Sahara Tahoe 1976
by Peter Goddard
BRRRAP. Snap, snap. The kid was at it again, thumbing through his cards. And smiling. That was the worst part, the smiling. Janie, the dealer at this table in Harrah's Hotel didn't mind his long hair or all the turquoise bracelets. She didn't mind that he was only 22 and was obviously not a salesman out to drop a bundle.
"I don't know what's happening here anymore," said Janie, shaking her head. "Longhairs and pot and rock. Look, we've got Sinatra singing here - Frank Sinatra, right? - and you know there's this bearded Canadian guy across the street at the Sahara. This guy sings about trains and doesn't even where a suit. And he's packing them in as if he's Sinatra. So what's happening?"
Well, at that moment, the bearded guy in question, Gordon Lightfoot, was feeling pretty good. "Coming to a Las Vegas style nightclub was a bit of an experiment," he
said. "I wanted to see how it would go, you know. And well, it hasn't been bad. Business is good up here. Frank Sinatra's just across the street. We aren't hurtin' him
and he's not hurtin' us."
His eyes narrowed, looking to see if you appreciated the drama of the situation. Right. The Orillia Kid meets Old Blue Eyes, the biggest draw in town.
True, Lightfoot will be more at home in Massey Hall when he starts his annual week's stint there on Monday night. That will be more comfortable, as will be his
appearances on NBC's Saturday Night Live show on May 22 and the Midnight Special on May 28. But he has written and sung about too many paperback heroes and Robert Service characters not to appreciate a slice of good old western melodrama when he's in the middle of it.
And last weekend was a showdown of sorts, not just between Lightfoot at the Sahara Tahoe and Sinatra at Harrah's Hotel. It was a showdown between the old Las Vegas style and the new, between generations, in other words.
Tahoe, a ski resort of about 10,000 residents and up to 100,000 visitors at a time, straddles the state line between Nevada and California. On the Nevada side there are four casinos and more Cadillacs than you'll find at an oilman's funeral. This is Sinatra's turf.
Or at least it was. Lightfoot, for his six concerts in three nights at the Sahara Tahoe, received an estimated $40,000. The hotel took a big risk with him and it paid off. In fact, it paid off so well that the Sahara wants him back later this year, and for big money - in the region of $100,000 a week.
Yet Lightfoot's success and the success of Alice Cooper at the Sahara Tahoe before him represent a challange to Sinatra. For the clubs in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe were designed for performers like Sinatra. They radiate fast money and that giddy sense of the Big Time. And Sinatra occupies the Big Time with more ease than anyone.
"I've never played a club like this before," Lightfoot said in his room between shows, "but I was in Vegas a while back and saw Wayne Newton and Gladys Knight and the Pips. And I figured if they could play places like that, we could too."
Across the street, Sinatra had returned to his suite, too. And you could see the two audiences, Lightfoot's and Sinatra's, pour out of the clubs and pass each other. Bourbon-on-the-rocks meeting Crunchy Granola.
"Yes sir," said Lightfoot, "I'd sure like to go gambling." "But what about all those people wanting autographs in the casino?" someone asked. "Yeah," said Lightfoot. He smiled, but you suspected he wanted no one to see. "Yeah."