Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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New Year’s Eve was a full day for Mr. Las Vegas

I'm riding shotgun with my new very good friend, Wayne Newton, in a shiny black Rolls-Royce with the initials "W.N." painted in small letters on each door. We're screeching along Industrial Road, late for an interview with tiny broadcast journalism superstar Connie Chung at the Bellagio.

Wayne, it should be noted, is a bad driver. He blames it on the fact that he doesn't drive very often. "And when you don't drive these Las Vegas streets very often, they move on you."

The black Rolls slinks its way along the Strip, straying in and out of traffic. It's nightfall, about 5:30, and Wayne has a 5:40 appointment with Connie, his last interview before ushering in the New Year at his own theater at the Stardust.

Running late, Wayne needs to make a quick lane change to reach the Bellagio entrance. He nudges close to a stretch limousine and says, "Roll down the window and see if he'll let us in."

I ask, politely, and the driver snaps, "Hey brother, I'm trying to get in!" So I lean backward so Wayne himself can ask if he might cut in. The limo driver shakes his head and says, "Well I'll be (expletive). You go ahead, Mr. Newton."

Wayne conducts a quickie interview with Connie in front of the giant water show at the Bellagio. In an odd bit of questioning, ace reporter Chung, talking to Wayne Newton in Las Vegas on the evening of the turn of the century, asks him what Las Vegas' water supply will be like in 2005.

Wayne takes on a quizzical look and tells Connie that we'll have plenty of water in Las Vegas five years from now.

"I didn't know where that question came from," he says. "I had to kind of set her straight on that. I couldn't let it go."

We return to the Stardust (where Wayne narrowly avoids navigating his car into a giant plant near the entrance), and Wayne discusses the state of Las Vegas entertainment entering the next century.

"It's coming back to being very healthy," he says. "A few years ago some people got together and decided they were paying their stars too much, and they decided the best way to go was with the production shows. Then we ended up in the '80s with hardly any hotels with a star policy. They all had production shows."

But the trend has reversed, at least in Wayne's case. His New Year's Eve show is a precursor to his 10-year, 40-week-a-year deal at the Stardust's Wayne Newton Theater. The stipulations of his contract have never been confirmed -- initial reports put the number at a gawdy $25 million a year -- and Wayne himself has only said that the monetary figure is more than all of his previous contracts combined.

"People come to Las Vegas to see entertainment, all kinds of entertainment," he says. "There is and there always will be space for everybody, the stars and the magic shows and the impressionists and on and on. Me, I like performers, and I like performers who don't phone it in."

Newton can't be accused of going through the motions, even on New Year's Eve, a gig he says he hates.

"People are not interested in the performer as much as they're interested in partying," he says. "Once the clock hits midnight, they're not interested in what's happening on stage."

On one notorious New Year's Eve show in 1979 at the Frontier, Newton faced a crowd of revelers and actually called a halt to the show. Minutes passed before the audience, en masse, realized there was no more music and they were being stared down by a very irritated Wayne Newton.

"I told them I'd be happy to leave the band on stage and let them play mood music while they talked and laughed," he says, laughing. "You would've thought I'd called them every four-letter word in the book. They just glared at me. I played three more songs, and they didn't applaud after any of them."

But after four songs the crowd came around, and Newton ended up playing 10 minutes longer than usual.

"Afterward the stage manager told me he couldn't believe I pulled such a stunt, and that I was the luckiest man to ever take a breath because the crowd finally came around," Wayne says. "I never pulled a stunt like that again."

Newton has one more sound check before donning his black tux with gold-encrusted buttons and matching cuff links. His 23-piece orchestra fills the showroom with a powerful sound and all of the stage's bells and whistles -- lasers, a pneumatic lift for the orchestra pit and even a water gizmo to simulate rain -- are working fine.

The show is typical Newton. He tells the audience how special they are, practically before their seats are warm. He blows kisses to the crowd, winks, shakes hands and tells a few jokes.

"A reporter on CNN asked my wife today if she'd still love me if I weren't rich and famous," Wayne says in contrived candor. "She said, yes, she would still love me. But she'd miss me."

Newton croons "Danke Shoen," of course, as well as standards such as "MacArthur Park" (still don't get those lyrics about the cake in the rain) and Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love," a glowing reminder to the already star-struck crowd that, yes, Wayne and Elvis were dear friends. Wayne also breaks out an acoustic guitar, plays a little piano, works over a fiddle and happily strums on a banjo.

"One day I hope to learn to read music," he says.

The countdown is made official thanks to Wayne's rhinestone watch, and after a mass celebration and the inevitable rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," Wayne ducks backstage, finished for the century.

Afterward, talking to friends at a celebratory post-gig party, Wayne takes off his bow tie. It's no ordinary bow tie -- it once belonged to Bobby Darin, who gave it to Wayne after he "graduated" from lounges to showrooms back in 1963.

Like the entertainer, the tie has logged hundreds of big shows.

"I'm retiring this tie tonight," he says. "It's been stitched together more times than I can tell you. But it won't see the next century, sadly."

But Wayne will, right here in Las Vegas. There were plenty of other shows in town on New Year's Eve -- huge (and pricy) arena shows starring some of the biggest names in all of entertainment.

But on this night, as it has on so many others, the town belonged to Mr. Las Vegas.

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