Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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As the curtain wiggles upward, the orchestra begins and all eyes turn expectantly to the lighted, white winding staircase that descends to the middle of the stage at the Hollywood Theatre in the MGM Grand.

Wayne Newton appears in a black tux, thick diamond jewelry and a smile that he aims at the expectant, upturned faces, one by one.

As the orchestra swells, the audience members snap their fingers, clap and sway. He blows two-fingered kisses to the crowd, giving those he recognizes a wink and a bow with a double-swirl kiss blown right at them.

One by one, he receives a nod and a smile from each devotee, and both go away from the experience acknowledged and appreciated.

The devotees? They call themselves "Wayne-iacs" -- and they are devoted to the Midnight Idol, the Way of Wayne.

They congregate, with their flowers and their gifts, waiting for the magic hour, or two, when Wayne Newton enters their lives for a brief but fulfilling moment.

That moment is now: Newton is back in town for a two-week engagement at the MGM Grand, through Sept. 25.

"He is really genuine," says Charlotte Miller, a pharmaceutical representative from Detroit. "(The show) is really the kind of thing that just makes you feel good."

Her sister, Michelle Miller, assistant dean of law at Wayne State University -- yes, Wayne State -- agrees.

"We've been seeing Wayne any chance we could for 16 years and Vegas is the best place to see him," she says. "Vegas tends to bring out the party ... he's more into it and responds well to the crowd. It's his town."

The Players

It's not just older women flocking to see Mr. Las Vegas. Newton's fan club is made up of 21,000 members internationally, ranging from ages 4 to 94 -- men, women and children.

Earlier this week, we corralled five admitted "Wayneiacs" at the front of the stage after a two-hour show. Each has totaled more than 200 shows over the past two decades of being a "Wayneiac."

The group includes: Orv Kope, a 73-year-old retired radio broadcaster who, along with his wife (who recently passed away) has attended Newton performances for the past 35 years; the Miller sisters, Michelle and Charlotte; and two best friends brought together while waiting in line for Newton at the Las Vegas Hilton 13 years ago -- Linda Rasmussen, director of human resources at a public accounting firm, and Barbara Campbell, a waitress at Harrah's.

Their backgrounds, ages and race vary, but tonight they banter and bond, trading experiences and catching up on gossip about the band and other "Wayneiacs."

Pinpointing the passion

"As soon as I say I'm a Wayne Newton fan, people go 'Huh? Why?' " Charlotte Miller says.

"I have a picture in my office (of Newton), I take a lot of teasing about it," Rasmussen says. "If it's my vacation ... they know I must be going to Vegas to see Wayne."

"I make cheesecakes every time I come and he accepts them from me," Campbell says. "He loves them." And when traveling to see Newton, she packs a cooler of cheesecake for him and his orchestra. "They always say thank you."

That's right: Vacations, weekends, anytime is the right time to come see Wayne -- again and again and again.

Is it an obsession? Fantasy? Lifestyle? Why continue to see one man perform night after night? (Each has come to Las Vegas with front row tickets for more than three consecutive evenings.)

"It's a hobby," they all chime, a glint in their eyes speaking of more than just a passing fancy.

"Why do people go to baseball games day after day?" Kope asks.

Being a "Wayne-iac" is more than collecting pictures, T-shirts and tapes. It's a moment in time that contributes to their lives.

"I have a lot to thank this man for," Kope says.

At approximately five shows per year times 35 years -- or 175 shows -- Kope has contributed greatly to Newton's audience. And, he says, Newton has contributed greatly to him. When Kope went in for open heart surgery, a friend asked Newton to dedicate the song "Don't Worry About Me" at the next show. Newton obliged and the song was recorded for Kope.

"I was in intensive care ... and they played it ... I was up the next day," Kope says.

And that is all he needs, he says, to know that Newton is there to share his style and essence on stage and reach out to Kope.

"I'm an acquaintance of Wayne and I appreciate the fact that he recognizes me when I come here, and that's all I want," Kope says.

It's showtime

Newton lowers the lights to connect soulfully with the audience, and then just to make them think of the moment.

"Time is never kind," Newton says, a piano softly playing in the black background. "Yesterday is just a backward glance, tomorrow a wishful chance. So there is now, right now. And no matter what you say, or what you do, when you think no one does, I love you."

It does seem to be an experience for these fans, or "friends," as they prefer, that adds greatly to their lives. They drive or fly to get to Las Vegas or a county fair or wherever Newton may be performing to get a little "pick-me-up," Charlotte Miller says.

"Part of being the way he is, is what makes all of us want to come again," she says.

