Editor's note: This is the second of three articles looking at the lives and careers of the Osmond family.
LAS VEGAS — On a warm fall Saturday evening on the Las Vegas Strip, a long line of people snakes through the casino floor of the Flamingo Hotel, filing right past the cocktail bar, the loud guys throwing craps, the roulette wheel, the blackjack and pai-gow poker tables.
Their destination: The Donny & Marie Showroom.
And it isn’t just tonight. Five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday, for the past 10 years, the crowds have been trooping in like this, climbing up a short flight of stairs behind a bank of slot machines to fill up the thousand or so seats, or most of them, in the intimate showroom.
Easily more than a million paying customers, if you add it all up, right here in the heart of Las Vegas Boulevard, paying from $95 to $260 a ticket to be entertained by those fresh-faced, clean-cut kids from Utah.
Well, all right, they’re not exactly kids anymore.
• • •
Donny Osmond, the only headliner in Las Vegas history to commute from Provo, Utah, sees nothing unusual about the astounding run — they’ve been voted “Best Show” in Vegas three separate years by readers of the Las Vegas Review Journal — he and his sister Marie have enjoyed in a town known for catering to decidedly more prurient tastes.
It is 30 minutes to showtime and the entertainer who recorded “Puppy Love” 47 years ago is ready to talk. He needs to do the interview now, before the curtain goes up, because as soon as the 90-minute show ends, at 9 p.m., just as the Strip starts to really wake up, he’ll be leaving Las Vegas and on his jet back to Provo.
Read part one of the series: They’re still the Osmond Brothers after all these years
The flight takes anywhere from 55 to 65 minutes, depending on the wind, and he’s got it down. Takes off his makeup in the limo on the way to the Vegas airport, hops in his car at the Provo airport and drives through uncrowded streets to his home in the River Bottoms, hitting the garage remote, even with the time change, before midnight.
Every Saturday night he does this. He sleeps in his own bed Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, flies to Las Vegas late Tuesday afternoon just in time for the show, stays in a suite at the Flamingo Tuesday night through Friday night, and heads for Utah again on Saturday. Sometimes, if something’s going on back home he doesn’t want to miss, he’ll fly back and forth during the week. Nothing against Vegas, “But Provo is where we choose to live,” he says. “We love Provo.”
Donny, who will be 61 in December, just smiles when he’s asked about the incongruity of the wholesome Osmonds being a smash hit in Sin City.
“I’ve been hearing that for, what, almost 55 years, ever since I started playing here in '65 at the Sahara,” he says, kicked back in his dressing room, still in his jeans, as relaxed as if he’s done what he’s about to do at least 1,500 times, which is about right.
“It’s entertainment, that’s what it is, that’s what we do. Every generation calls it something else. The older generation called it vaudeville, we used to call it variety. I don’t know what it’s called today, but I just find it so interesting that every age group can walk away enjoying it somehow, wherever it’s played.”
The act is scheduled to continue until November of 2019, making it an 11-plus year run when all is said and done — not bad for a gig that was initially booked for six weeks.
That was in September of 2008, when the Flamingo and the Osmonds agreed on a let’s-see-how-this-goes trial.
You don’t have a show run in Las Vegas for 10 years without working hard. Donny and I work really hard. – Marie Osmond
At the end of the six weeks, people were still queuing up. The Flamingo said, “How’d you like to stay a year?” Then another year, then another, until finally they forgot about a contract entirely, plastered the Strip side of the hotel with images of their resident stars and, conceding that supply was apparently never going to exceed demand, named the showroom after Donny and Marie.
“Why are we so successful?” says Donny. “That’s the million dollar question, and I have a lot of answers, but who knows exactly why.”
For one thing, he points out, the show is big — from the lights, the sound, the video displays, the dancers, the musicians. There is nothing small — or inexpensive — about it. (Every time they add a song, he says, that’s another $100,000). There is great audience interaction, for another thing. The hosts keep a conversation going with the crowd throughout the performance, for another. And the show is ever-changing. The one you’re seeing tonight, other than the signature songs that absolutely must get sung, will be almost entirely different from the one you saw last September.
But at the top of Donny’s guesses about the show’s enduring success?
“This is hard for me because I have to speak in the third person,” he says. “But I think the chemistry of Donny and Marie works. We have writers, but we have found over these 10 years that if we have an idea, she and I have the goods to deliver it. We kinda know what works and what doesn’t.”
It started working when he was 5 and she was 3 and they made their showbiz debut alongside their brothers on "The Andy Williams Show." In 1976, when they were all of 18 and 16, they hosted their own network TV show on ABC, “Donny & Marie." It lasted just three seasons, but there was something about Marie’s "little bit country" and Donny’s "little bit of rock 'n' roll" that, for people of a particular age especially, never left America’s consciousness.
