So there I was...sitting in a dressing room in Reno, listening to Sammy Davis, Junior telling a story about how he and Frank and Dino
had busted up this Vegas coffee shop...
(How's that for a lead-off paragraph? Could it be any show-businessier? And get a load of my casual tone, making it sound like this is
an everyday occurrence: Me and Sammy, just hanging out between shows.
(But honesty compels me to own up to the following: This was one of the only two times I ever met Mr. Davis, the other a brief
chit-chat in the wait-for-the-valet-to-figure-out-where-he-put-your-car area of the old Beverly Hills Hotel. And, that night in Reno, though I was
cheerfully prompting him for Show Biz anecdotes by pumping him with fan-type questions, and he was complying, it was a most unusual place for me to
be. Let me back up a few days and explain why I was there and then I'll tell you what happened.)
My friend Anson Williams was then entering his forty-seventh year (or thereabouts) playing a teen-ager on Happy Days.
Figuring that even that show couldn't last forever, he was groping about for another source of income.
He had directed a TV-movie that had yet to air...then someone suggested a Vegas act. Anson thought the idea had merit and he asked me
to help out with putting the thing together. His managers booked him into Harrah's in Reno for a two-night try-out, opening for Bill Cosby. Bookers
for other Nevada hotels would be there, eager (we hoped) to rush backstage after Anson's set and sign him for other hotels at better money.
We rehearsed in Los Angeles, culminating in an invitational performance for friends and family at the rehearsal studio. The reaction
was strong and the suggestions from our guests were few but helpful. The next morn, Anson, his then-spouse, his musical director, his manager, two
female back-up singers, a choreographer and a few musicians flew to Reno and commenced rehearsing, all in order to open that evening. An hour or two
later, they were joined by myself and a friend, famed National Lampoon cartoonist Shary Flenniken. Shary had never been to Reno (or even to
Vegas) and wanted to see what it was like. At last report, she still hadn't gotten over it.
We sat in on a few rehearsals — that is, I sat in while Shary went in search of 49-cent shrimp cocktails — and things went
well. The five musicians we'd brought melded well with the Harrah's band and the arrangements sounded great coming from the assemblage. The
performance and patter were good...or, at least, as good as they were going to get between now and showtime. So my main contribution to the
rehearsals was to suggest cutting them short to save Anson's singing voice. He walked through it all one last time, the orchestra was dismissed and
that was that.
Between then and showtime, I dawdled at the Blackjack tables, taught Shary how to play Video Poker (she was immediately better at it
than I was) and, together, we cleaned out the Harrah's dinner buffet.
The show was advertised to start at 8:00. In Reno (or Las Vegas), that means that the show starts at 8:00:30, meaning within thirty
seconds of the official time. It does not start at, say, 8:02 or 8:04 and there is a very simple concept as to why this is: We got all these people
here to Harrah's to see Bill Cosby and Anson Williams...now we want to get them out of this showroom and back into our casino to gamble and lose
money. And the sooner we get them back out there, the more they'll lose. Reno/Vegas entertainment history is filled with anecdotes about great stars
(Red Skelton and Jack Benny, to name two) who loved performing too much to adhere to the time limit, ran over...and found themselves screamed at and
threatened with never working in this town — either town — again.
At 7:15, I ambled down to an honest-to-God secret door that had been shown to me earlier in the day by a Harrah's executive. He'd shown
me how, when no one was looking, I was to press a concealed switch on what otherwise appeared to be a wall panel next to an elevator. The panel
opened and I slipped into a corridor through an "employees only" area, walking past rooms filled with slot machine parts and hotel supplies, until I
reached a door with a security-code lock on it. I punched in the code and was admitted into the dressing room area where Anson, his wife, manager and
some friends were already pacing.
Anson had what had been (and would be again, after our stint) Florence Henderson's dressing room. Since she was only taking a few days
off, Ms. Henderson had left all her wardrobe and props there, along with a semi-naughty note, taped to the make-up mirror, wishing him luck. Anson
and I killed some time, composing a reply he could post to her, thanking her for the best wishes and bemoaning that none of her beaded gowns had fit
him well. A Harrah's exec ducked in to welcome all and to report that the house was sold out for both shows that night...a good sign but one, Anson
suggested, that attested more to Cosby's popularity than his own.
