Sin City Diaries, Book One

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What follows are snapshots of Las Vegas. They are all true.

Sin City Diary: Tonight in Las Vegas, tourists will pay hard-earned money just to hang out in an ultra lounge with a random reality TV star. A year from now, they’ll be able to hang out with him for free at his Applebee’s server gig.

Sin City Diaries. 11:08pm. A conventioneer from Green Bay is getting into a limo that will take him and his friend out to one of Nevada’s legal brothels. As he puts it, “Don’t think of it as “hiring a prostitute.” Think of it as “outsourcing your relationship.”

Sin City Diary. 12:22AM. As she provided ultra-lounge bottle service to the group of guys who would not stop hitting on her, the hot Vietnamese girl wondered if they would still grab her butt if they knew she had once been a hot Vietnamese boy.

Sin City Diary. 1:06pm. They stand in the pool, packed in like Tokyo subway riders. They are there because TV tells them that’s the cool place to be. Douchebag soup.

Sin City Diary. 10:30pm. The couple from Boston is on their way out of a Cirque show. They enjoyed it so much, they’re buying a program so they can find out what the hell it was supposed to be about.

Sin City Diaries. 7:02pm. He’d stood there for hours, robotically dealing cards. To make his day a little more interesting, he would occasionally deal from the bottom, not that it mattered. It was only ad cards for hookers.

Sin City Diary. 11am. Las Vegas’ newest resort/casino has been announced. Named “HELL”, it caters to age 21-and-over ONLY. The casino is named “Greed”, the buffet is “Gluttony”, the ultra-lounge is “Lust”, the hotel is “Sloth”, the pool is “Envy”, the VIP lounge is “Pride”, and the front desk is “Wrath”.Valet is called “Purgatory”. The resort has a billboard up at the airport which reads, “Welcome to Las Vegas. Now, go straight to HELL”.

Sin City Diaries. 7:02pm. He’d stood there for hours, robotically dealing cards. To make his day a little more interesting, he would occasionally deal from the bottom, not that it mattered. It was only ad cards for hookers.

Sin City Diaries. 12:08am. The casino put the non-smoking blackjack table directly between two smoking blackjack tables. The cowboy who is sitting down to play thinks that’s a lot like having a swimming pool with a no-peeing “section”.

Sin City Diaries, 6:09pm. An aging ex-heavyweight champion is walking slowly across the casino floor with a friend. Time and disease have robbed him of his legendary grace, but not the sharpness of his mind. As he passes, even hardcore gamblers stop and simply applaud. Reaching the elevator, he turns to his friend and says, “If people would only love each other the way they love me…”

Sin City Diaries. 1:31am. A male dancer in a huge production show brought the woman he met tonight up to his rustic cabin on Mt. Charleston. He thought it would be romantic to sweep her up in his arms and toss her onto his waterbed. He’s forgotten that it’s the dead of Winter in the mountains, and his cabin has no electricity. The waterbed is frozen. It’s OK. She’ll regain consciousness in 5 minutes or so.

Sin City Diaries. 10:03pm. The young construction worker from Cleveland is praying that his future Mother-in-Law did NOT hear him just call the Bellagio fountain show, “The ultimate money shot.”

+Sin City Diaries. 11:10pm. The actor from Indiana held in his hands a 1691 Second Quarto “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare. As he read Mark Antony’s funeral oration, (page 37,) he wished he had the $40,000.00 necessary to purchase the treasure. He would content himself with having held it, breathed it in, and spoken the timeless words aloud; as direct a connection to the Bard as he was likely ever to get.

+Sin City at Midnight. Girls in tiny dresses are waiting to get into ultra lounges where guys hoping to get laid will spend $400 for a bottle of Grey Goose and the right to sit on a couch. Who says the American Dream is dead?

Sin City Diaries. 10:57pm. A Devil Worshipper handing out literature on Fremont Street just swore “to God” that he was really a Satanist. It must be his first night.

+Sin City Diaries. November 20th, 12:10pm. Upon the announcement that his beloved Flamingo Hotel would host the “World Series Of Beer Pong,” Bugsy Siegel rose from his grave and shot himself in his other eye.

Sin City Diaries. 10:00am. A college student on his way to his senior year in in California bet his tuition on red. Goodbye UCLA, hello Harper Community College!

+Sin City Diaries. 9:42am. The caretaker of the estate owned by a Middle Eastern royal family is wondering for the zillionth time why, in all the years they have owned the property, no one has ever stayed there.

