Monday, Jan. 11, 1999 | 10:01 a.m.
We have accusations. Brother, do we have accusations:
Newton wraps up a week-long stint at the MGM Grand's Hollywood Theatre on Tuesday (his first-ever January run in Las Vegas), keeping busy in the midst of an acrimonious dispute with Orlando that bloomed in Branson.
Fresh comment from either singer regarding the twisted tale is scarce. Each party, through representatives, declined to be interviewed about the dispute.
What is clear is that both singers are bugged, in one way or the other.
"What Mr. Newton is being charged with isn't worth dignifying by commenting," said Newton's publicist (and sister-in-law) Tricia McCrone of Las Vegas. "It's all based on false allegations and Mr. Newton wants to continue to conduct himself as he always has, as a gentleman."
Orlando's publicist, Rob Wilcox of Los Angeles, said: "Tony wants to move on. He has a full plate for the upcoming year and doesn't intend to grant any interviews about this."
That leaves the narrative to the respective publicists and unsuspecting third parties.
"This is a very different situation for me," Branson Police Chief Steve Mefford said. "The whole thing is strange, unusual, and it's been a topic of conversation here for a while."
It's easy to see why. Orlando and Newton, internationally recognized stars, are major figures in Branson. The two longtime friends combined forces more than two years ago after Newton leased the Talk of the T.O.W.N. Theatre, a 2,100-seat showroom owned by Branson magnate Melvin Hall.
The theater's name -- including the letters T.O.W.N. -- were to reflect the initials and personal bond shared by the two stars. Orlando and Newton happily announced their partnership in October 1997 opened at the theater last April.
It seemed the professional marriage was destined to become, as promised, the talk of the town. But throughout the 1998 season, murmurs among residents of the hilly tourist community and evidence indicated the theater was struggling.
"I can say that Orlando had expressed disappointment with his attendance numbers during some portions of the season," said Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader reporter Kathryn Buckstaff, who has covered Branson for seven years. 'I drove by several times when shows were going on and there were very few cars in the parking lot."
Troublesome theater arrangements were nothing new for either entertainer. The Talk of the T.O.W.N. was Orlando's third venue and Newton's second since 1993, when both first opened in Branson.
"Each time either one left a theater, disputes over money were involved," Buckstaff said. "It's been a problem for a long time."
However, money was not the original flash point when this star-studded melodrama began to unfold on the night of Dec. 9. That evening, Branson Police took a call from Jon Orlando, professional comedian and son of Tony Orlando.
The younger Orlando had quite a tale to tell.
A bug's life
At around 9:30 that night, following an Orlando show at the Talk of the T.O.W.N. Theatre, police were summoned to the concert hall to investigate Jon Orlando's claim that a recording device was found in a meeting room shared by both entertainers.
Branson police responded, retrieving a tape recorder and a couple of audio tapes from the theater. A few hours later, Buckstaff was awakened by a tip from an anonymous source (presumably a member of Orlando's entourage) saying the device had been found and Newton was going to be called by police for questioning.
Buckstaff followed up, writing a story for the Dec. 12 issue of the News-Leader, which Newton representatives claim was planted by Orlando forces.
Wilcox, who was not present when the recorder was discovered, nonetheless paints a vivid picture of what unfolded.
"Tony's onstage that night, and his sound man brought to his attention that a meeting was being picked up through the sound board, and he was hearing it through his headphones," Wilcox said. "When the curtain went down for intermission, Tony heard his son's voice through his monitors and he immediately went in ... and notified everyone that there was a live bug in the room."
Present at the meeting, along with Jon Orlando, was Newton's Branson representative Howard Cotner and Talk of the T.O.W.N. General Manager Ron Zumwalt. Orlando's contention -- trumpeted by Wilcox -- is that a tape recorder was found hidden in a ficus plant next to a couch in the meeting room and was being used to record conversations in the room.
That claim is among scores disputed by McCrone, who said the recorder was actually seized from a nearby storage room and the tapes were of a recent performance by Newton, who routinely tapes and critiques his own shows.
"Wayne does that all the time, because he's a perfectionist," McCrone said. "Obviously, an entertainer is going to have recording equipment where he performs."
Mefford said he is unsure of exactly where the recorder was found, only that he understood it was in an area both entertainers shared.
Mefford's office immediately began to investigate the matter, and Newton was summoned to the Branson police station the following morning and patiently answered questions for 45 minutes. But the resulting investigation turned up nothing.
One key point: Because the theater is leased by Newton through his company, White Eagle Corp., it is not illegal for him to tape conversations on his own property. Bugging another person's property without his or her knowledge is a federal crime, Mefford said, but criminal intent must be established to pursue a case in an instance such as Newton's.
"Intent matters. Did you intend to do anything, as far as blackmailing someone or trying to extort money from someone?" Mefford said. "After we looked at what we had, we found no evidence that would make this a criminal matter."
Mefford confirmed the tapes were of Newton performing during a recent show.
"Some of what was taped was so inaudible, you couldn't have used it in court," Mefford said. "One of the tapes was from a (Newton) show, Christmas music, and the others were useless.
"The whole situation lacked for information, as far as we're concerned."
On Dec. 17, Mefford released a statement -- which he has since repeated -- that the department has concluded its investigation and will take no further action in the case.
