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Ottawa's Gordie Brown living his dream on The Strip
Tony Lofaro
The Ottawa Citizen

LAS VEGAS - Gordie Brown's smiling face beams down from two large banners cascading from the rooftop of the Venetian Hotel, an opulent, Italian-style mega-resort that sprawls over an entire block in this desert gambling capital.

Down at the street level, close to where Venice's Rialto Bridge was faithfully re-created, stands a towering video screen projecting clips of Brown doing impersonations of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Garry Shandling. The film loop of the 43-year-old singer-impressionist is Las Vegas's newest form of marquee advertising -- and a sure sign that an entertainer has made it on "The Strip."

Brown, who cut his teeth doing Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson impersonations years ago at small clubs back in Ottawa, is the brightest star in Las Vegas. He just opened his new show at an 800-seat theatre designed especially for him at The Venetian, after spending two years as the main act at the Golden Nugget Hotel, a much older venue in "downtown" Las Vegas, and miles from the famous Strip.

The recent star-studded opening drew magicians Penn & Teller, singer Robert Goulet, movie producer Jerry Weintraub (Ocean's Eleven) and pitcher Roger Clemens. During the 80-minute show, Brown entertained the capacity crowd with his takes of Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Chris Rock and Robert DeNiro, and charmed them with his good looks, strong singing voice and all-around talent.

"Downtown" Gordie Brown has moved uptown. And to most seasoned Vegas observers, it was just a matter of time before Brown joined a select group of Canadian performers, including Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil, who today occupy prime real estate, fronting probably the most expensive boulevard in the world.

"I think Gordie's show has big hit written all over it," said Norm Clarke, the influential nightlife columnist of The Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I had seen his show at the Golden Nugget and now he's taken it up three notches."

Clarke said Brown fits into a comfortable niche category in Las Vegas, where the nightly appetite of shows available is like a endless buffet.

"The show really fits the young demographic that comes in and wants to go to something that's not too heavy," he said. "They want something light, fun and good that will take them into the night."

Clarke said the ultimate for a performer is to have your name permanently emblazoned on a Las Vegas marquee. It's a sign the performer has conquered Vegas and hit paydirt. (Brown's deal at the Golden Nugget was worth $6 million; his contract at the Venetian is considerably higher, although the exact figure is confidential).

"He's hit the big-time. He's hit the lottery, really, to be in that spot," said Clarke.

It's been a long way from the streets of Laval, where Brown was born, to Ottawa, where he drew political cartoons for the Ottawa Sunday Herald and became a fixture on the nightclub circuit. Now, he's performing in Vegas five nights a week, living in suburbia with his wife, Lori, their two-year-old son, Presley, and his three children, Dryden, Jordon and Madison, from a previous marriage.

"I'm actually right where I want to be, playing in Vegas and headlining on the Strip," said Brown, reflecting on a career first spent as an opening act for Paul Anka (another Ottawan), Barry Manilow and other singers before landing a headlining spot. "This was always my dream, and every day I've been pinching myself going I'm here, I'm actually in Vegas," he said.

"I don't have a hit song or other things that have that full universal recognition, and for this hotel to believe in me in the way that they do and to give me this opportunity is amazingly special."

What Brown has is rare in Las Vegas circles. He said he has an exclusive 11-year contract with the Venetian, which means he'll work the showroom about 48 weeks a year and earn a big paycheque. The contract will essentially limit Brown from performing elsewhere or doing movies and television work, but he has no reason to feel strait-jacketed.

His career is definitely on the upswing. On Wednesday he makes his first appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, an important gig for getting the kind of national exposure that has been missing so far. The late-night TV spot was engineered by his manager, Bernie Yuman, a legendary showbiz figure who lists Siegfried & Roy and Muhammad Ali as clients.

"Gordie's going to be a big star, he's so talented and he was well-received," says Yuman, who is given to using showbiz hyperbole in describing his newest client. "My objective as his manager is for him to get what he deserves. He deserves to be the most famous comedian in the world. And no question that's possible given his talent."

The story goes that Yuman was instantly taken by the young Canadian's hip, diverse musical act after catching Brown at Harrah's in Reno more than two years ago, where Brown performed before he made the permanent move to Las Vegas. He signed the impressionist with a promise of fulfilling his dream to one day have his name light up a big strip marquee.

"I think his show works because he's a multi-faceted entertainer, he is a comedian and has great comedic timing and certainly as an impressionist and singer, he stands alone," said Yuman.

In Las Vegas, the entertainment competition is fierce and they include spectacle shows, popular singers and revues and now even Broadway shows. He said he prefers not to compare his client to Danny Gans, another better-known Vegas singer-impressionist whose act has been playing for six years at the Mirage Hotel, directly across the street from the Venetian.

Columnist Jerry Fink of The Las Vegas Sun gave Brown's show five stars.

"While Danny Gans has a long head start on Brown, the former political cartoonist from Montreal is loaded with talent, energy, charisma and should have no difficulty in becoming a favourite on the Strip. Even though both do impressions, sing and clown around, their acts are different enough that fans can enjoy both without a sense of deja vu," wrote Fink.

Brown is taking the big buzz about himself in stride, concentrating on his act, while at the same time trying to live as normal a life as possible with his family in a booming town known for its excesses. He said the pressure is greater now that he's a headliner and hotel bosses expect him to draw big crowds to the casino.

But Brown said he's ready to handle the pressure.

"I wished this would have happened sooner," said Brown, referring to when he arrived here from Ottawa in 1987 in his Ford Tempo and toiled as an opening act to earn a living and raise a family.

"But wouldn't it be great if everyone was handed something on a silver platter. I'm just so thankful that it did take this amount of time because now I'm more appreciative."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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