I’ve admired comedians all my life. I’ve even “played” one here since 2006. Among the most multi-talented I’ve ever seen is the iconic Shecky Greene who will turn 90 on April 8. On April 3, Shecky will be honored in Las Vegas, where he lives, by 250 fans, friends and family in a gala birthday tribute at the prestigious Smith Center. I was fortunate enough to see Shecky in person at an “unscheduled event,” that I still remember.
Over 20 years ago, I met Shecky at A Little Taste of Hoboken restaurant on Westwood Boulevard. Because it was so crowded, the charismatic owner, Matteo (“Matty”) Jordan, asked if we’d share a table. All I knew about Shecky was that he was a legendary Vegas lounge comedian. In fact, Shecky literally pioneered the lounge act and, at one time, was making $150,000 a week. (To this day he laments, “$125,000 of it went to my bookie.”)
Over lunch, Shecky basically told me his life story, using spot-on impressions, dialects and he even sang a few bars. (Shecky has a terrific voice!) I was thoroughly mesmerized. So, when I read about Shecky’s upcoming 90th birthday, I reached out to him. Shockingly, he’s as funny as ever. And, married to Marie Musso since 1985, is more at peace than ever.
Shecky is walking comedy history, having started in Las Vegas in 1953. He worked with just about every star, including Elvis who opened for him one year. Curiously, Elvis was terrible as it would be years before he learned to perform for a Vegas audience. At the epicenter of turning Las Vegas into a 24-hour party town, Shecky was friends with show biz royalty like Buddy Hackett, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. (“Frank once saved my life with five words, ‘Okay boys, he’s had enough.’”)
In his over 60 years as a star, for much of the time Shecky battled demons that included alcohol, prescription drugs and gambling. In fact, in 1968, Shecky was “well medicated” when he crashed his Oldsmobile into the Caesar’s Palace fountains. As his car was drenched under geysers of water, Shecky merely turned on the windshield wipers. When the cops arrived, he rolled down the window and asked, “What, no spray wax?”
Shecky’s birthday tribute will be the subject of “Conversations With Norm,” a quarterly interview presentation hosted by man-about-town columnist Norm Clarke, who has been covering the celebrity scene for the Las Vegas Review-Journal since 1999. Proceeds will benefit the education and outreach programs of the illustrious Smith Center.
Born in 1926 on the North Side of Chicago, Shecky was in the Navy during WWII and served on a battleship that saw considerable action. When things were peaceful, however, Shecky, curiously, was in charge of the ice cream making machine. Years later, when asked what was the toughest thing about WW2, Shecky joked, “butter pecan.”
After the war, Shecky, an outstanding athlete, planned to become a gym teacher. Instead, he started his comedy career at the Prevue Lounge in New Orleans. From there he went on to showrooms in Miami, Chicago, and Reno/Lake Tahoe. Then an agent persuaded him, now 27, to move to Las Vegas and be an opening act at the Last Frontier. He was held over for 18 weeks, a first for the Strip.
In addition to decades of Vegas work, Shecky played Carnegie Hall and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (which he hated: “They’d rush you on and off”). Ruggedly handsome, he also played Private Braddock for a year on “Combat,” and appeared in many movies, including “Splash” and “History of the World, Part I.” But Shecky was best known as a “comedian’s comedian.” Among his greatest fans was Johnny Carson, on whose show Shecky appeared 40 times and where he also served as a guest host.
Offstage, one of Shecky’s many passions was horse racing. A horse named Shecky Greene was the front-runner in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, until Secretariat ran off with the race. Arlington Park still runs a Shecky Greene Handicap.
Unfortunately, throughout his legendary career, Shecky was plagued by depression, panic attacks and addictions. And yet, he was always open and candid about it with his audiences. (As he was during lunch at Taste of Hoboken.)
In fact, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) plans to honor Shecky for helping to increase public awareness about mental illness. So, not only is Shecky a world-class entertainer, he’s also a mensch. Happy birthday, Shecky!
For info about Shecky’s birthday tribute go to, http://www.thesmithcenter.com and type “Shecky” in the search box. Also, to see hilarious videos, Google: “Shecky Italian Earthquake” and “Shecky’s Funniest Joke.” Jack is at firstname.lastname@example.org.