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November 26, 2014

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Las Vegas entertainment legend Steve Rossi dies of cancer at 82

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Steve Rossi and Marty Allen backstage at the Sands Hotel on Feb. 16, 1966, in Las Vegas.

Updated Monday, June 23, 2014 | 3:38 a.m.

Kats With the Dish

Years of comedy with Steve Rossi

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John Katsilometes and Tricia McCrone talk to comedian Steve Rossi, who was on the Ed Sullivan Show 43 times, including three times with the Beatles.

Steve Rossi Dies at 82

Steve Rossi, Marty Allen, Keely Smith and Shecky Greene on May 2, 1994, at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.
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Las Vegas entertainers Allen & Rossi (Marty Allen, front center, and Steve Rossi, back center) with The Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964.

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Jaymes Vaughan, Steve Rossi and James Davis flex their muscles at the “Divorce Party: Las Vegas!” grand-opening celebration Thursday, March 13, 2014, at Bally’s.

Steve Rossi was never at the end of his story. He always had one more tale to tell, another tantalizing anecdote, more delicious detail to unveil about his time as a member of the legendary comedy team Allen & Rossi.

“There are things I’ve never told anyone about when we were on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ with The Beatles that nobody has heard,” Rossi would say in the later months of his life, as if bracing for a big finish. “We experienced so much. We’ll get together soon and talk about it.”

An entertainer with deceptive range and a magnetic personality, Rossi died just before 2 p.m. today at a Las Vegas hospice at age 82. He had suffered from cancer in his lungs, esophagus and liver. Family and friends, including his wife of 11 years, Karma, surrounded him at the time of his passing. Tentative plans are for a memorial service at Palm Eastern Mortuary on Friday.

Allen was crestfallen at remembering his friend of 60 years.

“What can I say? I am totally at a loss for what has happened,” said Allen, 10 years Rossi’s senior who spent several hours at Rossi’s bedside after Rossi was entered into hospice care on June 11. “We had a lot of great years together. He was a wonderful straight man, he was a wonderful talent and a wonderful man.”

At their peak, Rossi & Allen were as famous as any entertainment partnership in the country. They teamed in 1957, with Rossi’s cool, handsome and composed disposition a hilariously jarring contrast to Allen’s goofy and wild-haired presentation.

The two swiftly became an immensely popular duo on TV variety, game and talk shows. Sullivan was a particularly important fan, as the two appeared “27 or 28” times with Sullivan (by Rossi’s count), three of which were with The Beatles. They were favorites on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” “Dinah,” “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Perry Como Show.”

Rossi always grinned as he remembered the appearances with The Beatles on “Ed Sullivan,” saying, “I spoke to John and to Paul, and they had a terrific sense of humor. They knew who we were. It was, ‘Mr. Rossi, what a pleasure to meet you.’ I said, ‘We really are the stars of this show, whether you want to believe it or not. That’s why 76 million people are tuning in!’ They laughed. We only had about 9 million on our other appearances.”

But the presence of Allen & Rossi on those Beatles shows in February 1964 and again in August 1965 was no fluke.

“Everyone remembers those shows with The Beatles, and they were great, but we appeared on all the shows,” Allen recalled. “There wasn’t a talk show on TV that didn’t want Allen & Rossi.”

As a live act, Allen & Rossi toured comedy clubs and theaters across the country. Their most famous Las Vegas headlining gigs were at the Sands, Desert Inn, Riviera and Caesars Palace, where they performed regularly in their heyday in the 1960s until they split in 1968. Rossi went on to appear again as Allen & Rossi, with comic Bernie Allen, during a run at the Silver Slipper.

But Marty and he would reunite periodically, appearing together at Bob Stupak’s Vegas World in the early 1990s and the Sands for about five months before the hotel imploded in 1996.

Rossi had fallen seriously ill over the past couple of months, as his friends and family have noted the severity of his condition was not diagnosed until just this month on June 13. On the event of his 82nd birthday this Memorial Day, he planned a lavish outdoor event at the Las Vegas home of his friend Don Deserrano. But Rossi was suffering from dehydration at the time and was not able to spend nearly as much time at the event as he had hoped.

Rossi's final booked performance was at a high-roller birthday party Feb. 28 at LVH. Over time, he became more and more frail, as he was not eating properly and dropping weight. He had wanted to cook a big batch of meatballs for his own birthday event but said he was too tired, a sign his friends believed that he was seriously ill.

