Las Vegas Sun

September 30, 2014

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Shecky: Not so much a name as a state of being

If You Go

  • Who: Shecky Greene
  • When: 7:30 p.m. today-Sunday
  • Where: Suncoast
  • Tickets: $19.95; 636-7075
  • Also: Greene is one of the performers at a benefit for Italian earthquake victims, “An Affair of the Heart: To Italy With Love”; 1 p.m. Sunday; The Orleans; $35; 365-7111; www.lasvegasitalianearthquakerelieffund.com

Audio Clip

  • Interview with Shecky Greene from May 19, 1998: Used by permission from Ira Sternberg’s "Las Vegas Notebook"
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Beyond the Sun

Click to enlarge photo

Shecky Greene, Mr. Lounge in the 1970s.

Shecky Greene is yammering away on the phone from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., the process of attempting a traditional interview having been discarded. He says he’s looking forward to playing the Suncoast. “I call it the Moon Coast. Where is it? Summerlin? Yeah, I’m going there, but I’m really looking forward to returning to Las Vegas someday.”

(Insert rimshot.)

I laugh at this Sheckyism. I laugh a lot over the half hour or so that we talk, and every time I do, Shecky says something like, “Good! I’ll use that!” I try to imagine him taking notes, except I cannot envision Shecky slipping reading glasses over his face and scrawling lines on scratch paper. He’s a from-the-gut, from-the-heart icon from an entirely different era. He’s 83, and he so reminds me of my grandfather, who still says, “Like they say in Scotland, Glasgow,” when we’re heading off someplace, as if it's the first time he's ever recited that line.

It’s a cliché, but so true: They don’t build them like Shecky Greene anymore.

There is a moment I want to ask Shecky about, one of the great tales of Vegas lore, when he drunkenly piloted his Oldsmobile convertible into the famous fountains outside Caesar Palace. It was 1968. The aquatic display was new and was one of the more inventive and celebrated attractions on the Strip. And Shecky, buffeted by yet another drink-a-thon in Vegas, plows into it like a PT Boat returning to port. How to put this into perspective today … it would be like George Wallace or Rita Rudner crashing a Toyota Prius into the Bellagio water show.

But what has always made the Caesars-Shecky story a true gem is its Sheckification. After splashing into the fountains, Shecky braked still as water cascaded around him and his Olds. Cops showed up, Shecky’s wipers spraying water in either direction. They leaned into the car, and Shecky said, “No spray wax.”

Like a boxer circling the ring against an unorthodox southpaw, I’m waiting for an opening to ask Shecky about the Caesars fountain episode. He has to know it’s coming. In the 40 years since, the story has only blossomed in legend. But there is scant opportunity with Shecky, who bobs and weaves and strikes from all angles. That cut-loose quality is what makes him Shecky, his seamless, stream-of-thought delivery. He finally says, “I learned drink and gamble at places like the Silver Slipper, the Last Frontier. I think it was 1954 (making a bubbling sound with his index finger and mouth as he recalls the date), when I had my first show with Dorothy Shea at the Las Frontier. Vegas was good and bad for me. … I did some stupid things in Las Vegas those days.”

Such as, well, driving into the Caesars Palace fountains? How did that happen? Shecky chuckles slightly and says, “I’ve got this nice lawn chair, and when you’re a certain age, you can’t sleep, and I want to move the chair into the bedroom. If I keep talking, you might hear me snoozing.” He’s not doddering, he’s ducking, we both know it, and I just sigh.

Finally he says, “It did happen, yes, it did, but it wouldn’t happen today. What happened, they just put a break-away lamp four days before on the Strip. Before, they had a heavy lamp there, and in the old days before then, it would have killed me. So I hit off the lamp, hit some signs and veered across into the fountains.” He laughs a little more and says, “You know, I’ve been in show business for 60 years, been pretty successful, but one of the few things people want to know is, boy, is that story true?”

