It was 1980, Elvis was dead — and suddenly the biggest entertainer in Las Vegas was Wayne Newton. This was a surprise to those who remembered him as a chubby kid singer with some minor ’60s hits, so former Washington Post feature writer Henry Allen trekked out to capture his energetically epic performances: “He grins, he winks, he glides, he spins, working harder than a man changing a tire in the rain.”
Now 74, Newton is back in the news — he is expected to attend Wednesday night’s presidential debate as a guest of his longtime friend Donald Trump — but he’s no stranger to Republican circles. (In 1983, he was at the center of a national controversy when the Reagan administration booted the Beach Boys from the annual Fourth of July concert on the Mall — such “rock bands,” it was said, had attracted “the wrong element” — and replaced them with Newton. Who of course got roundly booed and mocked. But in 1980, he was on fire in Sin City. You’ll want to read this story.
By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1980
You are aware and totally-with-it, i.e. hipzilla, but you pronounce “Wayne Newton” as if you’re afraid of it: “Wayne Newton,” the same voice you used the first time somebody told you what sashimi was in a Japanese restaurant — i.e. raw fish?
Pronounce it with the finality of, say, “Disneyland,” or “South Dakota,” Wayne Newton being, after all, the highest-paid nightclub entertainer in the history of civilization as we know it, which is to say Las Vegas.
C’mon: Bigger than Elvis? Bigger than Sinatra? Wayne Newton.
That fat kid who sang “Danke Schoen” in a soprano a million years ago (i.e. 1964)? That 37-year-old guy up on stage with a belt buckle the size of a steering wheel and the last surviving Don Ameche pencil mustache in America?
Wayne Newton: He makes $10 million (a very conservative estimate) per year after year with no hit records, movies, TV series.
Okay, Kenny Rogers might’ve made more last year, but, Kenny Rogers makes hit records, and he tours.
“Wayne Newton never goes anyplace!” exclaims Shelley Schultz, who heads International Creative Management’s personal-appearances division in New York.
Wayne Newton stays home on 52 acres outside Las Vegas with his black swans, Arabian stallions and Carpathian elm ceilings and lets America do the touring, at $1.09 for no-lead to drive straight through from Terre Haute and stand in line at 7 a.m. for tickets. NEVER AN EMPTY SEAT!
Maybe (just maybe) Carson or Sinatra are the prestige draw when they’re in Vegas. But could they do 36 weeks a year? If they could, would they?
Says Washington’s top pop impresario, Jack Boyle: “From live appearances, there isn’t any other musician who’s grossed as much in the last five years.”
Okay. So now you’ll give him some respect, right? Ladies and gentlemen, America’s top M.O.R. (middle-of-the-road) attraction: Mr. Wayne Newton.
But why?Ex-sheriff Aubrey Tatro, all the way from Alfalfa County, Okla., he knows why he’s waiting here in the Copa Room at The Sands hotel, $25 a head for him and the Mrs. to sit in straight-back chairs and drink Champagne out of a bottle leaning in a plastic bucket.
“He’s got a good voice,” says the ex-sheriff, as if he just thought of it. “Would I believe he’s bigger than Sinatra? Hell, yes, I believe that.”
“When he started out, he was this little old fat boy with a high voice. Now he’s an all-round good guy,” say Mrs. Tatro, nestled under the baroque perfection of a hairdo you can see all over the room, as if there’s a Las Vegas beauty parlor that specializes in Wayne Newton fans.
They’re jammed into a proximity close enough to induce a frenzy of tail biting in a herd of pigs, but questions about why they’d put up with the cost and the crowding excite merely a wonder of charity. Wayne Newton, it seems, is the boy next door, and he works so hard, they keep saying.
And he gets the right tools for the job, songs that are regular Stillson wrenches of sentiment (“Don’t Worry ’bout Me,” “Three Times a Lady”), opening up every last pipe of audience enthusiasm. Work! It’s the work ethic turned into the work aesthetic.
And now, as the crowd sighs like Christmas morning . ..
