Shecky Greene, an entertainment legend whose very name became synonymous with stand-up comedy, has died. He was 97.
Greene died at 3:21 a.m. Saturday at his home in Las Vegas of natural causes, confirmed by his wife of 41 years Marie Musso Green. Greene is also survived by his two daughters Dorian Hoffman (Charlie Hoffman) of Boise, Idaho and Alison Greene of Vancouver, Washington; his sisters-in-law JoAnn Musso Sperry, Linda Galasso, nephew Michael Sperry and nieces Angel Galasso Hooper and Gina Dadian.
He was preceded in death by his first wife and mother of his children, Jeri Greene, and brothers Marvin Greenfield and Paul Greenfield. from his first marriage to Jeri Greene. The entertainer was also married to Polynesian dancer Nalani Kele from 1972-‘82.
Marie Green said there would not be any celebration of life for Greene, according to the family’s wishes. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to St. Jude’s Children’s Ranch of Las Vegas.
Longtime Las Vegan
A Vegas resident since the 1950s, Greene’s last ticketed performances were the South Point Showroom in 2011. But he remained a near-mythic figure in town, checking in occasionally at the Italian Amerian Club and old-timers’ breakfasts at the Omelet House, where he invariably performed a truncated version of his act for the dignitaries in the room.
Greene was to be inducted into the UNLV College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame on April 2 at Fontainebleau’s BleauLive Theater. University representatives say they still plan to honor Greene posthumously. Greene had a long friendship with Fontainebleau founder Don Soffer and his family.
Greene had opened for Frank Sinatra at the original Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.
In one of Greene’s many legendary tales, he once credited Sinatra with “saving” his life after Sinatra called off a quartet of his henchmen who were beating Greene at the Fontainebleau after a night of drinking. Years later, Greene relayed the story to Johnny Carson. “Frank Sinatra saved my life. Five guys were beating me up and Frank said, ‘Okay, he’s had enough.’”
Green had said he had a “love/hate” relationship with the Chairman. “He loved me and we hated each other. I didn’t love him. I far from loved him. But I (expletive) respected him for what he was,” Greene once said.
Prominence in Vegas
A powerful presence on stage and off, Greene was a prominent headliner in Las Vegas for nearly six decades, beginning at the New Frontier opening for novelty singer Dorothy Shay in 1954.
It was at that hotel-casino where a young Elvis Presley appeared along with Greene and the Freddie Martin Orchestra from April 23-May 6, 1956.
“Before then, it was all country and western. We had horses in the middle of the street,” Greene said in a 2021 Review-Journal story. “But when (Elvis) came in, it had started to be a dressy crowd and everything.”
Greene also told the L.A. Times, “I didn’t even know who Elvis Presley was. The kid should never have been in there. He came out in a baseball jacket. Four or five musicians behind him had baseball jackets on. It looked like a picnic.”
After opening night, Elvis and Greene switched spots in the lineup, with the rock ‘n’ roller becoming the opening act.
That comic brand
Over the years Greene’s name became a manner in which to describe comedy or joking around. “Isn’t it amazing?” he once said. “You know, some people don’t know me or what I’ve done, and I’ll hear on TV, ‘Don’t be a Shecky!’ I go, ‘What the hell’s going on? It’s Shecky again!’ ”
Greene, broad-shouldered with sloping, bushy eyebrows and side-swept hair, became one of the hottest headliners at the Tropicana and Riviera during the golden era of both resorts. He starred at the Riv’s Starlite Lounge, commanding a $10,000-per-week salaryat his peak. But in 1968, Ed Torres, a man Greene did not like, moved over from the Fremont to run the Riv.
Greene told the staff to keep Torres out of the lounge during his sets. When management delivered a birthday cake as a peace offering, Greene reportedly smashed it into his own face.
Greene was a master storyteller who honed his craft by performing long hours in casino lounges. As he told the R-J in 2011, “I would elongate things. If I told a joke, it would be a 20-minute story. I would do the characters. That was my style of humor.”
Green’s humor often defied physical and circumstantial boundaries, never restricted to a proper — or politically correct — show. In a story that has become part of the fabric of Vegas entertainment history, in 1968 Greene drunkenly drove his Oldsmobile into the Caesars Palace fountains.
Officers leaned into the car, which was being showered and its wipers spraying water on both sides. In the oft-recited account, Greene told the cops, “No spray wax.”
Thirty years later, Greene said, “You know, I’ve been in show business for 60 years, been pretty successful, but one of the few things people want to know is, boy, is that story true?” He said it was, adding that he’d run over a “breakaway” lamp just installed on the Strip. Otherwise, he might have been killed. Buddy Hackett furnished the “spray wax” line after Greene told him the story.
Greene delved into the event in a 2005 article in Los Angeles Times Magazine: “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. One night I drove 90 miles an hour down the Strip — which you couldn’t do now, crowded as the Strip is — 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. The cops came, and I went. I told Buddy Hackett about it. He gave me the line about the spray wax, and I put it in my act.”
Turning a dramatic, near-fatal experience into material for his act was classic Greene, and distinguished him among his peers.