+Sin City, 12:25am. A homeless guy just caged a total of $10 off tourists on Fremont Street. He’s heading into Mermaid’s for a deep-fried Twinkie and a beer. Whatever cash is left over will go into a progressive jackpot slot machine. If it doesn’t hit, he’ll sleep tonight in Woodlawn Cemetery and hope for better luck tomorrow.

Sin City Diaries. 10:02pm. A Strip hotel valet is parking the Bentley of the guy who laid him off last month in order to hire a less expensive recent college grad. He’s sitting behind the wheel and considering the possibilities.

+Sin City Diaries. 12:47pm. On the far outskirts of Las Vegas, a construction crew is breaking ground on a new subdivision. They are digging new holes in the desert, and are finding old holes in the desert. The foreman is dialing 911.

+Sin City, 3am. A suite the Venetian. The girl in the rabbit suit got too drunk while waiting for Paris Hilton to show up at the party. She stripped off the rabbit suit and was about to get gang-banged by a bunch of even drunker Oompa Loompas. Security grabbed her and is hustling her out the back door of the suite before Paris gets there and sees what’s going on.

+Sin City, 3:30am. A guest room in a major Strip hotel. Five minutes ago, a guy shot and killed another guy for offenses real or imagined. It won’t make the news because it just doesn’t, you understand? It. Just. Doesn’t.

+Sin City. 7:52pm. A 1970’s Pop Icon is walking through the back hallways of the casino. As required by his contract, every hotel staff member he encounters does not acknowledge him, or even look at him. What he doesn’t realize is, they probably would behave that way anyway. Most of them are recent immigrants who have no idea who he is. They think of him as “Song Man.”

Sin City. 12:48pm. Two 30-something women from Vancouver are laying by the pool at Mandalay, thinking that “Partying like a Rock Star, WOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOOO!” last night might not have been the best way to start their vacation. (Tonight, they’ll find out the hard way they didn’t use enough sunscreen…)

+Sin City, 2pm. He just lost all their vacation money at a blackjack table while she was gathering information about shows she wants to see. They haven’t even checked into the hotel yet.

+Sin City, 4:22pm in a small, off-Strip retail store. A crook dressed as a fire-extinguisher serviceman just conned his way behind the sales counter, ostensibly to “examine the fire-extinguisher.” In reality, he’s writing down the make and model number of the safe so his buddies will know what they’ll be breaking into when they rob the place tomorrow.

Sin City, 12:22am. A hotel security guard is nursing a fat lip from a drunken tourist who deliberately headbutted him, despite the fact that he was just trying to help the bastard find his room. He’s taking solace in knowing that the guy also teed off on Metro when they came to arrest him, and Metro don’t play that. He’s wondering how many flights of stairs the guy “fell down” on the way to being booked.

Sin City, 3pm. A US Senator from Nevada is taking a sex break with one of his very married staffers. He’s thinking about increasing her salary. And her husband’s. And her son’s. She’s clearly doing a GREAT job.

Sin City Diaries. 7:45pm. An aging performer is making his return to a Las Vegas showroom. His contract calls for a security escort from the limo to his dressing room. Security is tasked with keeping overly-zealous fans away. That won’t be a problem.

+Sin City Diaries. 5pm. A couple in the their 70’s just got married onstage in a showroom by a comedian. While his ordination is technically legal, he’s not really much of a Minister. In fact, he misspelled “Reverend” on their marriage certificate. They couldn’t care less. They are ecstatic over starting their new life together.

+Sin City Diaries. 7pm. A Strip-headlining magician walked past a mirror without stopping to admire himself. Realizing his missed opportunity, he re-traced his steps and corrected his error.

+Sin City Diaries, 11pm. A tourist from Wisconsin is having a great roll at the dice table. Even better, he’s pretty sure he’s going to get lucky with the attractive young woman who is standing next to him, squealing and clapping at his good fortune. Each time he wins a hand, she taps his stack of $100 chips with the bottom of her beer bottle for “luck”. He thinks it’s adorable. He also likes the fact that she presses her enormous boobs against him when she taps. He doesn’t realize the bottle has sticky-putty on it, and she’s been stealing $100 with each tap. He’s up $9k. She’s up $800. Not bad for 20 minutes’ work.

Sin City Diaries. 7:45pm. The opening act introduced himself to the headlining comedian, and held out his hand to shake. Mr. Headliner…you know, that guy with the TV show…offered only his little pinkie for the handshake. The opening act is quietly hoping he doesn’t become that much of a douchebag when he gets famous.