But what makes the story is the lounge-quality line, how Shecky was actually able to stay in character (whatever that character is) through the episode with a trio of brilliantly timed words: No spray wax.

“I have my own way of doing show business, I guess,” is his explanation.

Shecky is not always going for the funny, but he is unfailingly self-deprecating and wrenchingly honest.

He says he’s trying to write his autobiography, “but I can’t get through it. Some things I just don’t want to write about now.”

He says Mayor Oscar Goodman “is still a good friend of mine.”

As he’s detailed in countless interviews prior, Shecky’s drinking and gambling nearly cost him his life. “I drank for 30 years. I drank to commit suicide. I had a terrible addiction to it, a terrible addiction to gambling. I had an addiction to everything.”

Art Marshall, a longtime friend in Las Vegas and a huge figure in this city who co-founded the Marshall-Rousso chain of women’s clothing stores, suggested that Greene opt for a Boyd Gaming Group hotel after seeing Don Rickles at The Orleans. “I went to see Rickles, and I’m very fond of him, he had a big band and got a 10-minute ovation when he came out. I laughed my ass off.”

He says he could be in a Cirque show. “I could be a lifeguard in “O,” walk around with a whistle. (Laughter) I think I’ll use that.”

Pete Barbutti once said describing Greene’s act is like trying to explain Pavarotti to a fan of Twisted Sister. “I don’t give a s*** if they think it’s an act or not,” Shecky says. “I just come out and talk about the old days, the new days, whatever comes to me at the moment.”

His chronic stage fright and acute anxiety (he has been diagnosed as manic depressive and has been prescribed Zoloft for treatment) is still a concern. “I admire anyone who has the guts to get up on the stage, who has the balls to entertain an audience,” Shecky says. “After 60 years, I still don’t have the balls. I’ve had breakdowns, panic attacks … but that’s also from my marriages. (Laughter) I’ll use that!”

The Las Vegas Monorail is “the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. It stinks. There’s no planning in the town, and it’s been a problem for a long time.”

He says that in the days he performed at the lounge at the Tropicana -- in the late ’50s, when he ushered in the hotel’s lounge entertainment era by laying planks across the bar to create a stage -- it was 14 or 16 weeks before the “Folies Bergere” show started its decades-long run. But Shecky was still not the top of the bill. “It was, ‘Roast beef, $9.95, an extra piece for $5, apple pie, and Shecky Greene.’ I asked, ‘Can you swap my name with the apple pie, at least?’ ”

He doesn’t favor social commentary or current events-inspired bits. “I don’t talk about President Obama much. There’s a lotta social commentary out there, with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. Stewart -- you don’t think a comic has a brain? Watch him. He had the ‘Mad Money’ guy (Jim Cramer) on the other night, and Stewart nailed the SOB to the wall. It was beautiful.”

Shecky says he called the MGM Grand to possibly work a week in the Hollywood Theatre. “I was told nobody knows what I do. Who doesn’t know what I do? Jesus Christ, this isn’t the Vegas I knew. … You’ve had Barbra Streisand playing at the MGM Grand with a 32-piece band. Me, I had a piano player with two fingers missing. (Laugher) I’ll use that!”

The Vegas of Greene’s youth still holds fond memories. “I remember when I first drove into the town and I picked up your paper, the Las Vegas Sun, and the big news was that Standard Oil had been robbed of $12,” Shecky recalls. “That was on the front page of Hank Greenspun’s paper. I’ll tell you this, I’m glad the family kept the paper, because the best thing to ever happen to that town was Hank Greenspun.”

The handle “Shecky” is used so frequently to describe would-be funny people that the real Shecky sees it as more a state of being than nickname. “I enjoy it, but it doesn’t mean ‘me’ anymore. Katie Couric used to say it all the time, ‘Hey, Shecky,’ until she met me, the real Shecky. It’s a general, generic term that means something else to other people.”

Whatever it means, never lose it. Never lose your Shecky.

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