Las Vegas’ strolling entertainers – catch them where you can
By Renée LiButti
While a great deal of entertainment takes place in Las Vegas’ showrooms and lounges, there are some performers who bring their acts right to you. Magicians, clowns, singers, mimes, impersonators, mermaids and leprechauns – the city boasts strolling artists of every kind.
You’ll find them roving through casinos, shopping centers and restaurants. They usually travel light and can perform anywhere, anytime. Visitors may run into them at a hotel registration desk, in front of a buffet, on top of a bar, in an aquarium – you name it. All the city’s a stage!
What’s more, these roaming entertainers like to share the spotlight. So you never know when you might suddenly become part of a show.
Circus Circus was one of the first properties in Las Vegas to utilize strolling performers. Since opening in 1968, the casino under the pink and white big top has featured free entertainment including roving clowns and other beloved circus acts.
“It puts things in a unique perspective being right in front of the guest because there’s no fourth wall,” said Mike Hartzell, the director of entertainment for Circus Circus and a thirdgeneration circus performer. “I have worked with strolling entertainers of every type and variety. I think they’re of great value.”
Currently, the resort employs four full-time clowns. They not only appear on stages in the Midway and The Adventuredome, Circus Circus’ adjacent five-acre theme park, but these merrymakers also wander the floor space throughout both facilities. Their goal is to cover the “green zones,” which are child-friendly areas located away from the gaming. This includes the lobby, the shopping promenade, the entrance to the buffet and other gathering spots.
“Our clowns are ambassadors, which I think is appreciated by families. They answer questions and give directions. If checking in takes a little longer than expected, it’s great to meet somebody who is very positive and makes the time spent waiting more enjoyable,” said Hartzell. “That’s why all the folks we’ve hired are engaging, friendly and fun because ‘fun’ – underline that three times – is what Circus Circus is all about.”
Although these clever, capable clowns come from different backgrounds, they’re all seasoned circus veterans – like Dave DeDera. He grew up near Chicago and had every intention of becoming a state trooper, but destiny had another calling in mind. Foregoing police training, he accepted a spot in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. After graduating from the eccentric institution of higher learning, DeDera spent seven years touring with the venerable “Greatest Show on Earth.” He moved to Las Vegas and got a job at Circus Circus in 1994. DeDera started out as a dinosaur in a big-head suit, but was quickly promoted to a clowning spot, a position he prizes to this day.
“So many people get bogged down in desk jobs that they don’t like after a while, but every day is unique for me,” said DeDera. “There are different people and different things happening. The property is always changing. It keeps me fresh and alive.”
Another benefit he extolled is the flexibility to accept high-profile opportunities if they come along. DeDera traveled with The Rolling Stones during their 1994-95 Voodoo Lounge tour. He got to walk on stilts, spit fire and dance with Mick Jagger. From 1999-2000, DeDera was a stunt double for Tommy Tune in the production show “EFX” at the MGM Grand.
“Every time I left to do something else, I’ve been able to come back and it’s been nice, like I’m home again,” he said.
However, DeDera admitted some things are daunting for strolling performers. For instance, it’s not always easy to interact with visitors because they come from all over the world and often speak different languages.
“And some kids don’t think we’re human,” joked DeDera. “I’ve been kicked in the shins and other places I don’t want to mention. I’ve even been used as a battering ram.”
No role is too small
About six years ago Harrah’s Entertainment executives were looking for a wee bit of help in marketing O’Sheas Casino, an Irish-themed property on the Strip. They wanted to find someone to embody a leprechaun and offered the part to Brian Thomas. Today, the 4-foot-1-inch character actor is widely recognized as the voice and face of the casino.
“It’s crazy and amazing,” said Thomas, who is grateful to be working for such a well-respected company. “It proves that in Las Vegas you can do just about anything.”
Born in Manchester, N.H., Thomas knew he wanted to be an entertainer at an early age. Unfortunately, there isn’t much demand for actors in the Granite State, so he opened and operated a cellular phone company called Short Circuit Mobile for many years. When he finally got tired of the harsh winters, Thomas sold his business and bought a plane ticket to the Entertainment Capital of the World to take a shot at his dream.
“I came here 12 years ago and had no clue what I was doing,” recalled Thomas. Since then, he has amassed an impressive résumé. Among his claims to fame are appearances with Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, Louie Anderson, Frank Sinatra Jr. and the late Pat Morita. He has also been on several seasons of the A&E series “Criss Angel Mindfreak.”
