With its fiery spectacle, candy-colored lights, and magnificent artificiality, Las Vegas leaves most people dazzled, if not dazed. But when 16-year-old Wayne Newton arrived for his first engagement on May 9, 1959, Glitter Gulch wasn’t glittery enough. He’d thought the Flamingo Hotel, for example, would look like a gargantuan pink bird with an elevator shooting up its leg. But if the town didn’t match the Phoenix resident’s imagination, it quickly developed a hold on him. His first booking, at the Fremont Hotel, scheduled to last two weeks, ran for an extraordinary three years. Appearing as the Newton Brothers, Wayne and his older brother, Jerry, did six shows a night, split $280 a week, and shared a room at the Monte Carlo Hotel with Wayne’s pet skunk.
Out of the experience — singing, not living with the skunk — Wayne went on to become the King of Las Vegas, mastering a repertoire of songs ranging from pop to country to ’50s rock-abilly, all done in a grandstanding style that’s sweet enough to raise hickeys. Since 1963, when he re-corded his first hit, ”Danke Schoen,” Newton has been seen live by over 12 million souls — more than Sinatra or Elvis. As recompense, he earns close to $20 million a year. (His four-week engagement at the Hilton this month will make him about $2 million wealthier.) A lush, constantly watered 52-acre ranch outside Vegas is home to Newton, his daughter, Erin, 14 (Newton and his wife, Elaine Okamura, were divorced in ’85), wallabies, and a flock of penguins. And Wayne Newton Boulevard cuts across the city that once disappointed him.
Other disappointments? There’ve been a few. In 1986 he won a $19.2 million libel suit against NBC, which had reported that he had mob connections — but the monetary award was overturned last year by a federal appeals court. Newton said in his ’89 autobiography, Once Before I Go, that the stress of the case paralyzed his powers of ESP for three years.
But the ordeal freed, perhaps, a latent acting talent. Newton won raves in his film debut as a greedy televangelist in 1989’s Licence to Kill, appeared as a record company executive in last summer’s Ford Fairlane, and played a trial lawyer convincingly on L.A. Law this season. He’ll have another movie out this summer, The Dark Backward with Rob Lowe and James Caan. And, yes, he still performs more than 300 shows a year in Vegas. He may never stop. ”Las Vegas without Wayne Newton,” Merv Griffin once said, ”is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse.”
May 9, 1959
Two novels that would later be hits as movies, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Leon Uris’ Exodus, led the fiction best-seller list. Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe sizzled in Some Like It Hot, and the top pop song was the Fleetwoods’ ”Come Softly to Me.”