The longtime Las Vegan was once referred to as “the epitome of comic genius” by his contemporary Jerry Lewis, who was also Greene’s longtime neighbor in the historic Scotch 80s neighborhood in Las Vegas. Comic icon Pete Barbutti, one of Greene’s closest friends, noted Greene’s unorthodox style but said, “He’s probably the most gifted, naturally talented comedian ever born.”Another of Greene’s fellow comic legends, Bob Hope, called him a “comedian’s comedian.”
From Chicago to Vegas
Born Fred Sheldon Greenfield on April 8, 1926 in Chicago, Greene began his career near Milwaukee while attending Wilbur Wright College. He left school when Martha Raye asked him to perform at her club in Miami. He made it back to Chicago to perform at such clubs as Mister Kelly’s The Chez Paree, a famously chic nightclub.
He headlined various other venues in cities such as New Orleans, Miami, Reno-Lake Tahoe before moving to Las Vegas, performing his first show opening for Dorothy Shay at the Last Frontier. It was there that he introduced Elvis to the Las Vegas audience when Presley performed as his opening act. He was also considered a giant in the Borscht Belt, having a huge presence in the Catskills.
Greene soon moved to Vegas, originally to appear at the New Frontier, during the first influx of top-line headliners on what would become the Strip.
Greene’s work in films includes roles in “Splash,” Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part 1” and “Tony Rome.”
Greene also guest-hosted on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” and “The Mike Douglas Show.” His role as ever-joking Private Braddock in the TV war drama “Combat” was especially memorable.
Greene often dovetailed into improv and physical comedy and sometimes turned his voice loose by singing an operatic number. Greene showed these skills away from the spotlight. He abruptly performed a truncated version of “Happy Birthday to Me” this past April, during his 97th birthday lunch at Lucky Penny cafe at Green Valley Ranch.
A restaurant full of midday diners craned their necks to see where the unexpected singing was coming from. Guests at that birthday summit included Barbutti, UNLV Runnin’ Rebel legend Larry Johnson, longtime Las Vegas casino executive and onetime Muhammad Ali business manager Gene Kilroy (who brought Johnson, a friend of his), and entertainment photographer Ed Foster.
Barbutti, who appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” more than 60 times, talked of opening for Nat King Cole at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in the mid-60s. Greene was headlining across the street at Harvey’s. Greene saw Barbutti and Cole at Harrah’s, and invited both to his performance.
Barbutti was not well-known at the time. Support from Greene could be a great lift to his career. Greene quickly introduced Cole from the stage, but waited several minutes before pointing out Barbutti. Greene finally said, “Sitting with Nat Cole is a young comic I just saw, I liked him so much that, after I introduce him, every time I tell a joke, you’re going to look at him to see he’s laughing to make sure I am actually funny.”
Greene then led Barbutti to the stage by his collar, seating him behind the mic. That’s where Barbutti sat, through the entire set, laughing through Greene’s act
“I was insane,” Greene said that day. “A lot of young comics can’t believe I’ve made it this long. But I’m still here, and there’s not many of us left from those days.”
Just before his 92nd birthday, the veteran showman was asked in a 2018 interview why he didn’t appear more often onstage.
“I have been offered many shows, but I’m 92! I can’t walk anymore! I’d spend an hour ‘Hello, Folks! Oooh! That hurts! Ouch! That hurts, too!’ That’s not much of a show,” Greene said, again turning to song to make his point “The closing song would be, ‘I’m not around anymoooore, darling, this is the end of me! I just had a talk with a guy named J.C.! So don’t you worry about meeeee!’”
Greene suffered a myriad of obstacles in returning to a regular performance schedule. Over his career, he suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, stage fright, a gambling addiction, and drug and alcohol abuse. In 2009, he noted, “I learned to drink and gamble at places like the Silver Slipper, the Last Frontier. I think it was 1954. Vegas was good and bad for me. … I did some stupid things in Las Vegas those days.”
Greene’s main passion away from entertainment was thoroughbred racing. The horse named Shecky Greene led the ‘73 Kentucky Derby for seven furlongs until being overtaken by the winner, Secretariat.
Jokes from the floor
Greene was planning an impromptu stage appearance in an infamous episode in March 2017 at the Italian American Club. Greene had just finished dinner with Kilroy and Foster. Another of Greene’s friends, comedian-singer Dennis Blair, was performing in the lounge and was on break. Greene stopped at my table for a chat, then looked at the empty stage and said, “I’m going to do something.”
But Greene tripped on his way to the mic, doing a slow-motion, half spin and landing on-stage on his right side, fracturing his right leg. Green shouted in pain, then stayed down as an ambulance arrived.
While on his back, the stage lights illuminating his face, he cracked, “I’ll do anything to get onstage!”
Just before he fell, Greene and I had talked of a column I was working on that was yet to be published. I said to Shecky, seated across the table, “We just need an angle, maybe your birthday coming up.”
Moments later, Shecky had hit the deck.
I leaned over Greene just after his tumble. The great comic said, “How’s this for a story angle?”
I asked what he planned to perform when he did reach the stage. His answer: “Something other than this!”
That was Shecky Greene, delivering the funny until the very end.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.