The Midnight Idol strides past his 36-piece orchestra with his 6-foot-3, 175-pound vee-bod frame cased in white cowboy suit, white chiffon scarf, and a mammoth silver-and-turquoise belt buckle. He bites into “I Can See Clearly Now” in his bronchial Brenda Lee tenor, eye-contact spraying around the room. He grins, he winks, he glides, he spins, working harder than a man changing a tire in the rain.
He slams into his second number. Other performers make it look easy, but Wayne Newton wants to sweat, straining at the long holds in “Staying Alive” from “Saturday Night Fever.”
“Is this crowd as good as I think it’s gonna be?”
Two numbers into the show and already he’s milking the crowd for applause? He gets away with it: a hearty cheer.
“I’m gonna give you one more chance!”
A bigger cheer. But not big enough.
“You keep that up and we’ll be here for 20 minutes.”
Hey, just joking. Because to go to Alfalfa County and tell the folks that Wayne Newton gave you a mere one-hour show, much less 20 minutes — well, you’d be ashamed, is all.
“Hell, we’ll go two hours!”
Huge cheer roars, grateful eyes gleam.
It’s started — the patented Wayne Newton push-me-pull-you routine, praising and scolding the crowd toward frenzy, meanwhile disarming any possible resistance to Wayne Newton. He has memorized, it seems, an endless list of reasons people might have to dislike him, this being the legacy of fat, unhappy children everywhere.
A woman shouts: “Come home with me!”
“Right now,” Wayne replies, “there’s some guys in this room saying ‘Hell, who’s that Indian [he claims to be a quarter Powhatan, and a quarter Cherokee] with that big belt buckle? Fig Newton? Olivia Newton?’.”
“I may warm those ladies up,” he says, “But you get to take ’em back home.”
And the berserker bit: “We weren’t planning on doing that song, but that’s the way the night is going!”
All this, only two songs into the show.
Not that he doesn’t have great moves: The figure eight with the mic cord; the little-boy smile where he tucks his lip behind his overbite; and the way he crosses his wrists above his head and yanks them down to his lap to wind up a number in a paralysis of humility.
Scolding: “Don’t react, just move your eyes.”
Praising: “I gotta tell you, you are really terrific.”
If you think you got bad seats, he does a bit to assuage you. If you don’t like him because he’s so rich, he does a bit about climbing into his little old Ford Pinto, and then the little-boy smile when the audience scoffs. It’s the prevent defense executed by Tom Sawyer.
And the songs are mortal locks, each one a standing-ovation finale number: “Daddy Don’t You Walk so Fast,” “Leroy Brown,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “MacArthur Park,” until Mrs. Tatro is pounding the table with her little fist, and the ex-sheriff says, “Gawwwwdamm, woman!”
In the den inside his neo-antebellum-Spanish-colonial-plastic-terrazo-Greek-revival mansion named Casa Shenandoah (Wayne was born in Norfolk), Wayne Newton says no: “Nobody else knew that I was there, inside that chubby body.”
But when he was 10, he was already performing on radio in Roanoke, till his bronchial asthma got so bad the family moved to Phoenix, where he got a spot on local TV, meanwhile being president of his high school class, plus being “a rebel,” he says, which is hard to imagine, but you know that if the opportunity was there, he worked it.
When he was 16: “My older brother Jerry and I drove to Las Vegas in a ’49 Studebaker to do two weeks in a lounge at the Fremont Hotel.”
Moon-faced, with that eager-to-please-smile, Wayne sang his strange soprano while Jerry accompanied on guitar. They worked for 51 weeks.
“We played six shows a day. We had people throw things at us, we had people die in the audience — literally.”
In 1963, they headed east, ultimately playing the Copacabana in New York.
Bobby Darin, the Mr. Please-Love-Me of a previous generation, befriended Newton and got him his shot at recording “Danke Schoen.”
A big hit. But the years rolled on, and he was still singing soprano and playing the choirboy. In 1969, he started pulling the voice down. In 1971, his brother retired to Tennessee.
“Everything had been falling apart. My brother would say something, some double entendre, and I’d act amazed. I always acted younger than I was. It was a defense mechanism. How long can you carry that off? Even Shirley Temple grew up. And I couldn’t keep the voice up that high any more.”
The question is: Why did he bother?
