THIS IS A SHTICK-UP!: At 92, Vegas legend Shecky Greene still a comedy tornado
“My big thing here in Las Vegas was playing keno. I once lost $150,000 in a coffee shop waiting for a bagel to warm up.” — Shecky Greene one-liner
Can we get a rimshot? Or 1,500 of them –- just a rough estimate to get us through the next hour or so?
Chitchats with Shecky Greene demand massive stockpiles of those percussive flourishes (BA-RUMP-BUMP!) that could punctuate Shecky punch lines whooshing toward you in tsunami waves. Conversations flip on a dime into shtick, the one-liners morphing into snatches of twisted opera (“Madame Butterfly” with stray profanities); sudden bursts of classic celebrity impressions (Dino-to-Jolson-to-Durante); quicksilver accents (a cockney Londoner and a German tourist); and outta-nowhere ditties composed on the fly in his still-bubbling, 92-year-old brain.
“I go to Smith’s (supermarket) and sing, ‘Tomatoes are cheaper than apples and apples are over there. And when you buy the bananas, they’re all turning brown and you better BEE-WAAAARE.’ They all know me on the checkout line. People say, ‘Here comes the man that sings’ and the boss goes, ‘Get him out!’”
Not only the boss. “I make up songs all day long and my wife says, ‘SHADDUP!’ Every time she says ‘SHADDUP!’ the dog barks. The dog thinks his name is SHADDUP!”
Hangin’ around with Shecky means pinballing around Memory Lane. Go on, pick a topic. Perhaps his long-ago routine on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 11th anniversary special? “I said, ‘He’s been on 11 years, that’s because there’s nothing to dislike. He doesn’t sing, he doesn’t dance, he don’t do anything.’ After the show (Sullivan) came and got me. “You dirty, no-good (expletive)!’”
Should Vegas ever carve a Mount Rushmore of Founding Entertainers out of a chunk of Red Rock Canyon, you’ll find his eternally cherubic mug right there, clowning next to Elvis, Liberace and the Rat Packers.
“My mother used to make chicken and I said to my mother, ‘You make the chicken too greasy.’ She says, ‘I never make chicken. I just make a pot of grease and I shape it like chicken.’” BA-RUMP-BUMP
Acknowledged by many as the king of the club comics ever since he touched down on a fledgling Strip in 1953, he helped make Vegas, as much as Vegas made him, lending a friendly forum for his stream-of-consciousness storytelling and free-form style. Though he no longer climbs onto a stage to perform — especially after he fell off one last year at the Italian American Club, leaving him frequently relying on a walker — all you need do is press “play” on a tape recorder. Instantly, Shecky transforms the dining room table at his Henderson home into a makeshift dais that is — how should we put this? — full of shtick.
“I never monkeyed around. Just one time I approached a girl, and it had to be my wife’s detective.” BA-RUMP-BUMP
Born on April 8, 1926 and raised on Chicago’s north side, the man legally named Fred Greenfield got tagged as “Shecky” early on. Nope — he has no idea why, though we can surmise that it’s some odd extrapolation from his middle name, Sheldon. “My brother gave it to me when I was very young,” he says. “Even the teachers called me Shecky.”
Once an aspiring gym teacher, he instead embraced his irrepressible comic instincts, launching his club career in New Orleans and branching out to Miami and Reno before boomeranging back to hometown Chicago. Then Vegas beckoned thanks to an awkward personal circumstance.
“I got married to a girl in Reno. I didn’t know her first name but by the time I learned it, I didn’t want to know her second name. But it was because of her I came to this town. I canceled out the job at the Last Frontier Hotel (only the second resort built on the Strip) but she called and reinstated the job. The reason was she had a boyfriend here.”
Oopsie. … Though the marriage eventually evaporated, the union of Shecky and Vegas was fated to endure.