Sin City Diaries, 11:58am. The hardworking marketing team for Luxor is about to take lunch following a grueling morning of working to convince tourists it’s a great idea to vacation at a property that is modeled after an enormous tomb.

Sin City Diaries. 1:22pm. A 33-year-old physics professor from Vancouver is stepping off the plane. She’s been working out religiously for the past year. Her body is lean and fit. Her divorce is final. She’s here to celebrate, and is hoping Sin City lives up to it’s reputation.

+Sin City Diaries. 8pm. A woman is in line at 7/11 and is getting frustrated by the clerk’s slowness in completing the transaction of the patron in front of her. She’s unaware that the patron is robbing the store at gunpoint.

Sin City Diaries. 2:12am. A blackjack dealer and his accomplice have just tried their new undetectable method of cheating. They are extremely proud of themselves, and are looking forward to their upcoming windfall. Security is already on the way.

+Sin City Diaries. 3:03am. A young woman is waiting outside a hotel suite to pay the hooker her show producer boss hired to seal the deal with a potential investor. She’s thinking the cheapskate should have sprung for better than a $300 hooker.

Sin City Diaries. 3:43 p.m. A drag queen in full costume got into a fender bender with a burly construction worker. The construction worker decided not to punch her out since she is a lady. Or perhaps because she’s 6’9 in heels.

Sin City Diaries: 8:14 a.m. A celebrity arrives at a plastic surgeon’s office to get a discrete procedure performed. She’s unaware that the receptionist ratted her out to the tabloids, and that photographers are already taking up position outside.

Sin City Diaries. 11:11pm. A gansta rapper is standing next to his limo outside the Hard Rock. He’s delaying departure because his Mother called from the suite and told him to wait ’cause she’s on her way down.

Sin City Diaries. 4:14am. A drunken gambler is urinating all over the piece of the Berlin Wall on display in the men’s room at Main Street Station casino. (No ironic commentary required.)

Sin City Diaries. 1:20pm. A man walking past a bank of slot machines unobtrusively drops a dollar token on the floor next to a woman playing a machine. He points out the token, asking her “Did you drop that?” As she bends over to pick it up, the man’s accomplice reaches through the slot bank and steals her heapin’ bucket o’ dollars.

Sin City Diaries. 1:50pm. A woman is hitting the mall to spend last night’s money. She gets rid of it as fast as she makes it because she subconsciously loathes the way she earns it

Sin City Diaries. 6pm. A Fremont street fortune teller opens up her Gypsy-style wagon/office and prepares to tell people what they want to hear for only $10 per reading. Despite the current economic situation…or perhaps because of it…her business has never been better.

Sin Ciry Diaries. 4:03pm. A couple checking into their room has already been pitched to buy a condo, see a free show, and breathe flavored oxygen. If they think these people are aggressive, wait until they meet the nighttime salesgirls!

Sin City Diaries. 2:07am. A tourist is leaving an adult ballet establishment. He’s convinced that “his” dancer really, truly cares about him, and would love to date him if it wouldn’t “get her fired.” Can’t have THAT! After all, she’s “working her way through a pre-med degree at UNLV.”

+Sin City Diaries. 1:41pm. A home-improvement superstore’s employees are scrambling to throw tarps over multiple pallets of cement-mix bags that have been left outside. Occasionally, it rains in the desert. Hard and unexpectedly.

Sin City Diaries. 2am. He’d been hanging out on the outdoor deck at VooDoo for an half an hour or so, checking out the brunette with the crooked smile and mojito. A sudden gust of wind blows her VERY short skirt up around her waist; and blows his hat off his head and over the edge…51 stories straight down. He considers it a reasonable trade as he walks over to introduce himself.

+Sin City Diaries. 2:36am. A cab driver just took a drunk tourist on a 45 minute trip that SHOULD have taken only 7. Joke’s on the cabbie. The guy is broke and is bolting out of the cab.

Sin City Diaries. 8:56pm. The Devil Worshipper who offers people Satanic pamphlets on Fremont street has been challenged by a tourist as to whether or not he’s a true Satanist. The Devil Worshipper must be new because he replied, “I am, too! Swear to God!”

The Lord of the Wasteland is a Mensch.

KISS

Holy crap. Gene Simmons was sitting alone in my empty showroom…
It’s no secret that I love KISS. I have been a fan since their first eponymous album was released in 1974. To this day, I consider BLACK DIAMOND to be one of the greatest all-time rock songs, and I’ll fight anyone who says different. I’m a member of the KISS Army, with 40+ years of service. (Which reminds me, I should look into the KISS Army retirement plan at some point.)
Before we proceed…I know. Their music is simplistic. It’s written for 15 year olds. So what? I was 15 when I became a fan. In this digital age, I am not required to give up ALL the joys of my youth just because I have a mortgage and an AARP card. And while I may not be able to rock-n-roll all night and party ev-er-y day, I can manage at least a solid hour per week. OK, 40 minutes.

