Las Vegas icon Wayne Newton returns to the stage with a new, intimate show
Wayne Newton is synonymous with Las Vegas. From his earliest beginnings as a teen star in this town, he has seen it all. After a hiatus of a couple years to spend with his family while also working to open up his historical Casa de Shenandoah for public viewing, Newton is returning the stage for a small intimate show inside the Windows Showroom at Bally’s entitled Up Close & Personal. Newton sat down with Casino Player to discuss texture of performance, the great talents he has interacted with over his long career and the changing face of Las Vegas
Casino Player: Your new show integrates your world of “Vintage Vegas” and the great stories you’ve experienced in your life.
Wayne Newton: Actually it truly is. It’s funny because we were getting a lot of requests to go back to work which is always a nice thing to happen. Bally’s started calling up and working with our people. They said “We want him to do that special show that he does” where he talks about Vintage Vegas, shows a couple clips that he has and, if he feels like doing any music, he can do that too…[plus] talk to the crowd, and take some questions. I thought that would be a fun thing to do. I had been doing the other show so long and enjoying doing that too. But this seemed like a fun change-about. And, whenever I feel like it, I can go back to the other show.
You do have many wonderful stories Wayne…
It is interesting because there are so many stories I haven’t told. It is usually because I haven’t been asked certain questions. People, for example, will talk to me about Elvis. He and I were very good friends. And they say, “Did he do the things we read about?” And I’m like “Don’t believe all that stuff”. He really was one of the nicest guys that ever took a breath of air. [People] say, “Tell the funniest story you have about Elvis!” It’s absolutely true. I came off stage one night at the Frontier Hotel. I was appearing there. [Elvis was performing] at the then Hilton hotel. I come off stage and he is sitting in my dressing room. I’m like “What are you doing?” He said, “I got off a little early and figured I’d come over and bug you a little bit!” So we had a drink or two. And I looked at the jewelry he was wearing. He was wearing a Star Of David. And I said, “Elvis…” (laughing) “What’s with the Star Of David? You and I both know you’re a Baptist. You were raised a Baptist. I was raised a Baptist. What are you doing wearing a Star Of David?” And he looked at me, without a grin almost, and he said, “I just didn’t want to take any chances with anything trivial” (laughing) He didn’t want to take chances. (laughing)
What is really great is that story you really see the humanity of the man.
And he was one of those [people] who had that kind of sense of humor and was the last guy in the world to take himself seriously. When people would go crazy and all that kind of stuff, if we were walking through a casino or out of a showroom or whatever, he would just look at me and say something like “Jeez, if they only knew the real [us]…” (laughing)
Speaking of comedy, can you talk about comedian Jack Benny because he was integral for your success…
He certainly was. I was his opening act for five years. There wasn’t a sweeter human being that ever walked the face of the earth. In fact, one of my favorite stories… people that knew him, knew that his wife [Mary Livingstone] kind of ruled the roost in many ways. Not on stage, but certainly back stage. I came to see him at the Tropicana when it was his last engagement here as it turned out. And Pearl Bailey was going to be his opening act. But she had a heart murmur problem that night and, about six o’clock, I get a call from Mr. Benny and he says, “Wayne, Pearl’s not going to be able to go on tonight—would you come and fill in?” Well, I was appearing at The Sands at the time for Mr. [Howard] Hughes. I said “Let me make a call but the answer is ‘yes’, I’ll be there.” So I called my boss, Mr. Walter Kane [Hughes’ Entertainment Director], and I told him, “Mr. Kane, this is something I have to do because the man means too much to me. And if I get fired over this, so be it. I understand that. And you can let Mr. Hughes know that I understand that. But I got to do this!” And [Mr. Kane] said “Well, Wayne, you go do what you got to do. And I’ll reach the boss and we’ll go from there.”
So I get over to the Tropicana and go to the dressing room and Mr. Benny is sitting there with just his show pants on, his tuxedo pants. There were two or three showgirls [there too] and two or three guys from the band. We walk in talking about the show. I, of course, hadn’t opened for Mr. Benny in maybe four or five years. He says [to me], “Wayne, you just do whatever we did then, and we’ll get through it”. I said, “OK.” Mrs. Benny [Mary] walks over and says, “ Jack, how many times have I told you not to sit around here with you tux pants on!” And he says, “Oh, I’m sorry dear.” And, in front of the girls, in front of everybody, he takes off his pants (chuckling) and hangs them on a hanger, and continues to talk without missing a line. It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen.
