A lot has come and gone since Wayne Newton first set the entertainment world on fire as a precocious, big-voiced six-year-old. When Elvis Presley was still driving a truck, Wayne almost ten years his junior had already sung before a president, toured with a Grand Ole Opry road show and released his first record.
While the Beatles were still scrambling for their early Liverpool gigs, Wayne, who was two years younger than John Lennon, was playing Las Vegas and appearing on the Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball television shows. In a business that is, at best, volatile, and success sometimes short-lived, Wayne has performed live, at last count, to more than 40 million people and on television and record, to many times that number. He has epitomized the talent, glamour and energy that is Las Vegas-the entertainment capital of the world-for so long that he is called “Mr. Las Vegas.” And these days, having established himself both on television and in movies as a fine actor, he’s getting more attention than ever.
He does it with the incredible talent and showmanship he was born with and the approach he developed as a child entertainer in Virginia. He simply works harder and digs deeper than anyone out there, sizing up audiences as he goes, tailoring shows to fit their moods, until he’s given them their money’s worth. The songs change and the show gets re-worked, but Wayne’s basic approach is the same as it has been since his beginning, and it’s something that goes to the core of who he is.
“I’m still doing the kind of shows I’ve always done.” Wayne says, “and I can tell you one thing; People may leave one of my shows disliking Wayne Newton, but they’ll never walk out saying, ‘He didn’t work hard for us’.
At a young age, Wayne was already a veteran of show business. He was just four when he settled on a life course. His parents had taken him to see a Grand Ole Opry road show in Roanoke, Virginia, and he watched, wide-eyed, as Hank Williams and Kitty Wells, among others, performed. When it was over he said to his mother, “That’s what I want to do.” “What?” she asked. “That,” he answered, pointing toward the stage.
A natural, he learned piano, guitar and steel guitar by ear, and by the time he was six, he was doing a daily radio show before going to school. On weekends, he and his older brother Jerry appeared with the Opry road shows that came through Virginia and Tennessee, and performed before movies at a local theatre. He was in first grade when they performed at a USO show for President Truman and eight years old when they entered a local contest and won the chance to audition for the nation’s biggest amateur show. “There are two people I know of,” he says with a laugh, “who flunked ‘Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour’ auditions: Elvis Presley and me.”
That disappointment was a minor setback in a childhood that included serious health struggles. Wayne’s severe bouts with asthma forced the family to move from Virginia to Phoenix, Arizona, where he recovered and continued his career. The stamina that would see him through this and many other difficult periods he credits to his Powahatan Indian/Irish father, who overcame his own poverty-stricken background, and his Cherokee Indian/German mother.
Throughout the rest of his school years he performed on local TV shows, in addition to his own TV show in Phoenix (while maintaining a B average). Toward the end of his junior year, a Las Vegas booking agent saw his TV show and took Wayne and Jerry to Las Vegas for an audition. They arrived with $20 between them, but the tryout led to “a two-week job” at the Fremont Hotel & Casino that lasted for 46 weeks.
They did six shows a day, six days a week, and Wayne had to find creative ways to keep the workload from taking its toll on his voice.
“I kept learning to play new instruments simply to give me some vocal relief,” he explains. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Wayne plays 13 instruments, many of which are worked into his shows.
Wayne was invited to national TV when Jackie Gleason, for whom he performed at a Phoenix luncheon, took him to New York for an appearance on his network television show. He would perform on Gleason’s show twelve times during the next two years.
“The Great One” was the first of many show business legends to become a mentor for this young entertainer. Lucille Ball had him as a guest a dozen times on her show. Others giving him special affection and support over the years were Danny Thomas, George Burns and Jack Benny. Bobby Darin produced and engineered his first record hits, “Heart,” “Danke Schoen,” “Red Roses For A Blue Lady,” “Summer Wind” and “Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife.” (He also scored a multi gold album and single on “Daddy, Don’t You Walk So Fast”: and other single hits to follow included “Years,” “She Believes In Me” and “While The Feelings Good.”)
