These days Jeff Wayne is known on the comedy circuit as “Big Daddy,” but 50 years ago he was just another Kentucky kid kicking around the glare of Newport trying to decide his next move.
Those familiar with the history of the town know its notorious reputation and its connections to some of Las Vegas’ founding fathers. Whether it’s cards and dice or wine and women, Newport for generations pulsed with the scent of vice on Monmouth Street and attracted a steady stream of customers from just across the Ohio River and traditionally square Cincinnati.
At the time most young teen-age boys are still dreaming of playing big league ball, Wayne had visions of making people laugh. He took a shot at 14 and started on the long road to becoming “Big Daddy.”
Unlike the careers of the most famous headliners in comedy, getting laughs didn’t rocket Wayne to stardom. He’s not a household name. But he found work with encouragement from veterans Kelly Monteith and Tom Dreesen, and that put him on the road more than a long-haul trucker.
“I started doing amateur shows around northern Kentucky and Cincinnati when I was 14,” he says. Now in the neighborhood of 60, he keeps a residence in Southern California but admits he travels so much he barely recognizes the place.
Still, it’s the life he chose, and he’s grateful for the work, which comes in varying sizes, shapes and locales. This week, for instance, Wayne is playing the Riviera Comedy Club alongside Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. Before our recent interview, he had played a cruise ship through the Caribbean and comedy clubs from Miami to Los Angeles. He works “clean” and “dirty” and rarely turns down an opportunity.
“You’ve gotta grab the jobs when you can grab them,” he says, adding that he’s done everything from opening for the Judds to playing nightclubs whose names have long since faded into obscurity.
During a routine stop at immigration following a recent gig on a Carnival Cruise ship, he was asked which island he had visited during his trip. He was stumped.
“I couldn’t remember,” Wayne says. “Traveling. That’s what you’ve got to do in this business to survive. ... Your life is about going to airports, getting on airplanes, doing radio shows and interviews. It isn’t just about getting onstage. You’ve got to be willing to do all these other things nobody wants to talk about. It certainly doesn’t sound glamorous. But in this business, the younger guys aren’t there to help us.” He laughs and adds, “They’re there to usurp us.”
He started working in Las Vegas in the 1980s with help from Cork Proctor at the Marina, Dunes, Golden Nugget and others. Former Riviera entertainment director-turned-movie star Steve Schirripa kept him busy, too.
The disappearance of so many of the places he once worked finds its way into Wayne’s Vegas material.
“Enjoy yourself,” he tells his audience. “I don’t know how much longer we have.”
If comedy superstardom has been elusive, Wayne remains undeterred. It’s one of the things I like about him. He’s a funny guy, but he’s also a tenacious one. He has shown a willingness to adapt to changing times and tastes.
Between gigs he polishes his one-man show titled “Big Daddy’s Barbecue: Grilling Good Food, Sex and Marriage,” which he hopes will one day catch on like the popular “Defending of the Caveman.”
And if it doesn’t?
Big Daddy will keep moving to the next show. He’ll keep his sense of humor and keep chasing his dream.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.