I’m aware that Gene has a limited voice, and is a good journeyman bass player; a little more melodic than most, but no Entwhistle. I know Ace played some licks current guitar players still quote, but was an unreliable champagne drunk. Paul has a great voice. Good high singer. Not much of a guitar player. Peter Criss….my boyhood drum god….was the luckiest drummer in the history of ever. His drumming is rudimentary, and feels like a swing drummer being forced against his will to play rock n roll. I do not care. He’s the MAN.

I saw my first KISS concert in 1975 standing on plywood covering the ice in a 1,000 person capacity hockey rink with Susan Hunt Johnson and Gary Silver. I saw them a few years later in a 12,000 seat arena. I never saw a no-makeup years concert. I saw the reunion tour, the farewell tour, and the 10th year of the farewell tour. I’ve sat in the cheap seats waaaaay in the back, and have sat in the 4th row. The latter with Chris Artim. We reveled in the fact that we could afford seats away from the guy in the back who yells “WOOOOOOOOOO” during the entire concert. We also decided to rush the stage during ROCK N ROLL ALL NIGHT. Chris said, “Do you think we’ll get in trouble?” “Nope,” I replied. “We are prosperous-looking, middle-aged White guys. They won’t touch us.” (Yep, White Male Privilege in all it’s glory. In this particular instance I am #NotAshamed.) During said stage rush, Gene looked at us and mouthed the words, “Will you remember us?”

Oh hell YEAH we will!

The genius of KISS, to me, lies in the makeup. Gene Simmons took four guys, none of whom were good looking enough to be rock stars, and by putting them in makeup and over-the-top wardrobe which includes 7-inch leather heels, he created the first ageless rock band. The men under the makeup might wrinkle and get liver-spots, or even change altogether, but the band will remain exactly the way they were when they first kicked in the door of your adolescent awareness. Gene Simmons created icons in an era when the word “icon” was and is grossly overused. In doing so, he created a financial empire.

Gene loves money. A lot. He’s licensed the KISS logo for everything from condoms to caskets. He gets us coming and going. And he’s good at what he does. Are we still talking about business? Yes. Yes, we are. His estimated net worth is $300 million, putting him on par with Prince, Cher, and Diana Ross. As an added bonus, he’s had sex with at least two of those three.
In 2010, I had a show at the Excalibur Hotel/Casino. I was walking through the showroom in the middle of an afternoon, and there he was. It was Gene. Gene was sitting alone in a booth in an otherwise empty theater waiting for…….who knew what? Who cared what? Gene Simmons was sitting alone in my empty showroom. These chances come NEVER in a lifetime. I walked straight over and introduced myself.

Kevin: Excuse me. Mr. Simmons? I’m Kevin Burke, my show is onstage here at 7pm.

Gene: Your show?

Kevin: Yes.

Gene: (EXTENDS HAND FOR A HANDSHAKE) Very nice to meet you.

Kevin: Thank you. You know, I saw your first national tour. You were touring with THE JAMES GANG.

Gene: Ohhhhhh, THEY were touring with US.

Kevin: I stand corrected. I just wanted to thank you for teaching me the most important showbusiness lesson of all, back when I was 15.

Gene: What is that?

Kevin: That you have to do it your way.

Gene: And what does that MEAN?

Kevin: It means you have to do it your way. Not this guy’s way, not that guy’s way, not even Gene Simmons’ way, but YOUR way.

Gene: AH, now, there you’ve said it. There’s always going to be someone who tells you you’ve drawn Superman’s cape incorrectly.

Kevin: Yes! But I’ve taken the lesson one step further.

Gene: (QUIZZICAL LOOK)

Kevin: I’m the only one onstage.

Gene: Yyyyyes….?

Kevin: Which means I keep all the money.

Gene: (SPREADS HIS ARMS, GRINNING) My SON!!!!

I guess I’m Gene Simmons’ son. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

A couple of years later, I met Paul Stanley. I gave him the same “Thanks for teaching me at a young age to do it my way.” His reply was, “That’s what I’ve been fucking trying to tell everybody!!!”

Apparently, I’ll not be adopted by Paul.

