Sonny King is living link with Golden Era

Sep 3, 2002 9:53 AM

As a living legend from Las Vegas’ Golden Era, Sonny King has been there and done that in virtually every lounge and main room on the Strip.

King, who currently performs at the Bootlegger on the South Strip, recalls the days before corporate structure muddied the entertainment waters.

"We never had anything like a demo tape in the old days," King said. "When you wanted to work for someone you auditioned, often right on the spot."

One of King’s first auditions was for "Captain" Moe Dalitz, who ran the Tradewinds club in Washington, D.C.

"No one knew he was a captain in the army," King said. "Everybody associates him with the ”˜mob’ interests back east."

In addition to working at nightclubs like the Tradewinds, King enjoyed early successes at the Copacabana and Havana Madrid in New York.

In fact, King lived for six years with his good friend Dean Martin at the Bryant Hotel on 54th Street in New York City.

"They still have a plaque on the wall saying Dean and I lived there and never paid any rent," King said. "But the truth is we often put on shows for birthday parties and weddings for hotel guests. That helped keep the wolf from the door."

While hanging around with Dean Martin, King met an up-and-coming ”” though loud ”” comedian named Jerry Lewis, who was making a name for himself through a series of gag and novelty records.

"Jerry was quite a bit younger than Dean, but he really wanted to meet Dean," King recalled. "He had heard Dean sing and thought he was the greatest."

King introduced Lewis to Martin, and the three began palling around New York City. They even put together a slapstick routine dubbed The Three Lads, which played at the Havana Madrid.

But it wasn’t until Jerry landed a job in Atlantic City that the Martin-and-Lewis team was actually formed.

"Jerry got a job playing at this club, but the owner hated his loud style, so he had the manager fire him," King said. "When the manager let Jerry go, he asked if there was anyone who could step in. Jerry immediately recommended Dean."

Martin took the Atlantic City job and, while singing on stage, there came a crash from the kitchen.

"With Dean’s quick wit, he immediately said something like, ”˜I guess Jerry Lewis isn’t ready to leave yet,’" King said. "Well, Jerry, who was still packing, came running out on stage and protested in his best juvenile delinquent’s voice that he was innocent of all charges.

"The crowd thought it was all an act and went crazy. It wasn’t long after than Jerry put the entire routine on paper, and the rest was history."

King came to Vegas in ’53.

"I was booked for four weeks at the Sahara, which was originally called the Bingo Club, and stayed for 18 weeks," King said.

King soon joined up with Jimmy Durante, who at the time was playing the Desert Inn between TV and radio shows and movie roles. In addition to working on stage together, they became life-long friends.

Over the course of the next 30 years, King would work with virtually all of Las Vegas’ entertainment icons: Joey Bishop, Red Skelton, Sheckey Greene and Danny Thomas, to name a few. But none impacted his life more than Frank Sinatra, whom he originally met when he worked as a bouncer at the Copa in New York.

"There will never be anyone like Frank," King said with a quiver of nostalgia in his voice. "We hit it off right away. I must have somehow tickled his sense of humor.

"Frank was larger than life, but he never turned his back on his friends," King continued. "I get chills thinking that he isn’t here anymore. I can’t even imagine him not being here."

King acknowledges that many of the "old crowd" are no longer around. Yet he’s prepared to perform solo, a role he’s comfortable with, hopefully back in the main rooms of Las Vegas.

"Cruise ships have always been a possibility, but it’s hard to imagine what to do with yourself when you do one show going and one show coming back," he said. "What do you do in between, help people with their walkers and bowls of Cream of Wheat?"

While Las Vegas has vastly changed since its Golden Days, King said there is no better place to be on stage.

"Las Vegas once had the intrigue and mystery of San Francisco, the sparkle of New York City, and the warmth of the people of Chicago," he said. "The city is still great, but it’s a different ball game. You just have to keep pitching."