As a kid, I never worshiped movie stars or singers. My heroes were baseball players, especially the three M’s—Mays, Mantle, Musial. Then I went to Vietnam and found what it takes to be a hero, and after that I viewed baseball players as well-paid athletes. I went to work for Sheriff Ralph Lamb in 1967 as a 21-year-old deputy, and I settled into Las Vegas in an apartment near the Strip. Like many newcomers, I was initially enthralled with the neon, and in my off-duty time I often ate in the casinos. That was before corporate bean counters ran the joints, and a good meal was affordable even for a low-paid deputy. Little Joe’s Oyster Bar in the Thunderbird was a mile from my apartment. Occasionally I’d drop in just to have a bowl of the killer oyster stew. In part, the attraction was watching cooks prepare orders a few feet away, sort of like a sushi bar today. And the smell! Imagine the smell of an ocean breeze, pepper, cayenne and melted butter blending in the air with a fresh catch of tuna—like that, but not quite.
One evening I was seated at the bar waiting for my bowl when this aging man with a nearly bald head and a belly the envy of a woman carrying sextuplets sat next to me. The cook addressed him as Jack and asked what he was having.
“Oyster stew,” he said.
The cook set my bowl before me. “Best I ever tasted,” Jack said. “And I’m from the East.”
I nodded. He continued to talk as I ate. The subject was now his wall and how the County Commission wouldn’t grant him a variance to add a few rows of cinder block to the top.
“I’ve had block stacked up in my yard for years now waiting for a decision.”
What he meant, I assumed, was a decision in his favor. He spooned his meal and between slurps complained about the bureaucracy. He finished before I did, said that he was in a hurry for a show and left. The cook laid down my bill and gave me an apologetic look. “I been hearing it for more than a year. He even complains about it to his audience.”
“Yeah, that’s Jack E. Leonard, the comedian. He’s playing the lounge at the Sahara.”
I made it a point to tell my stepfather, Mal Harris, a local TV newsman, about the encounter. In those days, anyone in the news media could usually receive a comp to any show in town. Mal got us comped into Jack’s act. He proved far funnier while performing, but just as the cook had said, Jack got on the soapbox and berated the County Commission.
I don’t know if he ever got the variance, but I remember laughing at his one-liners. Some years later, I read about his death and wondered if he ever got that wall.
Meals With Musicians
In 1968 I was transferred to the Detective Division, working vice on the Strip. The chief of security at the Bonanza, where Bally’s now sits, was Joe Lavoy, a former Las Vegas policeman, a storyteller and an all-around nice guy. Once every two weeks or so, he’d invite me to have a bite with him. One night Joe called over Marty Robbins, who was playing the showroom, and he sat down with us and ordered dinner. When I said that my then-wife was an avid fan of his, he took it with a smile, excused himself and left. When he returned, he had an album in hand and asked my wife’s name. He wrote something on it that I now can’t recall, then we ate and talked.
I later had a similar meal at the Bonanza with Buck Owens. He too was gracious, but I didn’t get an album, perhaps because I told him that for a long while in my camp in ’Nam we had only two albums to play on our record player in the team house, and our intel sergeant, J.V. Carroll, played Buck Owens to the point of having our captain tell him “No more.”
I met Frank Sinatra when I got a one-night gig to act as security for a private party he threw for a handful of guests at his Caesars Palace suite. Our job was to guard the door. Actually, you could say I didn’t actually meet Sinatra; I met the persona he was displaying that particular night. He made a point to tell us he was glad we were there to keep out the riffraff. He called us “Guys,” inferring in his tone that he too was a “Guy.” After all, he did play a cop. That made him like us, right? Like us, only richer. Truth is, I liked most of his acting and I’d seen his show twice at Caesars, but I knew his history with the Rat Pack and his many past abuses of casino dealers and bosses. The story I liked most was when he threatened Carl Cohen in Mr. Cohen’s office at the Sands and lost a few caps from his teeth in the process.
Early in the party, Sinatra kept an eye on the doorway. If a guest was important enough, he strolled over and honored them with a toothy smile and warm greeting that came from someplace much cooler. Sammy Davis Jr. and Franky Jr. showed up, but the highlight of my night was when Rod Steiger stepped out of the elevator. He didn’t carry himself like a celebrity, just a man invited to a party who offered a handshake graciously. At the party’s end we got envelopes from one of Sinatra’s people. Twenty-five dollars. I later found out that he had his manager handle the envelopes, and they usually contained a fifty or a larger bill. I also found out the underlings charged with distributing money for such events often skimmed some off the top for themselves.
Shades of Redd
Of the celebrities I met, none was more genuine than Redd Foxx. When I quit the sheriff’s office, I went to work for Griffin Investigations for a time chasing casino cheaters and increased my weekly wage by nearly 50 percent. The job demanded my time, 10 or more hours a day, often seven nights a week without overtime or vacation. I had little personal life and no benefits except eating the occasional meal at the Hilton with Gene Desel, the chief of security, who’d also been my classmate in the police and sheriff’s academy. Those were the days when Elvis starred in the showroom and the maître d’ and his captains knocked down $3,000 and more apiece on a good weekend. Redd Foxx was at the peak of his fame because of his role as Fred on Sanford and Son.
