The Most Successful Performer in Vegas History? Not Frank, Not Elvis—it's Wayne Newton

updated 04/30/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/30/1979 01:00AM

Outside, the wind is howling and rain lashes Las Vegas for the third consecutive day. Most of the casinos are empty, the crap tables quiet, and the hookers have deserted the Strip. But at 3145 Las Vegas Boulevard South, otherwise known as the Desert Inn, the situation is different. It is four hours before the evening's first show and already the crowds are queueing up six deep to watch the performance of a man who has not had a hit record in seven years and seldom appears on TV or outside Nevada. Most of the 900 or so tickets have been reserved days, even weeks, in advance, and many of the people waiting will never get in. It is like that twice a night, seven nights a week, 36 weeks a year, and it has been for nearly nine years. Wayne Newton never plays to an empty seat.

Nor to an empty checkbook either. His contract with the Summa Corporation, the conglomerate offspring of the late Howard Hughes, guarantees him at least $8 million a year for 504 performances—some at the Desert Inn, the rest at the other Summa-owned hotels in Vegas, the Sands and the Frontier. Additional appearances in Reno, Lake Tahoe and an occasional tour boost Newton's annual income another $2 million. Anything extra, like the roughly $50,000 he received for last month's rare TV special for Buick, is really loose change. A few other male superstars—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson—can shake down the same kind of money in Vegas, but only for a few weeks at a time. Pound for pound, day for day, Wayne Newton is the highest-paid cabaret entertainer ever.

What do the fans get for their $32 minimum? Precisely at 8 p.m. (and at midnight, for the second show), the curtain at the Desert Inn rises amid a mounting hubbub of anticipation, and an offstage voice booms, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. WAYNE NEWTON!" To swelling applause he lopes onstage through seven pools of colored light like Jimmy Durante pursuing the lost Mrs. Calabash. At stage center he stands resplendent, a vision in scarlet, his tails open in front to show off a turquoise-and-silver belt buckle as massive as a heavyweight champion's. Newton's luminescent smile is dazzling against the swarthiness that proclaims his Indian blood. He stands 6'2", weighs 175 pounds (down from a blimpish 275 in 1965) and is, at 37, a strikingly handsome man.

Suddenly the 33-piece Wayne Newton Band materializes behind him, and the show is on, with Wayne belting out Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now. For the next two and a half hours—or even three if the mood is right—he sings ballads, country, folk and rock—ending with My Way done his way. Never a songwriter himself ("It's like flying an airplane—the people who do it best do it all the time"), he borrows freely and openly from other performers. Currently he is doing a medley of songs associated with his friend and onetime Vegas rival, Elvis, and a tribute (Splish Splash) to his old mentor, the late Bobby Darin. When requested, which is almost always, he serves up a piece of Teutonic fudge (Danke Schoen) from his own Greatest Hits. Newton's rapport with his audience is unfailing. "This is not television," he announces. "You can't turn me off, and you can talk to me." He twirls the mike cord like a ringmaster's whip, and banters easily with the down-front customers. ("Do you realize you just gave firewater to an Indian?" he asks as he sips from a beaming admirer's drink.) Because of his infallible sense of pitch, says Wayne, "I can start any song they ask for and be in the right key for the band's arrangement."

Sometimes it almost seems as if he is the band. Shucking his tailcoat midway through the show, he begins to perform on the banjo, only one of the 11 instruments he plays—though he has never read a note of music. Enraptured audiences salute every third or fourth number by leaping to their feet with applause, and a Newton performance with fewer than five standing ovations is considered an off evening indeed. At last his marathon show draws to a close, and he wanders offstage through the spots, pausing every few feet, like Durante, to wave adieu to the cheering legions.

It is a performance, of course, right off the cob, but it is also seamlessly smooth, and it is Wayne Newton's down to the dimout. He selects the program, picks the arrangements and costumes and supervises the lighting. Even the bandstand and stage floor were built to his specifications. "There isn't anything up there onstage that I wasn't totally involved in," he says. "I have to take all of the blame and some of the credit. People may dislike Wayne Newton, but they're never gonna be able to say Wayne Newton didn't work hard."

Nobody does, of course, nor does anyone tell him his business. Lesser stars are instructed to hold their acts to 90 minutes in Vegas, so the customers can get back to the gambling tables. Newton performs as long as he wants to. Many of the dining rooms on the Strip stop serving drinks and food during performances. Newton doesn't think that makes sense. "In a nightclub, people eat and drink and smoke," he explains. "That's what they're there for, so how can I complain?" Philosophically, he is a public defender, siding with the people who pay to get in. "The performer's first responsibility is to his audience, way over his responsibility to the club and its policies," he says. "If people leave a show feeling entertained, and not feeling they've been done a favor by someone who's phoning an act in, they'll come back, No. 1, and, No. 2 , they'll be so happy they'll stay in your hotel and gamble."