For one thing, he was scared of what had been hiding inside all those years: huge and terrible powers.
For instance: “My temper. I took up karate because of my temper. I took it up not to protect myself, but from fear of hurting someone else. People who work with me know that I’m the best friend they’ll ever have, and their worst enemy.”
Wouldn’t you like to be able to believe that about yourself? Wouldn’t everybody?
And how the former fat asthmatic kid loves to tell the tales of putting hecklers in their place. Power!
“People talk about a certain arrogance I have on stage,” he says, not unhappily. “But if a performer went out and was subservient, they’d kill him. I cut my teeth on hecklers. I had people throw things, I had people die.
“Four years ago, I played New Year’s Eve at the Frontier Hotel. This is an invitation-only show, a big prestige crowd. They’d all been drinking, and they were stoned out of their minds. I walked out on the stage, and they didn’t even know I was there. I stopped. Just stopped. For two minutes. Until they shut up. Then I said: ‘I put up with it for six years in the lounges, but now, you don’t need me, and I don’t need you.’”
Indeed: He owns Howard Hughes’s old Duesenburg, a brace of Rolls Royces (whose Carpathian elm dashes match the den’s ceilings, as it happens), 150 Arabian horses, and a five-seat Bell helicopter. He’s married to a former Pan Am stewardess, a Japanese-Hawaiian woman named Elaine. They have a 2-year-old daughter named Erin. He has white swans and black swans, wallabies and deer running loose on his property. He wears an eight-carat emerald-cut diamond ring.
And he was the one thing that the boy next door, the regular guy, the fat asthmatic kid only has in his most maudlin fantasies: power. Power, of course, is what he’s dealing right back to his audiences.
Here in the Copa Room, with the cigarette smoke thickening over the cocktails, 40 percent of which appear to be pink, it takes a while to make the alchemy work.
Scold: “You might as well live it up — it’s going to cost you the same whether you do or not.”
Praise: “We don’t get a crowd like you every night! Whoopee!”
Mortal lock: “MacArthur Park” with a French horn solo, a background soprano, and Wayne Newton holding his hand in the spotlight to shadow his own face while strobes flash lightning, and thunder rumbles from the wings.
Praise: “You’re incredible.”
Scold: “Thank you, all two of you.”
Mortal lock: “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers,” followed by “Baby Face,” “Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee,” “The Orange Blossom Special” and “The Saints Go Marching In” featuring Wayne Newton playing guitar, doing a Chuck Berry hop across the stage, then imitating Jimmy Durante, then going berserk on banjo, pretending the microphone is a piccolo, playing bluegrass fiddle while pounding foot on floor, then grabbing a trumpet to bring them to their feet.
Then he begs to play more. “I know you people with kidney problems are going to kill me, but may I? One more?”
Begging! Wayne Newton! He’s done it — whipped the audience into good enough shape that he can hand over the power, and they attack, shelling him with applause.
“You realize that your friends who saw other shows have been home for an hour and 35 minutes now?”
The crowd has no mercy, they won’t let him off.
“You know there’s a lot of unhappy pit bosses out there in the casino, because you people aren’t out there gambling! They don’t want me to keep singing! They want you out there! And I say . . . I say the hell with them!”
Pit bosses! Las Vegas pit bosses look like butter-fed cobras in silk suits, the ball-bearing-eyed epitome of every foreman, cop, school principal and first sergeant who’s ever screwed you over — and the hell with them! Power! Whoopee!
“We’ve worked for a lot of people, but nobody has ever been more beautiful than you. May I . . . may I do one more?”
And just in case anybody thought he was pandering to them, working them, hustling, he sings the national anthem of all us enlisted men and fat asthmatic kids and regular guys, the most impossible dream of them all: “Did It My Way.”
The crowd rushes the stage, holding up hands to be shaken. Wayne Newton is surprised and honored at every one.
It’s 2:45 in the morning.
Ex-sheriff Tatro just sits there, thinking it over.
“You’ll never see a better one, baby,” he says.
Outside the Sands a taxi driver says: “Wayne Newton getting out?”
The passenger says yes. The cabbie looks at his watch.
“Huh,” he says. “Didn’t go very long tonight.”
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