Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Former Tuskegee Airman, comic Knighten dies at 80

Comedian Jay Bernard entertained thousands in Las Vegas and across the country with his snappy one-liners -- sometimes bawdy but never profane -- and could find humor in the strangest places.

Once at a funeral, he watched a minister talk about the deceased and soon realized the preacher knew so little about the man. So the comic, whose real name was James Bernard Knighten, pulled out a pad of paper and wrote: "My last will and testament -- things to do: No. 1: Audition the priest."

Knighten had another claim to fame. He was one of the revered Tuskegee Airmen of the 99th Fighter Squadron -- the first all-black fighter squadron that gained international acclaim for valor during World War II.

Knighten, who performed as an opening act and lounge favorite at the Debbie Reynolds hotel, the Gold Coast, Palace Station and other Las Vegas resorts for two decades, died Friday at the Life Care Center of Las Vegas. He was 80.

His family said the cause of death was heart failure following a lengthy illness.

Visitation is scheduled 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Friday at Palm Mortuary, 1600 S. Jones Blvd. Graveside services will be 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City.

"My husband would have loved to have made the big time, but he was happy with his lot in life," said Knighten's second and longtime wife, Barbara Knighten. "He loved being a one-liner comedian and would pick up his material from anywhere."

Knighten played on the color of his skin with lines like, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and especially all my fellow Italians," and he would constantly poke fun at Barbara with jokes like, "My wife once asked, 'Darling, will you love me when I'm old and ugly?' I said, of course I do."

Born Dec. 11, 1919, in Tulsa, Okla., Knighten moved with his family to St. Louis, where he graduated from Sumner High School. He later graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans.

In 1941 Knighten, while working as a waiter on the Santa Fe Railroad between his home in Chicago and Los Angeles, had three choices -- a scholarship to Howard University Law School, an opportunity to study for the ministry at the Gammon Theological Seminary in Chicago or become an Army Air Corps cadet.

Knighten chose to join the service because he didn't want to be drafted. At the time, blacks were assigned to infantry work cleanup details. When he went for training at the Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama, Knighten had never flown an airplane.

In April 1943 his squadron distinguished itself in missions over North Africa and later in Italy. A slick flier, Knighten earned the nickname "The Eel," which was also the name of his P-40 fighter. Knighten flew 81 missions -- crashlanding once and walking away unharmed -- and was awarded the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters.

On Veterans Day 1996, the 99th Fighter Squadron alumni were honored with the Mobile, Ala., Patriot award. Last year, the James B. Knighten Chapter Tuskegee Airmen Inc., of Las Vegas was founded.

After the war, Knighten chose to remain in the Air Force and also saw action in the Korean and Vietnam wars and he retired in 1968 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Always the company jokester, Knighten began dabbling in stand-up comedy in 1955 at a club in Manhattan and later at clubs near in Trenton, N.J., near McGuire Field where he was stationed. He worked weekends in New York City, the Catskills and the Poconos.

Knighten was married 12 years to his first wife, actress Luana Knighten, who died in 1956, two days before she was to appear in the Broadway play "Take a Giant Step." Soon after, he met Barbara.

In 1968, Knighten began a 20-year career as an operations inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration in New York and later in Los Angeles.

James and Barbara moved to Las Vegas in 1989. He had begun performing here in the early 1980s. For three years, Knighten was a member of the Jazz and Jokes players at the Debbie Reynolds hotel.

Knighten was past president of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees of Nevada and California.

In addition to his wife, Knighten is survived by four daughters, Kim Russell and her husband Wendell Russell of Las Vegas, Laura Jeffers of New York City, Linda Knighten of San Francisco and Lee Jeffers of Detroit; one sister, Allene Rayford of Baton Rouge, La.; and two grandchildren.

The family suggests donations be made to the James B. Knighten Chapter Tuskegee Airmen Inc., P.O. Box 270046, Las Vegas, NV 89127-0046 or Wells Fargo Account 6760009435.