Tom Ingram gives a lot of thanks to the business partner who fucked him over. Flush from running a successful rockabilly festival in England called Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Weekender, Ingram moved to Southern California in 1996. Almost as soon as the young Ingram arrived in the States, he says, his partner had royally screwed him.
"I had been here two months, and he . . . completely ripped me off—left me here with no money, no income, nothing," says Ingram.
But instead of taking the partner to court, the Leigh Park, England, native decided to put the funds and energy that would have gone to a lawsuit into building the best rockabilly weekender he could. "The guy in England started going 'round saying, 'Who does Tom think he is, doing a show in Vegas? Nobody will go,'" Ingram recalls.
Nineteen years later, Ingram's Viva Las Vegas continues to be the world's largest rockabilly gathering, with enthusiasts from 20 countries coming each year to take in the music, cars, fashion and culture of the 1950s. Women doll up in 1950s prom dresses and men strap on their finest dapper suits and bow ties for an unsurpassed day of rock & roll and classic cars and a wild night of tiki drinks, burlesque and dancing.
The Los Alamitos resident initially chose Southern California for his festival, but because of restrictive licensing laws, he picked Las Vegas, not only for its liberal event-planning laws, but also the nostalgic glamour of old Sin City. Viva Las Vegas (or Viva, for short) revives the idealized glitz and glam of the days of Sinatra and Elvis—pre-polyester and rhinestones, of course. It's off-Strip, and that holds a great appeal. "Put something on the Strip, and the locals won't come," Ingram says wisely.
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The event typically begins the Thursday before Easter weekend, though this year, it will be three weekends after. "Easter weekend was historically the slowest weekend in Vegas," he says. More businessman than holy roller, Ingram says he has no problem holding the event on Easter weekend. "We took their slowest weekend and turned it into their busiest."
Taking modest opportunities and turning them into large ones doesn't start at Viva Las Vegas for Ingram. As a teenager in 1976, he moved to London, where he fought to make a name for himself as a DJ and an actor. He began hosting 1950s nights as DJ Tom Ingram at such clubs as the Phoenix, Silks and the Camden Workers Social Club, turning otherwise slow promotions into sold-out destination club nights. The retro DJ sets drew the likes of Morrissey, John Peel, Robert Smith and—if you want to get even more British—the cast of EastEnders. Robert Plant's daughter was a big fan, and yes, she brought her father a few times.
As the rockabilly clubs subsided, and Ingram got married, he decided to move permanently to Southern California. He had only been once before—in 1991 for Wrestlemania in Los Angeles—but even then, he felt as if he could live here. Five years later, he and his then-wife moved to Long Beach. He's since divorced and moved to Los Alamitos so his two youngest children, 10- and 15-year-old daughters, could grow up in a good school district.
He has also studied Tae Kwon Do for the past 10 years and is currently a triple black belt. "I'd go for a fourth, but I've messed up my arm," he says. Just like Elvis, no?