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Once Before I Go

After 50 years of music, Wayne Newton offers the Strip a final farewell

A Exclusive:
The Complete Interview!

by Melissa Fine

As the lights in the Tropicana’s Tiffany Theater dim, a wide-eyed teenage boy wanders onto the stage, suitcase in hand, fresh off the bus. He is greeted by a gruff booking agent who thrusts a tuxedo at the dazed kid: “You’ll be playing six shows a night, six nights a week.” The boy hauls his guitar, suitcase and new tux to the back of the stage and through a dressing room door. The door no sooner closes than it opens again, and out comes Wayne Newton, clad in his designer tux. The audience leaps to its feet. Mr. Las Vegas has taken the stage.
Entitled Once Before I Go, the show opened on the Vegas Strip in October. It is a 90-minute celebration of one performer’s remarkable career.
It seems impossible, but Wayne Newton has been wowing the crowds for an incredible 50 years now. This production is an intimate look back at the many highlights—and, yes, even some of the tough spots—of Newton’s amazing life in the spotlight. With humor and humility, he shares some of the memorable moments that have earned him an exalted place in American entertainment.
But it is more than that. With stories of Sinatra; video clips with Dean and Sammy; a song for Elvis performed not by a fan, but by a friend… Once Before I Go is the history of Las Vegas, told by the last eyewitness to all her glory. And, as the title suggests, it is quite likely the final contracted show Wayne Newton will perform.
A few months before the show opened, just as the announcement for the engagement was making the media rounds, I had the opportunity to sit with Mr. Newton, in the comfort of his world-famous “Red Room” at his home, Casa de Shenandoah. It is in this room that he lovingly displays the many gifts he has been given over the years, the items he has collected, awards he has been presented. Every available surface in the room hosts a knick-knack or photo, and with each of them, a treasured memory.
It was in this warm surrounding that we spoke about his career, his new show, and his decision to say farewell.

Wayne Newton: With everything that’s happened [this year], with Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcet… Five people that I knew very well [have passed away]. You start to evaluate your own mortality. So I decided to do this limited edition show. This will be the only time that anyone will be able to see this show, when we do it here at the Tropicana. I’m looking forward to it with a great deal of anticipation. And I’m also thinking, depending on how I feel as we go along, that I’d like it to be my last contract.

Melissa Fine: I knew you were going to say that. Once Before I Go… But it won’t necessarily be your last time performing, right? Just your last contracted show?

WN: Well, I don’t want to say it’ll be my last time performing, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. I think that I am mentally in such a place that I want to spend more time with my family and my daughter. I would be hard-pressed to say that it is going to be my last one, but, in all candor, it could be.

MF: That’s monumental. This show is going to be quite a gift to your fans, then.

WN: Well, I wanted to do something that would be the only time that they would get to see this side of Wayne Newton. And it’s not meant to be maudlin. It’s not meant to be sad… It’s truly meant to be a happy occasion, and that’s the way I’m writing it.

MF: You are the only entertainer who has seen the complete story of Vegas. You were here with Howard Hughes and Elvis and Sinatra, through what was considered to be the “Glory Days” of Vegas and into the so-called “Family Friendly” Vegas…

[At this, Newton laughs heartily.]

MF: And now it seems like the pendulum is swinging back again, and they are trying to make Vegas into a very young, sexy hotspot, where “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Personally, I’ve always disliked the notion that you can act horribly, cheat on your spouse, whatever, and it’s okay as long as it happened in Vegas…

WN: I think what happened with that particular slogan, interestingly enough, is that somehow, when the city fathers—whomever you want to lump into that group that doesn’t exist—whomever the “power people” were then (and probably still are), that decided to make it a quote-unquote “family friendly” Las Vegas—The one thing they never counted on is that people didn’t want to step over strollers to get to a slot machine. But they had dived into this massive campaign. Well, Vegas has always been friendly to families. That’s what was funny about it.

MF: I always thought Circus Circus fulfilled that need.

WN: Exactly! And the water parks, and Lake Mead, and Mt. Charleston, and on and on and on. I think then, to try and get out of that, when they realized that maybe it had been somewhat of a mistake—then it became the other extreme. You know, Vegas wasn’t broke, so don’t fix it. And I still feel that way. I feel that it’s morphing and growing. The interesting thing is, from my retrospect and what I see for the future, I don’t believe Vegas has even touched what it’s capable of. Because the one thing that Vegas has never been, contrary to popular belief, is hypocritical. We were what we were. People came here, and if they wanted to gamble, it’s here. If they want to go to the strip tease clubs, it’s here. If they wanted to go up to Pahrump for any of the things that that may have to offer… We weren’t apologizing to anybody for what we were. And I think now they are starting to realize that we shouldn’t be apologizing now, because Vegas is unlike any city in the United States, with the possible exception of this: Any city in the United States has what we have here. It’s illegal. But, if you want to go to strip clubs, if you want to find a lady of the evening, you don’t have to come to Vegas to do that. The difference is, here, we don’t apologize for it. There’s a kind of pride in it. I believe, as corny as it might sound, that Vegas was settled by people that would have crossed the desert in a covered wagon.