"Don't sell yourself short, kid," the Harrah's man said. "On a Wednesday night, even the great Cosby might leave a few empties
without a strong name opening for him."
I looked around. "Hey, where is the great Cosby?"
The Harrah's exec chuckled. "He goes on at 8:25. That means you'll see him at..." (he checked his watch) "...8:24. Anyway, have a
8:00 arrived, as it always does. The band hit the downbeat, the sound room rolled a pre-taped introduction...and Anson hit the
stage. It went very well. I watched it all from the wings.
At 8:24, as Anson was taking his bows, I felt someone standing behind me. Sure enough: It was Bill Cosby, right on schedule.
Anson exited the stage, a stagehand scurried out to set a chair at center stage and, sans intro or music, Bill Cosby strolled out, sat
down and proceeded not to be funny.
That was not a typo. I have seen most of the major comedians of our age perform live and they always — always
— take stage and proceed to do their darnedest to remind the audience why they're all there. Later, to give the audience a respite from
laughing, they may ad-lib a hunk or two and bring the level down for five minutes...perhaps try out some new material or chat with the front
row. But they only do this after they've led with some strong material, gotten the show off to a strong start. That's how they all do
Except Cosby. For the first five or ten minutes, his manner was that of a man who is stalling on going to work...putting it off
as long as possible. He slowly unwrapped a cigar, then polled folks in the front row on where they were from, if they had any kids and how the
gambling was going. No matter what he said, no matter what he did, as long as he did it like Bill Cosby, the audience howled. And he still wasn't
trying to be funny.
Finally, he did. But I missed the moment. You would have missed it, too.
Most of Cosby's act consisted of a discussion of raising kids...stories of the horrors of that activity. A few years later, much of
this would form the basis of his hit TV situation comedy.
That night at Harrah's, Bill Cosby performed one of the greatest sleight-of-joke acts I have ever seen as he effortlessly segued from
chit-chat with the front row to his well-polished monologue on families.
The switchover was impossible to detect...and not just the one time. We did four shows there — two a night for two nights —
and I always made a point of watching at least the first ten minutes of Cosby's set, trying to pinpoint the moment when he introduced the prepared
material into his patter.
And I never could. Every time, he'd start slow...unwrapping the cigar, chatting with ringsiders about the Keno tables and such. The
audience, thrilled to be in his presence, ate this up for a few minutes, as he knew they would. I'd listen intently for a line from the
routine...waiting for him to switch from chat to monologue — and all of a sudden, I'd realized I'd missed it: He was suddenly five jokes into the
Four times I watched him do this and I could never catch him...an amazing feat of monology.
The fourth and last time, I wanted to see it all out front so I had them reserve a table for Shary and me. They put us ringside, about
three inches from where Mr. Cosby would be sitting...a mistake (I realized too late) for it "threw" Anson slightly to have a familiar face so close
When Cos entered, he went through the ritual of unwrapping the cigar and chatting with folks sitting up front...in this case, mainly
Shary and me. I'm afraid I said nothing of humor or note, so focused was I on trying to catch him make the blend to his "parenting" monologue. I
couldn't do it: the first moment when I recognized a line from the earlier show, I realized he was already several jokes into it; he'd started in the
middle — just to throw me off — and later ambled back to pick up the opening lines.
He was very funny, I might add...funnier than I'd ever seen him be on television or heard him be on records. Before that night, if
you'd asked me what I thought of Bill Cosby, I'd have said, "Oh, he's okay, I guess." But I sat there that night and laughed so hard, I passed half
of my ginger ale through my nose. So you never know...
And just as he didn't start as a conventional comedian, he didn't close that way either, at least not that last show. He said, "Ladies
and gents...would you please say hello to a wonderful performer, Mr. Sammy Davis, Jr.?"
It came completely out of left field but, sure enough, a spotlight picked him out, sitting in a booth near the back. The audience broke
into sudden, thrilled applause as Sammy took a bow. Cosby mentioned that Sammy was opening in that same room the next night. Then he thanked everyone
for coming and walked off stage. Just like that.
