This is the story of two men, born singers and showmen.
One, here and now. One, dead and buried.
One, in a sweet twist of fate, captured a dream. One, in a sad quirk of life, didn’t.
One—once just a part-time singer and former Bronx car repair shop owner—was recently discovered by Steve Wynn and is now a late-in-life success on the Las Vegas Strip. One—also a part-time singer who made a living selling liquor, candy and roach repellent to stores in New York’s downtrodden neighborhoods—was never discovered, a star only to his family, for whom he sacrificed pursuing his passion to be a good provider.
One is Michael Monge. One was my dad. Admirable men, both.
As I watched the former perform, memories of the latter flooded my heart.
Dapper, he is, in his charcoal-gray suit, red tie and spiffy pocket square. Old-school sophistication is the signature of Michael Monge—he generalizes his maturity as “north of 60”—as he wanders through the couch-and-table décor in the sunken living room-style Eastside Lounge at the Wynn before his set. He’s synchronized with his surroundings. Subtle class informs this open venue, with a generously sized center window framing the still waters of the softly illuminated pool area and palm trees that will double as the bandstand backdrop.
“Thanks so much for coming. Got any favorite songs?” he asks in a pre-show schmooze with early arrivals for his 9 p.m. gig that he earned—and, frankly, lucked into—when he was discovered by the Wynn’s owner/namesake while crooning at a Florida eatery earlier this year. (More on that later.)
As the house jazz trio swings into toe-tappin’ action, so does he, launching into a repertoire anchored in Sinatra-esque classics and sprinkled with contemporary surprises. In a voice that could be made out of fine wine and silk, he delivers the expected goods—“Come Fly With Me,” “Quando, Quando, Quando,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Lady Is a Tramp”—then moves the timeline up to Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” then further, to John Legend’s “All of Me.”
Older patrons in the lounge—plus some younger ones gathering at the railing above—subtly sway and casually snap fingers. One woman simply whispers “wow” as Monge cradles the finishing notes like delicate china.
“It makes me feel good that the younger generation enjoys what I’m doing, that they’ll sit down and wind up staying instead of going to the clubs,” Monge, a widower, father and grandfather, says, settling at my table in between sets. “I love to sing to people. It releases something in me. When there’s energy around me and I see I’m touching people, it does something to me.”
It’s in his face—lined, but handsome, still flush with the adrenaline rush of performing—and I know he means it. Because I know that look. My dad’s look.
Dapper, my dad was, in his sleek, black tuxedo as he wheeled his bulky stand-up bass fiddle through the narrow foyer of our first-floor apartment. Nearly every Saturday night.
After he’d spend a typical week awash in the seamy backwaters of New York City during its ’60s/’70s decline, peddling cheap wine to liquor stores, and candy and bug spray to supermarkets—exhaustion etched into his weary face every evening—Saturday was a miracle. Saturday was when, as a bona fide member of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, Local 802, he would go wherever the gigs took him through New York’s five boroughs, plus swatches of New Jersey and Connecticut.
(With that stand-up bass jammed and angled awkwardly into our old Chevy Impala, its wooden neck ridiculously protruding out an open rear window, it was just begging to be sheared off while doing 70 on the Long Island Expressway.)
Wherever there was a bar mitzvah, wedding or anniversary party (waaay pre-DJs) that needed a singer to front a band (and nominally pluck the bass), my dad was there. Wherever he could sing “Bésame Mucho” or “The Shadow of Your Smile” or “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You”—or, if he had to, “The Hokey Pokey”—he was there. Yes, he was paid. And yes, if he could pay them for the privilege—if we could’ve afforded it—I think he would have.
Always wearing that I’m-in-heaven-and-you’ll-have-to-carry-me-out-kicking-and-screaming look. That look on Michael Monge’s face.
He grew up singing. Couldn’t help himself.
Monge sang in an all-boys choir. “I was never the type who needed to be encouraged. I just went out and did things,” Monge says, recalling one night when, at 19, he dropped in at Manhattan’s famed Rainbow Room and caught the act of Paul Anka, whose music was embedded in his childhood soundtrack (and in his own act now).
“I guess I was singing a little too loud on the sidelines, and he wound up right next to me. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, could you shut up?’ he said, ‘You seem to know all of my songs, why don’t you get up and do the next one?’” He did. Plus the next three. (For the record: “It’s Time to Cry,” “Puppy Love,” “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” and “Times of Your Life,” a.k.a., the Kodak camera song.)
