Stories and memories? You’d have as much luck holding them back Sunday at the Italian-American Club as you would reining in Carme Pitrello, the outsized Las Vegas entertainer whose life will be celebrated there that day.
But two stories — told by Pitrello’s girlfriend and business partner — look forward, not back. They get to these questions: How do you replace the likes of the 82-year-old Pitrello, who died Dec. 4 in Florida? What happens when the rest of the ’60s-era entertainers from the classic Vegas lounge days have left us?
Pitrello lived and worked in Las Vegas from the mid-’60s until 2004, when he met Sharon Newby on a cruise and moved to Florida to be with her.
He continued to work the cruise ships and Florida retirement centers until last May, doing his Dean Martin and John Wayne impressions and singing crooner standards such as “For Once In My Life.”
Not exactly the next YouTube sensation. But at one of those last gigs, Newby says the light and sound man — “a young guy in his 20s” — asked if he could bring his younger sister and her boyfriend to the next show.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told her.
The other story involved a young female singer who was trying too hard to be sexy, “gyrating and trying to look seductive” on the cruise ship stage, to polite applause, Newby recalls. She asked Pitrello what was wrong.
“Do you realize every woman in the audience hates you?” he told her. “The men are with their wives. They’re not going to get enthusiastic. Just sit on the front edge of the stage and sing.”
She followed his advice, Newby says, and the next night, “she walked off the stage in tears to a standing ovation. She couldn’t believe it.”
Today’s “Idol” and “Voice” contestants? “Carme would say, ‘They don’t have any time on the boards,’ ” Newby says. “They go on TV and they’re an instant star, but they don’t have the experience onstage to back it up. With so many years of experience, he knew the do’s and the don’ts.
“Carme says anybody can sing a song, but captivating an audience for an hour and a half, that’s entertaining. … He would come off stage, and people would just walk up and hug him. It was amazing to watch. This was his age bracket, and they were so proud to see someone his age active and working and still doing credible work.”
And Pitrello surely put in his time on the boards. “Carme was the one who helped me pack my car and little trailer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1965 to come to Vegas,” says his longtime friend and fellow entertainer, Nelson Sardelli.
“At that time Carme and I followed each other all over the Midwest in clubs. You could make a nice living,” Sardelli adds. But Las Vegas was “like the early days of going to Hollywood if you wanted to be an actor. If you were a nightclub performer, that was the mecca.”
Pitrello rarely saw his own name up in lights, but he worked steadily in burlesque-flavored revues such as “Pardon My Can Can” and “Babes Ahoy” and, in drag no less, in the dinner-theater farce “Natalie Needs a Nightie.”
“In the echelon of show business, not everybody can be a top name,” Sardelli says. “It’s like a pyramid. The top only has a place for a few. We were what I would like to call the backbone of show business. We were the ones who were there all the time, playing everywhere and entertaining the masses.”
Another performer friend, Peter Anthony, remembers that, circa 1970, “Carme and I were hanging out with some other guys, and he says, ‘Sinatra and those guys have the Rat Pack. Why don’t we form our own group, and we’ll call it the Mouse Pack.’ ”
Sardelli says he rarely performs now because “one question kills the deal: How big is your orchestra?” Anthony says he gave up the cruise ships around 1999. But Pitrello? “He just kept at it, man, kept at it, kept at it. He just loved performing so much. He was one of these guys who always got a standing ovation.”
It’s now up to second-generation entertainers such as Gordie Brown, Clint Holmes and Earl Turner to be the grand old masters, the keepers of old-school tradition. Newby says that at his 80th birthday party, Pitrello told impressionist Brown, “We started the town, now it’s your turn to take it and go with it. We’re passing the torch to you.”