By Bobbie Katz
It's been said that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
That couldn’t be truer than for one famed entertainer whose continuing success on the stages of the city has kept him performing here for the past 43 consecutive years.
Tony Orlando, who will be appearing at the South Point September 20-22, first played Vegas in 1970 with Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, known as Dawn, at the Las Vegas Hilton. They had achieved great popularity with their first two hit records, “Candida” and “Knock Three Times.” By 1973, with the release of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon (Round the Ole Oak Tree),” the group was playing exclusively at the Riviera, breaking records for selling out. It was then that a very unique thing happened.
“I went to see Elvis’ show at the Las Vegas Hilton and met the entertainment director there,” Orlando recalls. “He wanted us to play the Hilton. So I went to Tony Zappe, the entertainment director at the Riviera, with a suggestion. Engelbert Humperdinck was playing the Hilton at that time and I thought that if Zappe would give me and the girls the opportunity, then maybe he could work a deal whereby Engelbert would work the Riviera 10 weeks a year and I would work the Riviera 10 weeks a year and we would both work the Hilton 10 weeks a year. Zappe loved the idea and agreed to it. That kind of arrangement was never done again in the history of Las Vegas.
“Tony Orlando and Dawn broke Elvis’ record at the Hilton,” he adds. “We were actually working 22 weeks a year in Vegas – 12 at the Riviera and 12 at the Hilton – doing two shows a day, seven days a week, for three weeks at a time.”
Orlando also remembers the first culinary strike in Las Vegas, which took place back in the 70’s. He and Dawn were doing their stint at the Riviera, which was the only non-union hotel on the Strip at that time.
“The showrooms were king back in those days and every hotel closed theirs, except for the Riviera since it was non-union,” he smiles. “There was no Liberace, no Elvis, no Rat Pack or anyone else. I had the distinction of being the only act working in the entire town. The Riviera told me that we’d have to do three shows a night – we had a dinner show and a 10 p.m. show and they added a midnight show. The phones were literally breaking down there were so many people calling fro reservations. But I’d walk out to some hostile crowds because we were the only show in town they could go to – they were eating donuts, drinking, and seeing Tony Orlando and Dawn and they were angry because there was no other acts to see. I’d come out for the second show and tease them about the donuts.”
Orlando has had many great moments in Vegas, among them, giving two magicians, David Copperfield and Doug Henning, their starts as his opening act. When he brought David on to be his opening act in 1981, Orlando ended up doing what he calls “the greatest opening of my life,” thanks to the magician’s ingenuity.
“On stage, there was a black ladder with wheels on it,” Orlando explains. “There was a black scrim in front of it and a black scrim behind it. So when the curtain opened, it looked like I was floating because you couldn’t see the ladder; all you could see was that spotlight. David announced me, saying, “And the magic continues,” and I came out singing “On Broadway.” It looked like a hologram. When I hit the floor, everything flew up and the band cart came down behind me on a hydraulic.”
During those golden days in Las Vegas, Orlando also ad the opportunity to work with the great legends of the day, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr.,Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lewis had been touring with Sammy Davis Jr. when Sammy passed away. So Lewis asked Orlando to finish the tour with him and the two went out together. In Vegas, they played both Bally’s and the Las Vegas Hilton.
“Jerry only had three partners in his career – Dean, Sammy, and this Puerto Rican,” Orlando relates with pride.”I also worked with Frank Sinatra twice. He used to host a benefit every year in Vegas to help build UNLV and he also did one to raise money for St. Jude’s Home for Wayward Kids in Vegas. One time, he said to me, “Tony, I’ve got to go to Palm Springs. Let me go ahead of you and I’ll bring you on stage.” So he introduced me and I quipped,. “See, Frank Sinatra’s opening for me.”
Still touring and playing 125 dates a year, and having had a role in Adam Sandler’s 2012 flick That’s My Boy, Orlando is still making great memories. Besides his performing, he has also recently became a partner sin a themed entertainment destination in Foley, Alabama, which is something he conceived of four years ago.. He has brought together Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, and Jeff Foxworthy in Blue Collar Country, a venue something akin to Dollywood that will open in 2015. He is also very involved in veterans’ causes, which he has been since 1973 when “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” became a mantra for veterans. Among his other endeavors, he,is the spokesman for Snowball Express, which helps families of the fallen.
It all goes to show that one oak tree has many branches that can keep growing and growing and growing. .For Tony Orlando, Vegas has provided him with eternal roots.
Onstage or off, he’s got the beat.