LOS ANGELES – Chicago native Shecky Greene, a talented comedian and master improviser who became the quintessential Las Vegas venue star and was revered by his peers and live audiences as one of the greatest stand-up acts of his generation, has died. He was 97 years old.
His widow, Marie Musso Green, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that her husband died early Sunday at their home. She said her husband of 41 years died of natural causes.
Those who saw Greene during his decades-long comedy dominance on the Vegas Strip in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s said he could walk around a room with a microphone in hand and work with a crowd like no other.
He couldn’t wait to give up scripted jokes for the shared thrill of improvisation.
“I’ve never acted,” Greene told the Las Vegas Sun in 2009. “I’m making this up as I go along.”
Greene made huge fans of fellow artists such as Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and, most famously, Frank Sinatra; Frank Sinatra hand-picked him for a time as his opening act. Greene couldn’t resist a gig with America’s biggest star at the time, but the two big personalities frequently clashed with each other and the relationship ended when the comedian received a beating from the singer’s friends at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach.
This led to his most famous joke:
“Frank Sinatra once saved my life,” Greene would say. “A group of guys were beating me and Frank said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.'”
Greene later said that Sinatra wasn’t actually there, but the beating was real. The oft-repeated story that Greene drove his Oldsmobile into the fountains at Caesars Palace in 1968 was also true; He acknowledged that as a result he had a serious alcohol problem and was tempted to go driving dangerously once he had had a few drinks.
He also made a famous joke at that moment: Later, when the police arrived at his submerged car with working wipers, he said to them, “No spray polish, please!” he said.
With a linebacker’s body, a lightning-quick mind, and a voice that suggested he might be a lounge singer rather than a lounge comedian, Greene went through dozens of impressions and riffed at length over the course of a night. We instantly transform musical standards into parody songs at audience members’ tables.
Tony Zoppi, who was the Riviera Hotel’s entertainment director for decades, said Greene was the best comedic mind he’d ever seen.
“He’ll get on stage and have a watch over his head,” Zoppi told the Los Angeles Times. “The waiter dropped the glass; he did that for 15 minutes.”
She starred in films such as “Tony Rome” with Sinatra in 1967, “History of the World Part I” with Mel Brooks in 1981, and “Splash” with Tom Hanks in 1984. He was a regular guest on programs and talk shows such as “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mad About You.”
But he never clicked on the screen. He needed a crowd he could engage with and an entire night to impress them. This meant never becoming as famous as contemporary comics like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett or Carson. But just like the live shows, he was collecting six-figure paychecks a week.
Born Fred Sheldon Greenfield, Greene learned to sing, act, joke and do sarcastic accents while growing up on Chicago’s North Side.
He served in the Navy in World War II in the Pacific.
When he returned to Chicago, he went to community college and thought he might become a physical education teacher, but he started doing comedy nightclub gigs for money.
A two-week gig offer at the Prevue Lounge in New Orleans turned into a six-year stint.
He performed his first show in Las Vegas in 1953. He found that he and the Strip were a perfect fit, and within a few years he owned the town. In 1956 he opened for a young Elvis Presley at the New Frontier.
“The child should never have been there,” Greene told the LA Times in 2005. “He came out wearing a baseball jacket. The four or five musicians behind him had baseball jackets on. It looked like a picnic. After the first show, they changed the billing and I headlined.”
The Greene would remain a Vegas mainstay for the next 30 years, with gaming venues such as the Riviera and Tropicana.
From 1972 to 1982, Greene was married to dancer Nalani Kele, whose show Nalani Kele Polynesian Revue was a perennial nightclub hit. In 1985, he married Marie Musso, daughter of jazz saxophonist Vido Musso.
Greene eventually achieved his share of national fame. He could fill Carnegie Hall and was a guest host on both Carson’s “Tonight Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”
He was struggling with both drinking and gambling addictions; Neither was ideal for a man who spent most of his time in Las Vegas. He also struggled with what was later diagnosed as severe depression and panic attacks; both of which made it increasingly difficult for him to perform as he grew older.
Greene moved to Palm Springs in 2004 to retire in his late 70s, but the scene still had its appeal and he returned for a stint at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 2009.
Now back in a city dominated by the likes of Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil, Greene discovered she could navigate the casinos anonymously.
“I’m a legend, but nobody knows me in Vegas anymore,” he told the Sun in 2009.