Were it not for Las Vegas, a performer like Clint Holmes, best known for playing Ed McMahon to Joan Rivers' Johnny Carson on late-night television, would likely be a footnote in the annals of entertainment history. But because of Vegas—particularly casino mega-operator Harrah's—the singing, wisecracking, family-friendly headliner has his name in lights and all over billboards around town.
In this arid, lawless metropolis, if you build it, they actually will come, so if someone wants to inflate Clint Holmes to superstar status, why bother arguing? There's a catch, though: Holmes isn't one to parade around his eponymous theater's stage clad only in a pair of ripped jeans, simulating reverse cowboy-style intercourse on a mechanical bull with a topless blond nymph as a country-rock track fills the room with lusty, dusty sound. Leave that to the cast of Bareback, Harrah's after-hours, adults-only young country revue that follows Holmes' standing gig on a near nightly basis (the production is dark every Thursday).
"Are you ready to get loud and rowdy tonight?" Bareback's feisty brunet female lead, Nellie Norris, asks a crowd of some 400 at the onset of the hour-long song-and-dance show, performed on a faux saloon set to a soundtrack by Toby Keith, Cowboy Troy, and the like.
Behind the bar at Club Bareback is a giant screen, where Peterbilt trucks whiz by as four singing cowpokes perform Big & Rich's "Comin' to Your City" and "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy." Minutes later, a sextet of female dancers scamper out, removing their tops during Gretchen Wilson's "Here for the Party" as the gender-balanced, mostly middle-aged crowd yelps and grins with titillated glee.
"You know how to please a man like me?" asks male lead Darryl Ross, the lone African American in the troupe. "All you've got to do is get naked."
A short distance from the Strip, in the Rio's circular, pulsating nightclub, Harrah's sister casino is playing host to a risqué headbanger's revue called Erocktica, which features the slogan "Sex, Sweat & Rock 'n Roll" and opens with porno flick credits playing on a large screen behind the venue's main stage. Unlike Bareback, where the dancers' teardrop breasts appear real, Erocktica looks to be about 100 percent silicone—sending its female lead, Gabriella Versace (not her real name), to the front of the stage with only a skin-colored thong separating her from bare essence before the production's lone male performer, Ray-J (aka Raymond Jones), breaks into a rendition of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle."
Clad in an all-black ensemble that includes shades, a bandana, and a leather vest with the letters "XTREM" inscribed on the back, Ray-J sizes up a topless dancer named Sasha who bears an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Berkley, star of the critically slaughtered film Showgirls.
"Man, see how round that booty is?" says Ray-J to a mostly twentysomething crowd of 300 or so. "When you've got so much pretty ass in your face, it gets a little cloudy sometimes."
Exuding an energy that can best be described as Sammy Hagar meets Mark Wahlberg, Ray-J nails AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long" and Def Lepard's "Pour Some Sugar on Me" before yielding to Versace, who is joined by four backup dancers in a vamped-up version of "Lady Marmalade." As Versace, a former Miss Pennsylvania whose looks walk a fine line between hot and Hedwig, shifts into Tina Turner's "Private Dancer," some dubious accoutrements appear center stage.
"Can't have a rock and roll show without some stripper poles," boasts Ray-J, before joining Versace in a melodramatic version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Toward the end of the show, Ray-J takes a swig from a fifth of Jack Daniels, à la Van Halen's Michael Anthony, before explaining to his patrons why the bottle's base is square instead of round.
"It won't roll away when you pass out," he explains, before hammering home his hypermacho ethos. "Drink some Jack, smack some pretty ass—and they pay me to do this!"
Casting, choreography, set design: Thompson does everything at his Seattle studio.
Specifically, Greg Thompson pays Ray-J to do this. One of the best-known showroom producers in all of Nevada, Thompson oversees every last detail of his productions before shipping truckloads of sets, costumes, and props to casinos, cruise ships, hotels, and nightclubs worldwide. But unlike its competitors, Greg Thompson Productions (GTP) is not based in Nevada—it's located on Seattle's Elliott Avenue West, in a trio of nondescript brown buildings north of downtown near the Myrtle Edwards granary.