But it was Jack Benny who helped make sure that in a day when lounge singers didn’t move up to Vegas’s main show rooms, Wayne Newton did. Wayne turned down thousands of dollars in the lounges to work for Mr. Benny as an opening act in the main show room for $1,500 a week, a slot he filled for the next five years.
There was one more hurdle in Las Vegas, and that was headlining the main showrooms. Wayne managed that with courage – and the help of the fans he’s always worked so hard for. After the job with Mr. Benny, Wayne was offered the chance to open for another comic at the Flamingo Hilton. He said he wanted to headline instead, and the owner was so taken aback that he said “yes”. There was a catch, though. He offered Wayne the headlining slot in November. “In those days,” Wayne remembers, “you could shoot a cannon in November and not hit a single soul on the Strip. There just wasn’t any business at that time of year. The odds-makers had predicted I was going to flop. The only thing that none of them counted on was the local people. The night we opened, the locals came out in droves and totally supported and saved my career, for which I will always be grateful.”
Wayne broke all the hotels’ attendance records, and he has been synonymous with Las Vegas ever since. In 1994, Wayne performed his 25,000 show in Las Vegas alone and is known all over the world simply as “Mr. Las Vegas.” The spectacular production of Wayne Live (which has brought him numerous “Entertainer of the Year” honors) has also coaxed reviewers and feature writers to tout it as The Las Vegas Experience. Said Jim Greer in Spin Magazine, “…his show is the standard by which I will henceforth judge each future concert of any genre. I’m not talking about camp, or kitsch…I’m talking about full-blooded American entertainment.” For many years running, Wayne was voted “Entertainer of the Year” by both Nevada Magazine and Casino Player Magazine just to name a few. Said Melissa Cook of Casino Player Magazine; “…he consistently offers the best in entertainment value. … Wayne Newton is in a class and category all his own.” In 2005, Nevada Magazine stated, “Maybe we ought to retire this category. For the eighth straight time, Wayne Newton was voted “Best Entertainer.”
Wayne’s appeal is worldwide. In 2006, Wayne performed another sold out Australian tour. His 1998 Australian tour was so successful, Sydney’s “Sun Herald” writer Peter Holmes stated in his “Year In Review,” “As for live highlights, Mr. Las Vegas, Wayne Newton, blitzed the crowd…delivering the people of Sydney a memorable gig.” Holmes went on to name Newton as the #1 live music event of the year.
Wayne sets records every time he steps on a stage, and his profile is higher than ever because of, among other things, his acting career. His charisma and talent have translated onto the big screen.
The acting skills he learned on stage, in the company of Lucy and “The Great One,” and in guest spots on shows like “Bonanza,” have been in full blossom in recent years. Some of his film acting credits include hits such as “Vegas Vacation”, “Ocean’s Eleven,” the James Bond thriller “License To Kill,” “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” “The Dark Backward,” “The Best of the Best II”, “Night of the Running Man,” “Who’s Your Daddy?” “Elvis Has Left the Building” and “Smokin’ Aces.”
Some of his television acting credits include, NBC’s “Las Vegas,” “According to Jim,” “Kingdom Hospital,” the ABC miniseries, “North and South, Book II,” “Roseanne,” “Ellen,” “My Wife and Kids,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Renegade,” “Perfect Strangers,” “LA Law,” and the HBO series “Tales from the Crypt,” just to name a few. Wayne received rave reviews portraying “shock jock” Harold Wick on the hit television show “Ally McBeal”. In February 1999, he received a “First American in the Arts Award” as “Outstanding Guest Performance by an Actor in a Television Series” for his role on “Ally McBeal.”
“I enjoy acting immensely,” he says. “I think it’s because I’ve spent my whole life being Wayne Newton.” “This way”, he says with a grin, “I can get all my hostilities out and I don’t go to jail for it”.
In addition, he starred in the highly rated, “Wayne Newton’s Las Vegas,” on the Travel Channel, has been the focus of the highly acclaimed series’ “A&E Biography” and the “E! True Hollywood Story.” His Las Vegas ranch was also featured in a recent episode of MTV “Cribs” and VH-1’s “Celebrity Pets 1 & 2.”
