Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2014

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Vintage Vegas:

Lounge icon hates the city he loves

After a decade-long hiatus, the consummate Vegas comedian Shecky Greene is returning to perform — hopefully, reluctantly

If You Go

  • Who: Shecky Greene
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday
  • Where: Suncoast
  • Tickets: $19.95; 636-7075
  • Also: Greene is one of the performers at a benefit for Italian earthquake victims, “An Affair of the Heart: To Italy With Love”; 1 p.m. Sunday; the Orleans; $35; 365-7111; www.lasvegasitalianearthquakerelieffund.com

Audio Clip

  • Interview with Shecky Greene from May 19, 1998: Used by permission from Ira Sternberg’s "Las Vegas Notebook"
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Beyond the Sun

Sonny King, Bernie Allen and other Vegas entertainers talked about comedian Shecky Greene as an icon of Las Vegas. Former Sun columnist Joe Delaney, too, spoke fondly of the brilliant Greene.

They painted him as a messiah of mirth.

Over the phone I recently told Greene about all of those old-timers and the fable-like image of him they’d created.

“Jeez, did you ever interview anybody who knows me who’s still alive?” the 83-year-old quipped from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. “I’m a legend, but nobody knows me in Vegas anymore.

“I did a lot of things in Vegas, a lot of good things, a lot of bad things. But now nobody knows who I am.”

Allow me to introduce Shecky Greene:

The comedian arrived in Las Vegas in 1953. He was playing the lounge at the New Frontier in 1956 when Elvis made his Vegas debut there and bombed. Greene was most closely associated with the Riviera and the Tropicana, which some say he saved from bankruptcy in the late ’50s. He was one of the first comics to pull down a six-figure income and was responsible for opening the lounge scene to such legends as Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett. He once drove his car into the fountains at Caesars Palace. And he left town in 1981 suffering from depression, anxiety attacks and divorce.

Greene will perform Friday to Sunday at the Suncoast, his first engagement in Las Vegas since he performed New Year’s Eve 1999 at the Tropicana.

A 1996 show at the Tropicana was his first gig since leaving Las Vegas for Southern California. He quit show business because of panic attacks and didn’t resume his career until he’d had years of therapy.

Today Greene performs other places, primarily in Florida. But he says he could perform in Las Vegas regularly if the response at the Suncoast is good.

Q: How has your act changed over the years?

Act? I don’t have an act. I make it up as I go along. I never had an act.

What made you decide to perform in Vegas again?

I supposedly retired, but I’m going back to work thanks to the economy and my stock broker — who even did more for me than my agent ’cause I’ve got to work now. But I wanted to come back into Vegas anyway for a few days. I haven’t worked there in so long. The last time I worked there was ... a disaster. They had me billed under “roast beef, $19.95.” Barbra Streisand was in there for New Year’s Eve and Bette Midler was in there for New Year’s Eve. Everybody had a 32-piece band, and I had a piano player with one arm.

Do you visit Vegas a lot?

My wife’s family is here, so I do spend some time here. I went to see Don Rickles at the Orleans the last time he was here. Don and I are very good friends. Because of me he got into the lounge at the Sahara, so I was instrumental in Don’s career. Maybe not directly. So he walked out onstage (at the Orleans) and they gave him a 10-minute ovation but it took him 20 minutes to get to the microphone. He walked like the Ayatollah Khomeini back in Iran. I said, “I don’t believe this.” He’s become such an icon, which is wonderful for him, but I said to me, “Me, I got to come back. I got to see if two people will stand up for me.” So when I’m there I’ll have like two chairs taken out and then the show starts. And Rickles had a full band. He sang three songs and I fell on the floor. So I said to the kid who books the Suncoast, “I’m bringing a piano player and that’s it.” I said, “Do you know that I sing?” He said, “I don’t know what you do.” The kid booked me and doesn’t know what I do. Seriously. He never saw me work, doesn’t know what the hell I do.

Is it true you saved the Tropicana in the ’50s?

True story. I kept the Tropicana opened by myself. When the Tropicana closed, which was the first hotel to ever close on the Strip, I was working at the Riviera. Some people from Chicago were interested in the property and brought me over there and offered me a deal — 5 points (a cut of profits) plus a salary, which 5 points in a hotel that’s not open is not too good, you know. Anyway, I went in there and kept the hotel open by myself in the lounge. I stayed there quite a few years. One time I was getting $6,500 a week and they brought in the Mary Kaye Trio. They gave them $10,000 a week. I went to J.K. Hossels, the man who put up the money for the Tropicana to reopen and I said, “Why is the Mary Kaye Trio getting $10,000 and I’m only getting $6,500?” He said, “Because there are three of them and only one of you.” I said, “Now there’s only three of them because I’m leaving.” That’s when I left and went back to the Riviera, where I got 2 points and a much bigger salary.

How do you feel about the changes in Vegas?

I can’t tell you too much. Interview me after I’ve been there three days. It’s not the Vegas I remember. I remember just the Strip, when they treated people well. I went to the M, the new place. I don’t know where they got those cocktail waitresses. They all must have won beauty contests.

Talk about why you left.

I had panic attacks. Thank God they came out with some pharmaceuticals, like Prozac, to help people like myself. My whole family went through that. I was born with that.

Even with the anxiety and depression issues you’ve had a great career.

I didn’t have a great career. I hid out in Vegas. I was offered a lot more movies. I was offered a lot more television. But I used to get these attacks so bad that I stayed in Vegas. I used to get standing ovations and I’d walk off stage and start to cry. Then when I worked for Sinatra I cried before I went onstage.

Do you still play the horses?

As much as I can get away from my wife. Horses are my downfall. The stock market and horses have been my downfall. People say, “You’ve got to stop betting horses, making parlays and daily doubles.” Same with the stock market — people saying, “You’ve gotta sell short, you gotta buy options.”

What’s your assessment of Las Vegas?

Las Vegas was very, very good for me, but very, very bad for me. As good as the town was, that’s how bad it was. I became a bad drinker, I became a very bad gambler — not a gambler, a player. A player loses all the time and gambler is one that wins. Then I married a girl who had a show at the Stardust and it was a disaster. That was as much of my downfall as playing the horses and drinking.

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