"I'd have to think about whether or not any of the other producers aren't based here," says Mike Weatherford, who critiques casino-based shows for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "In this line of work, Seattle is kind of a strange place to be."
Yet Seattle is the only place Greg Thompson has ever hung his hat with any permanence. A Roosevelt High School and University of Washington grad, Thompson pondered a career as a journalist before deciding there was no money in it (correct, sir). So he decided to mount a career in showbiz, and quickly zeroed in on the middlebrow, retro niche of musical theater. Not long after discovering local starlet Julie Miller on a freelance talent hunt in Wenatchee in 1973, Thompson began producing shows of various shapes and sizes at the woebegone Jack McGovern Music Hall downtown, hiring a then-unknown 17-year-old named Kenny Gorelick (aka Kenny G) to be his musical director.
"Greg took a chance on a 17-year-old kid, and it really changed my life," says Gorelick, the famous (and, in some circles, infamous) Seattle-bred saxophonist with the stringy coiffure. "I was thrown into the professional world of music and never looked back. I know it took a lot of guts to hire me, as I had virtually no experience, and I reflect on this often as I think about the milestones that were responsible for the great opportunities that I've had with music. This was certainly one of them, and I was and still am very grateful to Greg for taking this risk."
In 1980, Miller's solo act broke Thompson into the Reno market, where he began producing topless revues, which have never gone out of style in northern Nevada. Not so Vegas, which frowned upon showroom flesh (best left to strip joints and hookers, it was determined at the time) in favor of a family-oriented pitch for a spell in the '90s. When that effort was scrapped and Vegas kissed and made up with its sinful proclivities, the type of show Thompson was peddling returned to vogue.
"Until recently, Greg was really more for the tribal casinos, Reno, and Tahoe. Places that need standing low-budget shows."
"Until recently, Greg was really more for the tribal casinos, Reno, and Tahoe—places that need standing low-budget shows that are not going to shell out for Cirque [du Soleil, the popular acrobatic production]," says Weatherford. "I think he was kind of surprised when he got into Vegas. I think he thought Vegas had outgrown him."
"Topless revues are so unique to this city that there'll always be a place for them," adds Mike Weaver, the Rio's marketing director. "Greg is kind of the Cecil B. DeMille of sex in Las Vegas. He is probably the best person to produce an adult-oriented show. He has the sort of understanding a mechanic would have if he actually knew how to build a car from scratch."
In spite of this, the 63-year-old Thompson's shows are generally received tepidly at best by critics like Weatherford, whose slings and arrows are of little consequence to the producer's ultraconsistent courtship of what he considers to be his audience.
"I think our niche is producing shows that revolve around classic American pop music," explains Thompson. "Our audience is Middle America, and they don't want to go pay $20 for a drink and listen to techno."
The only thing distinguishing Greg Thompson Productions headquarters aesthetically from the lumberyard next door is the intriguing messages spelled out on the company marquee.
"Skintight in Vegas!"
"High Voltage in Atlantic City!"
"Hollywood Blondes in Tokyo!"
"Hot Salsa in Biloxi!"
"Dancin' in the Streets in Bermuda!"
"Rhinestone Cowgirls in Laughlin!"
"Showgirls in Reno!"
While it might be evident to the average passerby that Greg Thompson Productions has a hand in putting on some strain of events in far-flung locales, the question of just what goes on behind those brown walls has become a widespread local curiosity. Is it an escort service? A talent agency? Do they have scores of naked showgirls locked in cages in the basement? Underage Cambodian sweatshop workers? Circus dwarves? Is it a highly classified nuclear warhead manufacturing center? A front for the mob? Or could it just be an elaborate ruse intended to hide Santa's workshop from plain sight?
"People have these weird fantasies about what goes on here," says Thompson, who says he regularly welcomes unannounced strangers seeking to either validate or debunk their preconceived notions.