They say that when you meet your heroes you are crushed to find out they are jerks…or worse, that they are mortal. Gene was neither of those things. He was the friendly, generous, Socratic, eternal God of Motherfucking THUNDER.

Next time we run into each other, have me do my Gene Simmons impersonation. It rocks.

My Two Favorite Laughs

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Above: Bob Knight.

I’ve been a actor/comic since 1980. I’ve never had any other job. Over the years, two laughs stand out in my mind, and both were an audience of one.

Laugh One: As I was finishing up college at Indiana University, I had to make a decision. Should I become a full-time comic? Or should I seek out a more conventional career path? It was decision heavy on my mind the day I went to listen to IU Basketball Coach Bob Knight give his annual talk to the student body. (If you don’t know about Bob Knight, suffice to say he was not only a great coach, he was also…volatile.)

I lived off campus in an apartment complex owned by Scott May, former member of the NCAA Championship IU team of 1976, and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. On my way out to Coach Knight’s talk, I asked Scott what question could I ask during the Q&A that would actually impress Coach with depth of insight into the program. He said, “Ask him if the passing game the way he coaches it is ahead of it’s time.”

Thus armed, I headed up to the mic at Q&A time, and asked the question. I immediately realized Scott had set me up. Coach looked at me for a ling second as his face turned as read as his famous sweaters. He launched into an angry five minute tirade with more curse words than I knew existed. He wasn’t angry at me, but at the team. He ended his epic rant with, “These *&^$8#^$ couldn’t pass the &@*$&#@ ball if I let ’em deflate it and throw it like a *#*@*^@# FRISBEE!” (Clearly, Scott had seen the practice that day, and had led me into his fiendish trap.) Coach wound down, looked at me and said, “Sorry….what was your question again?”

I had two choices. Slink back to my seat, or go for the laugh. What the heck…”Do you think the passing game the way you WISH you were coaching it is ahead of it’s time?” I asked. He stared at me for what seemed an eternity, as the other 2,999 students in the auditorium sucked the air out of the place with an audible gasp. He threw back his head and laughed…hard. BOOM!

In that moment, I knew if I could make Coach Knight laugh after snapping, I could make anyone and everyone laugh. Career decision made.

Laugh Two: I was in Las Vegas on the Red Carpet for the opening night of Jersey Boys. I found myself standing next to one of my comedy heroes, John Cleese. (If you don’t know who he is, he was/is a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) John is notoriously cranky about signing autographs, but I at least had to try. I slid over next him and looked up. (Literally. He’s 7’2 or something. If he came at you doing his Ministry of Silly Walks walk, he could step over you without breaking stride.) I introduced myself, and offered my Red Carpet laminate and a Sharpie. “Would you mind?” I asked. “Of course,” he said, and wrote “F%^k off, Kevin.” Grinning, he handed it back. I figured I might as well take a shot and said, “You have to sign your name, otherwise people will think it was Eric.” (His fellow Python Eric Idle being famous for being extremely mercurial. Extremely.)

BOOM! My other favorite. I can’t begin to describe how it felt to make arguably the greatest comic mind of the past 50 years really LAUGH.

He signed his name.

 

Is Broadway Dead in Las Vegas?

broadway (1)Broadway! We love it. We pay big bucks to see it, whether on Broadway itself, at the Smith Center, or in a resident casino show. But what is it, exactly? What makes a show a “Broadway” show as opposed to any other show? Is it the music? Singing? Acting? Dancing? None of the above. The answer is surprisingly simple. If a show played in a Broadway theater in Manhattan, it’s a Broadway show. Currently, there are 41 Broadway theaters in NYC.

Broadway has a long and glorious history in Vegas casinos. Stars including Betty Grable, Frank Gorshin, Juliet Prowse, Jack Soo, Dick Shawn, Tony Danza, Carol Channing, John O’Hurley, Ann Margaret and, yes, David Hasselhoff, have all performed in Broadway shows in casinos. Peter Marshall, host of TV’s “Hollywood Squares,” starred in two separate Broadway shows here before he became a television star.

Broadway musicals were first offered by casinos in the early 1960s. The Thunderbird produced two to three Broadway shows per year. Over the years, Vegas casinos have offered “Fiddler on the Roof,” “South Pacific,” “Mame,” “Sweet Charity,” “Hair,” “Flower Drum Song,” “High Button Shoes,” “Artists and Models,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Anything Goes,” “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” “Starlight Express,” “Cabaret,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Jersey Boys,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Lion King,” “Spamalot,” “The Producers,” “Avenue Q,” “Chicago,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Hello Dolly!,” “Tommy,” “Cats,” “Rock of Ages,” “Rent,” “Hairspray,” “Miss Saigon,” “A Chorus Line,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” The Odd Couple,” “Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth,” “A Bronx Tale,” “The Boys in the Band,” and “Defending the Caveman.”

