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July 30, 2014

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Life in the Limelight: Wayne Newton

A Life in the Limelight

Legendary Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton talks the past 50 years as "Mr. Las Vegas."

Wayne Newton

Wayne Newton performs the opening number during the grand opening night of Wayne Newton's Launch slideshow »

Wayne Newton answers readers’ questions

Wayne Newton answered questions submitted by Las Vegas Sun readers. Read the Q&A here.

Readers' Memories of Wayne Newton

Las Vegas Sun readers submitted their favorite memories of Mr. Las Vegas. Read them here. If you'd like to submit your own memory, click here.

Wayne Newton is going to tell a story, and it's not about his playing poker with Sinatra, recording with Bobby Darin or counseling Elvis about his divorce.

It's about the day he realized Vegas was home.

It speaks volumes about Newton, 50 years a Vegas showman and now headlining through April in what might be his final residency in Las Vegas, the autobiographical "Once Before I Go" at the Tropicana.

Sixty-seven-year-old Carson Wayne Newton is sitting tall and taut in a straight-backed chair after a performance at Tiffany Theatre, for 49 years the home of "Folies Bergère." He's wearing a favorite post-show, black velvet lounge coat and gulping occasionally from a plastic bottle of strawberry Gatorade.

Wayne Newton Interview

Wayne Newton pt.  2 :  Beginnings

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  • Wayne Newton pt.  2 :  Beginnings
  • Wayne Newton pt.  3 :  Jerry Newton
  • Wayne Newton pt.  4 :  Bobby Darin
  • Wayne Newton pt. 1 : New Show & Critics

He's nostalgic, and reaches back to 1968. Newton had been asked to perform in the annual Royal Command Performance in London — and the British journalists had no idea who he was.

And when Newton walked the streets of London, nobody approached him for an autograph, a photo, anything. The 26-year-old vocalist who had hits with "Danke Schoen" and "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" and had appeared on every U.S. network TV variety show that mattered was an unknown in London.

Vintage Newton

Wayne Newton as an infant. Baby, this guy is hot! Launch slideshow »

"After about the third day, I wished someone would come up and say hello to me," he said.

This was before he became "Mr. Las Vegas," but it was the moment he realized how much he missed home. He has always needed Vegas, the city he has come to embody for its slick-yet-sincere personality. It seems today, as he embarks on what is likely the victory lap of his uniquely storied career, Mr. Las Vegas needs his adopted hometown more than ever.

•••

I met Newton in 1999, a few months after I had written an extensive article detailing a rift between him and his friend Tony Orlando.

Newton was announcing his then-mind-blowing $25 million, 10-year contract at the Stardust and I was offered a sit-down session with the headliner.

As I approached with an outstretched hand, Mr. Las Vegas — who is an imposing, barrel-chested figure at 6-foot-3 — yanked me hard into the opposite chair. Then he laughed, and actually thanked me for all the work I put into the story about his battle with Orlando, a gracious gesture to a young reporter.

In the time since, we've developed a most confounding friendship. We've talked about how he often finds solace in troubling times by walking out to his barn at "The Ranch," Casa de Shenandoah, to spend silent moments with his Arabian horses. And I've seen instances few others know about, of his quietly giving time for charitable causes. After Thursday night's show, for example, he flew to Phoenix — at his own expense — to visit wounded and ill veterans and to speak at the Veterans Medical Leadership Council fundraising lunch the next day. He was back in time for his Friday night show. He requested no news coverage of the event.

The moment he and I shifted into a higher gear, metaphorically and for real, was on New Year's Eve 1999. What transpired early that night led to what remains, by a long shot, my favorite line I've written in my life: "Wayne, it should be noted, is a bad driver."

It is not a criticism. Wayne Newton is a bad driver in the same way that he might be a bad astronaut. He never drives, is the reason. Or he drives so rarely that entire resorts might be built in the time between his self-navigated trips up the Strip.

But that night he did drive his gleaming black Rolls-Royce in a careening misadventure that took us on a zigzagging trek out of the Stardust parking lot, the wrong way southbound on Industrial Road (where we nearly clipped the median), eventually up the Strip, where we cut off a limousine driver who shouted at us, "Hey brother, I'm trying to get in!" When I rolled down the window to reveal the breakneck driver was indeed Mr. Las Vegas, the driver said, "Well I'll be (expletive). You go ahead, Mr. Newton."

This episode bloomed weeks later, when I took my mother to see Newton's show at the Stardust. He introduced me from the audience, displaying the sort of personal touch that will warm a fan's heart for a lifetime, then turned to the band and said, "You remember John! He's the guy who said I'm a bad driver!" then recited much of the New Year's Eve story. Mom was flushed, speechless. Afterward, Newton had a bottle of champagne sent over to our table. After the show, backstage, there was a toast and about an hourlong conversation.

