She started dancing on Las Vegas stages at age 11. And she still does, even if it means recording an album in bed to give a knee time to heal.
Liza Minnelli is a Las Vegas legacy, her shows set for today and Saturday at the Las Vegas Hilton marking 46 years since her Sahara debut in late 1965. But her mother, Judy Garland, pulled her onstage and introduced her to a Flamingo audience in 1957.
"I danced. To 'Swanee,' " Minnelli says by phone during a rehearsal break. "I'd get up and dance, that's what I did. From about 7 to, I guess 12, she got me up onstage. I always danced, because that was my first love."
Minnelli's main love soon became musical theater. Las Vegas might never have seen much of her if her Broadway debut, "Flora the Red Menace," had run more than 87 performances. Seems the critics loved it more than the public.
Minnelli, the youngest winner of a leading actress Tony Award at 19, was about to become one of the youngest showroom headliners in Las Vegas.
"Somebody said, 'You have to do a nightclub act.' And I said, 'What do you mean? Huh?'... I was too young for that. I was underage. I couldn't even walk through the casino."
But it turned out some agents already had booked her at the Sahara without even making sure it was what she wanted to do. "I said, 'Oh, we gotta put something together.' "
Fortunately, she had the help of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the songwriting team who created "Flora" before going on to bigger successes with "Cabaret" and "Chicago."
She remembers Ebb saying, "All right, we'll do a nightclub act."
"It was so lucky that he did it, because he wrote 'Liza with a Z' and kind of gave me my identity."
Minnelli's career was thereafter tied to the duo. Her concerts are synonymous with what she calls "acting songs," and a few of those tunes Kander and Ebb wrote for Broadway (the "Cabaret" title song) or movies (the theme from "New York, New York") became standards.
"It's nice to look at the songs that my heritage has left. Those songs are my songs. It's just great!"
The Hilton shows will have a six-piece band, smaller than Minnelli fans have seen her with before. It's the tone of "Confessions," the dialed-down, whispery piano jazz album of two years ago, which will get some attention in this weekend's shows.
"I just had my knee operated on, and I didn't have anything to do, so I just had to lie in bed for six weeks," she explains. "So I said, 'Let's do something. Let's figure out some things we want to do.' "
She and longtime pianist Billy Stritch began recording standards in the spirit of sing-around-the-piano sessions that have drawn everyone from Tony Bennett to Janet Jackson to her home. (Last month, Stritch and Jim Caruso hosted the like-minded "Cast Party" for the local entertainment community at Alexis Park.)
"We were just recording things that we liked. And then (Decca Records) heard it, and they liked it so much they wanted to put it out. ... But I sang that whole album from my bed!" she says with a laugh.
She's been up and running since then, including attending a film festival in Vladivostok, Russia ("which is beyond Siberia!"), to support her friend Rock Brynner.
"I've been traveling and doing all kinds of things that have nothing to do with show business but have to do with my life," she says. At 65, she paces her performance schedule, and the big things go hand in hand with "catching up with friends and straightening my house up, walking my dogs, all that good stuff."
It doesn't bother her that the Las Vegas of today no longer much resembles the Vegas she grew up with. "Well you have to tap into your curiosity," she says, of "how it's changed and how the people who are going now in 20 years will remember it and say, 'Wow, what's happened to it?' "
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.