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April 18, 2014

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The making of a Legend

WEEKEND EDITION: May 26, 2002

"The Legend" glides easily through a crowded room, exuding poise and confidence as he shakes hands, hugs friends and cracks jokes.

At age 70, Steve Rossi continues to maintain a high profile on the Las Vegas entertainment scene. He's appearing at the Lady Luck, featured in Robbie Howard's "Stars of the Strip," co-starring with Howard and Michael Holly.

The longtime Las Vegan often shows up at Greek Isles, where he performs with sometimes-comedy partner Sandy Hackett. Rossi is also a frequent guest at area parties, business openings and shows.

Rossi, a native of Harlem, N.Y., was given the nickname "The Legend" by shock jock Howard Stern.

Rossi recently spoke to the Sun about his legendary career, the highlight of which was his longtime partnership with another entertainment legend, Marty Allen. The team was together on three occasions for almost 30 years:

Las Vegas Sun: Why did you and Marty Allen break up one of the most successful comedy teams in history?

Steve Rossi: You know how it is -- it's the same thing as any two people in life. You agree to disagree.

Sun: How did you get together with Marty?

SR: I was a production singer at the Sands. I met Nat "King" Cole, and he recommended I do a team. There were no comedy teams at that time -- Martin and Lewis had broken up, Abbott and Costello had broken up. Nat said there were tons of stand-up guys, but there were no teams. He knew Marty was funny, and he knew I could play straight. He suggested we get together.

Sun: Before you and Marty joined forces, what had you done?

SR: Actually, my first partner was Mae West, back in 1953. I was attending Loyola University, working on a degree in communication arts and theater, and I also was playing the lead in "The Student Prince" for the Civic Light Opera Company in Los Angeles. I was about 20 at the time, the youngest lead singer ever in the history of the Civic Light Opera.

Mae West came in to see me one night with her manager, Jerry Franks, and after the show they knocked on my dressing room door and she walks in with all her jewels and false eyelashes an inch-and-a-half long and she says, "You're a terrific singer and you've got a great body and a great face. I'm doing a nightclub act with Mr. America, Mr. World and Mr. Universe and I want you be be my leading man. You'll feed me lines and sing to me in the show." I told her I was a student at a Catholic university and she said, "I don't give a damn ... I want you in my show, and I'll sign you up with my agency, William Morris."

Sun: How long were you with her?

SR: For 14 months. For a long time we were at Ciro's Supper Club on the Sunset Strip, where all the biggest stars worked. We went on right after (Frank) Sinatra and just before Sammy Davis Jr.

When we came to the Sahara, she gave me my name.

Sun: Steve Rossi isn't your legal name?

SR: No. It's Joseph Charles Tafarella. She didn't put my name on the marquee at Ciros because there was no room for it. Then we went to the Sahara. The night before we opened she called me up and said, "I want to see you downstairs at the marquee." My entire name was across the whole marquee. He name was only seven letters. She says, "What name do you notice up there?" I said, "To tell you the truth, I notice my name more than yours." "Why is that?" she said. I said, "Because I have 22 letters, and you only have seven." She said, "From now on, your name is Steve Rossi."

Sun: How did the Mae West era come to an end?

SR: At Loyola I was enrolled in an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program, so after I graduated I had to go into the service for two years.

After my discharge, I went back to college and got my master's degree in Greek and Latin.

Sun: What did you do after you and Marty broke up?

SR: We actually broke up three times. The first time (around 1970), I teamed up with Joey Ross from the television series "Car 54, Where Are You?" Joey had some drinking problems, so that partnership didn't last too long. Then I teamed up with Bernie Allen -- and became Allen and Rossi, with a different Allen. Bernie was very funny. He did a lot of funny characters. I was a totally different act. Bernie did more ad libbing.

Then in the '70s I was with Slappy White for three or four years. We were the first to do a black-and-white comedy team. We were the headliners at places like the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel (in Los Angeles). And we played the Copacabana (in New York) four or five times.

Sun: You were still the straight man for all the comics?

SR: Yes, but then when I got with Slappy, a lot of times he didn't show up. He had some drug problems. When he wouldn't show, I would have to do both parts. I was forced to learn how to do stand-up. I couldn't just go out there and sing. Slappy actually helped me.

Sun: You say you and Marty broke up three times. What were the other two?

SR: The first time was 1970. We were apart more than seven years, then we got booked into the Playboy Club in Atlantic City around '77 or '78 and we just packed the place. Then we packed rooms in casinos at Lake Tahoe. We were at the Maxim here in Las Vegas for two years.

Sun: The second split came in '87? What happened?

SR: It was just a difference of opinion about the direction the act was going.

Sun: Then you got back together a third time?

SR: Yes. We performed at Bob Stupak's Vegas World (on the site of Stratosphere) for about four years in the early '90s.

Sun: Why didn't you keep the act going?

SR: We just knew we weren't going to make a huge comeback, so we went our separate ways.

SR: What have you been doing since the last parting?

SR: After Vegas World, Marty and I headlined at the Sands -- we were the last headliners there before it was imploded. What was upsetting was we were onstage when they blew it up.

After that, we split and I started doing a lot of stand-up, convention dates, high-roller parties. I recorded again, with limited success. Then, I started writing a treatment of my life story. I wrote a joke book -- a how-to book for stand-up comedians, called "Stand-up Comedy for Wanna-be Comedians," it hasn't been published yet. And I've worked a lot as an opening act of people like Bobby Rydell and Tony Orlando.

I'm also involved as a celebrity spokesman for a lot of companies, the most recent is for a security window company.

Sun: How did you get involved with Howard Stern?

SR: Howard was working for a radio station in Washington, D.C., when he came to see me in '85 at the Shoreham Hotel. I was doing a (solo act) in the Blue Room. He and Robin Quivers came to see me and he asked me to be a guest on his show. I was booked for a week, but he had so many phone calls they kept me over for four weeks -- I really jammed the room up with guest celebrities.

I was Howard's manager for five years, from '85 to '90. Before I started doing his shows, he couldn't get any celebrities to call him, they all were afraid of him. So I called my friends, like Pat Cooper and Jackie Mason and a bunch of others, and they started calling.

Then, when he moved the show to NBC in New York, I got the celebrities for that show. All together, over the years, I've been on the Howard Stern show 125 to 135 times -- maybe more.

Sun: How did your situation with Stern end?

SR: When I was with him, his top pay was $300,000. I got 10 percent for managing him, so I was making $30,000 a year, plus dates on my own. Then, when I got back with Marty (in '90), we were making $35,000 a weekend, so I wasn't making enough with Howard. As luck would have it, he really made it big, in the millions. My 10 percent would have meant a lot of money.

Sun: Are you still friends?

SR: Oh, sure. He's a great guy. I did a taping last week, part of a retrospective that he'll air sometime in July. He just talked to me about how I'm doing.

Sun: And how are you doing?

SR: Great. I'm always busy, and I love it. I love to write. I love to see shows, especially comedians. I love to sing.

Sun: So you've adapted to being a stand-up comedian instead of a straight man?

SR: When I was first breaking in, you couldn't believe the sweat. You find out the audience is great if they like you, but horrible if they don't.

And I found out the worst noise in the world is silence.