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Frank Marino, star of “Divas Las Vegas” at Imperial Palace, is good at a lot of things. He’s a world-class female impersonator, an accomplished comedian and a top-notch producer. During his 27 years of performing on the Las Vegas Strip, he’s also become a master of telling it like it is. We put that quality to the test, asking him anything and everything about his popular show (a combination of comedy, celebrity tribute and drag), including how he finds such great talent and the one thing he’ll save if Sin City is ever hit by an earthquake.
Today in Las Vegas: Let’s start with how you’ve managed to pull together such a talented cast of female impersonators. How does all that happen?
Frank Marino: During all these years of performing on The Strip, I’ve met the best of the best. When I came to the Imperial Palace, I brought the cream of the crop with me. I consider “Divas Las Vegas” the all-star show of drag.
In the case of our newest character, Katy Perry, that happened differently. We had 1,000 college students from all over the country that saw the show, and we had them fill out a questionnaire about who they’d like to see impersonated in the show, and 85 percent said Katy Perry. That sentiment was so strong, we started the process of getting a Katy Perry. We held many, many auditions and we took the best one. She was hired differently than anybody else in the show, ever, thanks to the contribution of those students.
TILV: How do performers typically audition?
FM: For years, people sent videotapes. Now, I get a handful of auditions submitted every day online. I’d say out of every thousand auditions, I take one person on.
TILV: What happens when someone new joins the cast?
FM: We do something rather unusual. We all get together to help with things like the hair and costumes. We find people with raw talent, but as a cast, we join together to help them get to the level where they need to be to be in the show. I personally work with the performers so that when they go on, they’re proud of what they’re doing. It’s a true collaboration, which is different from many shows.
TILV: How are you able to bring on more and more performers?
FM: A key component is that we have road shows. In some cases, we’re looking at permanent shows, such as in Atlantic City. That’s how I can keep finding and hiring talent and keep them working. I keep hiring and never firing. We haven’t had to let anyone go since “Divas” started. Either I’m going to go broke, or we’d better keep booking shows.
TILV: What would get a diva fired?
FM: I think the only thing that might get someone fired would be related to being disrespectful. I give everyone the utmost respect. If I didn’t get that in return, that would be the only thing. But I think everyone in the show has such respect for each other, as well as myself, it’s never happened. I have zero problems with the impersonators.
TILV: Do you find there’s inherently more drama among divas?
FM: Surprisingly, no. We use “divas” in reference to the characters portrayed in the show. But remember “We Are the World” back in the 1980s? When they recorded that song, they insisted upon a policy of “Check your egos at the door.” That’s what everybody has to do in our show. Check your ego at the door and save it for the stage.
TILV: How is your show different from other tribute shows?
FM: We’re a drag show first and a tribute show second. A major difference is we give our audience 17 performers a night. Most tribute shows do five or six artists in a show. They do mini-concerts, and we do vignettes featuring more characters.
Another major part of my show that differentiates it is the six male (back-up) dancers. They really do compete with the impersonators for the spotlight. It’s one of the reasons people come back so often, to see the dancers. Three years in a row, we won “Best Male Dancers on the Las Vegas Strip.”
Here’s an exclusive for you. This year, we’re coming out with a Diva Dancer Calendar (for 2013). These guys have such a following of women fans, we’re doing what the male revues in Las Vegas do: we’re coming out with a calendar. So, the ladies can throw away their male stripper and firemen and policemen calendars, because the new Diva Dancer Calendar is here.
TILV: How do we ask this delicately? What’s the orientation of your back-up dancers?
FM: It’s about a 50/50 split. All I say is, ladies, just choose wisely. Otherwise, you’d better have a brother that’s just as pretty as you are.
TILV: Who would you say your show appeals to?
FM: I like looking out at my audience every night, because you’ll see ages ranging from prom kids to senior citizens. That range reminds us we need to keep the show diverse. We’re going to always keep Diana Ross, Cher and Madonna, but we’re also going to have Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, too.
People have a preconceived notion about who enjoys our show. We get tons of repeat customers who are straight men and couples from Middle America. The wife might drag the husband in the first time, but they have such a good time, they don’t have to be dragged in again.
If you really want to go back into history, drag goes all the way back to kabuki and Shakespeare’s plays. Milton Berle and Flip Wilson did it, too. Then there was “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” More recently, there was “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Drag has always been an interesting form of entertainment. We’re just taking it to a superstar level.
TILV: Has “RuPaul’s Drag Race” brought more public awareness about drag?
FM: Yes, I think it’s brought more awareness. Has it been positive awareness? I wouldn’t say totally. I’m a huge fan of RuPaul, but I’m not a fan of the show. I enjoy his music and his character, but to me, the show is a little bit degrading. It’s television, so a lot of the drama is created. They encourage drama on RuPaul’s show and we discourage it.
TILV: What’s your biggest challenge as a performer or producer?
FM: I’d say the biggest challenge is being able to let people know what the show is really about. It’s an exciting evening that’s fast-paced and that’s going to give people everything from comedy and costumes and a lot of great entertainment. I don’t want people thinking I’m selling a lifestyle because it’s drag. It’s just a lot of fun. Once I get people in the first time, they always come back, because then they understand what the show is about.
That’s why I open the show as Joan Rivers. When I do my opening monologue, I try to let people know right there, look, we’re laughing at ourselves and you’re in for an enjoyable evening. There’s going to be some off-color humor and we’re going to show you some great superstars. And I try to keep the ticket prices low, too, so you don’t have to get a second mortgage just to go out for an evening.
TILV: We saved this one for last. Say you’re in your dressing room, and an earthquake hits, what’s the one item you’d save?
FM: The one thing I would take would be my electric razor. That way, I could continue working. There’s nothing worse than a woman with hair on her back.
Catch Frank Marino and “Divas Las Vegas” at the Imperial Palace, and see more of this irreverent, fascinating entertainer at his official website, FrankMarino.com.