Las Vegas Sun

March 20, 2019

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Shecky Greene — “probably the most gifted comedian ever born” — has become the man he wants to be

Not long ago, a bunch of Shecky Greene's friends got together to tell him what they thought of him.

Sid Caesar told him four times -- not once in English. Everyone seemed to understand.

Richard Nixon made an appearance through Rich Little, recalling Greene's visit to the White House.

"Pat and I used to play that tape over and over and over," said the late president.

Joe Williams spoke fondly, sang touchingly. Gene "Bat Masterson" Barry lauded his versatility.

"He can recite Shakespeare, give dramatic readings, sing like Sinatra and dance -- and he's funny," Barry said. "He was the most talented man I've ever had the pleasure of seeing."

Norm Crosby malapropped his way through Greene's life story.

Keely Smith and Sonny King related similar stories in different tones. Smith cried, King joked. Both were speaking of the time they were out of work and Greene hired them.

"He took me in when nobody would hire me, and I love you," said a tearful Smith.

Said King, "He asked me, 'When do you finish with Jimmy (Durante)?' I said Thursday. He said, 'I open Friday, you come with me.' We stayed together five years -- and it was the most miserable five years of my life."

He was later moved to poignancy.

"This is the most beautiful human being God ever created, and I shall love him till my eyes close."

Mike "Mannix" Connors led a toast. Ralph "Sandler and" Young gave a psychological profile. Relating Greene's passion for the horses, Young said the comedian is a joy on the way to the track, a bear on the way back.

Apparently, Greene's gambling luck hasn't changed a bit.

"I lost $32,000 in the coffee shop waiting for a bagel. I was playing Keno," he said that night, repeating an oft-told one-liner on the evening he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th annual Governor's Conference on Travel and Tourism at Caesars Palace.

This week, laid up in bed with the flu at his home in Palm Springs, Calif., just days before his performance here this weekend, Greene reflected on his career and the tribute to it.

"I loved it and I thought everybody there was wonderful, and Pete and the governor were extra special," said Greene, referring to master of ceremonies Pete Barbutti and Nevada Gov. Bob Miller.

Which is exactly what they said about him prior to the black-tie dinner.

In Greene, Barbutti found a way to work. When he was coming up as a comic, in 1960, the old-timers would tell him "if you want to get big as a comedian, you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end (to your act)."

To Barbutti, that seemed formulaic. In addition to being a comedian, he was a trumpeter with a jazzman's sensibility for extemporaneous expression.

"I saw Shecky (and) he didn't do anything right. (But) the audience was on the floor laughing, and so was I. He's probably the most gifted, naturally talented comedian ever born."

Trying to describe what he did, Barbutti said, "is like trying to describe Pavarotti to a Twisted Sister fan. When you came out of the lounge (after his show), if someone would say, 'What did he do?' You couldn't really explain it. He had the gift to be able to find humor in everything that existed.

"Nobody could do what he did. A lot of comedians today on HBO and Def Comedy Jam, there is nothing personal about their act. The guy that follows them could do their jokes. Nobody could steal his stories. About the only thing you could say is, 'This is a Shecky Greene story.'"

As this one is:

Striving for racial harmony when he took over the Los Angeles Dodgers, manager Tom Lasorda told his players one day: "There are no black players or white players on this team. Everyone is green. You got that? OK, I want all the dark green guys over here and all the light green guys over here."

Along with Louie Prima, Greene, 70, is generally credited with making the hotel lounge of the '50s and '60s a desirable destination for patrons, who would clamor for seats in hopes of seeing the comedian and the celebrities there to see the comedian.

"One of the great joys of the lounge was when you finished your show, you could go see Shecky Greene," Little said.

"He was an era, an icon to an era," Miller said. "He was the person who made the lounge what it was."

But Greene didn't start in the lounge when he debuted in Las Vegas, at the Last Frontier, in 1954. He opened in the showroom for singer Dorothy Shea, "The Beverly Hillbilly."

"They held me over," he recalled. "This was the making of my career. They held me over with Patty Andrews after she left her sisters, then they put me up with Xavier Cugat."

His, Greene said, "was the first act to be held over 18 weeks in the main room with three different shows."

Greene eventually became a main act there and an answer to a trivia question: Who was the headliner when Elvis made his Las Vegas debut, in 1956, at the Last Frontier?

"The show was Freddie Martin, Elvis Presley and Shecky Greene. They didn't know whether to put him first or last, but they couldn't put him last because nobody knew him in Vegas and the people really didn't go for him. They wanted a different type of entertainer."

When Greene saw his wardrobe, particularly the satin baseball jacket he wore on stage, he was moved to give him some advice.

"I told him, 'You can't come here and wear this.'"

So, credit Greene for turning an impressionable young man into the jumpsuit junky he became.

"I loved him," he said of Presley. "He was not just a nice boy, but a great boy."

Greene ended up in the lounge because of a suggestion -- his. He had contracts with both the New Frontier and the Riviera, and when he finished his engagement at the former, the latter didn't have a spot for him in its showroom. He suggested the lounge.

"The entertainment director told me, 'We've never had a comic in the lounge.' I said, 'Well, now you do.' I was living in Beverly Hills. I needed the money. And that's how I started working the lounge, which was the best thing for me. My style was just working to the people. It wasn't so much the material. I had a club in New Orleans and that's the way I worked.

