Mr. Las Vegas isn’t just a title. For Wayne Newton, it’s a state of mind.
It’s why on Oct. 1, 2017, after the worst, he had no choice. “I was in Los Angeles planning to come home the following day. I went to bed. That’s when the news hit about the shooting. My wife woke me up and immediately we chartered a plane to come home.
“I had to get home,” said Newton during an interview with the Review-Journal from his Vegas home on a chilly December afternoon.
Why was it so important to him? Answer: It’s just who Wayne Newton is.
“It means a lot to me to see a smile come across someone’s face. Maybe it’s someone who is going through a horrific problem,” he said. “If I can bring any happiness to people going through something, I feel my existence is justified.”
The legend continues his residency at Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace with dates on Jan. 20-22, 27-29, and Feb. 3-5 and 10-12.
Review-Journal: What is your idea of a great Vegas Sunday?
Wayne Newton: Most of the time, I’m working on Sunday. But if the Golden Knights are playing, I get to the game. I really enjoy the games. If I’m home with my wife on a Sunday, we’re spending time together with the dogs, horses and even a wallaby. We have penguins, too. They follow you all around, sit in your laps. The penguins even go swimming with me in the summer.
Your ranch is gorgeous.
It’s wild. It’s a sanctuary for me and we’re in Vegas most of the time. We have a second home in Montana that we visit in the summer because the weather is cooler. When I first bought the ranch, there was nothing around it. It’s tough to remember the days now when Sunset used to be a two-lane road. So was Pecos. A tremendous amount of growth has happened. I joke that if I’m on the road and I come home, there’s probably a new building that went up when I was gone.
Would outsiders be surprised that Vegas is such a friendly place to live?
If there is one thing that hasn’t changed about Las Vegas, it is (that)it is such a friendly town. The people who live here take great pride in the city and what it is … and what it has become. We came through that October 1 shooting that was so horrible. I remember going to the hospital to visit some of the people who had been shot. It was amazing to me to see so many local people just walking into those hospital corridors. They brought blankets and food. I watched as a gentleman offered anyone the use of his car. In that moment I thought, “I wish everyone could see the heart of Las Vegas.” It was so important to me that the shooting didn’t define our city. It was crucial for me to just be there to help anyone who needed it. Maybe I could make one person feel better.
Why did your family move West?
My dad was an auto mechanic, and we lived in Virginia. I started singing at church in Virginia and then I was on a local radio show as a member of the band and the singer. I was six or seven years old. Honestly, I don’t remember when I wasn’t singing. But, I had bronchial asthma and the doctors suggested that our family move to Arizona for my health, which is what we did. My parents never allowed the asthma to become a crutch for me. They said, “Go play ball if you want. Go sing.”
How did you get to Vegas?
I was 14 and I was singing on a local TV show in Phoenix once a week. An agent came through town named Booky Levin from the Mutual Entertainment Agency. He hunted up my parents’ phone number and said, “I want that kid to try out for a gig in Las Vegas.” I didn’t need to be told twice. My brother and I jumped on a Greyhound bus and came to Vegas. Booky had already arranged an audition at the Fremont Hotel. We auditioned and were told if we could get work permits then we had a regular job. My brother and I became a duo who did six shows a night, six nights a week. It was 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off. It was grueling, but you rise to the occasion.
Did Las Vegas live up to your 14-year-old vision of what it would be?
Naive as could be, I thought the Flamingo Hotel would look like a big flamingo bird and the Dunes would look like big sand dunes!
Where did you live at 14 in Vegas?
I truly left home at 14 because my dad kept his factory job in Phoenix and my mom stayed there. They came out to Vegas, but mostly my brother and I stayed at a motel on Las Vegas Boulevard for a year until management caught me with a pet skunk in the room. I was lonely and I wanted a different kind of pet. So, I went to the pet store and bought a skunk. I had no idea they were nocturnal. The skunk paced the bedroom all night long. Then when my brother and I went to work, the cleaning lady came in and just about had a heart attack. We were kicked out.
Homeless at 14?
We found another motel. And we continued to play. If there was a lounge, we played it. One of our gigs was playing six in the morning until noon for those coming in to start their day. I used to joke that we went through two groups of drunks: Those who had been there all night and those coming in to start their day. You could always find someone passed out at the bar.
Did you know Elvis?
Not so much when I was appearing in Vegas. What happened is I was invited to guest star on the show “Bonanza.” I flew to Los Angeles and went to the Paramount lot. I was studying my script one day, hoping not to mess up. The next stage over, Elvis was filming one of his movies. Elvis came over from his set and put his hand on my shoulder. I turned around and just about had a heart attack. Then Elvis started asking me about a girl he knew. “Do you know this girl?” he asked. I said, “Yes, I do. We’re dating.” He said, “So are we.” We both started to laugh and became instantaneous friends.
Who got the girl?
The girl ended up marrying Wink Martindale! They have been married for 40 years!”
What about Frank Sinatra?
Frank took me under his wing. If he was doing a fundraiser for the university or a charity, he would always insist I get an invitation. Or I’d be asked to do the show. I never understood why because I didn’t know him that well. His wife told me later that it was his way of looking out for me to make sure I survived this industry. We became good friends, and I was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. One thing I learned is that if you were with Frank, people paid you no attention at all. If Frank was in the room, no one else existed.
Did you encounter Howard Hughes?
I met him three times. And then I performed at one of his places. He put up cameras in the showrooms and would sit in his suite and watch all the shows. Then he would send me hand-written notes. Once he wrote: “Thank you for being a part of my family here. I so enjoy your show. You maintain the kind of image I’m proud of being associated with.” You don’t realize the importance of these moments until you live on and look back at it.
Does it feel good being back at Caesars now?
It’s like coming home. It’s an absolute ball because it’s such an intimate place.
How did you get the name, Mr. Las Vegas?
It came from a writer who came through Vegas to review a show. At the end of his review, he wrote: “Wayne Newton is truly Mr. Las Vegas.” All of a sudden, I was doing shows in Chicago or Denver and they would say, “Mr. Las Vegas opens tonight.” That one really stuck — and I couldn’t be happier about it.