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Little remembered now, Strip entertainment columnist Don Usherson was a man of his time

More people than not think of the ’80s as a lost decade for Las Vegas, when it was just spinning its wheels waiting for The Mirage to open. Not Don Usherson. You will not find anyone who loved ’80s Vegas more than the longtime entertainment columnist and TV host, who died last month at age 72.

Usherson’s Las Vegas Review-Journal column championed the era’s mostly forgotten, mid-tier headliners, such as Louise Mandrell, Ray Stevens, and Yakov Smirnoff. But he devoted the same reverence and column space to journeyman lounge singers Catte Adams, Denise Clemente, or George Trullinger, the Buddy Holly impersonator in Legends in Concert.

When I announced I was shipping off from a Kansas City Star bureau for Las Vegas in late 1987, more than one person told me, “You’re going to have a showgirl for a girlfriend.” If only. But Don did (a gorgeous and also very sweet Legends dancer, Julie). For a couple of years there, he and I were quite the odd couple. I was brought in to be the “young guy” to cover the growing “locals” side of entertainment, and I complained about the R-J making us wear ties. Don was freelance, working outside the office, but never without the jacket with the handkerchief thingie in the pocket. And he introduced me to characters such as show producers John Stuart and Norbert Aleman (who I think was wearing a leopard-print jacket at the time) who, like Don, turned out to be the last of the breed for the Strip’s small-town, Miami Vice era. 

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It now gives me pause to realize Don was barely in his 40s. With a 13-year age difference, you’d think we would have shared more common ground in what’s now called classic rock. Don didn’t care about Bruce Springsteen or Pink Floyd. His tastes were much older, in line with what he covered. One of his columns in 1988 argued there was nothing wrong with targeting seniors with a vaudevillian lounge show called Sex Over 40: “After all, we have no qualms with staging acts like Sting, which we know is designed for much younger crowds.” Sting was 36 at the time, not quite five years younger than Don.

“These groups you write about — where do they get those names?” he would ask, shaking his head, cracking himself up. “What was that one? The Jesus and Mary something?” Our only shared love was the Rat Pack and the extended circle of legends who still played Bally’s and Caesars Palace.

Don’s news and show-review column ran alongside my features-section preview stories, written with a more skeptical eye toward what I saw as a tired, dated show scene. We were a good balance, a result of late R-J features editor Frank Fertado somehow anticipating the “new Vegas” about to arrive. Don would meet Frank and I for lunch and patiently try to school us on the virtues of the Strip’s entertainment product. The lunches always ended in a standoff. But he always admired my reporter’s background and was willing to see the difference from his perspective as a former hotel PR guy.

Somehow, “a fairly nerdy former history teacher,” as Don once described himself on Facebook, made his way from suburban New Jersey to become the PR guy for the Strip’s largest hotel, the MGM Grand, by the time of its devastating 1980 fire. He also promoted the early days of Legends in Concert, which made celebrity impersonators a fixture of casino entertainment.

The R-J ended Don’s column in 1990, bringing show coverage in-house by hiring Michael Paskevich to cover an expanding entertainment picture. Don built up his locally produced, late-night talk show Las Vegas at Night, with local broadcast stations picking it up through the Channel America Network before its home base at the Dunes was imploded in 1993.

His columns often had bite, but criticism came as much from a hotelier’s point of view as a ticket-buyer’s. Thinking about it now, he was the natural transition between the glorified press releases of the Earl Wilson-styled guys such as Forrest Duke and Ralph Pearl and the modern perspective that Paskevich brought.

Writing about the September 1988 opening of the Catch a Rising Star comedy club, Don asked if we were going to replace the greats such as Frank Sinatra with “just comics? That seems to be the direction the city is taking. … But the tide will inevitably swing again, as it always does, and comedy’s popularity will start to wane as Las Vegas audiences start to clamor for more solid musical entertainment. There probably won’t be enough to go around though, without the city nurturing it as it did in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Any columnist trying to predict the future is lucky to be at least half right. The comedians pretty much took over the marquee space for headline names, and Cirque shows or pop stars in concert meant there was never a need to groom that future wave of old-school entertainers. But I hope there are plenty of them up there in the “Big Casino,” as a terminally ill character in Ocean’s Eleven called it. Based on Don’s final Facebook posts — empathetic and accepting of whatever was coming his way, with no immediate family left to share the journey — the maitre d’ will walk him right up front to a prime booth. And he will never have to worry about the dress code.

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