Apr. 02, 2007
The band is playing the opening strains of a song that is supposed to cue me to tell a joke. My comedy partner's eyes do their best to tell me -- and not the 300 audience members -- that I'm forgetting my line.
Tonight, I'm a member of The Scintas, Las Vegas' favorite Sicilian family of musical comedians. I'm playing Jerry Lewis to Frank Scinta's Dean Martin.
The Scintas' stage at the Sahara is a time machine that transports audiences back to the schmaltzy ballads and cornball jokes of the Rat Pack.
"There's a need for what we do," Frank told me earlier, "because nobody does it anymore. People want to see what Vegas used to be, and that's what we are."
Frank's Martin is about to sing an Italian love song that my Lewis has obnoxiously declared he will translate into English. (Lewis began his career by similarly interrupting Martin's lounge lizard act. In the late '40s, he would enter nightclubs dressed as a busboy, breaking plates and loudly apologizing before Martin called him onstage.)
Incidentally, this is the very stage where Martin and Lewis reunited for the only time after their 1956 breakup (for Lewis' annual Labor Day Telethon in 1976).
"It's OK, pally," Frank says as I realize the cue I missed after it's too late to take it. ("It's a wailing song," I was supposed to say, "not whaling like in the ocean, but wailing like in the wall." Lewis-like impressions of an Orthodox Jewish man in prayer were supposed to follow.)
I thought I memorized 26 lines of dialogue, two stanzas of Martin's "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" and a dance-kick routine. But the klieg lights have transformed me into Cindy Brady on that TV quiz show.
Note to self: Nailing a routine in your apartment, with your dog as the audience, doesn't cut it. (My fiancee held her ears and ran for the door whenever I launched into "Hey lady!" mode.)
"Wait a breath before you deliver the line," said Joe Scinta, Frank's older brother, just two hours before showtime. (Joe usually plays Lewis.)
Funny in writing is not the same as funny onstage, it turns out. Live comedy is a serious science based on the principles of acting, timing and blocking. There's almost nothing natural about it.
"It takes years to develop the skills you need for this stuff to come naturally," Frank told me.
The Scintas began in the late '70s as a touring lounge duet based in Buffalo, N.Y. Joe played bass and Frank keyboard; both sang.
"There was one spotlight on the piano, and my father put tinfoil on it to split the light between the two of us," Frank remembered. Sister Chrissi joined in the early '80s, and the act -- along with adopted Scinta Pete O'Donnell -- came to Vegas in 2000. Last year, after five years at the Rio, The Scintas signed a reported three-year, $20 million contract with the Sahara.
"No, Corey," Joe continued. "Say what you're going to say, then look at (Frank). And don't forget to grab the mike stand before you walk across the stage."
At least I got the "Nutty Professor" look right.
"Also, your teeth are in backwards," Joe said.
Adding to the pressure is Frank's cocktail-toting Dino embodiment. It is uncanny enough to highlight the flaws in just about any impersonation conducted alongside it -- and mine is mediocre at best. (I hope Lewis, who lives in Las Vegas, is not one of my readers.)
The Scintas developed this six-minute routine about 15 years ago. It was born of improvisation, and sometimes, still incorporates it. The night before, Joe suddenly made Lewis sing, "It's getting hot in here/So take off all your clothes."
"We've got to have some fun sometimes," Joe said, "or it's time to hide the sharp instruments."
But I'm no showman. Any detour I take from the script can send this puppy off a cliff. And there have been several already. (Frank had to drop "grab your mike stand" into his song, as I was about to forget to.)
"Get your mask, whip and boots, and meet me at the Bellagio," I continue translating Martin's Italian lyrics. (The running gag is that Lewis' translations are all perverted.)
Martin is supposed to answer, disapprovingly: "Hey! My grandmother sang this song!"
Lewis then asks, "Your grandmother went to the Bellagio?"
But having to keep track of my mistakes has thrown Frank so far off, he steps on my punch line.
"My grandmother used to go to the Bellagio," he says.
The audience does not know how to respond, because there is no joke.
Puppy, meet cliff.
Frank laughs off the flub and steamrolls us into the next bit, about Lewis seeing a dentist who may be a sexual predator. Here, I inadvertently skip over my funniest material -- explaining how to play songs on thong underwear stretched out like guitar strings. ("It hurts when you play up high.")
Thankfully, I recover my memory in time to deliver the punch line.
"So are you ever going back?" Frank asks me.
"Wednesday at 2," I reply.
After exiting, Joe mounts the stage to explain to the audience what it just witnessed -- so no one suspects a vacancy in quality control.
I am warmly applauded.
"It worked," Frank says backstage.
Still, I have my doubts about how well. Three days after my appearance, The Scintas announced that May 12 will be their last day at the Sahara.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.