The reality is that two of the three brown buildings are large workshops used to construct Thompson's massive sets, which sometimes require up to five tractor trailers per show for interstate transport. The main building—the one with the marquee—serves as administrative offices, couturier, small-scale rehearsal space, and the gold-encrusted, jungle-cat living quarters of Thompson's longtime choreographer, Mistinguett, a tall, striking woman who spends upward of 40 weeks a year on the road.
This is the second trait that distinguishes Thompson from his Nevada-based rivals: Other than Cirque du Soleil, he's virtually the only producer to handle every component of his projects in-house.
"He's got quite a machine up there in Seattle and is able to keep costs down because of that," says Steve Ault, stage manager for Harrah's Las Vegas.
"In essence, Greg's the top guy—the Flo Ziegfeld of his time," says Nevada-based comedian Tony D'Andrea, who estimates he's done over 16,000 shows for Thompson over the course of 25 years (comedians are frequently called onstage to fill set breaks). "He had, like, 13 shows running at one time about five years ago. Biloxi, Bermuda, Nevada— he can go anywhere."
When an individual enters the main building of Greg Thompson Productions at basement level, he or she must ride an elevator one floor up to the reception area. While Thompson's company has only occupied this space since relocating from First Hill in 1990, the office decor is Ronald Reagan chic, and the walls chockablock with posters from the dizzying array of shows GTP has staged over the years.
Thompson's office, however, is denlike and faintly medieval. There are bookcases filled with production numbers, an old phonograph player, a more up-to-date stereo typically tuned to jazz, and a long oak table where Thompson, a short fellow with sea blue eyes and spiky white hair who comes to work every day in heeled black boots, wheels and deals, sans computer.
"You can take e-mails and just shove them up your ass," says Thompson, who prefers to pen scripts in his Lower Queen Anne condominium on intermittent Sundays with "golf on one TV and football on another."
Seated in a high-backed chair at the aforementioned table, Thompson welcomes one of his right-hand women, a cheerful 6-foot blonde named Lori Eger, into his office. Thompson has been approached about bringing a Snoopy on Ice production to Tokyo in the fall, and Eger thinks she's found an existing show in Ohio that GTP can license and send overseas.
"It's sort of a Grease knockoff," explains Thompson, "but with a Squiggy character who's a phenomenal Elvis impersonator."
"Apparently, Snoopy's big in Japan," says Thompson. "Sort of blows away my showgirls image, doesn't it?
"A very small portion of our business is showgirls," adds Thompson, citing corporate parties for clients such as Boeing and Microsoft, Bellevue Square's Snowflake Lane, Tillicum Village's Native American dance show, and various and sundry Broadway revues as evidence that shirts stay on in most of his productions. "But if the client wants a sexy show, we'll give them a sexy show."
That's on Eger's list, too. Apparently, a Mexico City promoter named Ricardo Glenn wants to bring Erocktica south of the border for a three-week run. A cursory background check reveals that Glenn's booked shows featuring metal bands like Dokken, WASP, and L.A. Guns.
Once it's determined that Glenn's somewhat legit, Thompson reminds Eger of his fee specifications: 50 percent up front, 25 percent upon arrival, and 25 percent upon completion. On top of that, he and his performers are to be flown first class and lodged in nothing inferior to four-star hotels.
"I don't want them to stick us in some dump," explains Thompson, who takes in between $6 million and $10 million in annual revenues and whose shows typically stick to production budgets of under $500,000. "When you're out of the country, you're kind of at their mercy."
Later, Thompson migrates to his A/V chief's studio to go over potential video backdrops for a wholesome '50s revue titled Let the Good Times Roll.
"It's sort of a Grease knockoff," explains Thompson, "but with a Squiggy character who's a phenomenal Elvis impersonator. We take the thinnest of themes and try to build a musical around it."
The A/V man, whose wall is stocked with EPs from the likes of Sheena Easton, Christopher Cross, Taylor Dayne, and Neil Diamond, begins playing tracks from the soda-fountain era.
