Las Vegas acts leave lasting impression

For the past few years, impressionists have been preserving classic Vegas entertainment for us with their Rat Pack and George Burns bits.

But next weekend, a couple of marquees around town will force us to revise that notion. Rich Little launching an extended run at the Golden Nugget? Fred Travalena playing the Suncoast?

Some impressionists are classic Vegas.

Little, 68, has lived and performed in Las Vegas for years. Travalena, playing the Suncoast Friday through Oct. 28, is more of a novelty. And a delayed (from Oct. 6) 65th birthday party planned for Saturday will have extra resonance for his local friends.

Travalena recalls an incredulous chat with a Vegas cabdriver, who enthusiastically recalled the impressionist’s Vegas glory days, but did not connect him to his back-seat passenger.

“I don’t know what happened to this guy, he was here all the time,” the driver told him. “To be honest with you, I heard he was sick. Last week they did a huge benefit for him to raise money.”

The benefit part wasn’t true, but the sick part was. Travalena’s anonymity was in part due to chemotherapy, which took care of the poufed-out hair that was de rigueur for all ’70s-era couch guests of Merv, Mike and Dinah.

The battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma came in 2002, not long after Travalena played the Stardust that summer and declared, “I want to get back” to the city that launched his career in 1971.

He credits Little for his break after an open-mic showcase in the Catskills. The audience watched Little for a reaction. “He laughed, gave me a standing ovation, we’ve been friends ever since,” Travalena recalls.

Little then recommended the paper salesman for a job he was too busy to take: a guest spot in British celebrity journalist David Frost’s show at the Riviera.

An opening berth for Shirley MacLaine at the old MGM Grand in 1974 guaranteed years of work on the Strip. But that turned out to be “a burden and a benefit,” Travalena says.

“I was on the cusp of the comedy club phenomenon (and) on the tail end of the Vegas (classic) era. I was kind of in the middle. All the young agents were looking at Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in the comedy clubs.”

Travalena keeps career stuff in perspective after the cancer battle. “It changes your whole life. In one split second, you’re in what I call ‘the cancer world.’ You batten down the hatches. You have your family, your close friends, your doctors, your pets and God.”

Re-emerging in Las Vegas, the impressionist will “see where it goes from here.” And if it happens to go the way of two oft-impersonated late bloomers — Burns and Rodney Dangerfield — that’s fine with him.

Mike Weatherford’s entertainment column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Contact him at 383-0288 or e-mail him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com

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