The renamed Venetian Theatre was where Phantom - The Las Vegas Spectacular performed for six years. The centerpiece chandelier, which fell during every performance, is now permanently locked into the ceiling, its computer programming long since disconnected. It's not the first thing I noticed in the somber, gothic-themed, weighted-with-ghosts theater at 11:40 last Saturday morning, but the reminder was there when I looked up at it, along with the knowledge that preeminent Broadway director Hal Prince stood in this theater many times.
The theater had been remodeled since the show closed, with more seats extending to the stage, which I don't think could have been done before. The music of the night needed more room.
I wondered where the Phantom was now, what he was doing now. After the show closed, Anthony Crivello, our Phantom, went back to Broadway to audition, and I think he landed in one show. Maybe he's still in that show or maybe that show closed too. Nevertheless, he was a great supporter of Las Vegas like former Playboy Playmate Holly Madison, even gamely appearing on Wheel of Fortune during those Phantom years, whenever it was in Las Vegas for a few weeks.
Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's Soul2Soul is there now for a little while longer. Then they'll leave and be replaced with Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I don't know if the balcony seating on both sides of the theater is still used (I couldn't see the seats up there, if there were any), but with those offerings, I don't think they need to. There had been some buzz about Soul2Soul before it started, naturally. But it doesn't sound like it was a major hit. McGraw and Hill don't live here, instead flying in when it's time to perform on weekends, and that's understandable because they have other business in their careers to attend to.
I think if the box office take had been monstrous, Venetian officials would have tried to entice them with everything they could have ever wanted to stay longer. And guaranteed, Vegas Deluxe (www.vegasdeluxe.com), led by Robin Leach, would have had all the details of those negotiations. But there's nothing. As it is, the only big thing besides the impending remodel of the outside of New York-New York to build a park modeled on Madison Square Park, with shops and restaurants and a Hershey store, connecting it and the Monte Carlo and to an eventual 20,000-seat sports stadium, is that Olivia Newton-John will begin her mini-residency at the Flamingo possibly at the start of summer, performing when Donny & Marie aren't.
It's said that Tim McGraw wants to go back out on tour, and that's reasonable, but I don't think this show is going to come back. There's no word on what will follow the limited run of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, though that box office take will likely determine if they extend it, but I think they need something fresh, what with the Strip beginning to change in various places, such as the old Sahara becoming SLS Las Vegas next year, and an Asian-themed resort called Resorts World Las Vegas under construction for a 2016 opening.
But at that moment, at 11:40 in the morning, I'm sitting in a mostly empty row, across from an exit, next to Meridith, Dad and Mom. We're part of the audience for auditions for Wheel of Fortune. We filled out the small yellow applications outside the theater, while waiting in line, and dropped them in the tall box outside the theater. As we learn from the Jim Carrey-influenced, pop culture-loving host, whose name I've long forgotten, the applications are placed in a wire mesh drum and spun around and around, with applications chosen at random. Those names called go on stage, first backstage to sign in and have their photo taken. Then they stand on one of the five X's placed diagonally. The host interviews them, asking about their jobs, their hobbies, their passions, and it's there that they must be at their most enthusiastic, their most charismatic because that's what they're looking for in future contestants. Those contestants on stage would find out in two months either by a letter in the mail or by e-mail that they've been invited to the final auditions in Las Vegas. If they make it through those, they're on the show. Factoring in 6 weeks of shows being taped in July and August, which is five shows in a week (taped in one day, of course, which means the production will be here for six days), that's 30 shows. Three contestants per show is 90 contestants total. The odds are long, but we are in Las Vegas. We still hope.
Then the host spins the wheel on stage to determine what prize all the contestants will get (t-shirt, hat, mini-pack with a black shoulder strap and a keychain and "blinky pin," as the host called it, inside; or a "Surprise" that includes all those prizes and either a duffel bag or a smaller cooler bag), and then the contestants play the Speed-Up Round, which is the round when time's running out on the show and Pat Sajak gives the wheel a final spin, led by Morgan Matthews, who fills the Vanna White role for the Wheelmobile events.
The first show began and the host introduced himself and explained all this, and then introduced Morgan Matthews, who spun the drum and took out the first five applications, handing each to the host as she went along. I was surprised when Dad was called to the stage, and then I was called right after him, causing the host to comment, "A double shot of Aronskys!"
Originally, I didn't want to audition. When Mom heard about the Wheelmobile coming to the Venetian, Meridith immediately wanted to, and then Dad did too. I didn't, because while I'm not a stiff personality, I'm not that charismatic or demonstrative. I can get lively in conversation, but usually with one other person or a small group of people. It was Dad and Meridith's thing, not mine.
But then, I went to see Jeff Bridges, one of my heroes, in concert on Friday night at the Chrome Showroom at Santa Fe Station. Front row seat. Well worth the price ($88.50 via Ticketmaster, immediately when tickets went on sale), and my seat was right where Jeff Bridges stood while he played his guitars and sang, and directly in front of the keyboard on which he performed a few songs, including two from The Big Lebowski. When he played that keyboard and sang, he loomed over me at that angle and I watched him the entire time, his eyes closed throughout most of the songs he sang at that keyboard. I was in awe of the clear passion he had for his music, and on the way home, thinking about all that Jeff Bridges does in taking photos on the sets of his movies, drawing, writing his first book with Bernie Glassman, his Zen master, working to eliminate childhood hunger, attending Zen conventions, making movies of course, and now music, I thought to myself that I wanted to be a renaissance man at 63 years old like he is. But then I thought, "Why not start now?" I decided in the car that I would sign up for the chance to audition for Wheel of Fortune, but not for the purpose of becoming a renaissance man like Jeff Bridges. Mom has been watching Wheel of Fortune since Chuck Woolery hosted from 1975 to 1981. I wanted to increase our chances of getting tickets for at least one of the tapings, besides fighting like hell to get them when they become available in June, so why not increase them three-fold?
