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April 24, 2014

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The Colosseum at Caesars Palace: The $250 million entertainment bet that few believed would succeed

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The Colosseum at Caesars Palace under construction.

The Colosseum at Caesars Palace Under Construction

The Colosseum at Caesars Palace under construction. Launch slideshow »
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Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner, Shania Twain and AEG executive John Meglen in Nashville on Wednesday, June 8, 2011.

As it gets ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary on March 25, The Colosseum at Caesars Palace can proudly point to an extraordinary legacy: With the exception of 2008, it has won the Top Resident Venue Touring Award (Small: Non Arena) from Billboard Magazine every year it’s been around. In 2010, it even won Billboard’s Venue of the Decade as determined by gross box office sales from December 1999 through November 2009.

That recognition is incredible, yet just as incredible is the fact that naysayers said the $250 million investment in construction and staging Celine Dion’s comeback show “A New Day” would never work.

The Canadian singer was on a five-year hiatus and awaiting the birth of her first son, Rene-Charles, but AEG chief John Meglen was convinced that she was the one megastar who could fill those original 4,148 seats. (After a January 2008 renovation, 150 seats were added.)

John was willing to bet the bank and agreed to a $150 million investment for Celine’s show. Once she was signed, Caesars execs and Tom Gallagher, who headed Park Place Entertainment, which owned Caesars Entertainment, signed on for $95 million in construction costs.

Last week, Celine talked about her theater home on the Strip and her 10 years on its stage. This week, my conversation about The Colosseum’s first decade is with John.

Robin Leach: Before it became The Colosseum, there was a “magic castle” for close-up performers and illusionists. What did you see there that made you turn your own trick of converting it to one of the most prestigious theaters in the world?

John Meglen: It was a combination of things. One is that you had to have somebody like Celine, her husband Rene [Angelil] and director Franco Dragone, who came up with the idea of doing a show together. The next step was what type of venue would work best for the show they envisioned. There was no secret in that we were marrying together the director of probably the greatest Cirque show of all time along with the biggest female artist in the world into a show that you couldn’t see anywhere else in the world. Las Vegas would be the only place in the world where you could see her.

Celine played an important role with the thinking behind the building. Franco felt that the stage had to feel like it’s going into the audience, and the audience needed to feel like they are coming onto the stage, and for that reason, the building needs to be round. Here we are at Caesars Palace, and we need a round building. I don’t know who came up with the actual idea of “it’s The Colosseum,” but you are in a Roman-themed gaming property, and you need a round building. Boom -- The Colosseum!

R.L.: John, walk me back in time. Rene and you wanted to do a show, Franco and Celine wanted to do a show. How did the deal with Caesars come to be?

J.M.: Before I got involved, Rene had a deal to do this with Arthur Goldberg at Caesars Palace before Arthur passed away. Tom Gallagher was running Park Place, which owned Caesars Entertainment. He said the company was willing to build the building but admitted that they didn’t know anything about show business. Our opportunity arose when he said, “We need somebody to come in and do the show.”

Shania Twain: ‘Still the One’ Opening Night

Opening night of Shania Twain's Launch slideshow »

Tom and I had a lot of discussion about what the capacity should be, and at one point, I remember Gallagher looking at me and saying if it wasn’t for this show, we would be building a 2,000-seater like everybody else. I believed that Celine could do 4,000 tickets a night. I knew that a big star should not and could not do two shows a night; they really give it their all for one performance, and that is all that they should do. I looked around Las Vegas, and the comparison that I used at that time was Siegfried & Roy. They were basically playing in a 2,000-seater doing two shows a night. So I said we just need to do this in one seating.

R.L.: Was that a radical decision at the time? Did everybody think you’d lost your mind?

J.M.: Yes! There was nothing like that there. There were very, very few supporters of the whole concept. The other properties all got calls, but nobody believed in it. Remember one of the things back then was that Celine had taken a five- to six-year break, where she kind of retired to go have children before coming out of retirement. The very first time that I went down to their house in Florida, Celine was seven to eight months’ pregnant with Rene-Charles when we met and got into the points of the deal.

I remember very clearly Rene and I sitting in the family room in their house, and Celine was making us lunch. It was just very surreal. She was singing in the kitchen and making lunch for Rene and me when we were sitting in the family room going through the points of the deal. Eventually, we shook hands that we were going to do this deal.

R.L.: John, at the time 10 years ago, nobody spoke in terms of tens of millions of dollars for a new theater and to develop a show. Here we are 10 years later, where the $200 million bet totally changed the entertainment landscape in Las Vegas that nobody predicted.

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace

Elton John's The Million Dollar Piano at Caesars Palace on Sept. 28, 2011. Launch slideshow »

J.M.: No, nobody, and, honestly, we weren’t thinking that, either. You either believed in it or you didn’t believe in it. If you believed in it, you had to commit. You could not stick a toe in the water and pull this off. It was much, much more than $100 million -- $100 million was just the bet that Park Place was making on the building. AEG was making an additional $150 million bet on the actual production of the show, on Celine’s guarantee, on the operating expenses of the building and the promotion of the show.

