What happens when you take classic TV characters out of their familiar surroundings and send them to Las Vegas?
The question has been posed in countless writer’s rooms over the past 50 years, resulting in enough Vegas episodes to fill a week-long marathon.
However, a distinction should be drawn between shows that say they’re going to Vegas, and those that actually do it. It’s just a 50 minute flight from L.A., but the logistics of moving a show that far for one or two episodes was obviously too daunting for most budgets and shooting schedules.
Of all the series with a Las Vegas episode, 90-95% relied on a stock montage of Strip resorts and Glitter Gulch neon, followed by an interior establishing shot of characters entering some sorry-looking fictional casino, hastily assembled on a soundstage, with one blackjack table and five slot machines.
It could work when it was done right – Perfect Strangers had a hilarious show that pretended to be set in – let’s all say it like Balki – “Vay-gaaaaaaaaas.” But usually the most memorable episodes are those where you actually see the characters in the city.
Let’s take a look at four stand-outs from this much smaller sample size. Having lived in the Las Vegas area since 1982 I have a particular affinity for these shows. They captured a moment in time before recent building booms robbed the resort areas of so much of their colorful heritage.
That Girl (“She Never Had the Vegas Notion, Pts. 1 & 2”)
Ann Marie gets a job in a Vegas show supporting headliner Marty Haines (Jack Cassidy, as always playing Jack Cassidy). Strait-laced Donald Hollinger has too much to drink, and Marty tricks him into believing he married another of the star’s entourage, as a way to prove to Ann that even the most virtuous man can lose himself in Vegas.
The episodes were filmed in 1969, a great time in the city’s history. You’ll see Ann and Donald dodging cars while crossing Fremont Street (no longer necessary as it’s now closed to traffic), and riding a merry-go-round outside Circus Circus. But most of the filming was done at the legendary Sands, where the Rat Pack reigned throughout the 1960s. If you love that era of show business, it’s a thrill to see the lush hotel grounds and the lavish casino, and a sign outside the showroom that promotes an upcoming appearance by Louis Prima.
The Partridge Family (“What? And Get Out of Show Business?”)
Nothing like starting at the top: in the first episode of this classic series, the Partridge Family appears at Caesars Palace.
As their iconic bus approaches the resort’s main entrance, we see their name in huge letters across the marquee; below, in smaller letters, two other shows are promoted – one for some guy named Duke Ellington. As this was the pilot, filmed before anyone had heard of the series, I can only guess how many passers-by wondered about this group that was top-billed over one of the legendary jazz composers and bandleaders of the 20th century. You can also make out the marquee for the Flamingo Hilton across the street, where Sonny & Cher were appearing.
The performance that follows this scene was not shot in the resort’s famed Circus Maximus Showroom or anywhere else in the city. In fact, the Vegas footage comprises just one minute of the episode. But the sequence adds an authenticity to the family’s show business success.
The Bionic Woman (“Fembots in Las Vegas, Pts. 1 & 2”)
In which Jaime goes undercover (but not much cover) as the strongest showgirl in Las Vegas history, and chases a Fembot past the fountains outside Caesars Palace. If you couldn’t tell from the title alone, this is a classic slice of Comfort TV cheese.
The casino sequences were filmed at The Maxim, which was located across the street from the original MGM Grand. It closed in 2001.
Charlie’s Angels (“Angels in Vegas, Pts. 1 & 2”)
The series’ season 3 debut had something for everyone – a cameo from Las Vegas’s most famous detective (Robert Urich as Dan Tanna), Kris Munroe singing with Darren Stephens (Dick Sargent), Kelly Garrett joining the famous Folies Bergere revue, and Sabrina Duncan romancing a casino owner played by Dean Martin, who between takes was romancing Kate’s stand-in, Camille Hagan.
Granted, the whodunit payoff at the end is pretty weak, but there’s much fun to be had along the way, including a great speedboat chase and shoot-out at Lake Mead. Most of the action was shot at the Tropicana Resort, which is still here, and the Dunes, which sadly is not.