Shecky Greene returns to the Las Vegas Stage




Entertainer Shecky Greene is returning to Las Vegas later this week when he makes his first appearance in years.  Shecky will be headlining at the Suncoast Hotel from Friday, May 15th through the weekend.  So, if you have never seen Shecky or you want to see him again, here is a rare opportunity to see one of the legends from the days when Las Vegas was the Entertainment Capital of the World.  The other upside, the showroom at the Suncoast isn't gargantuan so you'll get an opportunity to see Shecky in venue similiar to the old days.

From today's Las Vegas Review Journal:

For many comedians, where there is laughter, there is pain. But, few comedians have experienced as many highs and lows as Shecky Greene, who started performing in the 1940s while in high school and continues today, with shows this weekend at the Suncoast.

Many of Greene's highs and lows took place in Las Vegas, from rescuing two financially strapped hotels and kick-starting the lounge scene to developing drinking and gambling problems and landing a police number.

"You're the only one I am going to tell this to, Stevie. And you can put it in the Review-Journal," he said. "In the lounge, when I walked out on the stage, the curtain was down. And I would do sometimes five minutes, sometimes 10 minutes, sometimes 15 minutes behind the curtain where I would talk to the musicians and make a joke. I would do this. I would sing a song. ... And you know why? Out of fear. Out of fear. Until I heard them laughing and everything else, and then the curtain went up. Now that went on for years and years and years. And nobody ever knew that."

During his long career, Greene has overcome and survived a nervous breakdown, alcoholism, various other addictions including gambling, bouts with bipolar disorder -- "I am bipolar, south-polar and north-polar," he joked -- two life-threatening surgeries and failed marriages, all of which took their toll.

But Greene is respected as a comedian, frequently listed among the top performers in the field. Bob Hope called him "truly a comedian's comedian," and Jerry Lewis said he is "the epitome of comic genius."

Greene was born Sheldon Greenfield in Chicago on April 8, 1926. He developed his humor early.

"I'd do comedy in high school. So many kids who did comedy did the same thing in high school. And I always did dialects," Greene recalled, noting the skill would serve him well throughout his career.

He spent three years in the Pacific during World War II.

"When I was in the service, I was in charge of an ice cream stand onboard the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard, and when I got out of the service I went back to my neighborhood with my Navy uniform. I had two gold stars, and someone says to me, 'Boy, it must have been tough over there for you.' And I said, 'Yeah, it was tough, tough.' And they said, 'What was the toughest?' And I said, 'Butter pecan.' "

After the war, Greene began studies to become a gym teacher. But a summer job at a resort near Milwaukee teamed him briefly with Sammy Shore, and Greene turned to comedy.

In the late 1940s, Greene was hired at the Prevue Lounge in New Orleans for two weeks and stayed three years, becoming a partner in the club.

"My club was basically like a lounge. ... That way I created everything, no matter what I'd do, I created it on the spot," Greene told me.

His breakthrough came in 1953 when he opened for actress/singer Ann Sothern at Chicago's Chez Paree nightclub. Then he was offered $1,000 a week for four weeks at the Golden Hotel in Reno, which quickly grew to an offer of $20,000 for a year.

About that time, Greene moved to California to try acting. He also married for the first time, a performer who had worked in a revue at the Stardust in Las Vegas and brought him to the Last Frontier. Greene worked the main room and the lounge at the Last Frontier and continued there when it became the New Frontier. The next stop was the Riviera, where his career "took off" in the lounge.

Greene said musician Woody Herman best described his act. "He'd say, 'You're a jazz comedian.' A jazz comedian, meaning I'd go from here to there to there."

Greene's act was about 90 percent improvisational. "The routines that I even do today I created in the lounges, never in the main room," he said.

He would talk about events of the day or his family and masterfully do impressions. Once Greene did a whole condensed musical version of "Fiddler on the Roof."

Greene never used "blue" material in his act. "In some places I was accused of it because I did double entendre. ... If you came to Las Vegas and worked that way, the people you worked for -- they'd kick you out," he recalled.

Hotel owners felt quite the opposite about Greene. In fact, the comedian actually came to the rescue once when the Tropicana got into trouble.

He had been working at the Riviera lounge, but the Tropicana's new owner, J.K. Houssels, did not want to put a stage in the bar.

