Leonard Bernstein at 100: Remembering his 1960 Las Vegas concert

In 1960 Las Vegas, music meant Liberace. Or Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and their fellow Rat Packers. Or the various orchestras accompanying their Strip showroom stints.

Except on one hot August night, when a different kind of headliner played Vegas. And brought his own orchestra to boot.

The orchestra was no less than the New York Philharmonic. And the orchestra’s conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was a one-man musical supernova: a Renaissance man who not only reigned in concert halls but on television, sharing his love for classical music with viewers young and old.

To say nothing of a composing career that spanned symphonies, opera, ballet — and Broadway, from the high-spirited “On the Town” to “West Side Story’s” star-crossed, straight-outta-Shakespeare tragedy.

In 2018, the world is celebrating Bernstein’s centennial (he was born Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and died in 1990 at 72) with thousands of concerts and other events. The festivities began last year on his birthday and continue through his centennial date. Las Vegas gets into the act this month; Opera Las Vegas’ “Bravo Bernstein” concert is March 25.

Yet when Bernstein played Vegas — three days after his 42nd birthday — he was still in the first decades of his legendary musical career.

Classical music’s ‘James Dean’

The charismatic and undeniably dashing Bernstein — or, as everyone called him, Lenny — more closely resembled, in the words of composer John Adams, movie star “James Dean than (Arturo) Toscanini,” the renowned Italian maestro.

“In an age of specialization, (Bernstein) refuses to stay put in any culture pigeonhole,” Time magazine commented. “In each of his five chief spheres of activity — conducting, composing, playing the piano, lecturing and teaching — he has won wide recognition as a master practitioner of his art.”

Las Vegas in the waning days of the Eisenhower era may have seemed an unlikely locale for such a worldly, world-class musician. After all, the population in all of Clark County was a little more than 125,000.

Yet, however improbably, that’s exactly where Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic were on Aug. 28, 1960, when they played an even more improbable venue: the Las Vegas Convention Center’s silver-domed, flying saucer-shaped Rotunda, which was demolished in 1990. (The Beatles performed there in 1964.)

Bernstein and the Philharmonic enjoyed enthusiastic receptions during their cross-country 1960 tour.

“In some places, we have received standing ovations before playing a note,” Bernstein said, in the 2009 book “Picturing Las Vegas” by Linda Chase, who grew up in Southern Nevada.

Other tour stops probably didn’t have the Rhythmettes, Las Vegas High School’s cowgirl-costumed precision dance team, who welcomed the maestro upon arrival.

‘A rare privilege’

The Las Vegas Symphony Society and the Clark County Fair and Recreation Board were listed as concert sponsors, according to the evening’s program (preserved in the New York Philharmonic’s digital archives).

In 1959, the symphony society sponsored a concert by the Utah Symphony, led by Maurice Abravanel. But the New York Philharmonic’s arrival in Las Vegas the next year inspired a reverential reaction, judging by sentiments expressed in the concert program advertisements.

“It is a rare privilege for Southern Nevadans to welcome Mr. Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic,” read an ad placed by Ronzone’s of Las Vegas, “Quality Merchandise for Home and Family Since 1917.”

Then-Las Vegas mayor Oran Gragson saluted “this initial step toward a vigorous cultural program for our Las Vegas community” in an ad for his North Main Furniture and Charleston Appliance Center.

“A rare and rewarding occasion — tonight’s concert,” gushed dentist (and local NAACP president) James B. McMillan and wife. “For insuring the cultural future of Nevada, our thanks,” read an ad placed by insurance agent Jack Woods.

From casino bosses to union bosses, from musicians to morticians, Las Vegans applauded “this magnificent occasion.” (At least according to Bertha’s, purveyors of “gifts, china, crystals and furnishings for gracious living.”)

‘The boorish crowds’

They applauded during the concert too, “decked out in their bolo ties and leather vests, powder blue tuxes, strapless evening gowns and fur stoles of dubious origin,” Chase wrote.

The orchestra even had its own accompaniment, with “people talking, popping gum and taking flash pictures” with their Kodak cameras, she noted. (The “final indignity was that someone dropped a cookie crumb on (the) kettle drum,” according to Chase.)

“The orchestra struggled manfully through the evening,” she observed, “but you could feel, even with his back to us, that Lenny was seething.”

Despite the large turnout and enthusiastic reception, “Bernstein by all accounts was appalled by Las Vegas,” Chase wrote, from “the boorish crowds” to the gambling, which prompted Bernstein to comment that “Vegas had recovered some of the money it had paid to the Philharmonic from the losses his musicians suffered at the tables.”

It took Las Vegas more than a few years to build a concert hall where Bernstein would have felt at home.

UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall opened in 1976 with a concert by the Tokyo Symphony.

When the $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened in March 2012, the opening gala in Reynolds Hall concluded with Jennifer Hudson, orchestra and choir performing “Take Care of This House” from the 1976 musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” featuring lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner — and music by Leonard Bernstein.

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