MF: We definitely have the pioneering spirit here.

WN: I was a character witness for some of the people who were going for their gaming license in years past. And I went for my own gaming license in the late ’80s. You really saw it in them. All those people had backgrounds in bingo betting and bookies—things that, in the ’90s and the 2000s, if you had those things in your background, you couldn’t get licensed. And yet, it was that knowledge that made our town and our state what it is. It was illegal where they were from, and then they came here and all of a sudden, it was legal. And the Bill Harrah’s of the world, Charlie Mapes, etc.—all the old-timers of the town were able to build this into what it is. Like Claudine William’s background, and she’s my adopted mother, God rest her soul, her background was not unlike Frank Fertitta’s, who also just passed. They learned it in a time and place that it was illegal, and they came here and all of a sudden prospered because they had the knowledge to bring here. They didn’t learn it here. My perspective, I feel, is probably different than anybody else that there is because I was so young that I was able to know and call friends of mine people like Howard Hughes—and of course, I don’t have to tell you what Kirk Kerkorian has meant to this town, and he is a dear, dear friend of mine. And yet, 50 years, for me, I don’t see that opportunity ever availing itself again for anybody. It’s the corporations… It’s the fact that lounges are not what they were… Main showrooms today are not necessarily what the idea of a main showroom originally was. The main showroom originally was to get people into the place, not charge four and five hundred dollars a ticket.

MF: People miss Old Vegas. They miss getting quality entertainment for prices they can afford. I don’t know what connections Cirque du Soleil has here, but they own the Strip!

WN: I don’t mean to be unkind or judgmental about Cirque, but it’s cyclic. Just like when Siegfried and Roy broke out of the Stardust show, and they built a show around them. Then we became inundated with magic acts, up and down the Strip, most of whom we never heard of. Then, when Danny [Gans] broke out of the Rio, then the place becomes inundated with impressionists. Then, along comes the Cirque shows, and now we’ve got seven Cirque shows. And so, what’s it coming back to? Star policy. It has to. There’s no other place for it to go.

MF: It was amazing to see what Caesars Palace was doing with their entertainment line-up, with respect to bringing back the real headliner like Elton John, Cher, and Bette Midler. And now Wynn is following suit by getting Garth Brooks to come out of retirement to perform at Encore.

WN: And you remember that there was a time that this town—for those people—was considered personna non grata. They would say, “We’ll never play Vegas. We’ll never get into that.”

MF: But that doesn’t make sense, because I can remember as a little girl that Cher did play Vegas.

WN: Yes, but that was Sonny and Cher, when they were an act. You know, I find it humorous: I think people feel the need to compare Donny and Marie, by saying that they are this decade’s Sonny and Cher. But what they don’t know is that Sonny and Cher were that decade’s version of Louis and Keely.
You know, Bill Harrah, God rest his soul, had his car collection—and he had cars that were 90 to 100 years old—and when he would take people through to see the collection, he had a theme: “Nothing new under the sun.” There’s a lot of truth in that, because everything we have on cars today, basically, they had then. They weren’t as sophisticated or computerized, but somebody had thought of it then. And in entertainment, I think it’s the same way.
If we suffer anything in the entertainment business, it’s the lack of places for young talents to hone their skill.

MF: But you’re involved in providing places for new artists, too, aren’t you?

WN: I am involved in that. I can tell you I will continue to be involved in that. I think it’s really important. Of course, I go back to the days of six shows a night, six nights a week at the Fremont, and I graduated directly from that into two shows a night, seven nights a week when we moved to the main showrooms. I think my record was that I did 35 weeks without a day off. Now, you say to some of the young acts coming on today that you have to do one show a week and they balk.
The other thing that I find really interesting is that it takes a certain discipline and mentality. When you come up that way, you don’t find those performers messed up in drugs. Maybe they drink a little bit too much here or there, but that’s about it, because that’s all you have time for: work, sleep, and work.

MF: I did want to ask you how you managed to avoid falling into drugs.

WN: No time! I never had time for it.

