Friday, April 26, 2002 | 9:33 a.m.
People are looking for an excuse to party. Howie Gold is happy to give it to them.
"Grown-ups want to have fun, too," said the longtime Las Vegas lounge entertainer, who plays piano while singing standards and pop songs. "That's the theme here -- having fun. People want to dance, to socialize, to relax and kick back after a hard day at work."
Gold has been providing party excuses at Manhattan of Las Vegas, 2600 E. Flamingo Road, since December. Before that he was at Ferraro's (5900 W. Flamingo Road), where he developed a fan base that has followed him on his trek from the west end of Flamingo to the east.
Manhattan is a popular Italian restaurant that has one of the best lounge settings in town, including a dance floor perfect for Gold's style of entertainment -- which is to keep people moving and having a good time.
Before discovering Gold, the management employed a few bands.
"They were good bands, but they didn't have a following," Gold said. "They weren't bringing in the crowds. The bands weren't really personable. I believe in being personable. You've got to be friendly."
The first thing he did when he came to the restaurant was to move the piano from the sunken area of the dance floor to the bar area, so that he could be closer to customers.
Gold's friendly demeanor has attracted a friendly following, which appreciates his mixture of entertainment and social events.
Gold provides a potpourri of activities -- every Thursday is a jazz jam; Friday and Saturday is dancing for everyone and Sunday is singles' dance night (with a complimentary buffet). Mondays and Tuesdays, Gold's days off, vocalist Christy Coffey keeps the party going.
The last Wednesday of the month is a Great Imposters Party, in which Gold invites professional tribute singers to perform. Among those at the last Imposters Party was Gary B and his Our Way gang, doing their Rat Pack routine, a popular show at Tropicana.
A birthday party is held every third Wednesday. Anyone born in a particular month is considered a special guest and his or her name is written on a cake that is shared with the audience.
The cake has become a major attraction for the regulars.
"You just have to use a little imagination," Gold said. "You have to realize people want to have a good time."
Gold has been entertaining since he was a teenager, growing up in his native Philadelphia. When he was in high school he spent summers performing with bands at resorts in the Catskill Mountains. After high school he divided his time between music and a real job.
"I worked for a shirt manufacturing company during the day, and played music at night," he said. "But there came a day, when I was around 21, that I decided I was going to have to choose between the two, so I decided to give music a try. I could always go back to the clothing business."
Gold performed with dance bands in small bars around Philadelphia and Jersey, and in the early '70s joined a road band that performed around the country in lounges at such hotel chains as Ramada, Marriott and Sheridan.
"It was exciting," he said. "We had a six-piece band, with a guy and a girl up front. I was the shy piano player in the back."
Gold performed on the hotel circuit for about three years, then decided he would take a shot at Las Vegas in 1976.
"When I came here, the mob still had some control. It was before the corporations took over," he said.
Gold said he worked up and down the Strip in the '70s, at such venues as Flamingo and MGM.
"I bounced around from band to band, but I kept working," he said.
Then, in the early '80s, musicians went on strike and the band leader Gold was working for got a gig on a cruise ship and Gold was out of work, but only briefly.
"One day I got a call from the (local musicians) union that changed my life," he said. "They had a gig for me at a piano bar at the Black Whale, where the Tap House on Charleston (Boulevard) is now. That was my first piano bar."
And it was his first solo gig -- singing and accompanying himself playing the piano.
Gold blossomed into a 24-karat entertainer.
"I realized I could do this," he said. "I started singing and telling jokes. I fit right in, and people liked it."
But the late '80s were not the best of times for musicians in Las Vegas -- corporations were cutting costs by cutting live music. While doing his piano bar gigs, he also played organ for the Las Vegas Stars baseball team.
In '86 Gold moved to Palm Springs, Calif., where he performed in piano bars where his audiences often included such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck.
In '88 Gold took a job in San Diego, playing the organ for the San Diego Padres, a gig that lasted one season -- until the team was sold and the new owner decided to install Muzak.
Gold returned to Palm Springs in '90, and in the summer of '95 he got a temporary gig in Las Vegas at Club Monaco, 1487 E. Flamingo Road.
"Work in Palm Springs is seasonal," Gold said. "It closes in the summer."
In the summer of '96, he returned to Club Monaco. While there, he got a second gig at Nicky Blair's restaurant (now Del Frisco's, 3925 Paradise Road).
"I was at Monaco's Friday, Saturday and Sunday and at Nicky Blair's on Mondays and Tuesdays," Gold said. "The Las Vegas lounges were coming back, so I figured, why go back to Palm Springs?"
He's been in town ever since.
"We have more lounge action now than we've had in years," Gold said.
Today Gold says entertaining in Las Vegas is a piece of cake.
Singer Joanie Sommers (famous for the 1962 hit "Johnny Get Angry" and several Pepsi commercials -- "Now it's Pepsi, for those who think young"), attended a recent taping of the "Dennis Bono Variety Hour" radio show (taped at 3 p.m. Thursdays at Sunset Station's Club Madrid and aired at 7 p.m. Fridays on KJUL 104.3-FM).
Chef Gustav Mauler is serving up big band music at the JW Marriott's OXO steak and seafood restaurant 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. The dinner-and-dance show, with music from the '30s and '40s, features the Mellowtones, a 22-piece orchestra comprised of engineers, accountants, music teachers, retirees and others. For information call 869-7750.
Popular pianist/vocalist Jimmy Hopper continues to pack in standing-room-only crowds at Bellagio's Fontana Lounge, where the music is free and the listening is easy.