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May 23, 2019

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Ice Ice Billy

Tony, bony, phony, stony: Who is Tony Clifton?

As a child, Saturdays often offered a greeting through the tiny speaker of a plastic, wood-pattern encased picture tube. The picture itself presented an image cast in green until, at least, my dad, brother or I slapped its right side with palm-stinging force about one-third of the way down from the top of the console.

“Yyyello again everybody,” professional wrestling announcer Lance Russell would say in all his nasally theatrics. “And welcome to another” something-or-other about “CHAMP-yun-SHIP wrestling!”

Because Louisville was within the region of the Memphis-based production, mid-south wrestlers Jerry “The King” Lawler and Jimmy Harts’ feud often vied for attention with that of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudds’. Which means, late performance artist, slash comedian, slash television star, slash provocateur Andy Kaufman appeared on our aging Zenith television set, or so I remember.

Kaufman took a respite from playing Latka Gravas and Vic Ferrari on the hit television comedy Taxi to wrestle women, which led him to Louisville television via Memphis. Soon, Lawler famously pile drove Kaufman, and Kaufman’s limp body flopped to the mat in an alarming image of true bodily harm.

Kaufman would live to make several national television appearances in a neck brace, until his inspired piece of awkward and toe-spreading television history occurred on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman.

In December, the Las Vegas Wranglers held its annual Midnight Game and the highly publicized intermission act for the night was Las Vegas-style lounge singer Tony Clifton.

Clifton, as the story goes, was discovered here in Las Vegas by Kaufman around 1969. It was soon rumored that Clifton was, in fact, Kaufman. But this national whisper was flung into a tailspin when it became plausible that writing partner and comedian Bob Zmuda would perform as Clifton. Further Hollywood confusion and headaches ensued.

With neck braces and other Kaufman/Zmuda stunts in mind, there was a good chance Clifton would be off color at the Midnight Game, despite our emphasis to him that there would be families in the audience. Eyes were also wide open that despite this being a paid gig for Clifton, the joke could be turned on the Wranglers for the benefit of any Clifton public reboot of sorts.

And so as the Midnight Game approached, we were particularly aware that if we stated any restrictions too thoroughly, this would only be seen as a dare.

That night I met Clifton as he arrived for a 10 p.m. sound check. He thanked me for the gig, and immediately told two off-color jokes.

Oh, in the blessed name of Howdy Doody.

I searched behind his oversized, prescription sun glasses to verify that it was actually Zmuda in there someplace. I studied his teeth. I listened carefully to his voice. If it was Zmuda, he wasn’t giving it up.

Clifton did his sound check as many Wranglers players were loosening up in the hallway, mostly doing high-step sprints. The sounds of Clifton’s screeching singing voice bounced down the hallways, and a favorite memory was born. We all looked at each other laughing. This was awful and awesome all at the same time.

In front of the crowd during the first intermission, the end of his of poorly lip-synched version of his poorly sung “Rhinestone Cowboy” cued fans to vigorously boo and shout, but only for him to walk halfway off the ice, run back to the center and restart the song’s chorus again. Then twice more, then again a fourth time.

“I did that number for 48 minutes once,” Clifton later told me. “It killed.”

After Clifton finished his second intermission set — a medley of standards that included his trademark version of “Volare” — he expressed regret that the foam rubber chuck a pucks had already been thrown by the fans and could not be used to hurl at him, a feeling I’m certain he shared with many in the crowd.

Behind the scenes, the sordid Clifton never broke character. I had greetings for Zmuda from other Strip comedians, but I grew afraid to pass them along. I began to no longer regret not bringing my hard cover copy of Zmuda’s “Andy Kaufman Revealed!” for an autograph because I thought, “Who would sign it?” This was Tony Clifton, and I wouldn’t want to offend.

Clifton told many stories about Kaufman, who died in 1984. He included the prepared a one-liner that he tells people when he’s asked what Andy Kaufman would be doing today if he were still alive. “Clawing on the door of his casket,” he blurted angrily.

But when Clifton’s final performance was over, he walked out of the spotlight using the same patronizing elbow-throwing lilt Kaufman would use after winning an inter-gender wrestling match on Saturday morning television in Louisville.

“Oh my,” I thought. “That is Andy Kaufman out there.”

It was then that I wish I had gotten my copy of Zmuda’s book about Kaufman signed by Tony Clifton, no matter which one of the three that guy really was.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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