MF: Some would argue that Elvis didn’t, either.

WN: Elvis fell into something not unlike Howard Hughes, where he surrounded himself with such a small group of people that it became impenetrable. It was tough for people to penetrate that outer circle. So, whatever that circle was doing, so was Elvis. I think for me, because I was chronologically younger than all of them, I had the true benefit of seeing what it was that was not a good thing for me to be a part of, too. Elvis was a dear friend. Four months before he died, I spent three hours in his dressing room one night, because he was concerned about me—that I was working so hard. We talked about everything from daughters to girlfriends to wives to working. Elvis was a very, very caring human being. But I think he got to about age 18, and for whatever reason, he never really grew beyond that. But he was a sweet guy. Even with the ultimate drug problem that would rear its head and cause his demise much too soon, he was never a mean-spirited guy.

[Here, Wayne pauses and thinks quietly for a moment. I see a parade of memories—some, clearly, bittersweet—dancing in his eyes. And then…]

You know, Michael was never mean-spirited, either.

[The jump in generations throws me. Michael…?]

Michael Jackson.

MF: So, you knew Michael Jackson as well?

WN: Oh, very well. I’ve known Michael since the whole family appeared here at what is now Bally’s, but it used to be the MGM. We go way back. On my first daughter’s twelfth birthday, I flew with her to Kansas City where the Jacksons were doing their tour, and he and his brothers took pictures with her. It was just a sweet family.
I think if bad things happen to you—and if you live long enough, they will—whether it’s self-imposed or it comes from somewhere else, it doesn’t matter. It’s how you handle it.      You know, after the trial, Michael was never the same. He was just totally devastated by that.

MF: To be honest, I never really formed an opinion about that.

WN: You mean whether he was guilty or not?

MF: Yeah… Well, I’ll be honest. At the time, I have to admit I thought the worst.

WN: I think, for me—because I love Michael, and I loved his brothers—I don’t believe he was guilty of what they accused him of. I do believe that his hanging out with young children was strange for a man his age. However, I believe that was the age at which he was the most comfortable.

MF: I saw a great documentary called Living With Michael Jackson, and that really changed my mind about him. After hearing him talk and seeing how he related to his own children—with that mystique sort of torn away—it really made me realize that I didn’t know him at all and I didn’t have the right to judge him.

WN: It’s interesting, though: There are things you can be accused of in life—I was accused of being a front for the mafia! That is hilarious, when you look at the fact that I’m half Native American and half Irish and German! The mafia was, by and large, Italian! There are things you can be accused of—child molestation, the mafia—that, no matter how long you live, and no matter how many times it has been proven that it’s not true, for those who want to denigrate you or find something wrong with you or for those who aren’t a fan of yours as a human being, all that kind of crap does is give them the ammunition. People who don’t want to believe it are not going to. And I had a long to with Michael about that. He said, “But I’ll never live it down.” I said, “It isn’t whether you live it down or not, it’s you who has got to carry it around.”

MF: I think his fans were ultimately on his side.

WN: Sure! They had made their decision.

MF: They were completely ready to embrace him.

WN: Absolutely. But, he was unable to let go of it.

MF: Well, I can’t think of a more heinous thing to be accused of.

WN: These are things that, no matter how many times a jury says, “Not guilty,” people will [still look and talk] if they want to find something. So, I think the world was pretty unkind to him that way. And, I think that most of the true facts of that trial truly never came out.

MF: The difference, I think, is that, during the whole mafia scandal, you really went after Johnny Carson for his Tonight Show jokes, and you went after the network. You stood up loud and clear and said, “Not only no, but hell no!” and, “Back off!” Michael never seemed to muster the ability to do that. And that makes people think a certain way. I can tell you, if somebody accused me of something so horrible, I would be screeching from every rooftop!

WN: But, again, I think he had some people around him who were not giving him sound advice. Now, ultimately, the buck stops here. For me, I think I had just been a fighter my whole life. Fighting was not something that was new to me, because I had been accused of everything from homosexuality to… well… you name it! Whatever group wanted to have fun with me that day, they did. Well, I only let that go to a point, and then I confront them about it. I tell them, “Hey, it’s going to stop, or we’re going to have problems.” And, I guess I was tall enough and big enough that they didn’t want to take me on!

MF: Well, some of that, at least, must come from your upbringing. You always said that you thought your Native American heritage was the best part of you.

WN: True…

MF: Can you tell me about that? What did it give to you? What has it given, and what does it continue to give?

