Wayne Newton, the stalwart showman alternately dubbed “Mr. Las Vegas” and “Mr. Entertainment,” brought his one-man show to Northfield’s Hard Rock Rocksino on Saturday night. The almost-sold out crowd was made up of long-time fans, newbies and a handful of family that Mr. Newton has here in Northeast Ohio.
The show, “Wayne: Up Close and Personal,” was a variation on his oh-so-tried-and-true Vegas-style lounge act. Part long-form Q&A session, a handful of anecdotes about his long career in show biz, and an offering of several songs that Newton has made popular over the last fifty-plus years peppered the two-hour show.
Although born and raised in the same era as Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and other ’60s illuminaries, Mr. Newton is a throwback to an earlier era of entertainer. Starting at a very young age as a lounge singer and musician (he plays thirteen different instruments), Newton honed his craft in the lounges of both Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Taking his show on the road at the tender age of twenty-one, he became a support act for Jack Benny. After signing with Benny, he returned to Vegas to star in the “Big Room,” the main venue for performers, a venue to which few lounge singers ever graduated. “In fifty years in Vegas,” Newton said, “I only saw five performers make it to the ‘big room.'”
About twenty minutes into the evening, a fan yelled out “Sing some songs!,” apparently exasperated at Mr. Newton’s anecdotes. This, after all, was billed as an up close and personal evening and would be peppered with stories as well as song. He casually brushed off the criticism and launched into the Q&A, hosted by his wife, a North Olmsted native. One of the questions related to with whom Newton most liked singing. It appeared to be a no-brainer: Glenn Campbell. A short video from the late 1960s was played that showed Newton and Campbell dueting. To see the two of them, absent of advanced age and the Alzheimer’s that plagues Mr. Campbell, at the peak of their powers was a sight to behold and really reinforced the longevity of Wayne Newton’s career.
As he discussed his influences and breaks along the way, Newton seemed very humbled by the happy accidents that helped him along his path. He thanked Jack Benny (“Mr. Benny,” he said with an air of respect) and Jackie Gleason, who gave him his first break on television. It was odd seeing a seventy-something year old man calling deceased celebrities “Mister,” but it shows both the affection and respect that he has for these iconic figures who helped break his career almost sixty years ago; show me a singer today that would display either of those traits to a mentor in a public forum. I can only chuckle when I think of Kanye West attempting to give a shout out to a mentor.
As the show progressed, a ninety-minute evening turned into almost two full hours. Michael Stanley was in the audience and Newton graciously thanked him for attending his concert, wished him a happy birthday, and even led the audience in singing impromptu happy birthday wishes to the Cleveland musician.
I sat in my seat and smiled at the almost-trytophanic delight this show was having on the crowd. Bereft of any post modern wink-wink nod-nod humor or even a slight bit of irony, Newton led his crowd through a sixty-year journey. We saw clips of a teenaged Newton with a much-higher voice and a shock of hair that put Elvis’ to shame; Newton delighted in telling tales of the Rat Pack; of Dino’s LA-based variety show and an unscripted move at the end of an Al Jolson medley that the pair dueted on…and how that move got him banned from Martin’s show for awhile.
And as the evening came to an end the wheelchair parking lot that had accumulated at the back of the venue started to thin I found myself enjoying this show even more. Wayne Newton may be a throwback to an “outdated” form of entertainment: A mishmash of song, corny jokes, and heartfelt stories. I asked myself why had they gone out of style? My grandmother’s generation loved this stuff.
I couldn’t think of a reason as to why…and I took solace that maybe, just maybe, the world could use more lounge singers and less auto-tuned ones.