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November 1, 2014

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Bob Anderson fills in the blanks when recalling the Strip’s golden era

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Bob Anderson.

Bob Anderson

Bob Anderson. Launch slideshow »
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Bob Anderson during one of his impressionist performances.

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Bob Anderson on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

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Bob Anderson onstage with Tony Bennett.

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Bob Anderson's show is advertised on the Desert Inn billboard.

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Bob Anderson on "The Tonight Show" with guest host David Letterman.

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Bob Anderson's show is announced on the Flamingo's marquee along with George Burns.

Legendary are the stories about how classic Las Vegas entertainers would finish their headlining shows at such classic hotel-casinos as Desert Inn, Sahara and Sands, then amble into late-night performances at lounges up and down the Strip.

Many of these Vegas icons didn’t wade out of the casino until sunrise.

The question I’ve always had is, how in the world these performers were able to manage such a staggering schedule.

Venerable singing impressionist Bob Anderson, performing Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Cabaret Jazz at Smith Center, has the answer. He was there. At the Dunes, specifically, where for a dozen years covering 1975 to 1986, he and his trio dazzled the hotel-casino’s Top of the Dunes lounge. Rightfully, the little entertainment enclave topped that famed resort, and Anderson started his performances at 2 a.m.

Started. Not finished.

This is how it worked: Anderson and his backing musicians opened at that late-night, early-morning hour so the stars of shows beginning at midnight would make it to the Dunes on time. They would hang for hours, maybe until 4 a.m. Then they would play a round of golf, maybe at the noble Desert Inn Golf Club or Las Vegas Country Club. Then they would sleep, hitting the sheets at 10 or 11 a.m. Then they would wake up, hit their respective hotels for a steam and breakfast/lunch/supper/dinner at 6 p.m. Then they would perform and do it all over again.

“They would sleep most of the day, Sinatra (Frank, specifically) and those guys, and when they went into the steam room at the Sands, it had a buffet right there in the health club,” Anderson said this week during a phone conversation from Branson, Mo., where he is a headliner at Andy Williams Moon River Theater. “So they’d be eating while taking a steam, and right after that they would walk right onto the stage.

“Then they would start drinking, and when they were done with their show, I would see them again.”

The summer wind, and these stars, came blowin’ in, night after night. Anderson became friends with those he met at Top of the Dunes. There were famous people who celebrated famous evenings, every evening. On one occasion, Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones and Steve Rossi filed into Top of the Dunes and felt a competition was in order — to see who could perform the best impression of Ed Sullivan.

“Then John Byner walks in, and he does the best Ed Sullivan impression in the world,” Anderson recalled, laughing. “The competition was over then.”

Don Rickles was known to enter the lounge and, without breaking stride, yank the mic from Anderson’s hands and reel off a string of insults.

“Rickles treated me like a mic stand,” Anderson said. “He’d just start talking, right as we were playing.”

The term “throwback” has become as weathered as Sahara’s Casbar Lounge was the day before it closed, but Anderson is that. He is revered among stars who have an active memory of his masterful vocal presentations at the Dunes, and later as an opening act in Vegas showrooms for such stars as George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, Dom DeLuise, Red Skelton, Nancy Sinatra, Davis, Shirley Bassey, Shirley MacLaine, Johnny Carson and Rickles. Anderson ascended as a headliner himself and performed at every major hotel (and nearly every one has since been razed) of the era. Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck also were regulars at Anderson’s performances, forging friendships that have lasted decades.

Why the appeal? Anderson was a trailblazer as a terrific singer who also performed impressions. His first Las Vegas appearance was a happenstance, a late fill-in to open for Nancy Sinatra at the Sahara — a 21-year-old Anderson, who had just begun a career as a traditional saloon singer, was thrown into action after the night’s billed opening act, the Everly Brothers, got into a fierce argument and left the hotel.

“I was in cutoffs and had all this curly hair, and I went in to see Nancy Sinatra rehearse,” Anderson recalls. “She was stuck but had been told about me and thought, if nothing else, this could be really funny.”

Jumping on that opportunity, Anderson found regular work quickly. He was featured on the top talk shows of the time, joining Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Carson. At a party at Griffin’s home in Hollywood, Anderson was asked to sing. Celebs invited to this shindig included Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, and Anderson paid tribute by singing spot-on impressions of both legendary vocalists.

“This was totally out of nowhere, and I remember Cary Grant saying, ‘This is really amazing!’ ” Anderson said, shifting adroitly to his Cary Grant voice. “Merv said, ‘You’re going to be a singing impressionist!’ ”

Griffin helped make that happen. That night, the television trailblazer wrote Anderson’s entire act, essentially drafting the blueprint for Anderson’s career.

“I was the first guy to do singing impressions. We had a lot of guys doing political figures and other stars, and Sammy fooled around with it, but his impressions always sounded just like Sammy. He was a good friend of mine, but not a good impressionist,” Anderson said. “It was crazy. I was in high demand because of that.”

But Anderson fell prey to an entertainment scene along the Strip that required such lounges as Top of the Dunes — and many others that followed — to turn a profit rather than simply a draw for those who would spend money elsewhere in casinos.

“Most of them are full of slot machines or nightclubs,” Anderson said. “The stars are all gone.”

But he does have hope in the Cabaret Jazz venue, a room he loves for its sound quality and vintage vibe. Anderson’s shows Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon will feature a quartet assembled by Sinatra’s music director for a decade (and the music director of many of the stars already mentioned) Vincent Falcone.

Anderson will sing in the voices of others, sampling from Bennett, Davis, Martin, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole and Mel Torme. He’ll sing in his own voice, too.

“I am one of the fortunate entertainers who has always worked,” Anderson said. “I’m not just an impressionist anymore. Tony Bennett told me, ‘You need to keep singing the great songs because not enough people are singing the great songs. I’m interested in quality, not quantity, and that’s what I do now, sing my favorites. I feel I am singing the best I’ve ever sang in my life, actually.”

Anderson talks enthusiastically (but not specifically) of a return, full time, to a Strip venue. Something that might fall into place over the next six months.

“I could tell you,” Anderson said, laughing, “but I’d have to kill you.”

Better to just put a start time out there, in case we have to adjust our alarms. And our tee times.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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