HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — With a full-blown casino attached to the city's racetrack, Hot Springs is a firmly established gambling town. That kind of town needs some night life. A classic night club is reopening to fill that need.
"The history, we could talk about for a long time," said Tom Wilkins, the manager of The Vapors. "When I describe this place to people, it really is a classic Las Vegas-style show room."
And the club that opened its doors in the summer of 1960 is bringing an infusion of "Rat Pack" cool back to the space at the bottom of Central Ave. and Park Ave.
Spirits are high and in the air as performances return Friday night.
"Are there ghosts? I get asked that question all the time," said Wilkins, when asked about the history of the club. "I've talked to two or three of them and they're kind of in sync with what we're trying to do here."
Wilkins recites story after story of the stars who came through. The wall is adorned with black-and-white headshots as you walk in; everyone from Mickey Rooney to Rosemary Clooney.
Just inside the showroom doors are three old slot machines. Those devices still operate though they don't pay out winners. Wilkins said it was the money from those machines that drew the biggest showbiz names to town.
"I've seen the contracts for Mickey Rooney and you may remember Charo, the 'cuchi cuchi' girl," Wilkins said. "The cast of the Beverly Hillbillies performed here, as did the cast of Bonanza, if you can believe it."
Who are we to doubt a man who speaks to the ghosts of these icons, including Ol' Blue Eyes himself?
"Patty Page was on that stage singing one night and Frank [Sinatra] was in the audience, as were other celebrities," Wilkins said. "And she said, 'Frank, c'mon up and sing a song.' And that was the one time Frank sang a song here."
And Wilkins said another famous crooner found the right tune in Hot Springs for a song about the place where his heart had been left behind.
"Tony Bennett had done a bow, and everyone had left and they had locked the doors. It's just him and his piano player and a bartender," he said. "So he gives his piano player some music and they try it out, and the bartender says 'Mr. Bennett, if you ever record that song, I'll buy the first copy.' Well, the song was 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
Wilkins was hired by Jimmy Miller, who bought the building in 2018. He saw potential in bringing the magic back to the space and that part of the city. He also knew Wilkins' history as a performer and producer in Hot Springs would give it the best chance of success.
The first show will be a Motown Revue, featuring a quartet of regular singers based in Branson, Mo. More acts will follow, with everything from Beatles cover bands to jukebox plays.
And no Vegas showroom is complete without The King.
"Elvis is coming back. I dug up Elvis," Wilkins said. "He lived in Ohio. I don't know if you know that or not."
For now, count on a healthy dose of nostalgia in the acts that play the Vapors Room.
Music aimed at younger audiences could make the stage on occasion. That would go along with the club's history, when it evolved from an illicit gambling hall to disco and even a country western bar. It's a simple formula at this point for Wilkins.
"The feel-good feel is what I'm after," he said.