"The small room was better for me. I still think comedy is better in a small room. It's ridiculous putting it in a 2,000- or 3,000-seat theater. You lose contact (with the audience). It's fine for a guy who tells joke after joke after joke."

Which was never Greene's modus operandi.

"What made him special? Not only was he funny, he was far out," Little said. "He was willing to take a chance. He did a lot of improvisation. He wasn't exactly like Don Rickles or Jack E. Leonard. He was unique in that he could take any situation and make it funny, whereas Don and Jack used to stick to their scripts. They were predictably funny."

Greene, who honed his craft in Chicago at mob-run nightclubs, said he created his way of working because he didn't believe in buying material.

"I once paid a guy $750 for material that was so God awful that I said, 'Never again.'"

That isn't to say his act was entirely seat of the pants. As the years progressed, Greene developed what he called "hunks" -- safety nets he could rely on and put anywhere in his act.

"Anytime I was in trouble, I could go into these set things. Like the 'ca-ca on the moon' hunk."

Don't ask.

Greene rarely got into trouble during his act, but frequently because of it.

"I should have been fired maybe 150 times in Las Vegas. I was only fired 130 times."

Greene attributes it to heavy drinking and a bad attitude, which he says were symptoms of an anxiety problem he had his entire career and which caused him to retire from 1981-89.

He was diagnosed a manic depressive, and he keeps his condition under control with the drug Zoloft.

"It just regulates the chemistry in my brain," he said.

Before his diagnosis and subsequent treatment, Greene could mask his depression on stage, but would dread the sound of applause after a performance.

"I'd walk offstage and start crying. Someone would ask, 'Why are you crying.' I didn't know. I got very depressed when anyone stood up (to applause). I started drinking."

That led to many nights in the city jail and a lot of stories that would wind up in his act. For instance, there was the time when, drunk, he drove his car into the Caesars Palace fountains and told the cop, "No spray wax."

And the time he was arrested for being drunk and the cops threw him in a cell with a murderer.

"It was the first time I realized the judicial system in this country stinks, because 30 minutes later the murderer was out and I was still in jail. So I yelled to the cops, 'What's the matter, the murderer's free, what about me?' They said, 'You're a drunk.' I said, 'Let me out, I'll murder someone.'"

Greene says he did a lot of terrible things and a lot of terrible things happened to him in Las Vegas. And no one had to tell him when he'd been fired.

"I used to come back to my room and I'd see from my window them taking down my name. I wanted that. That self-destructive thing in me wanted that. They'd say, 'Get the f--- out and never come back.' But they always said, 'Come back.'"

Greene would talk about anything in his act, including other performers -- a proclivity that would also get him into trouble.

"People liked it. It was funny, but it was not in the best taste."

David Frost once incurred his wrath for having the temerity to earn more in the showroom than the hotel was paying Greene in the lounge.

"They brought in four acts ... and he was like the English Ed Sullivan, with less talent. It bugged me. And he never washed his clothes."

One evening, when Frost went to see him in the lounge, Greene pointed that out.

"I really let him have it from the stage. 'With all this money you're making, go have your clothes cleaned.' He bounced out and I never heard from him again, but he did send me his suit later on."

When Greene reflects on those unhappy days, he sees himself this way: "It's not me. It was never me. I could never picture myself being in that situation. It was another person. There are three and four sides to me, and I've never met the other two."

And yet this was the same man whose humanitarian efforts led to the construction of St. Judes Ranch, a shelter for indigent and neglected children, in Boulder City.

Greene secured the main ballroom of the Riviera hotel for a benefit to help build it, and the stars came out. In fact, "Night of Stars" was an annual event for five years.

"Sinatra and Dean Martin came in and I was in a state of shock."

Although he doesn't like the man he was, Greene likes the man he has become. He attributes his happiness to Marie, his third wife, with whom he broke up five days before he married his second wife.

"She's taught me something that I didn't think was possible," he says. "I didn't know marriage was like this, the way marriage was supposed to be."

They've been married 15 years.

Greene views his return to the Tropicana this weekend as an irony.

"The Tropicana was the hotel I saved," he says. "They had no show. It was closed. They had no money. They went to J.K. Houssels and he put up the money. The guys from Chicago called me (and asked), 'Would you work there?' I said, 'OK, if you give me more money.'"

Houssels wouldn't build a stage, so Greene placed a piece of plywood across the bar in the lounge and packed the place.

"It was a wonderful, wonderful thing for me."

Prior to Greene's performance there in '58, "nobody would go down to the end of the Strip," he said.

Another irony in that Greene won't either until he steps on stage.

"You know, I really should tell you this after the engagement, but I'm gonna stay at (a private residence). I hate going through casinos. Nothing is the same. The old-timers wouldn't have had Wet 'n Wild on the Strip, or pirates sinking ships. It's ridiculous. It'll never be the same town."

Greene became aware of that fact when the MGM Grand asked him to four-wall. He remembers earning more than $100,000 a week at the original MGM.

"They've got 5,000 rooms. It's just ridiculous (to ask him to four-wall). But they figure, 'We rent rooms, why not rent an entertainment room?' I wouldn't mind four-walling if they had room service on stage."

Greene performs only sparingly these days. After he finishes here, he's off to Florida, then to New York, then back to Palm Springs.

"I'm not in it for a career anymore. I had my career. I'm in it to enjoy myself."

Look for him in an upcoming episode of "Mad About You."

"I say two words and die."