You really get a sense of community and belonging inherent in these stories, both among the musicians and the performers.
I think that it was certainly a better part of all our existence when you think about it. One of the things that always interested me was that people thought there was this great “battle” between performers; that everybody was trying to outdo everybody else. It was exactly the opposite. We loved it when Elvis was in town, when Bobby [Darin] was in town… Liberace… Dean, Frank and Sammy… because the town was packed. And, because of that, we all did well. So it was exactly the opposite of the kind of thing I think people expected of performers. Unfortunately, because of the amount of production shows today [in Las Vegas] as opposed to a “star policy” if you will, I don’t think there is that kind of camaraderie any more amongst the performers.
Well…to sit on a stage and engage an audience like that requires a certain presence as well as a sense of confidence. Did you find that immediately or did it take time for you to develop?
I kind of started to find that when I came out here at age 15. If you remember, in those years, in order to even come into a lounge, you needed to be 21 years old. I was very much under age…s o I had to have a special permit that said I could work here. They went and got that permit. I was just not allowed to be in the place that I was working in, which I’ve never figured out. (laughing) It’s always been funny to me. That said, the people that came into that lounge [at the Fremont Hotel in 1959] were right in that transition musically between country, pop music, Broadway stuff and then [because] Elvis had hit, rock n’ roll. You had to be able to do a little bit of all those kinds of music in order to keep and maintain the audience that you were building.
CP: There had been a kind of fusion of sorts in your performances at that time. This variety also likely created opportunities for you to expand your horizons, like your experience with Lucille Ball.
Lucille Ball has to have been one of the sweetest people in the world. And to show you the kind of person she was, I was performing at The Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. She came to the show, she liked the show, and she asked me to do her television show. I, of course, was thrilled to be asked and I loved her to death. We did the show [The Lucy Show]; it was the one with the cows and the chickens where I played a country boy and sang [“You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You”] to the animals.
The show was such a hit that CBS called her and asked if she would produce a show around me and that character. She called me for a meeting with my management. I was thrilled beyond words and said “Of course, I’ll do that.” She flew the CBS affiliates out and they liked what they saw. They said “Go ahead” and Desilu will produce the show. I said “It’s a deal!” Maybe two or three weeks pass, and I get a call from Lucy. She said, “Wayne, I’m coming out to Vegas tonight with my husband. Can we have a quick meeting with you?” I said, “Sure.” So I finish my show at The Flamingo and drove over to the old Sands and to her suite. She and her husband [Gary Morton] were there. She said, “Wayne, I haven’t been able to sleep well since we last talked, and I am going to tell you why. I love you as a human being, I love you as a performer, and this show is going to be a big hit. It is going to mean a lot of money for you, and a lot of money for Desilu. But I have to be totally candid with you. [And you need] to help me out with this. I will say one person’s name to you, and you tell me what your reaction is when I say that name.” I said, “OK.” “Jim Nabors.” And I said, “Gomer Pyle.” And she said, “That’s my problem. I know you can do this character and it will be a big hit. But that is going to be “you” for the rest of your life. If you are not ready to do that, and you want to do other things, with your career, your music and all that, then turn this show down.” which I did. It was the best information and advice that I think I’ve ever gotten.
Loyalty and trust is an important asset among performers but finding your connection with your audience is also paramount. Is that what drew you to return back to the stage with your new show Up Close & Personal?
I took a couple years off because I wanted to get [Casa de] Shenandoah opened up for public viewing and that has been happily, thank God, successful. It was funny because I said to my wife that I wanted to spend extra time with my family and [finish] all the work of getting the ranch ready. She looked at me and said, “It doesn’t look like you are feeling very good today.” I said, “I feel fine, but I do miss being on stage and being able to interact with people.” [Now] sure, there are people coming to the Shenandoah, and I interact with some of them there. But being on stage every night with people expecting you in the same place, at the same time, there’s something magic about that.