LAS VEGAS, Nev. - David Copperfield — the slickly sensational illusionist who is widely considered the most successful magician of all time — is best known for such grand stunts as making the Statue of Liberty disappear and levitating over the Grand Canyon, but he's an experienced escape artist too.
The 56-year-old has wriggled from a steel box barrelling over Niagara Falls, from an imminently exploding building and from detention in one of Alcatraz's grim cell blocks (outfitted though it was with a curiously powerful smoke machine).
But once upon a time, he was stymied not by the act of getting out, but getting in. Specifically, he couldn't figure out how to break into the lucrative Las Vegas scene.
Sure, it was a much smaller circuit of hotels and casinos entertaining a much smaller pool of tourists. And Copperfield was "very young" at the time, though he'd already headlined several nationally televised specials.
Still, he was determined to land on the Strip.
"I couldn't break into Vegas," he recalled in a recent interview. "I was already on network TV but for some reason I couldn't get in — I mean, Tom Jones didn't want me as an opening act. I just couldn't break in."
Eventually, Copperfield found a way — Bill Cosby caught his show and offered him a co-headlining spot. And now, he's one of the premiere attractions on a Las Vegas strip dotted with more stars than a planetarium.
But fittingly for a city where slot machines keep scoring and drinks keep pouring on a round-the-clock basis, there's no rest even for Vegas veterans.
Celine Dion is the reigning queen of the Strip and the similarly Canuck-bred country superstar Shania Twain will begin her first residency at Caesars Palace on Saturday. Surely, the seasoned, widely adored Twain is set to become the next major Vegas attraction.
But if Las Vegas is the town where every regular person is one jackpot away from feeling like a big shot, it's also a cutthroat cultural capital that can make an entertainer's ego vanish faster than a wad of bills bulging through a tourist's back pocket.
"I used to just dread coming to Vegas," said flame-haired comedian Carrot Top, who now has a standing headlining engagement at the Luxor.
"I was like, 'Aw (hell), I got a week in Vegas.' We would always just say, 'Well, we'll get through this week and get back on the road and it'll be good. Just try to have fun.' It took a few years."
So, why does Sin City inspire such anxiety in its performers?
For one thing, many Vegas tourists make entertainment choices on a whim, so they're sometimes less engaged and less passionate about the act they're going to see.
"It's not the same kind of commitment of the audience (that you get elsewhere)," said Copperfield, who performs multiple shows per week at the sprawling MGM Grand.
"(On tour), people will have bought tickets three weeks before ... and they'll think about you and they'll think about the show and they'll look at your TV specials, and then they'll come to the show really excited to see just you. You're the coolest thing in town at that moment. They'll react accordingly. It'll be like a rock concert.
"Here in Las Vegas, the decisions are made a day before or the day of.... You really have to be on the top of your game, because you're not going to be able to coast on the fact that they love you so much you can do anything."
In fact, Vegas is a rare destination where even marquee stars have to swallow the humbling fact that many audience members simply don't know who they are.
"You do have a lot of people that may never have a clue what you do," Carrot Top said. "I've had people literally ... say, 'I hear you're on television.' So someone sold the show to these people who are walking around like, 'Where are we going to go?' 'Wanna see Carrot Top? He's on TV.' 'Well, OK.'"
So instead of basking in the glow of an adoring crowd waiting in anticipation to see a favourite song, comedy bit or magic trick, most Vegas entertainers find themselves devising strategies to win over every crowd at every performance.
"You've got a lot of out-of-town, out-of-country tourists — just don't expect them to know what you do. That's why I like my banter," said "Mandy" crooner Barry Manilow, a Vegas mainstay.
"I kind of tell them who I am until I get to the songs that they know. And by the end, of course, we're all good friends.... But I had to go slow to get to the point where they felt comfortable with me because I know that most people of those people out there did not know what they were seeing. They didn't know what I did."
And yet, opening a dialogue with your audience also brings a unique set of challenges in Las Vegas.
The city draws an array of tourists so diverse in terms of age, language and nationality that certain aspects of certain shows — particularly word-heavy stand-up acts — are sure to be lost in translation.
"Even our show last night, our crowd wasn't great," Carrot Top said. "But when I went into the audience to meet and see who's out there ... there was a row of kids who were literally 21 years old, and right next to them someone who was 70, and someone on a breathing machine, and someone with a seeing eye dog.
"It's an eclectic group of people who come to shows in Vegas."
In other words, there's a steep learning curve specific to Vegas.
Now, even some of the most seasoned Strip veterans cringe as they recall their first experiences there — on-stage shellackings that happened in Vegas and, if they can at all help it, will stay in Vegas.
"It was a nightmare," recalled ventriloquist, impressionist and singer Terry Fator of his Vegas debut.
Fator is the winner of season two of "America's Got Talent" and he now headlines a popular show at the Mirage. The first time he was booked to play Vegas — at the Excalibur roughly 15 to 20 years ago — he was performing in a country band. He and his bandmates assumed it was their big break.
"We were so excited," he remembered. "We thought we'd really made it.... We get there, we set up. It turns out we're playing at the steakhouse, and we're background music for the steakhouse.
"We're the kind of band where I'd go out and stand on tables.... I was this really big showman. It was about a three-week gig. Management comes over and says, 'Um, excuse me, but you're not supposed to be seen.... You're basically background music.'
"It was the worst three weeks of my life."
Even once a performer has "made" it — usually, by landing a coveted regular gig at one of the Strip's imposing mega-hotel-casinos — few ever overcome the persistent pressure that comes with competing with hundreds of other big-name performers for the leisure dollars of the town's tourist pool.
"There is a feeling of that," Carrot Top said. "Especially if you're really out and about that day, and you're driving down the Strip, and you see all the billboards — yeah, it's overwhelming. There's a lot — a lot — of choices....
"Vegas is a tougher crowd. They see fire exploding at Cirque (du Soleil) shows and people doing flips and cars burning. And I'm like, 'Hey look, here's a cowboy boot with a kickstand!' It's like, 'what?'
"Every night I bless the crowd," he added. "I say, 'Thank you so much, you have so many choices in town. You can go see Celine Dion, you can go see Elton John. And if you can't get into Elton John, well, here you are. Thanks for coming.'"
The margin for error, thus, is slim. Most performers can't afford an off night.
"No matter if I'm sick or I'm tired, I gotta remember: that's the one time they're going to see me and they'll remember if it's a good show, hopefully for a long time," said comic magician Nathan Burton, a regular performer at Planet Hollywood.
"(Shows) open and close all the time. They come and go. Only the strong survive in Vegas, to be honest."
It all sounds pretty daunting, but there's good news for Nevada newbies like Twain — beyond the fact that "Shania: Still the One" is destined to be a ticket hotter than her series of midriff-baring tops that set the '90s ablaze.
Performers who succeed in Las Vegas can largely bid farewell to the demoralizing rigours of the road. They can give their families a measure of stability rare in the entertainment world. They can become a one-person tourist destination.
Like everything else in this dizzying playground of opulence, facade and sizzle, attempting to achieve Strip staying power is a gamble with an alluringly substantial payoff.
"I'm living my dream now — I'm home, I'm walking my dog, I have a show tonight," Fator said.
"I'll go do my show and go home and sleep in my own bed. It's the greatest life."
With files from Canadian Press reporter Andrea Baillie in Toronto.