This is my #MeToo. I was 24,it was the mid to late 80’s. I was well trained, had already been performing in theater, and had all the confidence and determination to pursue what I loved to do. I was green, but not naive. I was street-smart, but not yet jaded. By fate and the kind of connections that tend to make this kind of story happen( through friends talking over dinner) I found myself with an incredible opportunity to open for the late Don Rickles at a well known hotel in Las Vegas. It was an opportunity of a life time and I jumped in to fully commit to the opportunity. Contracts were signed, fees negotiated and overnight it was determined I was to have a one week run at the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas. I was going to be Don Rickles opening act. The show was directed by the late Joe Layton, and music directed by the late Joe Guercio. There would be a 25 piece orchestra, and the show was going to be built around the image of a young, Greek spitfire, with a big voice, singing the kind of music no one my age was singing at the time: Big Band. Joe Layton started piecing together a set list and Joe Guercio started writing out charts. I started flying back and forth from the east coast to Las Vegas, once a month for 6 months to rehearse, go over wardrobe and meet musicians. While there I was invited to stay, free of charge, at the hotel, where I would be performing. We would use the small theater in the hotel to rehearse. The very first time I sang for Joe Layton, he stopped me in the middle of the song I was singing, Johnny One Note, my go to at the time. He stood up in the middle of the theater, with a cigarette held up to his mouth, took in a long drag, exhaled a thick stream of smoke and said,
“Right, I get it. Now could you please, stand still and sing.”
He took another puff of smoke, and exhaled.
“For God’s sake, just stand there and sing.”
That was the moment long ago, I learned the simple power of performing.I was adopted by my two Joes. They looked after me, trained me, and took me under their collective wings of wisdom. Joe Layton was kind and funny, abrupt and full of one liners. He was a show doctor, a director and by all accounts, a musical theater genius. Joe Guercio was grumpy and gruff with a heart of gold. He told me about Elvis, Tony Bennett, and the Las Vegas of long ago. Between the two of them, I heard stories about legends from both Hollywood and Las Vegas, New York and Nevada. It never dawned on me the magnitude of what was coming together, which was likely a good thing. I knew I was surrounded by greatness. I knew I was safe. I just wanted to sing and start my professional career as a performer. It was a remarkable moment in my life. During down time I would take long runs through the city or rent a car and visit places to hike or site see. I was by myself, with the exception of having these two Joe’s to call on if I ever needed anything. They became my mentors and friends.
Over the months of traveling back and forth, I developed a routine. Opening night was fast approaching, wardrobe had been selected, hair and make-up was chosen, publicity pictures taken, press alerted on both coasts, and many of my friends and family were making plans to fly out to Las Vegas to attend opening night. I had officially met Don Rickles, gotten his approval and his blessing. I was ready. This was it. People sent flowers, telegrams and cards, Variety and other members of the press were in the house, my two Joes were dressed to the nines, my family was there, the friends who had made all of this happen were there, the house was packed, the orchestra was warming up, and I was ready.
I can still feel the excitement deep in my bones. I remember the set list, and I still have the original charts. I remember what I wore, hearing Don Rickles mention my name, not once but twice, as I sat, still shaking from my performance in my dressing room, and I remember hearing Mr. Rickles ask someone to bring me back on stage for another round of applause. It was my moment in time.
The next morning, while having breakfast with my family, someone dropped a copy of Variety on the table and someone else read, out-loud, a favorable review of my opening night. Proof, right there, in the middle of scrambled eggs and toast. The next week was sure to be a continuation of greatness and certainly, an agent or two would be knocking on my door.
The second night went well. The following morning, those who had flown out for the opening were heading back to the east coast, my family was leaving and I was settling in to what I thought was going to be my ticket to the rest of my life. I was planning the life I had always wanted. My dream.
I could not have been more wrong.
The morning of my third show went as most mornings went. I got up, I ran and then went to the hotel gym to work out before going over my music and set list. I checked in with my parents back in North Carolina, took a nap and prepped for the show. Don Rickles drew a huge crowd, we had packed houses, and he continued to bring me back on stage for another round of applause. That night, the two Joes were not in attendance. They were working on other shows but Joe Layton wanted me to check in post show.
I had gone back to my room. It was late. I was going to check in with my parents and then Joe Layton before falling asleep. There was a knock at the door. I looked through the peep hole and there was the owner of the Golden Nugget. I opened the door and he stood there in a white terry cloth robe, holding a shoe box. He asked if I remembered who he was. I thought he was there to congratulate me on the success of the show.
Do you know who I am? Do you remember who I am?
He stood there with shoe polish black hair and white, too white, teeth. Of course I knew who he was, but what the hell was he doing standing in my door way, in only a white terry cloth robe holding a shoe box?
Let’s be clear: I was green, but not naive. I was street smart and knew something was very wrong.
He pushed his way into my room. He sat down in a chair and let his robe fall open. He said he noticed I ran a lot. He asked if I like to run. Asked if I enjoyed running.
He said he wanted me to look at the shoes he had just gotten. His running shoes.
He then asked me if I knew what a hedonist was. I said yes. He told me he was a hedonist. That he had an appetite for the finer things. He let his robe fall open some more. He wanted me to give him a massage. I told him no. I told him I thought it was best if he left. He said he really needed a massage. I told him if he did not leave, I was going to scream and put up a fight. I told him to get the fuck out of my room. He stood up, screamed at me and said I had just made the worst decision of my life, and he left.
I was shaking. Crying. In shock. I called my parents and through tears, told them what had just happened. My father was ready to hire an army to track down the owner of the hotel and have him killed. My mother told me to call Joe Layton- that he would know what to do. I did. Joe Layton rushed over to the hotel, told me I did the right thing, and stayed with me until I felt safe.
By mid morning the next day, all my privileges were shut off at the hotel, I was told to be out of my room, that my contract was over and I was being replaced by Mary Hart( and her million dollar legs). By late afternoon, my parents found a flight for me back to North Carolina. Only a few friends knew what had happened. I went back to doing theater, started doing film, eventually moved to New York, and the Las Vegas incident became history. Joe Layton and I remained friends until he passed away years later.
It was only recently I told my daughter what happened in Vegas- to show her the power of a complete sentence: No. I told her I had no regrets, that I knew even way back then I was not willing to compromise who I was for the price of fame- whatever that meant. I told her I had been surprised that over the years this man’s name had not been in the news. I figured it was the Vegas hush machine- and his hush money. I knew it was only going to be a matter of time until his name made the news. Yesterday, his hush money ran out and his name made the headlines. His shoe polish black hair, and white, too white teeth were all over the evening news. His name is Steve Wynn and I hope he gets everything he deserves.