"I think you've just got to get public domain '50s shit or summer-of-love beach-blanket-bingo kind of shit," Thompson says. When the track "Lollipop" is cued, Thompson remarks: "It was a simpler time, folks. Do cartoon hearts and popping [sounds]." For "CC Rider," the orders are: "Lots of chrome and shit—lots of close-ups of engines." For "Splish Splash," he barks: "If you could find cartoon fish, that would be good."
"Greg's known for topless stuff, but he does really great family shows," says Bareback star Ross, who first worked for Thompson in a decidedly less sultry Broadway revue in Lake Tahoe and who met his future wife while watching a GTP production in which she was cast. "Most producers stick to one format. It's really amazing how Greg can take a show and scale it."
"We can customize shows to whatever the casinos want," seconds choreographer Mistinguett, reached by phone in Reno, where she is currently overseeing production of one topless and one family show staged in the same casino. "Greg is the master of finding the right show for the market. It all sort of folds together like a recipe—sometimes we'll build a show around a person, sometimes we'll build a show around the music and find people to fit it, and sometimes we'll build a show around a concept.
"The hard part is when you get to Reno and realize you have to do two different kinds of shows. Greg basically invented that concept. Other producers have tried it, and they know how hard it is."
Greg Thompson's longest-running show is Dance on the Wind, a half-hour, history-laden exploration of Northwest Native American dance rituals that plays daily at Tillicum Village on woodsy Blake Island, a virtually uninhabited 475-acre state park that rests between Bainbridge and Vashon islands.
Thompson has run Dance on the Wind continuously since 1992, when Tillicum Village President Mark Hewitt expressed an interest in revamping what had been, to that point, a bone-dry production set on a barren stage in the island's enormous cedar theater, which can accommodate up to 1,000 patrons— mostly tourists and conventioneers.
Although Thompson must get conceptual buyoff from casino owners he works with, he maintains carte blanche control of the theatrics therein. The experience with the Hewitts was different. Tillicum was founded in 1962 by Hewitt's father, Bill, and the family has long adhered to Native American standards of modesty and spirituality, two concepts that are essentially foreign to Thompson's productions. Moreover, Thompson would have to pluck his cast from the village's ever-rotating fleet of seasonal employees versus booking professional dancers for an extended run. Despite such constraints, Thompson, whose productions had been largely absent from the region since the Music Hall closed in 1981, forged ahead with what was essentially an act of charity, so intent was he on having a palpable presence in his hometown.
"We've had this yin-yang thing going throughout," says Thompson of his ongoing creative struggle with Mark Hewitt. "At first, I was like, 'Let's put sequins on those suckers!'"
Of course, the sequins didn't fly. But Thompson took great pains to deliver Hewitt a Vegas-caliber backdrop, replete with simulated rainfall and moving logs. The entire set had to be shipped to Blake Island, piece by piece, on a small boat called the Beaver (the island is not accessible by car).
Thompson usually takes in at least two live renderings of the production per year, which is what he's doing on a sunny Wednesday in June, accompanied by Hewitt and a large plate of salmon and rice. The show, narrated by Seattle actor John Gilbert—whom Thompson refers to as "the voice of God"—comes off cleanly, although Thompson is left lamenting the lack of applause by the audience during automated set shifts. Herein, he requests permission to create thunder and lightning sequences to keep patrons' energy up. Hewitt calmly shoots him down, claiming that it would be offensive to tribal elders.
Undaunted, Thompson then suggests that Hewitt book a "New Age jazz pianist" in the theater for the winter months when Tillicum doesn't run Indian-themed tours.
"Yeah, Yanni would work really well here," quips Hewitt, compelling Thompson to launch into a non sequitur about Arlo Guthrie's struggles to win over a German audience of yore.
In addition to Marilyn, Sunny has impersonated Madonna, Dolly Parton, and Britney Spears.
"He couldn't get a rise out of them until he did an Elvis cover," claims Thompson.
On the boat ride back, where a group of Japanese tourists is sucking down $6 Bloody Marys, Thompson offers a terse description of his creative process.
