Twenty-nine years after Mr. Sinatra first played the casinos here, I had finally booked a show (one and done, but better than none) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I was the juggler on a bill with the Chippendale Dancers and William Wallace Foster, aka. The Fox, “Foster regularly chugged beers on campus while playing his piano and singing, long before alcohol consumption laws were ever enforced on campus.” The act consisted of his singing and between songs volunteers from the audience would race to swallow a pint of beer faster than Foster could. Nobody ever beat The Fox. Good thing I was the opener. The year is 1980.
Nevada State of Mind
Never much of a gambler, don’t play the tables and am bored by the slots. Same goes for the brothels, not that I don’t have a thing for the girls, but I just never have imagined myself the type to want to pay to play. You could go to Las Vegas and get married in a jiffy. Divorces were available and quick. Freedom to do as you damn well please, that’s what Nevada had to offer.
I toured out of San Francisco. Dates east meant I’d cross Nevada. Hot springs became a regular draw. I arranged my jumps so that I pulled off the road and soak before supper, hop on the bunk get a good night’s rest. Everyone knows something about Reno and Las Vegas, fewer have spent much time in Ely, Jackpot or Tonopah. Mining has always been a boom and bust game. After the mine’s close things start drying up, the people with nowhere else to go stay hold on until they can’t. Lot of people with almost nothing out in the middle of to hell and gone.
Modern Day White Pine County Pop. 10,500
Another gig was bound to break for me in Nevada, somebody was going to give me a try. The second shot came in 1994. I sign with an agent out of Miami, I’d be the opening act for a musical vocal impressionist, we were working the bigger showroom at the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin, Nevada. Shows were matinees. We had a 12-piece show band backing us up. The players all drove roundtrip from Las Vegas for the gig, musicians know to stay ahead of hard times, you don’t just have talent you need hustle too. Most of the musicians I worked with on the day shift at the Flamingo with were playing for Mr. Sinatra nighttime on the strip at the MGM Grand. That was a close shave. One musician of separation was all that remained between me and Mr. Sinatra.
I was under contract for the three-month run, one day off, six days on. Terms of the contract included a room at the Flamingo, free meals, and specifically a clause that forbid the artist from drinking off hours in the casino. The wife and kid were four hours away near Sedona, Arizona. I juggled and did my handstands two hours each morning. After the matinee I put on my running shoes and got out for a daily run. The only person I can remember getting to know was a hospitalized cocktail waitress that had been bitten by a brown recluse spider.
Backstage swapping stories with the band, show people have a way of blending happiness and heartbreak, you learn your lessons after making every mistake in the book, that’s the bumpy road and bond showman share. Long drives between dates, too much time in motel rooms, lousy food, missing the wife and kid, working up the new material, trying to take good care of yourself, you know, don’t drink too much, don’t do something you’re going to regret. Read a book.
The players with Mr. Sinatra thought I had it good, they’d have given their right arm to be able to play solo, call their own shots, not have to always be tied up in some complicated web of relationships with other band members. Working solo somewhere, somehow, that was the ticket, backstage I took a lot of razzing, they all knew which rung of the ladder I was on, it was all part of the game.
My favorite new friend, he played trombone, older gentleman, he was the real deal, lived and worked in Las Vegas he always played for Mr. Sinatra when he came to town. The trombone player promised he’d mention my act to the boss. As far as I was concerned, I’d made it, didn’t need anything more than Mr. Frank Sinatra hearing about some up and comer, lean and hungry scrappy variety act working his way up through the thick and thin, trying to make a little something for myself.
Showgirl and Marquee
The trombone player, the two of us, we had a journeyman’s affinity for one another. He didn’t have to guess how complicated my life was, how hard I’d had to work, how catching a break in the minor leagues, in Laughlin was a tough enough hill to climb. Making a friend of the players backstage, their showing respect for the work I was doing, that’s part of the pay package, part of the benefits, they sit there behind you, every show, play you on, play you off, watch you work the crowd, watch you win them over, if you can, maybe you can’t, but you never stop smiling or trying, you do the show, give it your best shot, that’s a showman. I appreciated the trombone player’s seeing right through me. Had a good run in Laughlin.