You would have thought that if Pete Seeger could do so well, all was going to be easy from here on out. It was not. I always seemed to be operating on the margin, and I was having a distressing number of flops interspersed with my successful shows. There just didn‘t seem to be enough concert product to sustain that side of the business.
The management side was not doing too well, either. By this time it was becoming clear that the Gateway Singers were not going to make it, and the Coachmen, another promising folk group I had taken on, broke up before they could go very far. I was about ready to throw in the towel on this whole business when I went to California, with a stop in Las Vegas, to do some business for the Gateway Singers. I had scheduled a concert with Carlos Montoya, the flamenco guitarist, when I got back.
I’d never seen anything like Vegas before. Jerry Lewis was playing either the Sands or the Flamingo, and I asked the pit boss how Lewis was doing. “Very poorly,” he told me. “He brings a bad kind of clientele in here.” My antennas perked up — I thought maybe I was going to get a revelation. And he said, “He brings in people with children.”
lf you could resist the tables, Vegas was an incredible deal. I remember seeing Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie in a lounge and there wasn’t even a two-drink minimum. I had never seen gourmet food in such abundance. The traces of the social psychologists were very much in view. Everywhere you went the idea was to get you to pass the tables and play. Playing poker, I remember asking a woman next to me what time it was, and she just looked at me and said, “There is no time in Vegas.” lt’s a little like pornography: the expectation is always better than the reality.
It‘s the sterility of the city that gets to you. It was a much warmer place when the so-called hoods were running it. Now that a more corporate breed of gangster has moved in, you don’t get a very good show. You don’t get very good food. The accommodations are glitzier and a little more sterile. The basic motivation is still to get you to spend as much money at the tables as possible, only now they don’t want to give you anything back.
When the old mob ran it, it at least seemed like you got something for your money. I think when the corporate world saw how much money was being made in Vegas, they decided it was too good for the mob. They were like Queen Elizabeth in that old joke, asking Prince Philip on their wedding night, “Milord, is this what the masses call fucking?” “Why, yes, milady.” “Well, rnilord, it’s much too good for the masses.”
Vegas was a tonic, though. When I returned to Chicago, much to my surprise, I had made two thousand on the Montoya concert. My spirits were up, and it was onward and upward.