He was also a degenerate keno player. On four or five occasions he joined Gene and me as we ate, in his hand as many as a half-dozen keno tickets. His attention divided between us and the keno board, he entertained us with anecdotes or by repeating a joke that got a big laugh in the lounge. Although he was glib, something about him spoke of sadness—of the clown who disguised his pain with laughter. He had another characteristic that made him genuine: He actually listened to and heard what others said. Gene knew my ex-wife from his time as deputy and her name came up in the conversation.
“So you’re divorced,” Redd said.
I said that, yes, I was.
“Well, that’s a blessing for two people.”
He didn’t smile when he said it. I think he was speaking of himself.
Then there was Elvis. Gene hired me as backstage security for him during one of The King’s long weekend shows. My contact and conversation with him were limited to elevator rides down from his penthouse suite to the hallways from the kitchen area to the back of the showroom, where I took a position in the wing of the stage. I got paid a nominal wage, 35 bucks as I recall, and saw a half-dozen performances. The magic the audience saw was largely lost on me. It was a job, and I needed the money, and I got to hang around with Roger Meeney, whom I knew from the sheriff’s office. My Elvis stories begin and end with Roger.
One night, after escorting Elvis back to his suite, Roger returned down the elevator. On the way down, Red West—a trained martial artist who was Elvis’s primary security man—asked Roger if he thought he could take him. Roger, probably the best barroom brawler ever to set shoe leather in the great state of Nevada, wasn’t about to shirk from a challenge. In a few seconds Red found himself twisted up like a yogi in an apple crate and begging to be released. Sonny West, Red’s cousin and another Elvis bodyguard, looked like he was going to jump in and help Red, but thought better of it when I stepped between them. It’s little wonder Elvis took a special liking to Roger.
On one of the rides down the elevator, Roger commented on a diamond ring that Elvis wore on his pinky finger. Elvis asked if he liked it. Roger said yes. Elvis took it off, spit on it, then polished it on his sleeve and handed it to Roger, telling him it was his now. That same flashy ring was on display in Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii televised concert. I haven’t seen or heard from Roger for more than 20 years, so I don’t know what he did with the ring. Last I heard he kept it in a safe-deposit box.
Elvis’ impulsive generosity didn’t end with Roger. Jerry Amerson, a detective I also knew from the academy, was working backstage with us. He was packing a special-edition .45 automatic. Elvis asked what kind of gun he was carrying. Jerry showed him the .45. Elvis offered to buy it on the spot for an amount triple its value. Apparently, temperance wasn’t part of Elvis’ personality. Still, he was a generous man. I heard tales of him giving Cadillacs to people. I also heard stories of his sometimes strange behavior, but I never heard a single report of him abusing or belittling anyone. My only exchanges with him were his asking, “You ready, boys?” We answered, “Yes” as one and walked him down the empty hallways, for no employee of any stripe was allowed in the hallway when The King made his walk to the stage.
Green Felt and Fame
From 1978-97, I worked on and off as a casino dealer in Las Vegas. During those years, I dealt to just four celebrities. Robert Goulet was a gentleman, but a typical Canadian in that he didn’t tip, at least not in a manner that reflected what he lost or won betting. My single encounter with Telly Savalas occurred at the Mint when he walked in with a small entourage and spotted me near the entrance standing on a dead blackjack game. He slapped a hundred down on the table. I shuffled and pitched the cards. He lost, slapped another and became Kojak. “I’m gonna getcha this time, baby.” He lost, slapped down another and continued doing so until he lost a thousand, then he turned to his entourage and said something about the game being rigged. A woman, a tourist, who’d watched the entire event asked how I could do such a thing to Telly Savalas.
“Telly Savalas?” I said. “Lady, I thought he was Yul Brynner.”
I was walking out of the pit and headed to the break room at the Sands when I saw the great Bob Lanier, center for the Detroit Pistons. He’d been featured in a couple of the Miller Lite commercials. As I passed by, I pointed at him and said, “Less filling!” He pointed back and said, “Tastes great!” I said, “Less filling!” He said, “Tastes GREAT!” I looked up at him, nearly a head taller, and said, “You win.” He pointed to his cards, two face cards, a winner.
My last casino gig before leaving for graduate school in Arizona was at the Hilton. There I met Walter Payton—known to football fans simply as “Sweetness,” one of the greatest running backs ever to play in the NFL. I wrote about this encounter in “Beating Sweetness” (VegasSeven.com/Storytelling2010/BeatingSweetness), so I won’t recount it again, except to say he was a gentleman, as was Evander Holyfield, who played $5 chips and was happy to pass time with good conversation and win a few hands. I was reminded in meeting these two fine and humble men of why my childhood heroes had been the three M’s. There’s a kind of confidence in real greatness that transcends the need for attention. You sense that when you’re in the presence of such humans, those celebrities who shun being celebrities.