"If you can't get your concept out in eight minutes on one sheet of paper, you're dealing with too much garbage," says the producer, whose most recent masterwork is a topless knockoff of MTV's Pimp My Ride titled Rock My Ride, which will open at Harrah's Reno this Friday. Despite such creative inspiration, Thompson reveals that he "doesn't watch a lot of music videos."
"Occasionally, I'll hear about a new show, and maybe I'll get an idea," he says. "A good example is American Idol. Forty-five million people are watching that piece of crap, but you can't help but get sucked in.
"How popular do you think American Idol would be if they let those kids sing their own songs?" Thompson wonders, rhetorically. "It would be off the air in a week. People are just starved for middle-of-the-road entertainment."
Which is precisely what Thompson delivers time and again, constantly recycling from show to show—much to the chagrin of higher-minded critics.
"Unfortunately, I thought [Bareback] was another product from the factory—it wasn't really unique," says Chuck Rounds, editor of Callback, a Vegas-based showbiz magazine. "It was yet another adult revue in the same form and format than all the other adult revues that come out of Greg's shop. It replaced a show called Skintight [which concluded an impressive six-year run at Harrah's Vegas in May]—and it seemed as though the costumes and music changed and not much else.
"I think Greg is a tremendously successful producer," concedes Rounds. "I think he found a formula that worked for him, and he's stuck with that. I do think it's time to change the formula, because we've seen it. I think he has the talent and ability to create something new, and I think it's time for that."
But if you think such denouncements of Thompson's acumen get him cranky with beat writers, think again.
"I wish more people were like him," says the Review-Journal's Weatherford. "He and Mistinguett—they're just nice people who don't harbor grudges. Part of it's that old-school showmanship: There's no such thing as a bad review as long as they spell your name right. He may realize a daily newspaper that's mostly read by locals isn't going to change his life. He's never called me out on anything I've ever written about him, and I've had my share of fun at the expense of his shows."
Indeed, he has. Of Skintight, which he graded a C, Weatherford wrote: "Now it's only a matter of the show finding its audience. An audience that appreciates guys in chaps, dog collars, and burglar masks, making like they're in the orgy scene of Eyes Wide Shut by way of an old Madonna video. If you're that audience, this is your show."
But nothing induces critical daggers like when Thompson decides to test-drive one of his wife's one-woman shows at the Crepe de Paris, a small cabaret in downtown Seattle's Rainier Square. Greg and Sunny Thompson, a Minnesota-bred vocalist who specializes in impersonating famous blondes, fell in love in the late '90s while collaborating on a Wild West revue in Branson, Mo., a vice-free, Bible Belt–resort town that is the antithesis of Sin City.
"What he wants to accomplish, he finishes, and I find that extremely attractive," says Sunny, a pretty, top-heavy blonde who looks to be about 30 years her husband's junior (Thompson has two adult children from a prior marriage). "He said, 'If you marry me, I'll move you to Seattle and find you a place to work.'"
Both made good on their ends of the deal, and the couple's been married six years and counting, with Thompson cutting back his travel schedule from 40 weeks per year to 20 and pledging always to be at Sunny's side—in business and in pleasure. Professionally, Thompson considers his wife to be "a triple threat—she sings, she acts, she does comedy"—and has booked her a fair share of headlining gigs, including 7 Blondes, in which Sunny impersonates the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Dolly Parton, and Britney Spears.
"Her show is so cheesy it's beyond schlock," wrote The Seattle Times' Misha Berson in reference to 7 Blondes' Crepe de Paris run. "It's surrealism."
"In Reno and Vegas, we get a lot of respect," observes Sunny. "But home is always the hardest place. There's no frame of reference here. I don't think [critics] get it."
GTP's world headquarters in Seattle.
Sunny Thompson is seated in a small rehearsal space in the basement of GTP's main building, next to wardrobe, practicing lines under the watchful eye of her husband. The room is meticulously fashioned with cream-colored Kennedy-era furniture and appliances, and Sunny is done up to look exactly like Marilyn Monroe for the couple's most ambitious collaboration to date, Marilyn: Forever Blonde.
"In Hollywood, a girl's virtue is much less important than her hairdo," reads Sunny from her script. "And I've slept with a producer."