The Midnight Idol, as he is billed in neon letters writ large across the Nevada sky, bears little resemblance to the freckled, moonfaced kid with the soprano voice who first hit Vegas 20 years ago. The second son of a half-Irish, half-Powhatan auto mechanic and a German-Cherokee mother, Newton was born in Norfolk, Va. and raised in the Shenandoah Valley. At the age of 4 he was picking out tunes by ear on the piano and the guitar. "By the time I was 6 I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life," he says. He was performing on a Roanoke radio station four years later, when his bronchial asthma—which he later outgrew—persuaded the Newtons to move to Phoenix. Wayne had his own radio show as a teenager, and at 16 he dropped out of school to take an act starring himself and his older brother Jerry to the Fremont Hotel. At the time Wayne was too young to go through the Fremont's front door, much less into the casino. In the lounge, however, the Newtons were an instant hit. Their two-week contract stretched to 51. They abandoned their Spartan digs in a fleabag motel for an apartment, then a house.

In 1963 the brothers took their show on the road. They opened for Sophie Tucker and Jayne Mansfield in Buffalo and played the Copacabana Lounge in New York. Bobby Darin caught them, befriended Wayne, and arranged for him to record Danke Schoen. It sold more than a million copies, propelling Wayne into a main room at Lake Tahoe and then on to the big Vegas showcases. He never went back to the lounges.

After Jerry's voice changed, and after it cracked embarrassingly in front of an audience, he never sang in public again. Wayne continued as an eerie, post-pubescent soprano, with Jerry as his sideman, playing guitar and heckling his brother as part of the act. Real bitterness was growing offstage, however. In 1971 they put an end to their partnership and, according to Jerry, "split everything 50-50." Wayne claims he turned over virtually everything to his brother. "We were about as different as two human beings can be," says Wayne. "For him, show business was a means to an end, and he always said that when he reached a certain age he'd get out. For me, performing was an absolute necessity. I had to do it. Brothers don't usually see eye to eye, and working together just compounds the felony." Jerry, now 38, lives on a 510-acre farm near Fayetteville, Tenn. and owns two radio stations, a car dealership and part interest in a bank.

For Wayne, the split with his brother was a kind of watershed, a declaration of professional independence that coincided with a hard-won sense of personal freedom. In 1966, during a tour of Vietnam to sing for the troops, he had met Elaine Okamura, a pretty Japanese-Hawaiian stewardess. They were married two and a half years later over the strenuous objections of both families. "Her family hated me because I wasn't Japanese and mine hated her because she was," says Wayne. "Neither of us wanted kids right away, which was probably a good thing, since it was difficult enough just to get married." (The families have since been reconciled, and Wayne and Elaine have a 2-year-old daughter, Erin.)

With Jerry gone, Wayne was his own man at last and anxious to prove it. Having already sweated off his baby fat, he scaled his voice down to a plausible tenor (Newton still has a three-octave range), clipped off his ducktail and pompadour and laid in a flamboyant new wardrobe. Ever on guard against backsliding, he exercises every other day according to a regimen prescribed by Steve (Hercules) Reeves, eats one meal a day at 5 or 5:30 p.m. ("Six is too late"), strictly limits his smoking and drinking and never gambles—an addiction that has ruined other Vegas headliners.

With all his millions, Wayne can afford to live like a maharajah and does. Home is the Casa de Shenandoah, an improbable Greek Revival manor ("Every Southern boy wants to live in a mansion") on a 40-acre ranch outside Vegas. His parents live in one of the eight other buildings on the spread, and peacocks, swans, deer and even wallabies wander the grounds like the playthings of a musical Louis Quatorze. Newton has built two artificial lakes, a swimming pool and a hot tub carved out of rock. In the garage is a personal motor pool—a dozen classic cars, including Rolls-Royces and a 1929 Duesenberg that once belonged to Howard Hughes. Newton has an air strip and a new Bell jet helicopter, which he pilots himself to his 200-acre ranch near Logandale, 60 miles away, to inspect his world-famous herd of Arabian horses. Aides surround him wherever he goes, responding to his wishes before he even expresses them.

Small wonder, then, that around Las Vegas his name is on almost everyone's lips, and it is always just "Wayne," never "Mister" or "Newton." Among cab drivers at the airport, high rollers at the crap tables or wide-eyed tourists in the hotel elevators, it is always the same: "Have you caught Wayne's new act? Have you seen Wayne?" The locally familiar initials D.I., says Newton's drummer, stand not for Desert Inn but for "Da Indian." And Wayne, tooling home at 5 a.m. in his Rolls Silver Shadow, wouldn't have it any other way. "I have to entertain," he says. "If nobody paid me, I'd do it on a street corner."

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