Although Thomas is not Irish, he does have the gift of gab. As the spokesperson for O’Sheas Casino, he meets and greets visitors at the open-air entrance. Thomas estimates he poses for more than 500 photographs a day.
“I love it. When someone takes a picture with me, they bring it home and I become part of their vacation memories, which is pretty cool,” he said. “Some people have actually gone as far as to print T-shirts with my face on them. It’s rewarding to know I make that kind of an impact.”
According to city officials, Thomas has made a big impact on tourism as well. Last year on St. Patrick’s Day, Mayor Oscar Goodman presented him with the key to Las Vegas.
“What I do for O’Sheas Casino has been compared with attractions like the Fountains of Bellagio and the volcano at The Mirage,” said Thomas. “I never thought I would be known as an attraction on the Strip.”
Magic on the menu
Wynn Las Vegas is well-known for going over the top to enhance the atmosphere for guests. So it’s no surprise that a resident magician is on staff. Shimshi, a sleight-of-hand artist originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, performs mini shows right before the eyes of diners in several of the resort’s fine restaurants.
“It’s just something extra, something more than what people expect,” explained Shimshi. “Strolling around, doing impromptu magic – I feel that adds to the service value at Wynn and makes guests feel special.”
Now 30, Shimshi was bitten by the magic bug when he was in elementary school. His best friend bought a few tricks at a magic shop, and Shimshi became obsessed with figuring out how they worked. He booked his first show – a birthday party – when he was 12 years old and got paid 20 shekels (about $5). Seven years later, he flew to Las Vegas.
“I wanted to be a magician and dreamed big, so this was the place to come,” said Shimshi, who is inspired by David Copperfield and comedy magician Mac King. “I worked hard, made connections and was lucky because hotel executives heard of me. They brought me in for a trial period to see how the up-close magic demonstrations would be received and were pleasantly surprised.”
Normally, VIP hosts at Wynn invite Shimshi over to entertain guests. If he hasn’t been summoned, he’ll wander through the restaurants astounding diners who are waiting for their food or have just finished eating.
“I think it’s unique because you expect to see magic on a stage and the fact that someone just walks up to your table and performs magic using your ring, watch or credit card can be incredible,” he said.
Shimshi competed on “America’s Got Talent” two years ago and made it to the quarterfinals as the last magician standing. He recently appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and has met an array of celebrities while performing at Wynn including Hugh Jackman, Usher and former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann.
“It’s humbling because I admire these people and then I get to see them enjoy my art form,” said Shimshi. “I think it’s also surreal for guests. Imagine…one minute you’re dining, and the next minute Flavor Flav is strolling by your table with a magician. Only in Vegas!”
It’s always a pleasure to “discover” entertainment. However, if you’d prefer to hunt down some of Vegas’ strolling sensations, here’s a handy guide. Not only are these performers fun and appropriate for all ages, but their shows are free.
- Balloon Twisters/Stilt Walkers (Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at the Flamingo) – Adding to the festival-like atmosphere, this Caribbean-themed restaurant has stilt walkers who strut around and make Parrothead balloon hats for diners.
- Clowns (Circus Circus) – Each day from 11 a.m. to midnight, members of the red-nosed brigade spread cheer on stages in the Midway and The Adventuredome as well as in nongaming areas throughout the resort.
- Impersonators (Imperial Palace) – The resort unveiled its Dealertainers Pit in 2003. It showcases Madonna, Little Richard, Lady Gaga and Elvis impersonators who deal cards and occasionally belt out one of their characters’ hit songs. They appear daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Leprechaun (O’Sheas Casino) – Every Tue.-Sat. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., this mischievous sprite can be found standing by the main entrance, pouring free shots on top of the bar or hosting a beer pong tournament.
- Magician (Wynn Las Vegas) – The resort’s resident magician goes from table to table performing small marvels of sleight-of-hand in SW Steakhouse, Botero, Sinatra, Switch and other restaurants every Thur.-Sat. after 6 p.m.
- Mermaids (Silverton) – The mythical sea creatures appear with a supporting cast of more than 4,000 fish, stingrays and sharks in the resort’s 117,000-gallon saltwater aquarium every Thur. from 2:15 to 8:45 p.m., Fri.-Sat. from 2:15 to 9:45 p.m. and Sun. from 11:30 a.m. to 6:45 p.m.
- Mimes & Singers (The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian) – Known for its “streetmosphere,” this upscale retail center features the Living Statues, mime-like artists who hold immovable poses, and a troupe of operatic musicians who serenade shoppers. There are approximately 30 impromptu performances each day.