Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2019

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Entertainers’ careers buoyed on the cruise ship circuit

Cruise ships, by the numbers

The Cruise Lines International Association, the trade organization of the cruise industry, is made up of 25 cruise lines that represent 97 percent of the cruise line market in North America.

The CLIA reports:

"The Love Boat," which aired on ABC from 1977-86, sparked a romance between travelers and cruise ships.

It also opened new venues for entertainers who are being squeezed out of the Las Vegas scene by changes in tastes and marketing strategies.

It is nearly impossible to say how many local performers routinely head for the high seas when their bank accounts get low, but as jobs continue drying up in Las Vegas, the ocean looks increasingly inviting.

Not only is the pay comparable, or better, they say, but entertainers get free room and board and only work an average of two nights per week.

Nelson Sardelli, Marty Allen, Peter Anthony and Berri Lee are among Las Vegans who sometimes perform on cruise liners. They say that entertaining on ships has its ups and downs, but it's a great gig as long as you don't make waves.

"If you want to last as an entertainer on the sea, don't (offend anyone)," said the outspoken Sardelli, who was born in Brazil and has been a local resident since 1965.

Entertainers live and die by comment cards, which are questionnaires filled out by passengers at the end of a voyage to rate the ship's food, service, accommodations, crew and other things that might affect the company's image (i.e. profits) -- including entertainment.

A few bad comments about an entertainer and he or she might become a castaway. The upshot of the cards is that, as a rule, entertainers and production shows steer their performances down a narrow middle course to avoid offending anyone.

Sardelli is popular with audiences, but he has ruffled the feathers of a few ships' officers when fighting for his rights. He says he has been called a "high-maintenance" entertainer by a few people, but he only wants to be treated with respect and not lumped in with the ship's crew.

"Dignity is the name of the game," he said. "I'm nobody special but I want to be treated with respect."

When people compare working on a cruise ship to taking a vacation, Sardelli becomes sardonic. "I say no, it's not a vacation. I am there (stuck) on a ship ... 24 hours a day," he said.

Although he has a few complaints, he says that he enjoys the work. He hasn't been on a voyage yet this year but during the past decade he spent an average of 20 weeks a year at sea -- even though he is prone to seasickness.

His wife, Mickie, who sometimes joins him on cruises, said that one of the funniest shows she ever saw her husband do was in the middle of a storm off the coast of Alaska. The ship was being severely buffeted by the ocean.

"Nelson was too sick to move," she said, "so he did the whole show hanging onto a pillar (on stage). It was hilarious. The audience loved it. I don't think there were two people in the audience who couldn't identify with him. Several had to get up and leave (because they were seasick)."

But the main drawback to working on the ocean, Sardelli said, is that you are out of sight.

"You are out of circulation from the real world. You're out there (on the ocean) doing good, making a living, paying the bills, but it has no career value," he said. "Part of career growth is being seen by the right people, and those people don't see you on cruise ships."

Clean acts

Longtime Las Vegas comedian Marty Allen, who appears on stage with his wife, Karon Kate Blackwell, says that he has been doing cruises for a couple of years, alternating them with corporate and club dates.

The couple, who are appearing at the Gold Coast hotel-casino lounge through Aug. 28, recently returned from a six-month tour of the Caribbean Sea aboard the Grand Princess (owned by Princess Cruises).

"On ships, you can't do profanity because you're playing to families. Kids come to the show," Allen said, adding that performing on cruise ships is similar to performing at resorts in the Catskill Mountains years ago -- the royal treatment, the amenities, the quality of the acts.

"The Catskills are gone now. The biggest thing going is the cruise ships," said Allen, who has appeared on cruises that also featured entertainers such as Red Buttons, Al Martino and Alan King.

"Because it has become such a big business, everybody wants to do it."

Michelle Smith, spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, said that the capacity for entertaining has expanded greatly in the past 10 years. One new ship has a theater that seats 1,350, stage floors that rise, an ice skating rink and countless other technical advances.

"Ships used to be a poor stepchild, but there have been quantum leaps forward," she said.

Gene Hull, who started out as a tap dancer, musician and actor, has spent the past 20 years producing shows for ships, the last 10 with Royal Caribbean. "There may be a stigma (in the minds of) people who have not done it, but once they perform on a ship and see the technical advances and how they are treated and the professional level of the production shows and their presentation, their attitudes change," Hull said.

Cruise Lines International Association spokeswoman Karen Bohning said that today's ships provide entertainment that is almost nonstop. "There will be comedians and lounge acts at early shows, revues and production shows in the evening and adults-only shows at midnight," she said. "And all day long there will be bands, magicians, clowns and jugglers."

