Suing by Day, Singing by Night, Wayne Newton Is the Vegas Star of Stage and Witness Stand
Stately, plump Wayne Newton, as usual, was giving his all at a public appearance. The King of Las Vegas was in his town, with the normal mix of locals and out-of-towners raptly attentive out front, but this was not his normal showroom. He was a few miles north of the Strip, seated behind a folding card table fringed with a flimsy gold acetate skirt, while sunlight bathed the outside world, and the city slowed to its daytime crawl. He wore not his skintight stage tuxedo, but a navy blue suit accented only by shiny brass buttons at the cuffs and epaulets. A few feet to his left, not much farther away from him than the front tables at Bally's showroom are from the stage, 10 people who looked as if they would pay money to see him were following his words closely. They were the federal jury that will make the decision in a lawsuit he has brought against NBC. It is a contest in which, as Newton sees it, his reputation, his honor, perhaps even his future are on the line.
Newton's feud with the TV network began in 1980 when he and a partner, Ed Torres, agreed to buy the Aladdin Hotel. A Moorish-style skyscraper that anchors the southern end of the Las Vegas Strip, the Aladdin was an institution that showcased much of Las Vegas' major talent. It fell on hard times in 1979, and the owners happily accepted Newton's bid of $85 million.
In his lawsuit Newton contends that NBC News defamed him by reporting, as he understood it, that the Mafia helped him buy the hotel. In the first of a series of broadcasts, NBC correspondent Brian Ross reported that "A federal grand jury is now investigating the role of Guido Penosi and the Mob in Wayne Newton's deal for the Aladdin."
Ross never explicitly said that the Mob was involved, but Newton claims that social leaders in Las Vegas have shunned him since the broadcast. His partner in the ownership of the Aladdin treated him with disrespect. The number of weeks he has since worked in Las Vegas has plummeted from 36 to 10 or 12. A multimillion-dollar film deal has been canceled. Merely hearing what NBC said about him was a cause of unbearable distress: "I was devastated. I was shocked. I looked at my mother; she had tears running down her face." As Newton put it bitterly, "NBC accused me of being a leper." And so he has come to court. He is not just asking for about $6.5 million in damages; he is asking his peers to restore his good name.
Self-assured and rock-steady on the stand, speaking in the mellifluous voice that singers have, the jet-haired Newton, 44, contends that his involvement with Mafiosi was innocent. After a series of anonymous threats to himself and his family, he says, he asked a friend he knew only as Guido to intervene and stop the threats. Newton says he never knew that Guido was involved in organized crime.
Las Vegas has watched this drama closely. To get to the city's airport, you drive down Wayne Newton Boulevard. If you live in the city, you have marked Wayne Newton Day. Nevada governors and senators have come to the 52-acre spread where he lives with his 10-year-old daughter, Erin, to pay him court, and the license tag on his Rolls-Royce reads "Vegas 1." The trial, which could last two months, is a sign of Newton's seriousness about his standing in the community. Both sides will spend millions in lawyers' fees, and it will drag Newton into a courtroom four days a week before 9 a.m., often only a few hours after his post-midnight performance. The legal battle has already opened a fascinating window on the life of power and money in Las Vegas. World-famous entertainers and underworld figures come together amid glitz and gambling—a universe that would have been unseen by the public had not the purchase of the Aladdin let the genie out of the bottle.
Newton's image difficulties developed through a bizarre series of events. In the late '70s he invested $100,000 in a small, Las Vegas tabloid owned by a man named Ron Delpit. Newton and Delpit fell out over money, Newton says, and Delpit arrived one night with another man, who acted in a threatening manner. "I'm afraid my temper got the better of me, and I backhanded him," Newton testified.
After that, he says, he began receiving those anonymous phone calls threatening him, his wife at the time, Elaine, and their young daughter. Las Vegas police were unable to track down the source of the calls. Delpit has always denied making any threats. When a free-lance writer told Newton that four hit men had come to town to kill him, he says, he turned in desperation to Guido.
This Byzantine story probably would never have come to light but for an odd coincidence. In the spring of 1980 federal investigators in Connecticut were tapping the phone in a delicatessen frequented by Frank Piccolo, the local boss of the Gambino family. Authorities believed that the Gambinos, one of the five Mafia families who control organized crime in New York, were expanding their operations to the West Coast and Las Vegas. Thus the agents were startled to hear a series of phone conversations between Wayne Newton's acquaintance Guido and Piccolo, in which Newton and his pending purchase of the Aladdin were mentioned.
In 1980 this information found its way to NBC investigative reporter Brian Ross. He learned that Newton's friend was Guido "the Bull" Penosi, a convicted murderer and drug dealer whom the Government says is a member of the Gambino family. As NBC's later stories indicated, the authorities indicted the two mobsters for plotting against Newton; having helped the singer deal with the threats, they decided to extort money from him and other Las Vegas figures, including Lola Falana. When they stood trial in 1982, Penosi was acquitted; Piccolo, who was gunned down in a phone booth near his Bridgeport, Conn, home, presumably had his case moved to a higher court.
Newton admits that he had known Penosi for more than two decades, dined with him at his home and even accepted a watch from him inscribed "Wayne from Carmine and Guido." Still, Newton insisted, he never knew Guido's last name, never knew that "Carmine" was Carmine Tramunti, a Mafia leader, and hardly knew Guido.
