Video Vault | Corporate Las Vegas' gain was union musicians' loss

Strikers in 1989 [Photo provided]

A new book called "Played Out on the Strip" by UNLV music professor Janis McKay tells the story of the professional musicians who helped turn Las Vegas into the "Entertainment Capital of the World" from the early 1940s to 1989.

It started with the first carpet joints on the Strip, usually run by mobsters who took a direct interest in the entertainers.

"The mob men appreciated the musicians," says McKay. "They loved their music and they knew them by name, and they were willing to pay money for something they valued a great deal."

McKay, who arrived in Las Vegas in 1994, spent years interviewing musicians from the earlier era and heard a recurring theme: "Oh, things were better when the mob ran the town."

"Nobody thinks that the mob should continue to run the down," she adds. "But what people do miss is the individual owner versus the corporate owner."

Las Vegas became a magnet for top musicians from around the nation, who would come for a stable living where they could settle down and raise a family while playing for top stars and spectacular productions.

"It looked like heaven," said woodwind player Dave Hawley, who arrived in 1966 after a year touring with the Si Zentner Band.

But over time, even as the music scene felt stable, the mob was being displaced.

"And when Howard Hughes and the corporations came in, you began to see the shift of every part of the casino has to make money," explains McKay.

The corporate bean-counting coincided with changes in technology.

"It's called an electronic synthesizer," demonstrated News 3 reporter Joel Grover in 1984. "And with the flip of just a few switches, it can virtually simulate an entire orchestra."

That and the specter of taped music replacing live, spurred a call to action in 1984 by Union President Mark Tully Massagli.

"Whatever he says, I'm hanging in there with," striking bass player Dick Straub told News 3. "He wants us to picket, and that's why I'm out here, to show my support for him. Because musicians are going to hang together here."

The union got one more five-year contract with full employment - but had to give up any wage increases.

"You know, you won't be able to buy a brand new house or a new car or anything," said trumpet player Andy Woodard after voting to approve the contract. "But we'll get by."

"Another major factor was when the audience could no longer see the musicians," says McKay. "There were several hotels that moved the musicians from the stage where they'd been part of the show, actually to another room."

"When we became invisible, that sealed the end," remembered Hawley, who was in the "Jubilee" band at Bally's at the time, playing three floors below the actual performance.

By 1989, Hawley was in the Joe Castro Band playing for "Folies Bergere" at the Tropicana, when the hotel decided to dismiss the musicians in that show, while retaining the players who backed up star performers in the other showroom. All the musicians at the hotel left the job in solidarity.

"We're not taking an anti-union position," said Tropicana spokesman Ira David Sternberg early in the strike. "We've never intended to use the tape as a replacement for musicians."

When the same thing happened at Bally's down the street, the union president came down to the picket line to speak with the media.

"We met the giant corporations, the giant bullies," Massagli told News 3. "This little union met 'em on their turf on their date at their hour. So this union's not backing down."

As the strike spread to other properties, many performers initially refused to cross the picket lines.

"I think that's really sending out a heavy message to people that there are musicians like Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, whoever," said striking percussionist Dean Appleman. "That everyone in show biz is supporting music."

The musicians knew they would have to give up some ground but were optimistic about a compromise.

"I was calculating, 'Am I gonna be able to survive the shrinking?" remembered Hawley. "And I figured I would."

But the new contracts the hotels were offering had no guarantees of full employment or protections against being replaced by technology.

"It's been a long summer for Las Vegas musicians," reported News 3's Steve Eager in September 1989. "The picketers at the Tropicana have been out of work for four months, and at other hotels it's been about two months. I talked with some picketers tonight, and they say they're a little disappointed they didn't have a chance to vote on that new proposal. But others say it really wasn't necessary."

"The proposal that the hotels offered the musicians really was an insult," said picketer LaRue Boenig. "And I think that it's more of an insult that they thought the musicians would accept it."

The hotels were using divide-and-conquer tactics, staggering the contract dates so other unions such as the Culinary and the Stagehands would not be able to strike in solidarity. They had also hired powerful anti-labor lawyer Lawrence Levien. By fall, union leaders were sounding dejected.

"I've met Mr. Levien before. I've been in negotiations with Mr. Levien before," Massagli told reporters. "And maybe he perceives that to take out another union or if this union disappears or loses, that may be another notch in his belt."

"It drug on so long and there was no solution in sight and they kept losing ground and losing ground, and it just became clear to everyone that the musicians were not going to win," says McKay.

On Jan. 24, 1990, Musicians Union Local 369 finally accepted a proposal from the hotels which contained virtually none of the guarantees they had sought.

There was a severance package of around $28,000 for musicians who were losing their jobs, but there were no protections against taped music and synthesizers.

"I think we lost," picketing saxophone player Fred Haller told News 3.

"Could this battle have been won?" asked the reporter.

"That's a tough question," replied Haller. "You're up against millions of dollars, and they were bound and determined they were going to kill us."

"Well, from our point of view, it bankrupted the union and it didn't get any result," summed up Hawley. "We lost."

The live music scene has actually improved going into the new millennium, with several Broadway shows that have had residencies using full orchestras, as well as the Cirque du Soleil shows which use ensembles of a dozen or so. Using recorded music to back up performers is currently much less common than it was in the 1990s.

The story is told in much greater detail in McKay's book "Played Out on the Strip."

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