Rich Little was a frequent companion of Rossi’s. The two attended movies together and were frequently tablemates at Piero’s Italian restaurant, where Rossi often appeared with Pia Zadora in her cabaret shows. Rossi had worked with Little on developing the latter’s stage show at Shimmer Cabaret in the Las Vegas Hilton (later LVH).

“Steve was like a brother to me,” Little said. “He was my closest friend, and he was a very, very talented and smart man. He was a great singer. He was very well read. He understood comedy, and we dreamed up jokes together. He had an incredible mind for comedy.”

It was Rossi who suggested to Little that Little ditch his “Jimmy Stewart & Friends” theater production and rewrite the show as “Rich Little & Friends.”

“I am doing that now,” Little said. “The new show will be a tribute to Steve and will be dedicated to him.”

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Steve Rossi and Rich Little at X Burlesque's fourth anniversary at the Flamingo on April 7, 2011.

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Bob Byers, Steve Rossi, Greg London and Rich Little.

Little also said Rossi was not nearly as appreciated as he should have been in Rossi’s later years in Las Vegas.

“My only disappointment is more entertainers didn’t use him as an opening act,” Little said. “That kind of broke my heart.” But Rossi did stride to the stage when summoned by Zadora.

“He would come up and say, ‘I just signed a five-year contract with Pia Zadora. I’m just waiting for her to sign it,’ ” Zadora said. “He was funny, but he was very smart, too, and he had a great heart. He would teach my son Jordan how to cook. He was very much Uncle Steve to my family.”

Vinnie Falcone, Zadora’s bandleader who also worked for several years with Frank Sinatra, said he had known Rossi for so long, “I joked that he taught me everything I know.”

Falcone readily recalls Rossi’s popularity.

“I’ll tell you, when he and Marty Allen were together, they were hot. Huge,” Falcone said. “Steve was not only a great straight man, he was a really good singer and was an extraordinarily good-looking man when he was younger. He was the whole package.”

Rossi was a sharp man, certainly. He graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a bachelor’s degree in communication, arts and theater and in Latin and Greek. He was a voracious reader, and Little often joked that whenever he lost track of Rossi’s whereabouts, it was because Rossi was always looking for something to read.

“He’d be gone for like an hour,” Little recalled. “I’d say, ‘Where the hell did you go?’ He’d say he was looking for a newspaper. For that long? He’d say, ‘I was looking for the right newspaper.’ ”

Rossi was a physically impressive presence, tall and lean and often favoring color-splashed shirts and cowboy-styled hats. He wore his legend well; his website and Twitter page were titled LegendarySteveRossi.

Rossi was popular among fellow famous entertainers, too, as Falcone notes, “It was incredible how many people Steve knew.” For a variety show trumpeting the 25th anniversary of Allen & Rossi, Rossi helped recruit a lineup of Little, Engelbert Humperdinck, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Redd Foxx, Martin Sheen, Ernie Borgnine, Jack Jones and Tony Orlando.

His current friends ranged from Zadora to Little, from Wayne Newton to Penn Jillette.

“He was a great man and a great friend,” Newton said today. “He will be missed dearly.”

Said Jillette: “Teller and I saw Allen & Rossi in Atlantic City in the ’80s, and they were wonderful. There are things that only people who have been part of a comedy team know. I will miss Steve’s calls to talk about those things.”

Longtime Las Vegas entertainer Nelson Sardelli, who moved to the city in 1965 and met Rossi a few years later, said, "Some people just cross your path and never leave a mark. Steve not only made a mark, he walked with you. Steve was the kind of person who made you feel good about yourself.

Sardelli met Rossi in New York at the since-closed Latin Casino. "He was already an established star. He had seem my show and came backstage. We clicked like we had been friends for ages." Rossi was active in Las Vegas charities, performing at the Veterans' Home in Boulder City and serving as guest speaker at a Fun Italians Organizing Ridiculous Events luncheon a few months ago.

"Steve was liked by many," Sardelli said. "He was a great talent.”

Allen still performs, at age 92. His longevity was an inspiration to Rossi. “He always said, ‘Look at Marty! He’s 10 years older than I am. If he can still do it, I am OK.’ ”

During the final days of Rossi’s life, Allen hung a familiar photo in his partner’s hospice room.

“I put the picture of us with The Beatles over his bed,” Allen said. “He loved that. I said, ‘I don’t want you to forget this.’ ”

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

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