“I had true acknowledgement that maybe there is something I’m doing that’s pretty good, for someone like Paul Anka to recognize it,” Monge says. “I’ve also sung in front of Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. I regularly did a gig at this place called Gregory’s, where all these singers would go. They would hear me, and some would call me over and I’d sit down with them.”
Life’s predictable rhythms intervened. Monge got married, began a family, and his wife, while a fan of his singing, was not a fan of the traveling and late nights required to pursue stage fame. So he turned his time and effort toward the car repair business, relegating singing to a sidelight. “I was making so much money with my business,” Monge says. “And I said, there are so many great singers out there, what are the chances I’m gonna make it?”
He didn’t try. Then.
He grew up singing. Couldn’t help himself.
Dad did it because he loved it. Because in the melody of his own voice, he could escape the childhood misery of a son-of-a-bitch stepfather—abusive and flat-out mean. At Hanukkah, he’d give my dad presents. After the eight days of the holiday were over, he’d take them back.
Then he—and the Great Depression—took his future, when his stepfather yanked him out of high school to get a job and help support the family, his education never to be resumed. So he sang. To himself, to lift his spirits. On the street, to entertain pals. On menial jobs, to stave off boredom. And—if he could persuade the owners—at restaurants that needed a singer, cheap.
Then he got married. Had a kid. Understood the deal: Reality comes before dreams. Responsibility comes before everything.
Singing was reassigned to the margins of his life. But Saturdays saved his life—as did nearly every spare moment. He’d burst into song for any reason. Or no reason. Gershwin. Porter. Broadway. Sinatra. Dino. Bing Crosby (his idol). And in some of my favorite memories, accompanying himself on that damn, dorky accordion he loved to play in his bedroom with the door shut—voice booming throughout the thin-walled apartment anyway, letting go in a way that showed me what joy looked like.
But those joys never amounted to more than fleeting snatches of happiness. On no Saturday, as he crisscrossed three states with his rolling bass, was anyone of influence in any audience. Ruefully, he’d think of being a kid from New Jersey and of another kid from New Jersey named Sinatra—born just two months after him—and wonder why fate was so capricious in whom it kissed and whom it slapped.
“I guess,” he once sighed, “it wasn’t meant to happen.”
Then it happened. Michael Monge was discovered—preceded by tragedy.
In 2010, his wife passed away. Retired from his car repair business, and with his children grown, he finally attempted that daunting full-time leap, performing at parties, private events and clubs. Eventually, he broke free of his Northeast comfort zone and turned south toward Florida, where a fateful engagement last February at a Palm Beach restaurant called Bice—where he coaxed the reluctant manager into agreeing to an unpaid tryout—set fate in motion. “I did a set, people were loving it, and I see Steve Wynn walking toward me—I didn’t know he was in the restaurant,” Monge recalls.
“He said to me, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘I’d like very much if you would come back to my table and talk with me.’ He introduced me to [Wynn’s wife] Andrea. He said he had no idea it was live singing, he thought he was listening to Sinatra and Dean Martin. I said to him, ‘I grew up listening to all the greats in Vegas, and I’ve never had the opportunity to go there. Do you know anyone who might be able to help me get into Vegas?’ He did a little smirk and laugh and said, ‘I would like you to work for me.’”
Five months later, in July, Monge hit the downbeat at the Wynn. “I still to this day, pinch myself,” he says. “It’s surreal.” (Wynn, by the way, did not respond to requests for comment.) Monge is booked through late next year, which coincidentally will mark what would have been Sinatra’s 100th birthday. And my dad’s.
Michael Monge now entertains appreciative audiences on the Las Vegas Strip. He is happy, grateful and most certainly humble.
Dad worked as a clerk, taking inventory in the basement of a bookstore, when he was hit by a car and killed in 1994 at age 79. He rests back East, beneath a headstone on which I had inscribed, “Music in His Soul.” And I choose to believe that, in a sweet quirk of the afterlife, he is giving an eternal performance, awash in joy.
So, Michael: Five nights every week, in the service of your own joy and good fortune—and, if you’d be so kind, in the name of my dad—pick up a microphone and croon it, belt it, sell it, love it.
And forgive me if, when I watch you sing solo, I hear a duet.
9 p.m.-1 a.m. Wed-Sun, Eastside Lounge at the Wynn, $10 cover charge, one-drink minimum, 702-777-9966, WynnLasVegas.com/Shows/MichaelMonge.