Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Dusty but delightful

CASINO DRAMA

STILL SIZZLING. Diana Ross, pictured here at the New York stop of her current North American tour, dazzled Casino Rama's crowd in April. Credit: (Jason Decrow/AP Photo)

The kind people at Fallsview Casino started sending me e-mails after I purchased tickets to see Diana Ross; they wanted to inform me of other upcoming shows I might enjoy. Perhaps I’d be interested in attending Aretha Franklin’s concert? Or seeing Liza Minnelli live? Was I was being profiled along sexual orientation lines, or do gamblers have an inordinate interest in divas in decline?

Indeed, the publicity people at Fallsview were very eager to promote their series of shows, until I asked pointblank about the demographics they were marketing to and let it slip that I was writing for Xtra. Then they politely declined “to take part in your article” but hoped I’d enjoy future Fallsview shows.

A bartender at The Breeze, Niagara Falls’ only gay bar, claims to have the explanation for their sudden lack of cooperation: Vic is convinced that the staff of the Fallsview is predominantly gay but overwhelmingly closeted, and the casinos’ family values marketing, emphasizing laughing children in water parks, must not be complicated by sexual peccadilloes.

Fallsview isn’t the only casino making a business out of showcasing fading divas. The audience at last year’s Liza Minnelli concert at Casino Rama near Orillia was, to quote Miss Conception, “my grandmother and a bunch of boozy old fairies.”

Liza was not at her best. The gorgeous notes were less frequent than the brayed ones and her dance moves consisted of lurching to the piano to drink from an oversized coffee cup which, she repeatedly assured us, contained only Gatorade.

Yet Liza demanded and received ovation after ovation, as if she was mainlining our applause and would no longer exist outside of the spotlight. It was somehow gratifying to be her dealer.

Ann-Margret is one of the braver performers working the casino circut simply by virtue of competing with her legacy. Large video screens lined either side of the Casino Rama stage showing movie and television clips of the leggy dancer in her prime.

The matronly woman who appeared onstage could still wear a dress slit to the hip bone commandingly, but she did not fare well in comparison to visuals from the ’50s and ’60s. Her voice was still strong but the backup dancers were forced to switch to half-time beats when she joined in the choreography. She even fell once but laughed it off as part of the show.

But it was her stories that riveted the audience. Reminiscences of her humble immigrant roots, her hard-won triumphs, the legends she worked with, the long struggle back from a near career-ending fall in Vegas. It was impossible not to root for her.

She had a time-defying effect on at least part of the audience. On the shuttle bus heading back to the motel, the main topic of discussion was how great Ann-Margret looked despite her age. The man in the seat ahead of me pulled his wife close and whispered, “I guess you know who I?ll be thinking of tonight.” She laughed, “As long as you?re ‘thinking’ with me.” Personally, I was thinking of how Miss Margret got to sleep with Elvis when he was in his prime.

Though the ravages of plastic surgery make Dolly Parton appear to be past her prime, she is still a strong-voiced, stage-strutting lesbian role model. Adrienne Lloyd of local rock group Hunter Valentine says that part of her admiration for Parton is that she?s not only a strong performer, but also a savvy businesswoman who had the good sense to turn down Presley early in her career.

Lloyd says she’d loved to have seen Parton at Casino Rama this winter but tickets were difficult to come by. Although the barn-like theatre seats 5,000, blocks of tickets are reserved for high-rolling gamblers who often don’t even show up, while true fans miss out.

Last month’s rare ticket at Fallsview was for Diana Ross. Any show that begins with a raucous “I’m Coming Out” and ends with an extended version of “I Will Survive” has to have some queer consciousness.

Ross’s four costume changes, with each gown more elaborate and extravagant than the last, received as much adulation as the music. In the intimate confines of Niagara Fall’s Fallsview Casino, at only 1,500 seats, even the worst seats felt close enough to reach out and touch the sequins or sniff for “Gatorade” on the breath. Ms Ross effortlessly drove the crowd into a frenzy of adoration.

As one longtime Ross fan hanging out at The Breeze aprés show noted it was easy to spot the homos in the audience: They were the ones who were able to stand up and dance without assistance. A casino audience does skew toward the elderly.

As Ross launched into yet another chorus of “I Will Survive,” I was reminded of the innumerable Pride Day spins that hoary old song receives, and that no matter how jaded the listener has become it always does offer a touch of inspiration.

Schadenfrende may be part of the joy of watching these aging divas, but no matter how old, how creaky or how lifted they become, they have earned their legendary status and they — like their star-stricken homo fans — will survive.