Virtually every casino on the Strip has hosted a Broadway show at some point, as well as the Plaza, Golden Nugget and The D on Fremont Street.

As an actor, I’ve been astonished by the quality of work I’ve seen here. Something about a long run enables actors to dig deeply into their roles. “Jersey Boys” made me tear up three times during the show, “Music of the Night” from “Phantom” made my “soul take flight” all four times I attended. Mark Donovan’s monologue in “Million Dollar Quartet,” in which he describes Sam Phillips’ recording studio as a place where “the soul of a man never dies,” never failed to move me, and I saw it every night on the way back to my dressing room after my show.

My daughter, McKenna, and I rocked out, laughed, and had a blast at “Mamma Mia!” on her eighth birthday. (No, I didn’t know the plot beforehand. Yes, I had to dance around the question, “Why doesn’t she know who her daddy is?”)

But that’s the beauty of Broadway shows. They make us ask questions of ourselves. They make us think, and feel. They move us. (Not that spectacle-centered shows and reviews aren’t wonderful. After all, I am a spectacle guy myself, having toured with Ringling Bros.) Broadway shows ask a little more of an audience. They ask us to engage. To follow these wonderful characters as they act out the arc of their life stories, sometimes to victory, sometimes to their own destruction. It’s an emotional as well as a sensory experience, and that’s what makes Broadway special. That’s what makes it important. Broadway tells us a story about us.

Currently, Las Vegas is in a “Broadway doesn’t work in casinos” phase. The closing of three shows during the past year have sounded the predictable death-knell of Broadway in the tourist corridor. I think that’s a bit premature. Broadway cycles in and out. After their national tours wind down. “Book of Mormon,” “Wicked,” “Hamilton,” or something equally wonderful will take up residency in a casino, and the headlines will read, “Vegas Discovers Broadway!”

Until then, there is one Broadway show in a casino residency today. It’s been here since 2007 and has set the records for longevity and number of performances — over 4,000 — of all Broadway shows in Vegas history. It’s a one-person comedy about men and women in relationships. It explains women and men to each other in a way that brings couples together, instead of tearing them apart. It’s called “Defending the Caveman,” and is presented nightly at The D at 8:40 p.m.

As the actor in the show, I’ve been privileged to be named Entertainer of the Year in 2008 and set the Guinness World Record for Most Theatrical Performances in 50 Days. It’s a show of which I am extremely proud, and I’d love for you to see it. Grab your significant other, have some laughs, and let me tell you a Broadway story about you.

For Caveman tickets, call the Box Office at 702-388-2111, or book online at TheD.com.

 

~Burke

I’ll Take What Del Had

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Actor/Improviser/Teacher Del Close

When an audience does not respond well to a performance, the performer will often use the ancient showbiz phrase, “I died up there.” And that’s how it feels. Like a slow, lingering death-by-indifference. It’s part of the life we performers have chosen. It’s what we signed up for.

There are, however, a significant number of performers who have died onstage for real. Sheet-over-the-head, dead-gone-dead. A wonderful performer and dear friend Steve Daly said, “There’s the way every performer wants to go….onstage during a show.”

I’m not so sure. Here are a few performers who have gone to the greenroom in the sky during a performance.

In 1918, William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed under the name Chung Ling Soo, was shot through the chest while performing a trick known as The Bullet Catch. Metal fatigue in the gimmicked portion of the rifle caused the actual bullet to be fired. He died the next day.

Zero Mostel, Movie and Broadway star, and creator of the role Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, collapsed and died from an aortic aneurism during a preview performance of The Merchant in 1977.

In 1984, Comic/Magician Tommy Cooper, famous for tricks that went hilariously wrong, collapsed onstage from heart failure during a TV appearance on Live From Her Majesty’s in London. The audience, thinking it was a bit, laughed for a full minute before the director cut to commercial, and Tommy was taken offstage.

Comedian/Movie Star Dick Shawn died of heart in 1986 failure during a sold-out performance at UC San Diego. He lay onstage for five minutes before stagehands realized it wasn’t a bit. Even when paramedics arrived and took him away by ambulance, many audience members still believed it was a bit done in very poor taste.

Singer/Musicologist Tiny Tim suffered a fatal heart attack onstage in 1996 while singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips during a benefit concert hosted by the Women’s Club of Minneapolis.