Ten minutes later, we were back in Anson's dressing room, which was flooded with bookers for all the major hotels in Vegas, most of
them eager to set dates for him to play there. I came away with a pocket full of business cards and offers to be "comped"
to a hotel room and/or show whenever I wanted. Then everyone cleared out.
(Ironically, though the engagement drew all sorts of offers to play Las Vegas and Reno — precisely its purpose — Anson
never accepted any of them. Remember that TV-movie I mentioned he'd directed? Well, it came out and was a hit and, suddenly, he had all the directing
work he could handle. I was delighted for him, as he's a helluva nice guy.)
Finally, it was just Anson, me and a couple of Anson's musicians hanging around the dressing room. Then our star excused himself to go
find his spouse and, moments after he left, Sammy walked in...with entourage.
Once he confirmed that Cosby had vacated the star dressing room (I'm not sure Cosby ever used it at all), he sent an aide to start
decorating it with Sammy memorabilia...photos, posters, etc. "When you live in dressing rooms like I do," he volunteered, "you learn to make them a
little homier." For the next hour or so — since he seemed to have nowhere to go and I'm a sucker for show biz stories — I pumped him for
anecdotes, mostly about the early days of Vegas. This led to talk about the color barriers; how, for the longest time, he was good enough to play the
big rooms at the hotels but not to use the front entrance. He told a heartbreaker of a story about when his family had started to make genuine Big
Money at one of the casinos...leading to him being allowed to enter through the front for the first time. The "punch line," of course, came when he
gambled away about six months' income at Craps. Thereafter, he and his folks were not only working for free, they were back to using the kitchen
entrance. "But it was okay in a way," he said. "We lived off the food we swiped on the way in and out."
One of the musicians asked him a question about Sinatra and Sammy was suddenly on his feet, doing an impression, doing a full-blown
rendition of "My Way," a cappella. Just for us. He spent about an hour with us — total strangers to him — and it was so
entertaining, I felt I should pay a cover charge.
My favorite Las Vegas Trivia Question is this: When someone important passes away, Vegas custom is to dim all the lights on The Strip
for a minute or so. But twice — and only twice — all play in the casinos was suspended in memory of someone. Once, they did it for an
hour and once, for a minute. Who was the hour and who was the minute?
(Answer: They stopped all play for an hour when John F. Kennedy was killed, for one minute when Howard R. Hughes died.)
When Sammy passed away a few years ago, I thought of that impromptu performance in the basement of Harrah's in Reno. And I imagined a
conversation in a board room of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce...or whatever august body could decide to suspend all play in the casinos. I
imagined someone proposing they stop gaming for a minute in Sammy's memory and it was seconded and passed unanimously. And then —
And then someone said (this is all in my imagination. remember), "Wait a minute. If we stop gambling for a minute for Sammy, we'll have
to stop gambling for a minute when Frank dies..."
Someone else said, "Frank would want two minutes."
"Well, if we do it for Sammy and Frank, we have to do it for Dean when he goes..."
"If we do it for Dean, we have to do it for Jerry..."
"If we do it for Dean and Jerry, we'll have to do it for Siegfried and Roy. This is getting expensive..."
"Maybe we'll be lucky and they'll go at the same time and they can share a minute."
"Dean and Jerry die at the same time? What are the odds of that?"
"No, I meant Siegfried and Roy...you know, like, their plane crashes."
"Wait a minute...we forgot about Wayne!"
"That's right! If Frank gets two minutes, Wayne will have to get three minutes!"
"Five, at least! What are we up to?"
"Eleven or twelve, depending on whether Siegfried and Roy die at the same time."
"How about ten seconds each for Steve and Eydie?"
"Hold it, hold it! Twelve minutes of no gambling will cost way too much! We didn't stop play for Elvis and we didn't do it for
"He's right. It's a bad precedent. Let's just dim the lights for Sammy." Everyone nodded and they rescinded the earlier vote and
decided instead just to dim the neon. Which is what they actually did.
I have no away of knowing if anything resembling the above discussion actually took place. But I'll bet Sammy would have enjoyed it if
it had. I kind of hope it did.