Impersonator’s goal is to make audience think of someone else

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series of stories highlighting performers who played an interesting role in the history of entertainment in Las Vegas.

Impersonating famous people came easily to Rich Little. It was the comedy that was hard.

"As an impersonator, I never dreamed I’d have to be a comedian, ’cause I was only interested in movies and imitating famous celebrities and doing voices no one else did," he told me. "And then all of a sudden I found out you got to be funny. And I said: ‘Wait a minute! I’m not a comedian. I don’t think I can be funny.’ And they said: ‘Well you better learn. You got the impression, but you’d better do something funny with it.’ " Sometimes, the humor is accidental. For instance, his Las Vegas debut Aug. 6, 1969, at the Sands.

"The only thing about my first appearance at the Sands was that I remember Perry Como was in the audience right down front," Little said. "And when I did my Tom Jones impression I split my pants. … I mean really bad. And I had to go off and somebody had to frantically find me another pair of tuxedo pants. And everyone screamed, they thought it was so funny. … It was probably the biggest opening I ever had!

"But what was funny was Perry Como came backstage when it was over with and said (using Como’s voice): ‘Rich, that pant thing you do is really funny. You must go through a lot of pairs of pants every night.’ (And Little replied): ‘I don’t do that every night! It was an accident!’ And he said, ‘You don’t do that every night?’ (Little’s reply): ‘No. Fourteen pairs of pants a week! No way!’ "

Little found his own comic voice within his many voices, opening the door for such headlining impersonators as the late Fred Travalena and Danny Gans, as well as Bill Acosta.

Little was 30 when he signed an exclusive two-year contract with the Sands, opening for Jack Jones that first August.

"They always used to have two people performing and there were a lot of singers around. So … it was just natural to have a comic in front of a singer. It just always seemed to work. That’s why in the early days I opened for a lot of singers, like Kay Starr and Jerry Vale.

"Of course, I was nervous — very nervous. … You go to Las Vegas and you just do the same show because people from Las Vegas are from all over the country. So it should work fine," Little said. "I think the ‘fright’ comes from performing in ‘Las Vegas.’ And I’m sure it is to a certain degree, today, the top of the ladder."

Little began his climb in Ottawa, Ontario, where he was born Richard Caruthers Little on Nov. 26, 1938, the middle of three sons of a doctor.

At the age of 12, Little used to answer his schoolteachers’ questions in their voices, and to attract girls he would find out who their favorite actors were, and then call them imitating the actor’s voice.

By the age of 17, with his keen ear and quirky sense of humor, Little was acting in Ottawa’s Little Theater, and performing professionally in clubs. His first pay as an impressionist was just $10.

After gaining recognition primarily for his reproduction of Canadian politicians’ voices on Canadian television, Little was spotted by singer Mel Torme, who asked him to audition for American television.

Torme was producing "The Judy Garland Show." On Jan. 26, 1964, Garland howled with joy at Little’s numerous impressions, especially that of her "A Star Is Born" co-star, actor James Mason.

The Garland show led to numerous other television variety appearances, and innumerable nightclub and stage bookings. By the end of the decade, Little had become the foremost impersonator in the country.

In 1971, Little married Jeanne Worden, and the couple have a daughter named Bria. They divorced in 1989. (On Oct. 29, 1994, Little married Jeannette Markey. They would divorce in 1997. Today, his wife is Marie Marotta, whom he married on Oct. 15, 2003.)

Little befriended Dean Martin, which led to his becoming a regular on Martin’s Celebrity Roasts. He also was a semiregular on TV’s "The Julie Andrews Show" in 1972 and 1973.

Little became a regular in Las Vegas. He was the opening act for the Osmonds at Caesars Palace for four weeks in March 1973.

He tips his hat to another impressionist who played a key role in the development of the craft.

"Frank Gorshin was before me," Little told me. "He was the first impersonator to do a full act. … Gorshin was the first one to do an hour, 20-minute show by himself with props and, you know, lighting, and all kinds of things.