WN: What was funny about my Native American heritage is that I had a connection with it before I knew that I was half Indian. I knew my mother was half Indian, because she would readily talk about it. My father never admitted his Indian heritage until he was almost 70 years old.
He would say to me, “Why are you getting involved with all of this stuff with the Indians?” I had been doing that since high school. So, it wasn’t really because I was Indian; I had always just felt this kinship to Native Americans.
Finally, when my dad admitted that his father was full-blooded Indian—and then gave me a picture of my Grandfather in full Indian headdress—there was no one more shocked that me!
I found out later in life why my father fought so vehemently against that side of himself. You have to remember that he was born and raised in Virginia, which is a Southern state. His sister had left her husband and married the Chief of the Potawatomi Indians, outside of Richmond, Virginia. It was such a scandal for him in his own mind. He didn’t want to admit his Indian heritage, because he was truly prejudice. He was born and raised that way.
Prejudice is taught. That’s for openers. None of us are born that way. We get taught that.
So, in high school, I used to go around and collect canned food at Christmas and take it out to the Indian mission. My dad was so against it, and I never knew why. There were a lot of questions answered when he finally did admit it, and then there was a kind of pride that came with it, too. It was something he had not admitted his whole life—even, maybe, to himself.
So, my dad was half Indian and half Irish, and my mother was half Indian and half German. And the part of me that I really identified with—without even really knowing why—was the Native American side.
When we would go out to this Catholic mission—the St. John’s Indian Mission and School, in Laveen, Arizona (which, unfortunately has been closed in just that last ten years or so)—my brother and I would do concerts for the kids. And the thing that struck me was the dignity with which these kids carried themselves. There wasn’t one smart aleck in the group. There wasn’t one troublemaker in the group. And, in the early years, the Native Americans believed that, if a woman had twins, that they could not be of the same father. So, a great many of these kids were part of a twin. And there were kids who had just been left because they couldn’t be cared for. But they were the nicest group. And these were my contemporaries. They were the same age as I was. Over the three or four years that I lived in Phoenix, I must have done ten to twelve shows. It was the whole culture… I think I assimilated it without even knowing it, because I don’t like smart alecks, and I don’t like troublemakers. I never have.
But I also realized very young that if I didn’t stand up for me, there would be no one who would.

MF: I just don’t know how you can live your entire life under the scrutiny of the spotlights.

WN: I’ve reflected on it many times, when I see the problems that some of our young performers have today and where that leads them. There were two things that I experienced that I think, in retrospect, had a major impact on my life. One of them was that I had worked my whole life. There was nothing handed to me. My dad was an auto mechanic and my mother was a housewife. He had to work two jobs to put two boys through school.
But, the most important thing was this: I developed a discipline about what I did that I still have to this day. My first thought, when I would think of going out with the guys drinking or going out and partying, was that I knew I had to get up and go to work the next day. I mean, I was supporting my parents when I was twelve years old.
I think there are people out there that some of the younger talents can learn from. We’ve mentioned Frank, Dean, Elvis, Bobby Darin, and the list just goes on and on and on—and the one thing that most of them seemed to be missing was the discipline. ‘Cause, without the discipline, none of it works.

Discipline, Wayne Newton certainly has. But there is something else—something equally important and sadly, equally rare—that he possesses. It is so evident every time he takes the stage: The man has passion. Passion for the music, passion for the audience, passion for the industry that raised him and for the city that adopted him so many years ago.
Perhaps Las Vegas is experiencing a full-circle moment. No question, the Strip showrooms are now hosting the most exciting celebrity names since its early days. But it is difficult to imagine Las Vegas without Mr. Las Vegas, giving 110% of his energy and his passion to the crowds that faithfully fill any theater he books. Once Before I Go truly is a celebration, but it is also an opportunity—perhaps the last—to see a legend, a powerhouse performer who is as much a part of Las Vegas as any slot machine, any casino mogul, or any sparkling sign. And without doubt, on the night of his last performance, the lights of the Strip will forever dim.
When I asked Wayne what was the one thing he wanted readers of Casino Player to know about Once Before I Go, he had this to say, and I believe it sums up this entertainer—this gentle man—far better than anything I could write:
“I believe that change is necessary. Anything that lives either grows or diminishes. It never stays the same. That’s not possible. The thing I would like your readers to know is that, if there is one thing that draws from the past, and is aware of the future, it is the way we do our show. It is so important to me that people are entertained. I don’t want them to hear my religious beliefs. I don’t want them to hear my political beliefs. I want them to walk into there and, for that two hours, take them away from what the world is handing everybody right now.”

For show times and tickets, call the Tropicana Box Office at 702.739.2411/800.829.9034 or go online at

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