When the Wayniacs descend on Newton, some of them repeatedly buying the "meet-and-greet" packages and having the same posed photo taken night after night, I get that. I get Wayne Newton.

•••

I believe Newton long ago lost the sense of simply living a normal existence, having performed in front of audiences since he was 4 years old and as a Vegas headliner since age 16. Newton has earned the title Mr. Las Vegas partly because of his undeniable longevity — his career has spanned the Rat Pack, Elvis, Liberace, Siegfried & Roy, Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, and a host of since-imploded hotels.

He's played it big the whole way, performing at every major Las Vegas resort and working for years for one of his idols, unseen yet ubiquitous Desert Inn resident Howard Hughes. He's been buddies with every significant entertainer who has graced Vegas stages over the past 50 years. When he says "Frank," there is no need to ask for a surname. "Sam" is always Sammy Davis Jr.

Newton's covers, posters and marquees

Wayne Newton on the Desert Inn marquee. Launch slideshow »

Newton brims with stories. A favorite of mine is how he charged out to confront Johnny Carson in Burbank, Calif. — flying past his secretary and into Carson's NBC office — to finally snuff out the talk-show king's penchant for questioning Newton's masculinity in his "Tonight Show" monologues. If Carson didn't put a stop to it, now, Newton told him, "I'll knock you on your ass."

Carson ditched the jokes.

Wayne Newton pt. 3 : Jerry Newton

Legendary Las Vegas entertainer, Wayne Newton, talks about his relationship with his brother Jerry Newton. Part 3 of 4.

Newton has had many well-chronicled ups and downs, including a still-strained relationship with his older brother, Jerry, that dates to the late '60s (Newton says Jerry's lack of motivation and artistic aptitude led to his leaving the stage, and Newton's life).

Newton weathered a bankruptcy in 1992 and a back-and-forth with the IRS in 2005, during which Newton's savvy attorney wife, Kathleen (who handles most of the Newton empire's business management), found that it was Newton who was owed money. He's at odds with the Musicians Union of Las Vegas Local 369 for using nonunion players in his 20-piece orchestra, and any union musician who plays for him faces a fine.

Also, for someone who as recently as two years ago faced a serious heart and lung infection, Newton's performance schedule seems an exercise in punishment for a performer even half his age. I ask him if he undertakes his unwieldy touring schedule primarily so he can pay the bills.

"Always, there are financial concerns, interests and obligations," he says. "But what is it out of life that you want? Do you want to exist? Or do you want to play? If you want to play, then that comes with a price. I'm not an exister."

Newton volunteers that he does want to simplify his life. He says he plans to cut back on the number of Arabian horses he owns and keeps at his Casa de Shenandoah home at the busy intersection of Pecos and Sunset roads in Henderson.

And he's looking forward to spending more time with his 7-year-old daughter, Lauren.

•••

Bill Boyd signed Newton to that contract at the Stardust in 1999, but remembers little about the financial terms. "I know it was lucrative," the retired Boyd Gaming chairman says. "In 1999 we thought we had a real prize, somebody well-known here and around the world, playing for 40 weeks, six shows per week."

Click to enlarge photo

Wayne Newton performs during the grand opening night of Wayne Newton's "Once Before I Go" at the Tropicana in Las Vegas Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009.

But Newton left the contract early, in 2005. There were whispers of "soft" attendance numbers — Wayniacs had seen the same performance multiple times, and new fans were hard to come by.

But Boyd says not so, that the deal ended as the company "made up our mind that we were going to implode (the Stardust) and build Echelon." A five-year buyout clause in the original contract was exercised.

Newton turned to his role as chairman of the USO's Celebrity Circle and made repeated trips to Kuwait and Iraq to perform for the troops, tours he continues to organize today.

"The great thing about Wayne is, he's elected to the Gaming Hall of Fame, back in 2000," Boyd says. "He's had that type of impact on our industry in Las Vegas. He's one of the few entertainers who actually held a gaming license, at the Aladdin. (Newton briefly held an interest in the casino in the early 1980s.) He's a major player here and he had a great run with us."

Though it is hard to quantify, Boyd is one who agrees that Newton has probably filled more seats in Vegas showrooms than any other entertainer.

Click to enlarge photo

Wayne Newton performs as a photo of him as a young man flashes on the screen during the opening night performance Wednesday of "Once Before I Go" at the Tropicana. The show traces Netwon's career and has him singing duets with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, who appear on video screens.

Longtime Las Vegas publicist Frank Lieberman, who's seen every major act on and off the Strip since arriving in 1966, says nobody else can lay claim to the title of Mr. Las Vegas. "He has certainly served his time here. He has managed to survive the times, and he's still performing. That's the difference between him and a lot of others you might consider Mr. Las Vegas. The others are all gone."

•••

Wayne Newton pt. 1 : New Show & Critics

Legendary Las Vegas entertainer, Wayne Newton, talks about his new show, and responds to the critics. Part 1 of 4.