"And then, you know, not long after that I started to headline. And then I realized that the little 20 minutes in front of the curtain isn’t going to work anymore. You gotta put a lot more into your act, you know, a lot more routines that are more interesting than just standing there."

Little appeared at the Desert Inn with Juliet Prowse in February 1974, the same year he was honored with the American Guild of Variety Artists’ Comedy Star of the Year award. In November of that year, Little made his debut as a headliner at the Sands Copa Room.

Little worked for Howard Hughes during part of his time in Las Vegas.

"I remember one night (entertainment director) Walter Kane … said to me, ‘Do that hat routine.’ (A gimmick where hats came down on wires prompting Little’s impersonations.) And I said, ‘I’ve taken it out of the act.’ And he said, ‘No, the Old Man loves that.’ And I said, ‘What Old Man?’ And he said: ‘Mr. Hughes. He watches on a closed-circuit TV up in his suite. He loved the hat routine, so put it back in.’ Isn’t that something? Howard Hughes liked that so I put it back in the act."

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Little appeared on dozens of television shows, in nightclubs and in Las Vegas. He headlined at the Desert Inn for eight years, once on the same bill with Susan Anton; at the Riviera, with Bernadette Peters in 1977; at the Las Vegas Hilton, with Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1981; the MGM Grand in the Celebrity Room, with Nell Carter in 1985; at Bally’s, with Charo in 1986; the Sands in 1991, with Mary Wilson, and 1992 with Sha Na Na; and at the Golden Nugget in the intimate Cabaret Showroom in 1991.

Little moved from Malibu, Calif., to Las Vegas in 1990. In 1992, he signed an exclusive long-term contract with the Sahara, opening a revamped version of his former television show "The Copy Cats," co-starring with fellow impersonators Gordie Brown and Pam Matteson (later with Kathy Walker and Cliff Lawrence), the Nick Navarro Dancers and the Ron Andrews Orchestra. Dan Skea was the musical director.

Little also starred in "The Presidents," a play about the nine presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. It premiered at Paris Las Vegas in April 2002.

In 1999, Little was inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana. In 2005, he was acknowledged with a star on the Las Vegas Walk of Stars.

Little is involved in several charitable causes such as AIDS research funding, the Juvenile Diabetes Fund, the Children’s Miracle Network and the USO, and was honored by the naming of the Rich Little Special Care Nursery at Ottawa Civic Hospital.

Looking back on his act, Little told me: "I would always tell jokes. I always felt it was important to have the audience know who you were, otherwise you are just a stamp machine up there, you know, a Xerox machine. And I noticed that people that really do well are people who (audiences) like — their personality and their sense of humor."

And Little has learned the city’s quirks.

"One thing you get in Vegas that you hardly get anywhere else — you get people in the audience who are asleep," Little pointed out, laughing. "And it’s terrible. … See, they come here, they gamble, they see everything, they get up early, they walk, they go to Circus Circus, they keep going, they gamble all night. And then about the fifth night they come into the showroom. They sit down and they fall asleep. It doesn’t matter what show it is."

Little continues to perform in Las Vegas (at the Suncoast in 2004 and 2005). He also does his one-man show, "Celebrities I’ve Known and Been," in concert. Little is planning a one-man show on James Stewart, and is writing a book. He also is a gifted artist, having exhibited his charcoal sketches here.

"It’s amazing how Las Vegas has just sort of changed and everything is a spectacular," he noted. "There’s ‘O’ now and there are more coming in. When I first came here, you could drive down the Strip and see Danny Thomas’ name, Dean Martin’s name, Red Skelton’s name. One big name on the marquee of the hotels. Today you drive down the Strip and you see ‘Roast Beef $12.50.’ "

But he likes the city. "Well the interesting thing about Las Vegas is there is a certain percentage which are locals, but mainly it’s people who have come here from all over," Little says about his audiences. "And they love entertainment, and they come to see you because they like you."

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