Near Misses…

In 2017, actor Stacy Keach suffered a silent heart attack in Chicago during the opening night performance of the one-man play Pamplona, in which he portrayed Ernest Hemingway. As of this writing, he is recovering.

At the Concert For the Americas in 1984, drummer Buddy Rich suffered a heart attack while playing his solo during his band’s closing number. He finished the solo and the song, bowed, walked offstage, THEN went to the hospital and recovered. Badass Level: INFINITE.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve’s opinion regarding performers wanting to go during a performance. I think I’ll pass, given a choice. I think I’d rather go out the way legendary improv performer/teacher Del Close did, in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones and friends. Some of his last words were, “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.*”

In his will, Del bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater with instructions that it be used as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet.

That’s a good way to go. I’ll take that.

Just not quite yet.

~Kevin Burke

An Autograph and a Chat with Todd McFarlane

spawn

I met Todd McFarlane at an autograph-signing at a comicbook* convention…my first at age 56. Todd broke away from Marvel comics in the early ’90’s at a point where he was making $1 million per year as the writer/artist on the Spider-Man comicbooks. There, he created the supervillain Venom. He left because he had characters he wanted to create, but couldn’t come to an agreement regarding ownership. (Creators for DC and Marvel did not own any ongoing piece of their creations. To this day, Stan Lee himself does not own a piece of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, or any of the many other characters he co-created with different artists.) Todd left Marvel to start Image Comics in 1992. His first hit was Spawn, which started a trend toward creator-owned comicbook characters.

I’ve always liked Todd’s art, and the fact that he told Marvel to go jump in a lake. So, at the Amazing Comic Con in Las Vegas, I brought along my copy of Spawn #8. The artwork is beautiful, and Spawn is posed in an iconic Spider-Man pose created by Todd a few years earlier. Perfect for signing.

I asked Todd if he would quote a favorite line he’d written for Spawn. He thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t really…..there’s nothing I…AH! Here. Here you go. I’ll write this” He inscribed, “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES!!” Then, deadly earnest, he said, “What I mean by that is this…YOU have to take control of your life. So many people miss that. If you want to be an artist, pick up a pencil. If you want to stop drinking, put down the fucking bottle. If you hate your boss, quit your job. Only you can prevent forest fires.” We then chatted about the Cubs, Steve Bartman, and how he wishes he had won the auction for the ball. He would have waited, then publicly blown it up just before game one of the World Series.

He also spoke about art. Todd is writing, producing, and directing a SPAWN film. He told me that this degree of creative control was non-negotiable. He’s successful enough that he doesn’t need the film, which puts him in a position to do it his way or no way. “That’s the reason to pursue success.” he said, ‘To be able to create more art. If I hadn’t been constantly creating and building on my early success, I wouldn’t be able to move this project forward. After this project, I’ll create more art.”

He also said, “Hollywood has all these new platforms to deliver content, but they have no new IDEAS. Everything they are doing now is something they’ve already done. Now is the time to be a creator. They need YOU.”

All in all it was a delightful 6 minute chat with one of my favorite artist/writers.

(*Stan Lee later that day said the ONLY correct written form is the one-word “comicbook”. I’ll take his word for it, and pass that along to you.)

 

A World Without Ringling

rbbbcircus

For the first time in 146 years, there are no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performances scheduled, and the world is a poorer place for it. The Greatest Show on Earth is no more. Your great-great grandparents may have had a date at a show. It is now certain that your great-great grandchildren will not.

Before we continue, a word about the animals…If you believe they were mistreated or abused, stop reading. This is not for you. All I can tell you is that I was there. I lived and worked with these animals 24/7, and if you believe they were abused, then you were NOT there. Elephants, for example, do not breed unless their social and biological needs are met. RBBB had the single most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere. The proof is in the pudding.

Still here? Great. In the 1800’s PT Barnum created the circus spectacle. Three rings, two stages, more than the eye could take in during a single performance. Family entertainment for children of all ages on a scale never before seen. Barnum partnered with the greatest circus showman of that era, James Bailey, to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Ringling Bros. bought the show and combined it with their own. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was born.
At that time, RBBB was a tent show. The Big Top seated from 5,000 to 9,000 people over the years. The 100-car train carried 1,200 employees and nearly as many animals. It was a city on wheels which moved the circus across the USA on a perpetual tour of one-night-stands. Each night, the circus would pack itself up, load itself out, head to the next stand, and do it all over again. So impressive was this feat, the US Army brought RBBB in to consult on logistics regarding moving people and materials in order to better fight WWI.
Moving the show into arenas and out of the tent in 1956, RBBB was still a juggernaut with a train a mile long. As new arenas were built across the country, Ringling rolled out to meet them. When the Astrodome was built in Houston, RBBB rolled in and sold it out. 67,000 seats. A record for the Astrodome and Ringling.