"Really?" interrupts Thompson, with a wry grin on his face.
This coming February, the Thompsons will debut Forever Blonde as a one-woman play at the Stella Adler Theatre in Los Angeles. But their aspirations don't end there. Next month, GTP will begin filming Forever Blonde at Interbay's Victory Studios in hopes of offering it as a pay-per-view cable movie. For this, Thompson will need eight male dancers for a dream sequence he's scripted. He has scheduled an open casting call for a Thursday in late June to fill these roles in addition to a handful of spots for an all-expense-paid fall tour of China with his Showgirls production. (Not to be confused with the aforementioned movie of the same name, GTP's Showgirls is a live company mainstay that has been featured in both an E! reality series and HBO documentary.) Sunny, who once had a single, "Te Necesito," achieve gold record status in Ecuador, will take a break from filming to headline Showgirls as well.
Three guys show up for the Thursday dance-off—actually a decent turnout in an age when most auditions are submitted via videotape, the Internet, or DVD. Then there's the issue of Seattle not really being his kind of town, even though it's his hometown.
"People in Seattle tend to say, 'Hey, there are enough shows here, I've got my apartment and steady job—I'm happy," says Thompson. "Whereas in New York or L.A., they're like, 'Where's the show, baby? I'm ready to go.'"
Using one of his woodshops as a makeshift audition space, Thompson has recruited Joey Matta, one of Mistinguett's backup choreographers and a veteran performer in GTP shows, to guide the trio of prospects through a quick series of steps backed by a recording of Janet Jackson's "Nasty Boys."
Tanned and chiseled with precise diagonal sideburns and a cutoff flannel shirt, Matta beckons his pupils to mug and move in time with chants of "five, six, seven—tough!" and "five, six, seven—booty!" as Jackson's voice coos in the background over a synthesized snare.
"The only guy sweating is you, Joey. That's old age," heckles Thompson.
"No," counters Matta. "That's too much beer flowing through my pores."
After the dancers wrap their routine, Thompson makes a simple, straightforward request: "Can I just see you with your shirts off? I want to see what your upper bodies look like."
As the aspirants oblige, the shortest of the lot has a confession to make. "I have a tattoo," he says.
"Everybody has a tattoo," Thompson reassures him. "When I was growing up, if you had a tattoo, you were either a biker chick or you were easy."
After critiquing each gentleman's performance—two instantly make the cut, Inky might not be so lucky—Thompson begins discussing the plight of "a gorgeous Russian guy" on the popular network TV Idol knockoff, America's Got Talent, over which the dubiously cheesy David Hasselhoff presides.
Evidently, America's got a tapeworm when it comes to safe, defrosted, and occasionally topless recalibrations of the tried and true. Or, as comedian Doug Stanhope put it in a recent issue of The New Yorker: "If you serve this country wet shit on a buckled paper plate, people will line up for it in droves."
But all things being equal, there's something refreshing about Thompson's comfortably candid realization that he's not peddling anything close to high art. If the whims of Vegas put him on the bench for a while, there'll always be rooms to fill in northern Nevada, Mississippi, Bermuda, or Hong Kong. For his part, Thompson thinks the next big thing in Lost Wages is headliners, what with Celine Dion, Elton John, Toni Braxton, and Barry Manilow already mounting long-running, single-venue residencies on the Strip.
"Cirque will go away in 10 years, and it will be nothing but Kenny Rogers and Rod Stewart on two- to three-month runs," he predicts.
Right or wrong, Thompson and his well-oiled machine won't make like a mirage, theorizes Bally President Marilyn Winn.
"Greg is a genius when it comes to late-night theater, especially topless," says Winn. "His choreography is excellent, and he understands what it means to stay under budget, which is rare.
"I think Cirque du Soleil is something people seek out if they want to spend a lot of money and see physical dexterity. Greg's shows are pure entertainment and are much sexier. It's like comparing spinach to roast beef."
And rest assured, Greg Thompson knows damn well which one of those dishes Middle America prefers.