Dondino gets officially “welcomed back” with a fundraising event today. If he doesn’t recognize the Las Vegas where he once sang every day, he’s used to it.
He was almost too late for Vegas even the first time around.
I moved here closer to the end of the lounge singer’s 11-year run at the Four Queens, before he left to explore Branson, Mo., in 1993.
The ’80s — those years before The Mirage opened and changed everything — aren’t remembered as a high point in Las Vegas history. You’d be charitable to even call them “transitional,” because the city wasn’t yet transitioning; just slowly letting the gas run out of the old way of doing things.
That included the lounge scene, which roared in the 1950s with the likes of Louis Prima. By the late ’80s, it was dying but not yet dead. Though they didn’t command the respect (or the salaries) they once did, you could still probe the corners of faded casinos to find the last of the originals — Sam Butera, the Treniers, Freddie Bell — along with younger guys who grew up wanting to be them.
One of them was Dondino, who sang afternoons at the Four Queens.
When friends came to town wanting to see “a Bill Murray lounge singer” — meaning Nick, who famously put words to the “Star Wars” theme on “Saturday Night Live” — Dondino (Melchiorre) filled the bill in his tuxedo, close-cropped helmet of hair and butterfly medallion.
He remembers auditioning for the late Four Queens President Jeanne Hood, who told him she wanted to try him in the afternoons, but with “that nighttime look.”
Thirty days turned into 11 years, and the Four Queens even built a lounge for Dondino based on sketches he made on — what else? — a cocktail napkin.
“I was not just an entertainer, I was part of the company,” he says. And he knew his role in things. “I was a baby sitter for the gamblers’ wives,” he says. A big player “would come back in the lounge and he’d be revived again.”
A big player once pulled a ring off his finger and gave it to him: “My wife loved your show.”
Dondino left the Four Queens the same year Hood stepped down as president, and joined what was then an old-Vegas migration to Branson. But he realized there was a different atmosphere even in the fading years of the lounge scene.
Something about the Branson audiences made him nervous, threw him off his game. Then he figured it out.
“They were all sober,” he says. “And being sober, they paid 100 percent attention. They studied you, watched every move you made.”
Dondino and spouse Donna Gummelt have since launched a nonprofit group that publishes bilingual children’s books, while following the lounge work to faraway places such as Japan and the Prairie Meadows Casino in Altoona, Iowa.
The couple moved back to Las Vegas late last year, this time for good they say. After Sunday’s “Welcome Back Dondino” event at the Italian American Social Club to help fund renovations there, they understand there is no certain future of him performing here.
“He’s a fish out of water,” Donna says.
“These young entertainers today, a lot of them don’t even know who Tony Bennett is,” he adds.
Whatever the profile of today’s high roller — a young Silicon Valley programmer? — Dondino knows that it is most certainly not a guy who parks his wife in a lounge to hear a crooner. And for the few live performers who still dot the Strip, the enemy has only changed in its rhythm. From disco — which he remembers casino bosses grumbling about attracting “the wrong element” in the late ’70s — to electronic dance music.
Even the lounge he designed at the Four Queens was long ago ripped out. But a lounge singer can dream, can’t he?
“People 50 and over have nowhere to go in Vegas to see a show,” he says. Dondino imagines downtown as “a hub” that collectively markets the combined strengths of “Gordie Brown, Louie Anderson, The Scintas and Dondino.”
See how he just slipped himself in there? A true lounge singer stands up to passing trends like the tuxedo he wears. So who knows? Maybe this “Welcome back” could turn out to be one after all.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.