They spent a lot of years charting their own courses. Donny went to No. 2 with his rock hit, “Soldier of Love,” in 1989; Marie won the Country Music Association Vocal Duo of the Year award for "Meet Me in Montana" with Dan Seals in 1985. Marie acted on Broadway and wrote a best-selling book about postpartum depression and became the spokeswoman for the weight-loss program Nutrisystem and sold dolls on the Home Shopping Network and about 100 other things.
Donny did his level best to forge a rock star career without a tattoo or any other rock star-like stereotypes (at one point an agent unsuccessfully suggested, for credibility sakes, he acquire a drug habit, or at least act like he had one). In the '90s he played the lead more than 2,000 times in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Every now and then, though, they’d reunite for a performance and each time they’d discover they still had it — together.
• • •
When the curtain in the Donny & Marie Showroom goes up at 7:30 p.m. sharp Donny and Marie open, of course, with “It Takes Two,” the Marvin Gaye song that was a staple on their television show back in the day. After that they take turns singing their own hits, doing their own bits, walking down their own memory lanes. But the glue that holds it all together, when they’re sharing the stage and even when they aren’t, is their symbiotic patter, their Osmond-style trash talk. Has anyone ever wrung more entertainment out of a sibling rivalry?
Donny gets considerable mileage talking about winning his season of “Dancing With the Stars” (in 2009) while mentioning Marie was only third in hers (in 2007), and, oh yeah, she fainted. To which Marie feigns a sigh and counters, “Everyone knows the girl does all the work.”
There’s plenty of self-deprecation, especially by Marie. In one bit she talks about her No. 1 fan and then steps in front of an actual fan, making it clear she has not dodged menopause. Then she grabs a bottle of water and chugs it down, turns to the audience and says, “And you thought Mormons couldn’t drink.”
After that she sings an opera number that brings a standing ovation.
For 90 minutes there is no downtime, zero. The show isn’t a marathon, it’s a sprint. By the time they’re finished, Donny and Marie have earned a trip to any all-you-can-eat buffet in town.
• • •
Offstage, Marie is still Marie, still up, still dropping punchlines. “Where does the energy come from?” she says as she slumps in a dressing room chair. “Formaldehyde.”
It’s an hour after the performance and she’s still in the costume she was wearing to end the show, displaying no hint of let’s-get-this-over-with as she sits down for her interview.
“After a show your adrenaline is up,” she says. “I won’t go to bed until 1 or 2.” Then, so you won’t feel too sorry for her, she adds, “But my day starts at 10 instead of 7.”
Out in the Donny & Marie Showroom the long-running Vegas staple, “Legends of Vegas,” has taken the stage, prompting a story about Elvis.
“I know people have their Elvis story, but ours is like legit,” she says. “Every time we came to Vegas there would be flowers higher than this room, always for my mother, and he would talk for hours to her on the phone. The reason he loved her so much is she looked very much like his mother, and also she would talk about the Bible and different things like that.”
It’s entertainment, that’s what it is, that’s what we do. Every generation calls it something else. The older generation called it vaudeville, we used to call it variety. I don’t know what it’s called today, but I just find it so interesting that every age group can walk away enjoying it somehow, wherever it’s played. – Donny Osmond
Asked what she makes of a daughter and son of Olive and George Osmond, two of the straightest arrows in the quiver, having their faces on the side of a 28-story hotel on the Strip and being perennial stars in Las Vegas, she smiles. Just like Donny did a couple hours earlier, she’s heard this question before.
“You mean talk about how we brought sincere to Sin City?” she laughs.
Hard work is Marie’s short answer. “You don’t have a show run in Las Vegas for 10 years without working hard. Donny and I work really hard,” she says. “I’m still here after 55 years in show business. Not a lot of of people can say that, and I would attribute that not to just hard work but to amazing fans. I feel like a lot of people find me relatable, and I try to stay relatable to them.”
During the after-show meet-and-greets — she and Donny mingle with guests after every show except Saturday, when Donny leaves early for Provo — she is continually impressed with how far people have come to see them. “Oh my gosh, they’re from all over the world,” she says, guessing the universal popularity might be due to the fact that the original “Donny & Marie” TV show was dubbed into 17 languages. Even if that was 40 years ago.
Sitting across from Marie is Greg Sperry, a friend of her husband’s and now her business manager. Sperry’s phone buzzes. It’s a text from Donny. He’s already safely home in Provo, he wants everyone to know, to rub it in as much as anything else.
Marie is unmoved at this news. Like in the act, her brother’s taunts just give her the floor for a good rejoinder.
“Men can go out on tour and come back and forth to home,” she says, rolling her eyes. “But Mommy has to be there.”
Which is her way of explaining why she chooses to live not in Utah but in Henderson outside Las Vegas, where she and her husband, Steve Craig, still have a daughter, 15-year-old Abigail, at home.
Marie Osmond, 58 years young, will soon take off her makeup, change into comfortable clothes, drive through the warm desert air to the suburbs, flop in her bed and get up and go to church in the morning.
Next Tuesday she’ll be backstage at the Flamingo to meet her brother for yet another show, as the line that never ends winds through the casino floor.