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Rickles on stage, as ever, as always

It sure did seem like a long walk from the center of The Orleans stage to its wings.

I think the whole audience collectively clenched its teeth and made the walk with Don Rickles last weekend. He’s 87, and walks with a pronounced forward lean, and he was a little tottery getting around that microphone cord on the floor.

But he turned around and came right back. He still had to introduce the band, sing “I Am What I Am,” and tell us all to “never forget your mother, because she will never forget you.”

Oh, and do a little soft shoe, too.

Seeing “The Sinatra of Comedy,” as opening act Robert Davi called him last weekend, shows how everything is relative.

I hadn’t seen Rickles in a few years and wanted to see how he was holding up.

Press audience members and they would be forced to admit it. See him now, because you just never know when he is coming back. Yes, he’s already booked for next year. But Ray Price, a few months older than Rickles, was booked for the Silverton this weekend and canceled because of his continuing battle with pancreatic cancer.

So nothing is guaranteed when you are 87. But then I found out my seat was next to Marty Allen, who is 91. He’s playing the Plaza Oct. 24-26.

Nostalgia is also relative. For some, it was actual memories of seeing Rickles way back when. For others, it was a taste of something they were too young to experience.

The time travel began with Davi singing Sinatra standards in front of a full big band. “That twerking (stuff) ain’t for me,” he told the crowd. Also, something they used to say back in the day, when entertainers worked directly for the hotels instead of intermediate producers: “If you’re on a high from Rickles, I hope you go hit the tables.”

My Rickles connection lands somewhere in the middle. It was well past what people would consider his heyday when I talked to him in 1998, as he sat in a white bathrobe over his tuxedo shirt and tie in the dressing room of … the Desert Inn.

Yeah, that place.

And Rickles, then not quite 72, already had to explain two years earlier that “old is how you feel, and thank God, I feel great. Old is just a word.”

But 15 years ago was still its own version of the good ol’ days. It was the Crystal Room after all. And Rickles still made his grand entrance by bursting out from the audience, one prune-faced ball of rage.

Rickles still works the front row, and resurrects a few gay and racial slurs you don’t hear on stages much anymore. But most of it played like another touchstone to the past. A reminder of the act he used to perform more than the person he now is onstage.

“That’s what I do my friends, I make fun of people,” he reminded us. Later, he would add that it was “never mean-spirited.”

But more of the time, the tone was sentimental. He braced himself with the grand piano or sat perched on a stool, and marveled at his amazing track record in Las Vegas. As best as anyone can tell, he’s never missed a year since his debut at the Sahara lounge in 1959.

“Vegas was my first big thing,” he told the crowd, remembering 5 a.m. excursions on Lake Mead after wrapping the last set in the lounge. “Anything to get a broad.”

Rickles’ son Larry died two years ago at age 41. You could read some extra poignance into otherwise unchanged parts of the act; singing “I’ll trade you laughter for love,” or “wishing you people what I have, people around you who care.”

Marty Allen rose to his feet several times for standing ovations. When the show was over and the crowd cleared, he greeted some well-wishers and then with a walking cane, made his way to the stage door to go see Rickles.

His wife, Karon, went to catch up with him, then turned around to wave goodbye. “Face it,” she said. “This is what they live for.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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