Park Place was saying, “OK, we will put up a building for $100 million.” And we are putting up a show and an artist for $150 million. The down side was if we were wrong, we lose our entire $150 million; if they are wrong, well, they still had a building. It was a pretty gnarly, stressful time period. A big part of that was because there were so many naysayers in the marketplace. What was interesting is we didn’t think we were nuts.

It seemed so natural to me that if you put Celine and the guy who created “O” together, that to me was a 1 + 1 = 2. People weren’t looking at it the right way. They weren’t thinking about it the way we were. They said to me, “Four thousand seats means every four shows is the equivalent of an arena, so you think Celine can do 50 arena shows in Las Vegas in a year?” I didn’t look at it as 50 arena shows. I thought we could create a beautiful show that would perform four or five nights a week with an audience that turns over every 3 1/2 days.

If they were going over and over to see the two big dogs in town twice nightly of “O” and Siegfried & Roy, I believed Celine could do one show brilliantly. I looked much, much more at how Siegfried & Roy did things than how Cirque du Soleil was doing things, in many ways. I will never forget the two of them coming down right before one of the lion’s den test runs in the beginning.

3/15/11: Celine Dion at The Colosseum

Celine Dion's opening night at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace on March 15, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Siegfried & Roy came with two shopping bags full of stuffed lions for Rene-Charles, and they sat with Celine for an hour talking about how to work in the Las Vegas marketplace, how to not be an outsider and how to engrain yourself into this market. What they said to her that night was very, very important. Their message hit me. They were very big supporters of this at the time.

R.L.: What is the magic of The Colosseum? It’s played host to Celine twice now and is home to Sir Elton John, Rod Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and now Shania Twain. What is it that is so special to artist, producer and audience?

J.M.: To the artist, it is an intimate venue that has all of the production bells and whistles that allows them to come in and create the show that they have always dreamed about creating. For the audience, it, again, is seeing the biggest names in a very intimate situation with the artist, and they feel like they are part of the show. The building itself, the structure of the building, creates such an intimacy with the artist, you feel like you are at the Metropolitan Opera. You feel like you are in one of the great, beautiful opera houses in the world when you are in The Colosseum.

On top of that, I think it is just a tremendous team of people, and the emphasis is very much on that team. John Nelson set up that entire staffing and operation. Back then, John was the one who handled all of the customer service, all of our ushers, ticket takers and security who have become family. They have become family not just with everything going on at Caesars Palace, but they have become family with the artists and production teams that come in there. We want people to feel when they walk into that building, the experience starts that second and that they are getting their money’s worth, that they are treated wonderfully.

If you think that you are going to go and put the biggest star in the world up in the stage and you are going to sell a ton of tickets, and it doesn’t matter what the show is, that is a mistake. Everybody that goes in there has got to do something that they have always dreamed of doing. If they can produce that dream, because it comes so much from their heart and their passion, and if that translates into that show, that is the winning formula. That is the magic.

11/6/10: Rod Stewart at The Colosseum

Rod Stewart at The Colosseum in Caesars Palace on Nov. 6, 2010. Launch slideshow »

When you open a show, it is not going to be the show that you end up with. That has happened with every single one of them. You have to get in front of an audience for a good period of time to really realize what is working and what is not working. Secondly, the entire cast, all of your performers, needs a couple of runs for the moves, their positions, to become second nature. When they reach that, they can move from the left side of their brain over to the right side of their brain, and they become creative.

R.L.: Final question -- your happiest, most memorable moment of the 10-year run of The Colosseum?

J.M.: I am going to give you two. One is when Celine came back for the new show we have now. We all met that night on the steps of The Colosseum, and she had the new twins in her arms and Rene-Charles and Rene all together. That coming back was …wow. It was one thing to do in the beginning, but for her to return felt even that much more important -- an even grander validation. Secondly, Rene finally winning his bracelet at the Caesars’ Poker Tournament. I remember that night so well because he was in tears, Celine was in tears, that he finally won a bracelet.

R.L.: Let’s wrap this up going forward. Celine has hinted that she will renew another two years after we run through this current three-year deal -- that gives us five. Rod Stewart is coming back again this summer after his contract expired. Elton is still playing his “Million Dollar Piano,” Shania Twain is about to start her second run of residency shows, and Jerry Seinfeld’s name is still on the dressing room door. Is there no room now for more stars? Have you put yourself out of work?

J.M.: To a degree I have -- we are booked now all of 2013 and 2014. I start seeing some light in 2015, but it depends on renewals and things like that. All of the shows that are in there right now are doing fabulous. It is actually nice for us to have a time period where we don’t have to move a new show in and go through the process. I am working on artists for 2015 and 2016, and we want to keep doing what we are doing there.

Shania’s show is doing well -- actually, fabulous. It’s so good, the ticket sales are humming, and this next run is just blowing out again. That was another one, by the way, that a lot of people were naysayers on. I went, “No, no, she is a superstar.” You have to be a great performer with incredible passion to do this. If an artist was a no-show, it ain’t gonna work.

To conclude our 10th anniversary salute next week, we’ll talk with the two longest-serving staff members who have never missed a performance, plus, some celebration comments from Caesars Palace President Gary Selesner.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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  1. If the Walmart of casinos, Harrah's owned Caesars at the time the project may never have gotten off the ground.