His heartfelt patriotism leads to the very core of who Wayne Newton is. He has entertained troops in every major confrontation our country has been in since Vietnam, and he was there twice. One of Wayne’s biggest honors was announced in October 2000 when Bob Hope and the USO passed the torch naming him the “Chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle.” From 2001 through 2004, he had taken 16 USO tours overseas. He was the first performer to entertain our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. This new role prompted President George W. Bush to honor Wayne at a private White House reception. Wayne has always believed, “Entertaining for our men and women of our armed forces overseas has been one of the highlights of my life.” The US Defense Department bestowed upon Wayne its highest civilian award for being the only American entertainer to perform in all of these places.
All of this – the wide appeal, the longevity, the patriotism, and the selfless service – has made Wayne Newton a favorite of his many fans. He is one of the most widely acclaimed and honored entertainers in history. Wayne has been the recipient of many prestigious awards, some of which include, “The Secretary of the Navy Public Service Award,” “The Air Force Scroll of Appreciation,” “Bob Hope Award for Excellence in Entertainment” from the Medal of Honor Society, “Medal for Distinguished Public Service,” the “Jimmie E. Howard Award,” “The AMVET’s Silver Helmet Award in the Americanism Category,” “The USO Spirit of Hope Award,” “Founders Award of St. Jude’s Hospital,” the “VFW Hall of Fame Award,” the “Humanitarian Award of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Research Center,” “The LA Lupus Loop Award,” the “American Legion’s Exceptional Citizen Award,” and many more. And, in 2008, he will accept the “Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service” which is a part of the Smithsonian Institute.
Wayne is also an “Ellis Island Medal of Honor Recipient.” The medal is presented to outstanding American citizens who have distinguished themselves among their specific ethnic group and are recognized for their significant contribution to this country. In 1999 Wayne was also made an “Honorary Green Beret” at an event April of 1999 at Ft. Bragg as well as an honorary member of the Special Forces. On October 5, 1999, at a ceremony in Washington D.C., Wayne received the “AMERICAN LEGEND” award, along with Senator John H. Glenn and the late Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. This honor is given to the few individuals who have, “in their endeavors made a mark on the 20th Century, paving the way for the new millennium.”
He is highly visible as a contributor of time, energy and talent to worthwhile causes. He serves on the board of many charitable and philanthropic organizations, including the National Association of Missing and Abused Children, The LA Lupus Foundation and Opportunity Village, just to name a few.
Wayne is very proud of his Native American heritage and had the distinguished honor of hosting the first ever “Native American Music Awards,” where he was voted the “Native American Entertainer of the Year.” In November, 1998, he was bestowed the honor of being knighted “Sir Wayne Newton,” In February 2000, Wayne was awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award” by the First American’s in the Arts and in October 2000, he was inducted into the American Gaming Association’s “Gaming Hall of Fame.”
Wayne Newton has recorded and released 165 albums to date. The people of Las Vegas and Nevada, whom he so dearly loves, have given him their highest honors as well. He is one of only two people in Las Vegas history to receive the city’s Medal of Honor, he has been named Ambassador of Goodwill for the state and he has seen Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport’s main thoroughfare renamed “Wayne Newton Boulevard.” Wayne was also named one of the “top 3 entertainers of the century in Nevada and around the world” (along with Frank Sinatra and Elvis). There is a Wayne Newton star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and he was bestowed the first star on the Las Vegas Walk of Fame. To quote Merv Griffin “Las Vegas without Wayne Newton is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse”.
Wayne’s extraordinary life is the outgrowth of one thing – his willingness and ability to give his all. He is the entertainer’s entertainer. A born showman who combines a host of God-given talents with an exceptional and disciplined work ethic and boundless stamina.
In his 1989 autobiography, Once Before I Go, Wayne talked about what he was striving to accomplish. He wanted to be, he said:
“A man who dares to dream and pursue it, using my head for myself and my heart for others. To leave the world a better place than I found it. I guess that’s what I hope to do.”