Call his career a classical gas.
Concerts were classical. Sinatra was a gas.
When your reputation rises from backing the Rat Pack and fronting pops concerts, prodding a city of entertainment toward becoming a community of culture, a hybrid label applies.
"He was known as the Maestro and he really was at the epicenter of Las Vegas entertainment at that time," says DeDee Nave of the Junior League of Las Vegas and project director of the Antonio Morelli tribute, "Morelli & His Music," tonight at the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts.
"Your first impression is that if you were casting for a Hollywood movie, he'd be one you pick," says pianist Ron Simone, who did some ivory-tickling under Morelli's baton in the 1960s, both for the free Las Vegas Pops concerts Morelli founded -- called "Shirt Sleeve Symphonies" -- and occasionally as a member of the big band that helped Sinatra and Co. swing at the Sands. "He was like a P.T. Barnum. He could snow Eskimos, just a marvelous personality."
Tonight's tribute, hosted by Pete Barbutti, celebrates the late Morelli as Vegas performer, cultural force and music education advocate -- he established a scholarship for music students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas -- with recollections from six of his musicians and selections from his repertoire, performed by the Academy's jazz band. Afterward, the audience is invited to a reception and tour of the Morelli House, which has been restored by the Junior League as a historical preservation project.
"It was his mission in life to bring culture to the desert," Nave says. "Starting the Pops concerts, he gathered musicians to perform voluntarily, and he performed not only classical and show tunes, but he wrote and directed civic and liturgical concerts. He got underwriting from the Musicians Trust Fund, but he spent his own money, too. He laid the groundwork for the community's appreciation of classical music performances. You can't say it was a forerunner to the Philharmonic, but he developed an audience."
In 1964, Morelli coordinated the state's centennial concert. "He got all the city fathers involved and got money through the musicians fund and got other angels to put up money as well," Simone recalls. "He did everything but park the cars."
The Pennsylvania-reared Morelli toured the U.S. as a pianist, composer and arranger for vaudeville and theater productions, including several for Radio City Music Hall, as well as conducting orchestras throughout the 1930s and '40s. In 1954, his career turned toward a dusty desert outpost when Jack Entratter enticed him to accept the gig as the Sands musical director, his courtly image -- elegant, with salt-and-pepper hair and a handlebar mustache -- anchoring the orchestra behind the Rat Packers and other stars of the era, including Nat King Cole, Danny Thomas and Jerry Lewis.
"To play in Morelli's orchestra was the pinnacle," Nave says. "He and Frank Sinatra locked horns a couple of times, but he got through it. He was a team player. Even though those stories exist, Frank recorded with Morelli's orchestra."
Though dynamic, Morelli didn't draw people to him like the proverbial moths to a flame, but more like ... pigeons to a horse? Simone explains:
"He called and wanted me to go to the Dunes Hotel because a friend of his was auditioning some Gypsy-Hungarian circus act and he wanted me to play the act. I go and there's some Gypsy guy onstage on top of a white horse and his wife has a whole bunch of pigeons and she sends the pigeons up to the guy on the horse. It was totally insane. And Tony says, 'Make up some music for this horse-pigeon act.' I was about to back out, but Tony said, 'No, you gotta do this!' Only Tony could talk me into something like that."
Not surprising for a man who convinced a city that classical music is a gas.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at email@example.com or 702-383-0256.