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Danke Schoen, Wayne Newton

12/12/2009 11:05 by Kier-La Janisse

tl_files/media/images/Big Smash! Music Scene/waynedetail2.jpgI remember going to see Wayne Newton in Vegas circa 2005. I was with my friend Dick Blackburn, a nympholectic record collector who spent most of the day on the phone looking for obscure doo-wop and rockabilly 45s. The place was packed, the audience remarkably broad in age, and I was there out of a sense of obligation. We were, after all, in Vegas. Like gambling, gorging on decadent buffets or applauding ridiculous spectacles you wouldn't be caught dead supporting in any other context, going to see Wayne Newton is just one of those things you do.

I'd heard rumours that he was losing his voice and I was expecting an older, stiffer version of the showman I'd seen so many times in old TV clips. And I was OK with that. But I was surprised: despite the fact that his voice had seen better days, he had the energy of a 20 year old (in fact, he had way more energy than most of the listless and droll 20 year olds I know) and it was contagious. He flat-out killed, no matter how much the song catalogue itself was an octogenarian stew of toe-tapping oldies.

And then Wayne, a fervent Republican, called for all the veterans in the room to stand up. I groaned; as a Canadian, I was not interested in the patriotic brouhaha. But as I sat in my seat waiting for all the old folks to seize their moment, I was taken aback by the sight before me: a room full of kids, all clearly teenagers, standing up. It was at this moment that the reality of the Iraq War really hit me.

When Newton started out in showbiz, he too was still a kid, taken in by veteran performers such as Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball because he was an anachronism: his contemporaries were The Beatles and the Stones, and there was no place in the pop world for a performer bred on old-time showmanship. Other performers mocked him in their routines, with particularly famous feuds erupting from Johnny Carson and Totie Fields' recurring gay jokes. (Newton's homophobia is another matter entirely, but it's still pretty funny to hear of him telling the dumbstruck Fields, "the only interest I have in burying the hatchet is in your ass.")

In the '70s, Newton reinvented himself, losing weight but gaining a suave moustache, lowering his vocal register (as a kid I actually thought it was a woman singing Danke Schoen) and reclaiming the Aboriginal heritage he had been encouraged to play down in previous years. He revelled in his new image as a swashbuckling ladies man, an image effervescently on display in the "Dead Ringer" episode of the classic crime-fighting show VEGA$ (showing on 16mm film at Into the Music as part of the festivities surrounding Newton's visit to the 'Peg). Newton plays himself-turned-action hero, stalked by a homicidal Wayne Newton impersonator but not afraid to throw down with the delusional doppelganger; Newton's fists fly and his hair stays perfectly in place. (Ah, the '70s. I miss you.)

You have to understand, Wayne Newton has lasted for a reason. He has morphed into many characters through succeeding decades, maybe not always with grace, but most certainly with a vigilante resolve. He is, without doubt, a cultural icon. I don't agree with his politics, much of his music, or his plastic surgery. But I have tremendous respect for a man who will go to work day after day and do every show as if it's his last, even in the most strenuous of personal crises.

Newton is really the last of the Vegas bluebloods; in the 1950s and '60s, lounge performers there typically put on six shows a day, seven days a week. Over the past 40 years Newton has put on over 30,000 shows in Vegas alone. I don't think any of us can comprehend what it's like to work this much, this hard, and with a smile on your face the whole time. So just once before you go, Mr. Newton, I would like to say 'danke schoen' to a staunch individual, an ass-whupping performer and a fine gentleman.

- Kier-La Janisse (written for Uptown Magazine Dec. 10, 2009)

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