Robin Cahill, entertainment manager for Royal Caribbean, said that she keeps a list of about 600 acts she uses to fill the lounges, showrooms and other venues on the company's 16 ships. Only about 20 percent of the entertainers work on cruises full time.

"There is an issue of burnout," she said. "It's a hard life. A lot of traveling is involved."

George Pecoraro is a Las Vegas booking agent who represents more than 180 celebrities such as Charo, Bob Denver, Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon. A small percentage of Pecoraro's clients earn some or most of their income on cruise ships. The light workload appeals to some, but not others.

"Certain performers are addicted to work. They want to work every night. They don't want a vacation, to relax and see the sights," Pecoraro said.

Most of the cruise entertainers Pecoraro represents spend 25 to 30 weeks a year on the ocean, but only a week or two at a time. "I like to break it up for them, otherwise they will go bonkers after awhile (being confined to a ship)," he said.

There used to be a negative attitude about performing on ships, but that's no longer the case -- or at least it isn't as bad as it used to be, Pecoraro said.

"Quite a few people you thought never would be doing the cruise ships are doing them now because the treatment is there -- not that they're necessarily treated like stars, but (they are treated) with care," he said.

The veteran seaman

While Allen is a newcomer, Peter Anthony is a veteran voyager.

He moved to Las Vegas in the early 1960s to work as a musician but after several years turned to comedy. Eventually he went into management, becoming assistant director of entertainment at the Sahara hotel-casino for about a year, and then director of entertainment at the Aladdin hotel-casino until 1980.

Then Anthony returned to show business and discovered that it was no longer business as usual. The local entertainment scene was changing. In 1982 he took the advice of fellow comedian Hank Garcia (a popular cruise ship entertainer) and went to sea.

Anthony said that after almost 20 years of entertaining on ships he has seen four-fifths of the world. "I've been to places nobody goes -- Easter Island, Christmas Island, Russia, the Ukraine -- exotic places nobody has a chance to get to. It's a tremendous world for me," he said.

Ships, Anthony observed, have captive audiences -- which can be good and bad. "That's OK if you're doing a good show, but if you're not you find people looking the other way when you pass them on deck," he said.

Anthony has seen a lot of changes in cruise lines that he says mirror the changes in Las Vegas -- ships, like hotel-casinos, are bigger. Showrooms are larger on land and at sea, where production shows and revues dominate the entertainment scene.

"People are becoming more used to production shows," he said. "If they see one person walk out on stage, it's like 'Hey, ma, are we getting our money's worth here? How come this show costs $49.95 and there's only one person?' "

And cruise-line companies are merging, the same as hotel-casinos. "The corporate mentality has taken over (Las Vegas)," Anthony said. "(Through mergers) we're down to three or four entities. The same thing is happening with ships. They're slowly being swallowed up.

"It used to be if you struck out on one ship there were another 60 or 70 to choose from. Now if you don't do well on one ship, that can knock you out of 13 or 14 others that are under one umbrella."

Not only is there an array of entertainers all over the ship but the things people escaped from when they left home are there as well -- satellite television, VCRs, movies, games, sports, radio.

"Ships themselves have become the destination," Anthony said. "Anything you want is there."

And some things you don't want, such as comment cards.

"I never look at them. I don't really care about them. What I've been doing for the last 20 years has been putting food on the table and I don't need some shoemaker from Pittsburgh telling me (how to do my act)," he said.

Lee at sea

Anthony's close friend, comedian/magician Berri Lee, started out in Los Angeles in the early 1960s wanting to be an actor but eventually found himself doing a magic act at the Magic Castle club.

Cary Grant liked the act and used his influence to get Lee on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1969. After his appearance Lee moved to Las Vegas. "I probably worked 10 years because of appearing on 'Sullivan' that one time," Lee said, adding that he worked main showrooms rooms in many hotels, including the Hacienda hotel-casino.

When the entertainment scene began changing in Las Vegas in the early 1980s, Lee began working aboard ships. He described most cruise acts as "pretty neutral -- white bread and mayonnaise. You can't offend anybody unless you're a big star."

Lee spent the past year performing on land but now he is ready to head back to sea. "As cruising has become more popular, the pay has improved," he said.

Lesser acts -- unknown comics and jugglers -- might earn $500 a week, with food and cabin included in the deal. Big names can command $10,000 a week and more.

"Ships are very nice to have in your pocket," he said. "I have a friend on the road now who drives 1,200 miles for a $200 one-nighter. He has several of those lined up where an opening act gets $200, the middle gets $250 and the headliner gets maybe $750.

"They are driving across country, living in dirty motels, because there is nothing else for them to do," Lee said, noting that cruises offer the best money right now.

Plus there are clean sheets.