Voices rise from Vegas' past

Secret recordings bring some of the Strip's performers back to life

— In Las Vegas' heyday, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams and Judy Garland ruled the famed showroom at Caesars Palace. As they belted out the hits, one man quietly recorded every song, every word spoken to the audience for almost three decades.

Now, the recordings that few knew existed could be released on CD, taking listeners back to the famed Circus Maximus.

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AP Photo

Gilbert Cebollero is trying to produce recordings his stepfather made of all the great crooners when they performed at Caesars. He holds a box that contained some of his stepfather's original tapes.

Gilbert Cebollero moves the dirty dishes aside, sets up a tape recorder on a cafe table inside Caesars Palace and inches up the volume. Amid the clatter of dishes and conversation, you can hear Sinatra's unmistakable voice.

For a moment, the Circus Maximus � the showroom that closed last year to make way for high-roller suites � comes to life.

The crowd whistles when Sinatra is introduced and breaks into "Fly Me to the Moon."

Cebollero taps his hand on the recorder in time with the beat.

"I love it. I grew up with this," he says, singing along.

Then Sinatra's voice: "I haven't been this hot since I went to the grand jury in Jersey." The audience laughs and claps as the Chairman of the Board performs.

Another performance has Sinatra getting ready to sing "My Way," written by Paul Anka.

"After seven years, it's a pain in the ass singing it, but I'm grateful for the song," Sinatra tells the audience.

Cebollero beams, knowing he has something special. The lunch crowd glances toward the music, unaware that he is playing history.

"There are really no showcase rooms like this anymore," said Ethan Crimmins, chief operating officer for Neon Tonic Records, the label for the taped recordings. "You can really feel these artists connecting with the audience in Caesars."

Cebollero remembers hanging around backstage when the performers who shaped the city's past played the 1,000-seat Caesars Palace showroom. His stepfather, Dave Rogers, often would bring tapes of the shows home and they would listen to them in the workshop behind the house.

"We'd sit back and crack up," says Cebollero, now 43.

Rogers, who died in 1998 at age 66, was the sound engineer for the showroom, but few knew he was recording every performance, from 1966 until he retired in 1994. The casino didn't know and, most likely, neither did the performers.

A pack rat with seven storage units to hold his sound equipment, Rogers figured the tapes would give him something to remember the showroom by when he left his job, his stepson says.

Eleven years ago, Rogers gave the tapes to Cebollero, a former craps dealer who figured they'd be worth money and be his ticket to fame. He sent out samples to recording companies, but no one responded.

Finally in 1999, the recordings stirred some interest from Hal Gaba, who has worked with the Sinatra family for years. Gaba is chief executive of Act III Communications, a media holding company; TV producer Norman Lear is the company's chairman. Gaba and Lear had been considering launching an Internet jazz radio site and figured the tapes would be perfect for it. They formed Neon Tonic Records to launch the Web site and, they hoped, compact discs featuring the voices from the showroom.

Then came the daunting task of labeling the tapes, something Rogers hadn't done.

Armed with a list of every Caesars show, a Neon Tonic sound engineer listened to hundreds of hours of performances. Often, the only way to date a performance was some reference to a political event, such as Watergate. The tapes, some fragile, some with near-perfect sound quality, are being digitized as the company contacts performers or their estates seeking permission to release the recordings.

"It's an era of Las Vegas that really has been lost in many ways," Crimmins of Neon Tonic says. "If you look at many of the people we hope to put on these compilations, many of them have no viable outlet for their music in the 21st century.

"This is a really great way to bring them back to the public."

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