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December 18, 2014

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At 25,000 shows and counting, Frank Marino’s career is lesson in fabulous

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Christopher DeVargas

After taking a break to undergo plastic surgery, Las Vegas headliner Frank Marino prepares himself for his return to the stage Jan 20, 2014, at the Quad.

Kats With the Dish

Frank Marino, Greg London

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Frank Marino of “Divas Las Vegas” at Imperial Palace talks of his long history on the Strip, first at the Riviera, where he hosted “An Evening at La Cage” for 25 years. He talks of the latest version of that show and his latest men-in-drag show at IP. Also, Las Vegas Hilton Shimmer Cabaret comic/impressionist/vocalist Greg London talks of how he made it to Las Vegas from London by way of Reno.

Frank Marino keeps beating back the effects of aging. He had a face-lift just after turning 50 last November, a procedure that tightened the skin on his face and during which he had implants screwed into his jaws.

Six weeks later, he looked terrific — even better with his lavishly applied stage makeup.

But as his physical appearance belies the passing of time, there is no ignoring Marino’s long history as a Strip entertainer. He is certainly not one to dismiss his 25,000 performances as the front man/woman of “An Evening At La Cage” at the Riviera and, more recently, “Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas” at the Quad.

Marino opened in “La Cage” at the Riv in 1985, and over the years has performed six and seven nights a week, and in one lengthy stretch, played three shows a night. Marino’s run is second in Las Vegas to the total notched by the 35,000 performances of Wayne Newton, who split his time downtown in the Fremont’s Carnival Lounge and a series of hotels on and off the Strip, including the Flamingo, Frontier, Las Vegas Hilton, Sands and Stardust.

Marino officially celebrates his 25K milestone tonight. This moment drops in line with several other marks of time for Marino: He’ll be at the Quad for five years in October. In September of 2015, if his contract is renewed by the end of this year, he’ll have performed for 30 consecutive years on the Strip. No performer in the city’s history has logged more consecutive dates on that famous stretch of real estate than Marino, who has turned his impression of Joan Rivers into a cross-dressing institution.

Never one to embrace complacency, Marino has developed a satellite production show that has sold out Harrah’s in Reno and Laughlin. He’s engaged, too, to his longtime partner and SPI Entertainment Vice President Alex Schechter, who dropped to a knee for the proposal during a “Divas” performance last July. No date has yet been announced by the couple.

Frank Marino's 'Divas Las Vegas'

Frank Marino poses with a phone in his dressing room before his 1,000th performance of Launch slideshow »

The song that played that night was “From This Moment On,” by Shania Twain, who, in a fitting development, visited Marino’s show Wednesday night, meeting the “Divas” cast member who portrays her in the show, Andrew Ryan. Thursday, Twain mentioned Marino and the show from the stage. Friday, the Quad Showroom was slammed.

Over the past several weeks, Marino has talked of his career and what might be next for him in Vegas and elsewhere. Some revelations from those chats:

Joan Rivers’ suing him was a boon to his career:

Rivers took after Marino in 1986, filing a civil suit claiming Marino was lifting material from her stage act. This started after Marino appeared on a Milton Berle network-TV special: “Milton Berle Enjoys An Evening at La Cage.”

“This was when Rivers was just leaving ‘The Tonight Show’ and everyone loved Johnny Carson and was mad at her about that. Then, she sues a little drag queen impressionist for $5 million, and when that happened I was all over the tabloids — National Enquirer, all of them — and had my 15 minutes of fame. When that happened the show went wild and we started doing three shows a night, seven nights a week.” The two eventually settled out of court, with Marino joking, “I tried to pay her the full $5 million, but was $80 short.”

He wants to be a TV star and also to be waxed:

“There are more things I want to do, and one is, instead of being a guest on everybody else’s reality show, I want to do my own reality show,” says Marino, who was once on “Millionaire Matchmaker” and has been involved in several in-development shows in Las Vegas. “I would like to use that vehicle to get a wax figure at Madame Tussauds at the Venetian. After being here for 30 years, trying every angle, every connection, every PR agent and celebrity I know, it’s not going to happen. I really need to be on TV to make that happen.”

He is a self-proclaimed “publicity whore”:

“You can quote me on that!” Marino says. “When Joan Rivers sued me, I learned that publicity, like plastic surgery, is addictive,” he says. “I saw that when I got my face on the cover of the National Enquirer and People magazine, it changed my world. It put an average Strip show on the map. I realized, oh my goodness, PR sells the tickets! If they see you and like you, they will pay to see you. Then I got the bug.”

That “bug” led to even more nationwide exposure:

“In the 1990s, I found, it was very easy to get on a talk show,” Marino says. “I would just call Phil Donahue and say, ‘I’m a drag queen doing a show in Las Vegas!’ Bang! On the show! Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael, not to mention Joan Rivers herself, all had me on. I made up with Joan, on TV, after the lawsuit.”

He did learn something from a fellow drag-queen icon, the late Kenny Kerr:

“We had our ups and downs, so the fact that he’s gone now, I’d be a hypocrite to act like we were best friends,” Marino says of Kerr, who died in April 2013 at age 60. “As far as my relationship with him, I can answer that by saying I learned what not to do by watching him. I’m not saying that to be mean. I’m grateful, because I saw somebody making a lot of mistakes so I wouldn’t have to make them. ... When he passed, he passed broke. To lose that kind of money, especially in the ’80s, it takes a lot of work.”

He was adopted, but found his birth mother when he was an adult starring on the Strip:

“I was adopted at birth and lost my parents when I was 6 and 9, and then lived with my godparents,” Marino says. “One night, when I was signing autographs after a show, I met a couple who were in town as part of a convention for people who do adoption searches. I told them I was adopted, and within three days they found my birth mother, who you know now, and that’s Mary. I was reunited when I was 28 years old.”

Mary has since moved to Las Vegas and is frequently in the audience at Marino’s show. She has been diagnosed with cancer, and as Marino says, “We are dealing with that and fighting that together. … But she is doing very well, and that is the good part of the story. And you can always tell in a room full of a thousand people that she’s my mother. She is the spitting image of me in drag.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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