Posted on: December 31, 2023, 02:00h.
Last updated on: December 31, 2023, 02:15h.
Legendary Las Vegas comic Shecky Greene died at his Las Vegas home on New Year’s Eve at age 97. His wife of 41 years, Marie Musso Greene, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal he died of natural causes.
Greene, along with Don Rickles and Buddy Hackett, were the undisputed king comics of the Las Vegas Strip from the ’50s through the ’70s.
Greene told stories, sang, did impressions, and sometimes engaged in physical feats. Once, he did his act while hanging from the stage curtains.
One physical feat Greene regretted was drunkenly driving his Oldsmobile into the Caesars Palace fountains in 1968. It was the second most famous crash into those fountains after Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump them on his motorcycle a year earlier.
“I had a bad habit when I got drunk, and I think it must have been a death wish — to get in my car and just drive,” Greene told the L.A. Times in 2005. “One night I drove 90 miles an hour down the Strip … and I hit this breakaway lamp at the entrance to Caesars. It went shearing across Las Vegas Boulevard, and I went right over the curb and into the water.”
When Greene told Hackett about the accident, his friend gave him the line that made it stage-funny. In Greene’s recounting of the story in his act, he made a request of the first cop to arrive on the scene: “No spray wax.”
Fred Sheldon Greenfield — who only legally changed his name in 2004 — grew up on the north side of Chicago, served in the Navy during World War II, and enrolled at junior college to become a gym teacher. As a side hustle, he played small clubs around the Midwest.
His Las Vegas break came in 1953, when he was asked to open for Dorothy Shay, “the Park Avenue Hillbillie,” at the Last Frontier. Greene so blatantly stole the show, the resort held him over, as an opening act, for 18 weeks without Shay. Greene ended up opening for Xavier Cugat and then the Freddy Martin Orchestra.
On April 23, 1956, the Last Frontier flipped his slot with Freddy Martin and Greene ended up headlining over Elvis Presley, who was booked only as a featured attraction at the end.
Greene would play a unique part in shaping Vegas history by making Strip lounges cool.
When Greene signed with the Riviera, it didn’t have a slot in its showroom. So he volunteered to work in the lounge near the bar. Until then, lounges were the province of loser acts that couldn’t draw a crowd, and crowds who couldn’t afford a showroom ticket. The idea of a bankable star voluntarily playing in an open corner of a casino floor was unheard of.
Greene’s move drew overflow crowds to the Riviera lounge, and single-handedly made the Las Vegas lounge act the thing it remains today.
When Greene moved his lounge act to the Tropicana, he convinced the manager of its bar to build a makeshift wooden stage for him. It was his performing home for five years.
By the time Greene arrived at the MGM Grand in 1975, he was earning $150K a week.
Greene opened many times for Frank Sinatra. But, unlike Rickles, he kept his distance socially and, for that reason, was never considered Rat Pack-adjacent. One night at the Fontainebeau in Miami in 1967, their strained relationship came to a head.
Greene had been cast to play a thug in Sinatra’s movie, Tony Rome, and the two hung out in Miami Beach one night. Sinatra was in a bad mood and started a fight at the Stream Bar. When Greene, drunk, followed Sinatra back to the Fontainebleau Hotel, five of Frank’s goons jumped him for throwing a punch at the wrong fellow.
That story made it to the stage, too, after Greene made it funny with an ingenious preface.
“Frank Sinatra saved my life,” Green told crowds. “Five guys were beating me up and Frank said, ‘OK, he’s had enough!’”
“That’s a hell of a thing, after a 60-year career, being known for two things, the Sinatra joke and driving into the fountain,” Greene told the L.A. Times.