"Basically, no charges have been filed and that's the end of that story," McCrone said. "Everything that's been said (about Newton) is inappropriate and baseless."
Wilcox countered: "They found nothing illegal because Newton holds the lease, but does that mean it's ethical, moral or fair to record someone's conversations without their knowledge? I don't think so."
The real reason the entire "bugging" issue surfaced, Newton said, was because of Orlando's lax attendance figures and meager profits at the Talk of the T.O.W.N.
And days after being questioned by Branson police about the recording device, Newton countered with a haymaker of his own.
In a statement released Dec. 14, less than a week after canceling the remaining shows on Orlando's 1998 schedule (which ran through Dec. 18) and three days before Mefford deemed the investigation finished, Newton released the following statement:
"It is unfortunate that Mr. Orlando felt the need to use an alleged tapping to smoke screen his inability to meet his financial obligations. I wish Mr. Orlando and his family only the best and I sincerely hope and pray they can work through their financial problems to everyone's satisfaction."
The news release, crafted by McCrone, also said that Newton would return to the theater in April and Orlando would not.
Documents provided by Talk of the T.O.W.N. officials show that Orlando failed to meet his own projected attendance figures for the 1998 season. His business manager, Lisa Flake, informed Talk of the T.O.W.N. theater manager Jeannie Cotner in November 1997 that Orlando would draw an average of 750 paid customers per show.
In reality, Talk of the T.O.W.N. numbers reveal, Orlando's per-show attendance was just 383. During the last month of his 1998 run, Orlando drew just two audiences exceeding his own projections -- a crowd of 810 (769 paid, plus comps) on Nov. 18 and 977 (936 paid) on Dec. 2.
Also, 776 tickets were sold for the Dec. 11 show, which was canceled in the wake of the events of Dec. 9. The resulting shortfall suffered by Newton's White Eagle Corp., which holds the theater lease, is around $2 million for the 1998 season, McCrone said.
Wilcox didn't dispute those figures. However, he said attendance and financial records were secondary to what he considered the more pertinent issues.
"What does it have to do with anything?" Wilcox said, referring to the White Eagle figures. "We're talking about a person being bugged. ... Tony is still in shock that it could've been Wayne, who's been a friend of his for 30 years."
If there were any questions about Newton's stance, they would be erased -- thanks to CNN's king of talk.
King for a day
Having been accused himself of seeking out media outlets, from the local paper to national tabloids, Wilcox asked, "If we were the ones seeking publicity, why is Wayne appearing on Larry King and talking about all this?"
Newton was a guest on "Larry King Live" on Dec. 29. McCrone said the hour-long appearance was scheduled in November and was designed to be a broad-ranging discussion about Newton's 40-year music career.
However, King asked a few (for him) hardball questions McCrone said Newton didn't expect. One line of questioning centered around the initial report of alleged bugging, and King simply asked Newton for comment on the dispute.
Newton clarified that he and his wife (Kathleen, an attorney) leased the theater and were not the owners. Then he said, "The whole thing with the supposed hidden tape and microphone ... is absurd. I won't even dignify it by getting angry."
King: "Tony is a pussycat."
Newton: "I pity Tony, because Tony used that as a means to cover up another agenda. And that is that Tony would not, could not, for whatever reason, live up to his financial obligation to the corporation and the lease. And instead of just admitting that and letting those of us that could help (do so), he chose to go this other direction. And I feel sorry for him."
King: "Are you now disbanded?"
Newton: "I decided that I have never given up a friendship over money, but he did."
Later, King asked: "There was a recorder?"
Newton: "I recorded the show. There was nobody recording any conversation. And when the police played the tape, what they found was the tape recording of my show."
Newton went on to say, "I don't hate Tony; I feel sorry for him. And I also do not have time for that kind of nonsense. That's what it is."
In an hour-long show, the entire exchange took about 90 seconds.
The 1999 entertainment year should be kind to both, despite the personal foibles. Newton has grandiose plans for the Talk of the T.O.W.N. (Jim Nabors fans will be pleased to hear he'll be performing there in May) as well as a busy schedule in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, Orlando is committed to Branson, where Wilcox promises Orlando will perform regularly in 1999.
"Of the two, Orlando is still more popular locally," Buckstaff said. "He's been very involved locally since he opened here. He's done a special Veteran's Day show and it's become a weeklong event that's been very successful, and Tony's been a large part of that."
Conversely, Newton has actively maintained his Las Vegas identity and has, as McCrone said, "Played in Branson mostly to get away from performing so much on the road."
The most recent squabble with Orlando won't at all enhance Newton's image in Branson, Buckstaff said. One famous episode occurred in 1993, when Newton offered to donate the proceeds from his opening-night show to the College of the Ozarks, Branson's four-year Presbyterian college.
The school's windfall from the performance was reported to be around $25,000. But College of the Ozarks President Jerry Davis was on hand the night Newton opened at the 3,000-seat Wayne Newton Theatre, and frowned upon Newton's double-entendre banter with the crowd.
The next day, Davis announced he wouldn't accept any donation -- not $25,000, not $25 -- from the Las Vegas import.
For Newton, it might have been a foretelling: Even the most noble intentions can turn out messy.