When I dashed down the steps to the stage after my name was called, following Dad as he did the same, I felt like I wasn't in my body. Was this real? Was this actually happening? I thought Meridith would be called first. She wanted it the most. But there I was, reaching the stage after figuring out how to get there, since there was a curtain in front of me that I thought led backstage (I didn't go behind it, though), and then three stairs immediately leading to the stage. I took the latter and was led backstage to a long table to sign in and then one of the production assistants, wearing a shirt that said "Spin This.", took a photo of me. Before that, I joked, "This is better than the DMV!"
I took my place on stage, the last "X", closest to the audience. I waited as the first three contestants were interviewed by the host, and then Dad, and I was a little nervous. But once called upon by the host, I went up there, told him and the audience that I'm a substitute elementary school library assistant in the Clark County School District, hoping for a full-time position. He asked me what I like to do, and I said, "Reading, writing, movies, pinball, presidential history and....more movies." (I think I got it all, because that comprises my life.) He zeroed in on presidential history, asking me who my favorite president is. "43 presidents and you want to know right now who my favorite president is?" I joked to him. In hindsight, I know there are 44, but I blanked by one.
I quickly thought about it and said "William Howard Taft," mainly because I'm reading about him right now and he does fascinate me. The host asked why and I said, "Because he didn't want to be president. He wanted to be Chief Justice of the United States and later on, he got his dream when Warren G. Harding nominated him and..." I'm not the lecturing type, but maybe I was still a little nervous because the host sensed I was going on too long and amiably moved me along with, "He really knows his presidents." I didn't mind that he moved me along since he had a show to run. I wished I could have compressed Taft's history fast enough, including the fact that he ran for president because his wife, Helen "Nellie" Taft, wanted to be First Lady, and he was devoted to her. I knew I couldn't include the fact that Taft was responsible for the Supreme Court building as we know it today, wanting a separate, grand building for this separate branch of the government, but he died before it was completed. That would have been impossible, but I wanted to get to Harding nominating Taft to be Chief Justice. Nervousness overpowers all, though, even when you don't actually feel nervous while on stage.
The puzzle began. The category was "Event." I think I guessed "L" or "M," but neither were in the puzzle. I knew what it was about a minute later, but the host was back to the beginning of the row and the fourth person before me in the row solved it: "Toga Party." As the host put it, just because you're on stage does not guarantee you a final audition, and just because you solved the puzzle does not guarantee you a final audition. They're looking for the whole package, with charisma, energy, and puzzle-solving ability all together, which flummoxed Mom after we had left the Venetian later in the day because all the time that she's watched the show, most of those people seem very subdued, so she doesn't know exactly what they're looking for if they seem all the same.
After leaving the stage, I went back up to our row, and we watched the rest of the first show. By the end, Meridith still hadn't been called up, so we went back to the elevator, downstairs (Mom uses a cane, so we don't use stairs), and got back in line for the second show where Meridith filled out a blue application and put it in the tall box outside the theater. We went back to the elevator, back to the second (or third?) floor, back to our row. Second show, no luck.
We got back in line for the third and final show of the day and Meridith filled out another application, a different color. And no luck again. After the final names for the second show were called, we got up and left the theater to get back in line before everyone else not called did the same thing. And after the final names were called for the third show, we left. What reason was there to sit for the rest of that show? Mom gave Meridith the option of going back on Sunday for those shows, for the hope of being called, but Meridith said she has three chances with those three applications, so that was enough for her. The host also said that those who aren't called on the stage still have a shot. During each show, he said he's going to take the remaining applications with him back to Los Angeles, pick a few at random, and those chosen will get the letter or e-mail inviting them to the final auditions. Meridith filled out each application differently, with her interests worded differently in each, with different drawings on the border of the applications. You have to stand out somehow to hopefully catch their attention.
There were a few people I saw during all three shows that I would happily give up my spot for in order to see them on the show. They need to be on the show. Based on what Mom said about people on the show seeming subdued, I may have a better chance than I think I do.
And the phantoms remain in the Venetian Theatre. The ghosts of Phantom of the Opera and soon Soul2Soul and future productions that will arrive and then leave either months or years later. Things always change in this city. But one thing that will never change is my happiness at the opportunity for free events that let me see places for which I would have to pay exorbitant amounts. This was the best way to save 80 bucks or more to see the Venetian Theatre. And the main feature on the stage is a "C" with its rear in the air and the arms of the C on the stage, lit in blue. That looks like the centerpiece for the Soul2Soul show, the one thing that couldn't be removed from the stage since it looks like it's attached to it, that is if Tim McGraw and Faith Hill use anything else besides that. Stools, of course, but I think that's it. For me, it's enough to have seen this theater, the only time I ever will like this, just like when we waited along with the rest of the crowd in the 1 OAK Nightclub in early March at the Mirage before we were all dispatched to the Beatles LOVE theater for the live broadcast of American Idol. If I make it to the final audition and then am invited to be on Wheel of Fortune, I'll do it. It means Mom would get to see the show live, and that's the only reason for me.