“I was married first to an Indian, the second was a Hawaiian. I didn’t love either one of them. I was in love with drums.” BA-RUMP-BUMP
Quiz him about The Old Days and … hold on, Shecky feels a song coming on. Yes, outta nowhere. Just … because. “Here I lie in the snow so cold / Waiting for the ski patrol / I see the trees and broke my knees / I’m waiting for the ski patrol / I do hope they come before the St. Bernard / ’Cause last year he took me back to his yard.” …
As we were saying: Quiz about him The Old Days and Shecky waxes rhapsodic. “The place I felt free and easy was the lounge. In the big rooms, you had to have an act, but in the lounge, you could tear it apart. Five maître d’s retired while I was there,” he recalls of his lounge-crawler days, most memorably at the former Riviera.
“I should never eat lox because I can’t find the combination.” BA-RUMP-BUMP
At his Vegas zenith, Shecky was racking up 20 weeks a year in bookings and pulling down $100,000 a week, he says. “Vegas drew a Chicago-New York crowd, the people we used to get up in the (Catskill) Mountains,” he says of audiences that keyed into his Borscht Belt humor. “I should be grateful to this town because it made me a good living. And we had some real characters.”
One of those characters? Shecky Greene, especially during his, let’s say, well-lubricated period. Infamous example: crashing his car into the Caesars Palace fountains in 1968, then quipping to the responding cops: “No spray wax.” No, it wasn’t an isolated incident. “The police had a thing for me,” he says ruefully. “I was really a lost soul.”
Prone to combativeness, he’s also triggered feuds with fellow performers, most recently in 2014 with Gilbert Gottfried, when the nerdy, nasally comic let rip a particularly filthy joke at a Friars Club roast, prompting Shecky to storm out.
“I don’t like it when people laugh at something schmutzig,” he says, invoking the Yiddish word for anything dirty. “Comedy is not for that.” Even when schmoozing at the top of the entertainment food chain, Shecky would brook no guff.
“Frank Sinatra saved my life. Five guys were beating me up and I heard Frank say, ‘That’s enough.’” True story, he says, but even so … BA-RUMP-BUMP
Shecky and Frank? Love-hate. “I opened for him but I would never take his crap. ‘You’re doing this!’ ‘No I’m not doing that!’” he says, remembering when Ol’ Blue Eyes gifted him with an unusual token of affection. “He gave me a monkey for my birthday,” he says.
“The monkey wouldn’t eat so I would keep showing the monkey how to eat. I gained 22 pounds. And every time I opened the cage the monkey would come for my breast. I started walking to the left side.”
Yet for all the personal bravado and comic fearlessness, this performing tornado once battled crippling panic attacks. During one “Tonight Show” appearance, he was so gripped with anxiety that a stagehand had to push him through the curtain to do his standup. “Two wives did that to me,” says Shecky about his jangled nerves, though that’s long-since subsided thanks to third wife Marie, whom he married in 1985.
“One doctor sent me to the Mayo Clinic and they operated on me for cancer and I did not have cancer. Since then I yell, ‘Hold the Mayo.’” BA-RUMP-BUMP
At 92, he jokes about death, even asking this writer to reconfirm an interview appointment beforehand. Ya know, just in case. When that time comes, it still won’t quell his comic spirit. “I’d like them to put my head on top of my headstone so I can see what’s happening!” he says. “(The headstone) will say, ‘Lift up this stone and you will see Shecky’s whole act.’ There will be a tape playing.”
That, we hope, is eons away. Right now, there’s another song coming on. “I wonder what happened to Shecky / He don’t work anymore / He finds when he’s before the crowd that he’s a simple bore / The people get up early before the show is through / And some of them they turn around and say, ‘We didn’t like YOU!’”
Nonsense, Shecky. Not with lines like this:
“A boy comes home, he says, ‘Ma, I had a wonderful thing happen, I was elected to do something in our senior play.’ She says, ‘Harold, it’s so wonderful, I’m so proud of you.’ He says, ‘I got a lead. I play the part of a Jewish husband.’ She says, ‘You go back and tell them to give you a speaking part.’” BA-RUMP-BUMP
He’s got a million of ’em. … We mean that literally. He’s got a million of ’em.