"Flying through the air with the greatest of ease!" the thrash-voiced singer crows as a pair of cherry-colored panties floats onto the Coliseum stage. "Oftentimes, they are still warm."
A woman from the front row stands, moves to the stage's bow and raises her hand to the singer. The singer bends, takes the giddy woman's hand and kisses it gently. Sparkles of light reflect from the singer's garish pinkie ring and matching watch. Under the lights his hair has a smooth surface, like a polished black helmet, Steve McGarrett Five-O.
The singer crosses the stage, self-contained, adored and teeming with show-biz eagerness, glances toward heaven with an attitude of overstated thankfulness in his fleshy face and bleached grin. The panties took on metaphorical significance, a kind of sexual affirmation. The one-third-full Veterans' Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fair was right there with him, baby, howling its approval.
Panties thrown on stage? Women offering up themselves for kisses? A coliseum? Can you say Ricky Martin? No, that type of flavorless horror, as we all know, is immeasurable, because sheer blandness such as Ricky's is much worse than insufferable.
Tonight's show is heady, cultural horror; fascinating, torrential and meaningless. The act's staying power is guaranteed; only its grotesque, almost mythical form is rearranged through hindsight. It's a weird Madame Tussaud waxwork cloaked in a shell of show-biz armor, where guys like Wink Martindale and Adam West, Elvis and Anthony Newley are one.
It's an enduring mess of pop culture overload called The Wayne Newton Show.
And the crowd. Just imagine a throng lacking anyone born this side of D-Day. From this horde of cafeteria diners, imagine a doe-eyed septuagenarian, butterflies fluttering between her legs, tossing lacey unmentionables toward the stage.
The scene has all the mental incontinence of a local casino, but is twice as watchable as any Fox show.
And, yeah, yeah, we know, elderly bashing is rude and unbecoming, so save your breath and letters. At least Newton had the grace to orate an anti-PC stance before using tired bridge-club humor to rip into Bill Clinton's infidelity, Michael Jackson's dubious sexuality, and Willie Nelson's nasally whine.
But context is everything. In this case, it defines the man who spent much of his childhood in Phoenix. He's a man who croons into a gold-plated Shure microphone and wears a tux perfectly tailored to flatter his flabby frame.
Wayne Newton's great marketable talent is salesmanship. The selling of himself. The ability to inspire blind devotion. He has a potent talent for speech, a skill for evangelical platitudes. How else could a cherubic, high-voiced man with eyes placed too close together become the highest grossing nightclub singer of all time? And this of a man who is half Native American and pronounces Missouri in the redneck-ready "Miz-ur-a."
Newton goes baroque both with song endings and choice moves nicked from Neil Diamond and Elvis, where his arms shoot up over his head, then drift down in a sweeping motion.
Newton's laudable, monkey-suited backing band features a horn section of trumpet, sax and trombone, bass, drums, piano, keyboard strings and two backing vocalists. Tonight, Newton's voice is shot, at times it is just imperceptible movements of his thin lips. His usual soprano is reduced to husky lower tones, sending his customary command of pitch askew. But the spirit hangs on. This Cheez-Whiz, drive-through pap of a show is offset with a professionalism that transcends the maudlin self-consciousness. The sweat flies, the bow tie comes undone, and the unironic camp marches on. No matter how many times we must hear "Elvis was my dear friend," and how much we are offended by the bloodless calculation of his presentation, we still watch, fascinated.
Still, snags persist. His odd, career-launching 1964 Top 40 hit "Danke Schoen" is marked by what sound like "na na's" in place of forgotten words. On the empathetic "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife," he slaps his own wrist after taking a boring swipe at Hillary. The corpulent bass player is used in an embarrassing sketch of comic relief. And despite the Clinton bashing (Bill just cheated on his wife, Newton's pal Elvis was a child-molesting drug addict.), he still brags of a call he received from the White House informing him that he will headline the Christmas show. A Stevie Wonder impersonation on the piano is downright pitiless.
The flip "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" evokes tears from many. Newton whips out the white violin for a studied take of "Orange Blossom Special" that has heads bouncing in a nonexistent time.
Jeff Brandt, Newton's treacle back-up singer and straight man, gives the set an unsettling odd curve. Brandt, a puffed mix of Up With People and Steve Lawrence, impersonates Newton contemporaries, offering surprisingly listenable but ax-grinding mockeries of Tom Jones ("Delilah"), Willie Nelson ("On the Road Again") and Neil Diamond ("Sweet Caroline").
The Saint Wayne routine inevitably wears thin, in spite of his hypnotic oratory.
"You can take of a man's money, but when it's all said and done, you've only taken his money," Newton purrs. "When you take of a man's time, you've taken a part of his life. I'd like to thank you for giving me a part of your life tonight."
The capper features a gooey version of "The Impossible Dream" -- complete with marching drum intro and the last line, "laid to rest," echoing in the distance. He talks about the greatness of Saving Private Ryan, then asks all World War II vets to stand and be seen. He snaps to attention and salutes them. More than a few salute back. Coming from Newton, this maneuver only ups the cheese quotient. Talk about your market research.
The mighty Merv Griffin once said, "Las Vegas without Wayne Newton is like Disneyland without Mickey Mouse."
One of the few remaining celebrities sired by old Las Vegas, Newton's act still pulls more bank than Sinatra's or Elvis' ever did. Newton during his peak years pulled down a cool million a month, leaving him alone atop the list of highest-grossing entertainers in nightclub history. This despite his rumored mob affiliations and bankruptcies.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
When Newton leaves the stage, he glances heavenward again. Is he looking up to the King, or is it his Maker? Or are they one and the same? The lights come on, too bright for an encore.
Where women wear rosy-colored wigs and turquoise jumpsuits, the men flannel. Where wafts of sickly-sweet Fendi knock-off perfume mix with perfected tangs of hot dogs. Strolling between garish displays and barkers you'll find the man, Wayne Newton. Of course it's the Arizona State Fair.
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org