"Ever ask what his last name was?" Floyd Abrams, the NBC attorney asked.
"Not to the best of my recollection," Newton responded.
"Do you believe there is such a thing as organized crime?"
"I have no feeling one way or the other."
"Did Mr. Penosi tell you in 1979 that he was a felon or an ex-felon?"
"You are getting down to semantics."
"I want to bring to you now, Mr. Newton, a document called the Monster of the Month Calendar for 1980," Abrams announced at one point. The calendar, Newton admitted, had been used by his secretary; in it, she had recorded in green ink the birthdays and anniversaries of Newton's friends. Abrams had him read aloud the names in green ink:
March 4: Governor Reagan wedding anniversary...March 23: Michael Jackson...April 3: Tony Orlando...May 5: Tammy Wynette...June 15: Frank Sinatra....
On June 4, Newton acknowledged, there appeared the entry "Guido P"; but Penosi, he still insisted, was a scant acquaintance whose last name he did not even know.
As the questioning ground on, Newton admitted that his testimony about Penosi to a Federal grand jury and a Nevada Gaming Commission was given under a curious standard. When he said, for instance, that he might have met Penosi only four times in his entire life, Newton conceded, that counted all of Penosi's visits to the Copacabana in New York during six months Newton performed there in the '60s as one meeting. Although there might have been a dozen or more occasions when they saw each other, Newton claimed that it was still true to say they had only met four times: "It was true in the context in which I stated it," he insisted. By now, members of the jury, who had been giving the plantiff more or less undivided attention, were starting to stare uncomfortably at their feet.
Wayne Newton burst upon the world as a child singer, more than two decades ago, a youngster whose clear soprano voice thrilled middle America and whose impeccable manners when he talked to the likes of Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey warmed every mother's heart. On the witness stand, he kept sirring Floyd Abrams with a determined punctilio that only began to crack after a day of cross-examination.
His composure shaken, the "sirs" started to disappear from his speech, and sarcasm crept in. At one point he gestured at NBC's Ross and said, "I didn't realize I was under oath to Mr. Wimp over there." His pique flared at the mention of his ex-wife, Elaine. "My former wife sometimes gets confused," he said, with an edge in his voice. "My former wife, when asked if she came to my licensing hearing said 'No,' and when asked how she got there, said she drove." Newton took out a handkerchief and wiped sweat from his brow. Court adjourned at 4:30.
Three hours later, at Bally's-Las Vegas, the line seemed to go on forever—down the steps from the showroom and into the casino, through the aisles of slot machines and past the teller cages and "21" tables. The showroom at Bally's holds 1,508 people, and 1,508 people were there, half an hour early, eager for the opening of Mr. Las Vegas' all-new show. "We're here for our 40th anniversary," one burgher at a front-row table declared, pointing at his beaming bride. They knew about the trial, but they gave it little mind. "The media are really doing a job, aren't they?" the man said, looking at the curtain expectantly.
Just after 8, the curtain rose and a bank of fog rolled out into the audience from backstage. Lasers cut through the fog, and a spaceship descended from the ether, Close Encounters-style. A huge figure in a silvery space suit appeared, moving jerkily to the front of the stage amid the billows. Then, with high drama, the spaceman doffed the suit, revealing Wayne Newton, zippered into the world's tightest tuxedo pants and jacket and exploding into his rendition of Neil Diamond's America. "I do a very physical show, and it's a hard show," Newton had testified earlier. "That style of performing is tiring, physically and emotionally."
Not even Floyd Abrams could shake that testimony. For two hours Newton gave the crowd what it wanted. He dazzled them with the range of his musical talents: a little fiddle playing, a spot of cornet, some banjo and some piano thumping like Jerry Lee Lewis. His act may be derivative—he sings hits made popular by stars from Presley to Sinatra, and doesn't even bother with his own standard, Danke Schoen, any more—but it is two hours of grinding energy. Middle-age women rush the stage with roses and are rewarded by a single, chaste kiss. "We're a hit!" Newton yells triumphantly after one wave of applause moves the room. "Damn, we're a hit!"
Here again Wayne Newton is indisputably correct: two bodyguards—giant men with linebacker bodies—loiter at the back of the courtroom each day, waiting to escort him through thickets of admirers. As he makes his way from the room, Newton shakes hands with male fans, kisses women and takes his accustomed place as an idol of his community. He has said that NBC's broadcasts have sullied his reputation. Certainly, his fans disagree.
Still Wayne Newton does not yet feel vindicated. He insists that the broadcasts made people think that he was a criminal, that NBC has cost him money. He sold his interest in the Aladdin in 1982, he says, because NBC made it impossible for him to continue. Wayne Newton today is not a happy man.
Nor has the Aladdin fared well. Although the hotel is still open, its profit-making core—the casino—remains closed until its new owner can obtain a gaming license. Around midnight, when the rest of the city is at its busiest, the lobby of the Aladdin is deserted but for a group of Japanese tourists. The hotel is trying to make the best of its lack of a casino. High above Las Vegas Boulevard, its marquee shouts: ALADDIN—NO WAY TO LOSE HERE.
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