Those are the basic facts.

Now for the truth. Ringling was more than a show. It was a culture with it’s own language, traditions, and peculiar form of justice. Some people stayed; Lou Jacobs was a Ringling clown for 66 years. Some people left after one season. All are part of a family that made up the longest continually-running theatrical production in modern history.
All are world-class athletes who pushed the very boundaries of human ability, 13 times per week. In the final performance, trapeze artist Ammed Garcia Tuniziani twice attempted a quadruple somersault…a feat so difficult only a handful of performers have sporadically succeeded over the past 30 years. Ammed failed, but it didn’t matter. The RBBB audience was thrilled by the attempts.

Ringling was a truly great spectacle. 24 elephants. 14 tigers. 18 horses. Llamas, dogs, chimps, a giraffe, a famous gorilla, bears, and at least one disgruntled bison all were featured under the Ringling banner.
Human acts included teeterboard artists from Soviet-bloc countries who performed double backward somersaults to a five-man-high pyramid, a man in tails and top hat who balanced 30 feet in the air on one finger, human cannonballs, contortionists, BMX riders, unicycle riders, wire walkers, and 24 clowns per show…all these and more put their lives on the line daily in order to spread joy and wonder.

As joyful and wondrous as it is, the circus is a cruel mistress who kills it’s brightest stars. Two members of the Wallenda wire walking family were killed in a fall in 1962. Lillian Leitzel was world-famous in 1932 for an act in which she would climb a rope, grasp it with one hand, and repeatedly flip her body over her shoulder. During a performance in Copenhagen, she fell 40 feet and died a few days later. Dessi Espana died in 2004 when a piece of aerial equipment failed and sent her plunging 30 feet down to the arena floor. Two Ringling performers, Ceslee Conkling, a clown, and Ted Svertesky, an elephant trainer, were killed in a circus train crash in 1994. Ringling Bros. performers accepted the possibility of being killed as the price of admission to being a member of the Greatest Show on Earth family.
Circus life was never easy. Performers and crew lived in rooms on the mile-long train mentioned earlier. Each room was 6X3X7.5, and was built out of 3/4 inch plywood. (Funfact: According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war are entitled to TWICE as much living space.) While each car had sinks and commodes, the only showers were to be had inside the arena locker rooms. Sit down baths? Not an option unless someone rented a hotel room. Everyone traveled from the railroad yard where the train was parked to the arena and back aboard the RBBB bus, which cost 25 cents to ride each way.
As in any community, love was fallen into–and went unrequited, weddings were celebrated, babies were born, breakups and divorces were mourned. Life was lived by the clock of show schedules, and centered around the three sacred performance rings.

A word about rings…As many circus-type acts as a theatrical show may have, it’s not an actual CIRCUS unless it has at least one ring. It’s the ring which defines circus, circumscribing life and death within its 42 feet diameter. Why 42 feet? That’s the ideal diameter for a galloping horse. The RBBB rings are where Mass was held on Sunday morning, and where lives were risked on Sunday afternoon.

Today, the rings have been disassembled and sold to the highest bidder The train has been sold off car by car. Pie-Car Jr, the RBBB food truck which parked out back of the arena and sold food to performers “at cost,” (lol) is probably headed to a carnival where it will feed fairground workers. Guy lines will be cut into one-inch sections and sold as a remembrance of the show. The elephants are headed to a 700 acre facility in North Florida, and the performers are headed for home, the open road, other shows, or oblivion.
Our city has been dismantled and dissolved. Forever. I’m sad that you’ll never be able to visit us, again. I’m sad that a chain of performances stretching back 146 years is now broken. Most of all, I’m sad for the children who will never see 24 elephants on parade, 20 clowns piling out of an impossibly tiny car, and hear a Ringmaster cry, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Children of ALLLLL ages! The producers are proud to present…..RINGLING BROS AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!!”

In the Broadway musical BARNUM, PT Barnum sings about a bleak and dreary world saying, “Someone’s got to make it bright. Shoot a rocket! Shine a light! Tell ya who that someone’s gonna be….”

Until today, we KNEW who that someone was gonna be.

Now?

No idea, but I can’t wait to find out!!!!

See you down the road.