara, May 1959)
For nearly 55 years straight, Don Rickles hasn’t missed a Las Vegas gig. Known as the godfather of insult comedy and affectionately called Mr. Warmth, his hurled insults at Frank Sinatra secured his status as a comic with the in-crowd and helped lead to his headlining act here.
9. Celine Dion (Caesars Palace, March 25, 2003)
The Canadian songbird’s A New Day… was the first Las Vegas show by a headliner to blend music, theatrical art, state-of-the-art technology and choreography. The wild success of her shows paved the way for superstars like Elton John, Bette Midler and Shania Twain to land their own residencies at The Colosseum.