If you want to jack up Wayne Newton's heart rate, ask him about his reviews this decade in Las Vegas. The critics, some unmercifully, say his voice is struggling. Over the past decade, he's said his vocals are often affected by illness (especially in late 2007, when the infection in his heart and lungs wiped out the holiday dates at Harrah's). "I'm singing the way I want to," he says.

When I ask him whether his voice meets his own characteristically lofty standards, he says, "There is no one I know, from Frank Sinatra to Dean to Sam, who has spent 50 years in anything, and sounds the way they did when they were 14 and 15. It would be physically impossible ... Now, if that's what you're looking for, pal, go watch Disney. Leave me alone. OK? …

"I can tell you that these same people, when I was 15, said that I couldn't sing. So you will never please them, nor do I try. My own standards? On any given night — there are nights that you feel better. There are nights that you are vocally better. There are nights that you are not as vocally good. No question about it. But does that mean that the overall project is not entertaining or interesting enough that that would be enough of a reason to cancel it?"

•••

Wayne Newton pt. 4 : Bobby Darin

Legendary Las Vegas entertainer, Wayne Newton, talks about his relationship with Bobby Darin. Part 4 of 4.

Two names always resurface in our talks of the past: his mentor Bobby Darin and legendary comedian Jack Benny. Newton always uses Bobby Darin's full name; he always refers to Benny as "Mr. Benny."

Darin gave away "Danke Schoen" to the young man with the high and sweet voice. Capitol Records wanted the song as Darin's follow-up to "Mack the Knife," but Darin threatened to never record for the company again if it didn't put Newton behind the mic. It was a career-making decision.

"All of our early hits, ‘Danke Schoen' and ‘Red Roses,' were produced by Bobby Darin," Newton says. "If you asked me what I would be doing if it were not for Bobby Darin, I haven't the slightest idea."

Both Darin and Benny helped the young Newton graduate from the lounges, or "the small rooms," to use the vernacular of the day. Benny saw Newton perform during a tour of Australia in 1963, and after the show offered to bring the young crooner into the showroom, "the main room," as his opening act at Harrah's Lake Tahoe.

Newton had ascended from the lounges forever.

"In those days, there was no way to get from the lounges into the main room," Newton says. "Very few did it. Keely (Smith) and Louie (Prima) did. Don Rickles did. Shecky Greene, but very few others. And I don't even talk about Mr. Benny in the show, at least not yet."

He does bring in the song, "The Letter," which was inspired by a cathartic and poignant note written by Elvis Presley just for his own eyes but later presented to Newton. "Help me lord" is the wrenching term from the note.

Click to enlarge photo

Wayne Newton performs a simulated USO performance during the grand opening night of Wayne Newton's "Once Before I Go" at the Tropicana in Las Vegas Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009.

"Elvis and I were very good friends. We were such good friends that, on the day that he passed, I was the first one his father called, to let me know what had happened," Newton says. He and Presley shared more than Vegas stardom. Both were poor Southern boys (Newton was born in Roanoke, Va., and moved to Phoenix at age 10). Both were Southern Baptists who struck a vein of gold in Las Vegas.

Newton with presidents, troops

Wayne Newton with President Nixon. Launch slideshow »

Newton says Presley was deeply distraught over losing custody of his daughter, Lisa Marie, after Presley's divorce from Priscilla. One night, just four months before Presley's death in August 1977, the two talked so long that Newton missed his late show at the Sands. Recalling the moment this week, Newton says he shared with Elvis that he, too, was having marital problems, which helped Elvis open up.

"He just needed somebody to talk to, not the people he surrounded himself with," Newton says.

•••

"Once Before I Go" opens with Mr. Las Vegas striding onstage through a door decorated with a big star. His chest expands from inside his tux.

Newton is all-in, as always, with this song. It's not his, though. It's a slice of Vegas lore copped from his friend Elvis — "Viva Las Vegas," the soaring ode to reckless gambling, blazing neon and a thousand pretty women.

It's a wild-and-wooly affair, this song. Newton is willing his way through the number and baby it's something to behold, a genuine Vegas spectacle of flashing lights and pulsating volume. He's working the tune over in the same muscular manner that you'd subdue an assailant, slapping it in a vocal hammerlock. This song is going nowhere until Wayne Newton is finished.

The horns blare, accelerating to the song's full-throated crescendo. The voice, having logged more than 35,000 Vegas shows over 50 years by its owner's estimation, is asked one more time for the big finish.

"Vivaaaaa!" Newton calls out, looking to the Tiffany Theatre ceiling, and perhaps the great beyond. "Vivaaaaa!" Can he make it? You ask yourself, and you feel something rare in a Vegas stage show but common in a sporting event. You're rooting. You're pulling for the hometown guy, who's not what he was when he entered the ring but who is still in there, punching away, giving as good as he gets.

"OH Viiiiiva …!" Get there. "Las VEGAAAAAS!" He hits it, once more, before he goes …

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