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Apr. 17, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Reporter impersonates Sonny Bono and blackjack dealer


Check out the Video

Corey Impersonates Sonny Bono and a Blackjack Dealer


click on photos to enlarge...

Denise Gemma (Cher) and Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan (Sonny Bono) lead a parade of Dealertainers (celebrity-impersonating blackjack dealers) to the tables at the Imperial Palace.
Photos by Ronda Churchill.

Levitan may be the first casino employee to have never even played blackjack before dealing it. Here, he counts cards -- just to try and add them up to 21.

Dealertainers sing with live microphones over the popular recordings they cover.

Gemma and Levitan perform inside the Imperial Palace, on a stage surrounded by Dealertainers portraying Dan Aykroyd, from left, Stevie Wonder, Janet Jackson and Reba McEntire.

It doesn't say a lot for your look when two pieces of fake hair are all that's required to uncannily transform you into one of the goofiest-looking men ever to inhabit showbiz.

As one of 29 singing blackjack dealers the Imperial Palace calls Dealertainers, I don't bear just a slight, squinting resemblance to the musician I'm impersonating -- as do my new co-workers fake Elvis Presley, fake Neil Diamond and fake Barbra Streisand.


I am Sonny Bono. Even without the fake fur on my back -- even without the fake Cher on my arm -- everybody gets it, from tourists to the coffee-shop cashier.

Buddy Holly, John Lennon and Barry Manilow were the names bandied about for me to portray before a bulb flashed over the head of Dealertainer coordinator Fran Shorr.

"The build and the facial features are what I look at," she says, which is what you say when you're trying not to call someone short with a big nose.

Only one observer doesn't place me immediately.

"You're either supposed to be Davy Jones with a moustache," says a guest in the hotel elevator, "or Sonny Bono."

The Dealertainer concept came to be in 2003, after Imperial Palace general manager Ed Crispell and casino manager Craig Garland walked by the Elvis they hired to pose for tourist photos on the street.

"We said, 'We ought to have him deal,' " Crispell recalls. " 'Hell, we ought to have him sing!' "

Dealertainers deal for an hour, then belt a song and break for 20 minutes. They earn about $65,000 a year -- $20,000 more than dealers of the nonmusical variety. (That's because they pull higher tips and split them only among themselves.)

Denise Gemma, 24, was asked to play Cher in the Dealertainer pit when she applied for her current job as casino host. She declined -- even though dealertaining pays more.

"I want to enter management," she says. "And I don't think starting as a Dealertainer is the way to do that."

Gemma, who stands 6-foot-2 in heels, was asked again when Shorr realized what a Bono-fied ringer I was. (The last dealertaining Cher relocated to New York six months ago.) This time, Shorr enlisted Gemma's boss as co-conspirator.

"I thought they were asking me," Gemma says, "but they were forcing me."

Prior to performing, my involuntary Cher and I circle the casino during the 8 p.m. Dealertainer parade.

"You finally took the job?" fake Stevie Wonder asks Gemma.

"No!" she snaps, mortified.

"I'm never gonna hear the end of this," she tells me, shaking her head.

Smiling is the key to impersonating Sonny. He was always smiling -- and for good reason. This below-average Joe attained music stardom even though he knew four chords, got a TV show even though he couldn't act, and became the mayor of Palm Springs (and, later, a U.S. Congressman) even though he only registered to vote the year of his first campaign.

You'd be smiling, too.

"I Got You Babe," which we sing live over the original 1965 hit, goes off without a hitch. I nail every note. (Men the size of Sonny and me tend to have the same vocal range.) And Gemma remembers to flip her hair back and lick her lips, like I coached her to. (You want to feel old? The only Cher she ever saw was the nonflipping, nonlicking "If I Could Turn Back Time" model.)

Our success only testifies to how hard I concentrated on the tain-ing at the expense of the dealer portion of this job, which I knew would be hopeless. Someone should know how to play blackjack before dealing it. Only after I descend from the stage and tap the fake Whitney Houston on the shoulder, indicating that a replacement dealer has arrived, do I face tonight's real music.

"You've never played blackjack before?" Gemma asks, arching her fake eyebrows.

I'm guessing the reason the Imperial Palace agreed to help procure me a gaming license is that the hotel is slated for implosion next year. So why not start early?

I deal a 2 of clubs to the woman from Buffalo in the second of six occupied seats facing me.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" screams the man in the first seat, who continues to signal that he wants more cards.

"Void on register 3!" I yell, scanning for the floor person (and for agents from the state Gaming Control Board).

The house instructor, Brenda Ponticello, taught me the basics three weeks ago. But I drove a Zamboni and DJ'ed in a strip club since, and there's only so much knowledge the brain of a man the size of Sonny and me can hold before it starts leaking out.

"So blackjack is like skiing for you, huh?" one of the players asks, referring to Sonny's 1998 death on the Lake Tahoe slopes. ("Look out for that tree!" is another line I get more than once.)

My training should have involved fake Janet Jacksons and Toby Keiths yelling in my ear, because the deafening impersonations behind me render problems hard to ponder, much less solve: What do I do when players split their chips? How much is a green chip worth? What does 7 plus 4 equal?

The only thing louder than the music is the yelling from Gemma and the pit boss.

"Check for a blackjack!" Gemma shouts whenever I draw a 10 or a face card. (If the hidden hole card is an ace, an emblem will show up in a tiny mirror on the table.)

I practiced talking like Sonny. I pictured bantering with the players in character. Yet all I can manage in the moment is constant, feverish counting to 21. My fingers are dancing faster than a ragtime piano player's. (Until today, my ninth-grade algebra teacher, Mr. Steger, was wrong about math being necessary for anything I would ever do in life.)

This Sonny's not smiling anymore.

Oh yeah, and I'm also revealing my hole card as I deal it to myself. The real Stevie Wonder couldn't do much worse.

"People don't know how hard it is doing this job," fake Louis Armstrong tells me later.

By the time Gemma and I sing for the second time, the right side of my fake moustache has detached from my face and is flapping like a flag. That's what happens when you sweat. And sweating is what you do after you have a blackjack you don't recognize.

"Yes!" the man in the first seat screamed as I flipped over my hole card to reveal an ace alongside my 10. This was not long after I paid him for his "winning" hand and not long before I felt a tap on my own shoulders.

One thing I didn't need to sweat over was upsetting the players with my incompetence.

"No, stay in!" the woman from Buffalo begged. "We love you, Sonny!"

Click here to read more of Corey's adventures at his home page, FearandLoafing.com.




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