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Video Vault | The Summer the Music Died

Reported by: Tom Hawley
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Updated: 6/25/2014 9:21 pm

LAS VEGAS (KSNV — Twenty-five years ago, there was a seismic shift in the way large showroom acts were presented in Las Vegas. That's when Musicians Union Local 369 suffered a crippling blow.

As a young man just out of college, Dave Hawley* taught music in public schools  first in New Mexico, then Colorado. Then in 1966, he moved to Las Vegas.

"It looked like heaven," smiles Hawley.

Every hotel had a band in the showroom and another in the lounge. It was a city where a quality professional musician could raise a family, with full union benefits.

"By the time in the '70s and '80s, everybody was getting scale," says Hawley. "But it was a good living."

But in the early 80s, Hawley's job went underground — literally. He was playing at the old MGM Grand (now Bally's), where the band was in a basement three floors below the dancers.

"When we became invisible, that sealed the end."

And in summer 1989, when contract negotiations came up, the musicians took their argument to the street.

"The proposal that the hotels offered the musicians really was an insult," said picketer LaRue Boenig at the time. "And I think that it's more of an insult that they thought the musicians would accept it."

By then, Hawley was at the Tropicana, which initially indicated it merely wanted to cut the size of the band.

"We're not taking an anti-union position," Tropicana Spokesman Ira David Sternberg told reporters. "We've never intended to use the tape as a replacement for musicians."

The thought was that the Tropicana was merely going to reduce the size of the ensemble.

"I was calculating, 'Am I gonna be able to survive the shrinking?" remembers Hawley. "And I figured I would."

Rodney Dangerfield and other stars were initially behind the strikers, refusing to cross the line.

"I think that's really sending out a heavy message to people that are musicians like Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, whoever," said percussionist Dean Appleman early in the strike. "That everyone in show biz is supporting music."

But that support didn't always last.

"Rodney Dangerfield and Connie Francis," a News 3 reporter prompted later on in the strike, when those performers had gone back to work.

"They're of a lesser quality," said striking French Horn player Lynn Huntzinger. "They're showing that to us by crossing our picket line."

Several of the hotels started running taped music behind the productions, outraging the picketers.

"We're in Las Vegas, Nevada," fumed one striking musician. "We are supposed to be on a plane of New York, Los Angeles and the best type of entertainment in the world."

The hotels were taking a gamble on the taste of consumers.

"Certainly if the public does not accept that, we'll have to go back to live musicians," Bally's Grand President Bob Ostrovsky told News 3. "And we'll closely watch that."

However, the public did seem to accept it.

"Well, from our point of view, it bankrupted the union and it didn't get any result," observes Hawley. "We lost."

Dave Hawley went back to teaching school and retired a decade ago. But like many who lost their full-time union job, he has continued playing. These days Hawley is a member of the Las Vegas Philharmonic and founder of the Las Vegas Wind Quintet.

And live music has made a bit of a comeback. Nothing like the heyday of the '60s, but the Cirque du Soleil shows and Broadway-style productions all have prominently featured live musical ensembles.

* Father of News 3 reporter Tom Hawley



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