"This is a true story," Greene said. "I started to leave, and then I came back and I said, 'What if I put a plywood board over the bar, that section. Would that satisfy you?' " Houssels agreed, and for 19 weeks, by himself and without a main room show, Greene kept the Tropicana going until "Folies Bergere" opened.

Greene stayed with the Tropicana for five years. "I started to get very hot. The place was getting crowded, and the people started coming in, 'cause they never had comedy like that in the lounge. I was the first comedian in the lounge," he said.

He opened the door for other lounge comedy acts such as Totie Fields and Don Rickles.

"Rickles came in because of me," Greene recalled, not boastingly. "My thing was so successful. ... Even the lounge owner of the Sahara asked me, 'Do you think I should bring (Rickles) in?' And I said, 'Yeah, bring him in.' So he brought him in. And I was hoping Rickles would do bad, you know. But Rickles didn't do bad. And my father used to leave my show to go see Rickles. I take an oath to God!"

Later, when the Riviera started to lose business, officials turned to Greene again.

Greene became one of the highest paid entertainers in the business, earning more than six figures a week, putting him in the same company as Johnny Carson and Bill Cosby.

As Greene's popularity in Las Vegas grew, he was invited to appear on variety and late night television shows. For one season, in 1962-63, he portrayed a dramatic role on the "Combat!" television series. He also performed in movies. But he remained a comic on the stage.

Greene worked with nearly every famous performer of his era: Bob Newhart, Steve Allen, Gypsy Rose Lee, Barbara McNair and Vic Damone, to name a few.

When Elvis Presley made his Las Vegas debut with Greene on April 23, 1956, at the New Frontier Hotel, he was billed as the "Atomic Powered Singer." And he bombed.

"Presley was one of the nicest human beings I've ever met. I mean, he was just the sweetest kid in the world. But he was not ready for Las Vegas," Greene recalled, noting that he advised Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, to change the young singer's look.

But all the fame and money could not save Greene from the darkness he felt. He tried to cope with the pressure of performing, his unhappy personal life and his compulsive emotional problems by drinking. "What's funny is that I never drank with anybody," Greene told me. "I'd go out alone. ... I was a horrible, horrible drunk -- horrible!"

I asked him if it affected his work. "Yes, it did affect my work," Greene said quietly. "As it became known about me, I started to lose a lot of respect. It got to (people saying), 'Let's go and see Shecky while he's drunk.' Well, I never worked while I was drunk and that's the truth. I'd go out and drink after. I never got on the stage drunk. I lost respect.

"The thing was, in all the time I was in Las Vegas, it became bad for me because I became a gambler, and a bad gambler," Greene added. "In all the years I played there I never won. And I became a drinker, you know. And I had two names, Shecky Greene and on a martini, 4799931, which was my police number."

Becoming serious again, Greene continued: "In Las Vegas, which was my life and my home, I was not happy. And not with Las Vegas, but with what I was doing to myself with the gambling and the drinking. After a few arrests, which were funny at the beginning, they then became more serious, you know. I begged my bosses at the time. I wanted to get out of Las Vegas at the time. I wanted to just quit. But, I was making a lot of money, and they said to me, 'As long as the asses are on the chairs.' They just didn't want to give me up."

"You gotta understand, and this is most important, throughout my whole career that I worked, I was a manic depressive. ... Then I developed panic attacks, and I worked with people who never knew it. I'd get a standing ovation, then I'd burst out crying as soon as I left the stage. I wanted to get out of show business so bad at that time. But when you're making $100,000 a week and supporting 12 bookies, and a wife -- it's difficult."

Greene finally left show business in the 1990s for nearly eight years. He stopped drinking; he had throat surgery and lost his voice for a year. He survived cancer surgery, and through it all he had his beloved wife, Marie.

His attitude and love of life now is boundless. And he enjoys entertaining. "They offered me a part in 'O,' " Greene joked. "They wanted me to be a lifeguard.

"The town really loved me, and I loved the town as far as the people," he said of his Las Vegas experience. "And we had wonderful, wonderful, wonderful people. And when we did something for charity, everybody turned out -- everybody."

Does it bother him that the town has changed from his heyday? "I gotta be very honest with you, Stevie. Times change," he said. "And about the comedy of today, if this is what the public wants, those comics -- and some of them are brilliant, hear what I tell you. ... These are different times, and different audiences. The kind of stuff I talk about goes on (and has gone on) for 2,000 years."