They say it's not just charisma, style or voice -- it's the overall feeling of well-being that they can glean from him for two hours.

"You aren't thinking about anything else, it's such an enjoyable two hours," Michelle Miller said.

Other performers they have seen when the chance to experience Newton was not available failed to excite them. Newton's passion for pleasing and the sense of camaraderie between audience and performer, they say, were hugely lacking.

"The way that (some performers) treat their fans and the kind of shows they put on, there is no comparison." Rasmussen says, shaking her head. The others agree, nodding and smiling among each other. They know something other audiences may not -- that their Midnight Idol gives it everything every night.

"He works hard," Charlotte Miller says. "He keeps going until you like him."

And the fans keep coming -- from as few as four to more than 20 shows per year. Newton's fans line up with gifts, usually handmade, no matter where he is.

Sharon McConnell, president of Newton's official fan club, says the fans show up all over the world to greet Newton.

"He is such an icon of entertainment," McConnell says. "He always greets and says hello to his fans ... I think that is special today."

Devotees decorate Newton's dressing room while he is on tour, once going so far as to decorate a urinal. At each stop on tour, there awaits homemade crafts, cookies, cakes and presents for his family.

"It's wonderful what they do for me," Newton says in a room backstage after the show. He has had time to clean up and appears with a flourish, throwing open the door and extending his hand.

He is six-foot-four with thick black hair, and wearing a black silk shirt and pants with black leather boots, a gold chain around his neck and chunky diamond stage jewelry on his hands. He seems genuinely impressed by the fans' talent and generosity.

"They just give so much," he says. "They don't fall into the typical fan club person," Newton notes. There is no mob outside his dressing room, but there are gifts on his table.

Don't cancel, Mr. Newton

The Miller sisters had been planning their annual trip to Las Vegas, still in it's first decade of tradition. Newton canceled at the last minute. They had no choice -- they had to come to Las Vegas with no Newton. But as "Wayneiacs," they couldn't sit still for this letdown.

"Charlotte made a picket sign and went out to the ranch," Michelle Miller says, referring to Casa de Shenandoah, the sprawling block-long ranch at Sunset and Pecos roads that Newton calls home and shares with his wife of more than four years, Kathleen.

"She marched back and forth with her little sign saying 'I want Wayne Newton,' " she continues. "That's when the security guard came out."

But instead of a hurried escort off the property, the guard asked Charlotte Miller what, exactly, was wrong. The sad situation was explained to the guard and Charlotte walked away with a gem from her idol.

"He gave us his phone number to the ranch," Michelle Miller says. "He said, 'Before you make any more reservations, call us.' He didn't have to do that."

Although Newton's shows have scaled down a bit from his large spaceship and rainforest sets at the Hilton, his fans say the magic is the man, not the flash of expensive hardware.

"One of the things you can tell about Wayne from the show ... he is a kind man," Michelle Miller says, as her sister chimes in: "He allows other talents to flourish."

While some shows titled after a star simply center around that star, Newton includes the comedic, melodic and vocal talents of his orchestra. They work together as a crew, barely missing the mark at a show this week when what they rehearsed changed as Newton played with the audience.

"I go wherever that (night's) audience leads me," Newton says.

He bows to his orchestra when discussing his success. Having a talented and experienced orchestra behind him as he careens through vastly different tunes -- from country to ballads to improvisation -- is as important, he says, as the crooner himself.

"I think that is the key," Newton says. "The people that are with me, I don't change very often ... and they don't leave." His lighting director has stayed with Newton more than 32 years and the drummer, a mere 21 when he started in the Newton band, has just turned 41.

Longevity seems to follow Newton. He has broken nearly every booking record in Las Vegas, clocking well over 25,000 shows in Las Vegas alone. And his fans are still hopelessly devoted.

It's peace of mind

Charlotte had received bad news from a family doctor before a show, years ago. She still went, to make herself feel better for a little while.

"When you come to Wayne's show, he makes you forget all your illnesses, all your troubles," she says. "I feel I can make it through."

Newton doesn't like to think too much about the heavy hearts in the audience or how to use the stage as a platform.

"I can't think about that," Newton says. "This can be all encompassing. It's not about a message," Newton says, adding that, "especially today," a performer can touch on subjects such as politics and religion, but his job is to perform, maybe make you think, but remove you from your day-to-day life.

After more than 40 years of performing, there is still an expectant look on his face as he waits for the audience reaction, his final note still hanging in the air.

He wears a gold eagle necklace, wings outstretched delicately and a feather dangling from its spread tail. It is a symbol that connects him to his Indian heritage of spirit and pride.

"Eagles never flock," he says. "They come but one at a time."