I thought I had made it when I started working in Las Vegas. I went out and took a picture of my name in lights. Vegas baby! After three or so years of the grind, of really working Vegas, I was done, burned out. The realities of living in a casino, eating at a buffet, and 3 shows a night with audiences that really weren’t into comedy but were into seeing a comedian in Vegas had taken their toll.
Las Vegas is a different place to live in than visit. There are many things I love about Las Vegas, I still go there and have been there recently. The people who work in the casinos have lives outside the casino, and I think it’s those people that hold the meaning for me. You share a bond with people working day-in and day-out in the service and entertainment industry.
There where always 50 or so comedians working every night in Las Vegas while I was there. After three shows we would be all wound up, and rather than go back to the room and watch television and fruitlessly try to fall asleep, invariably a few comedians would get together and go out to hit the late night lounge shows. One of the steady performers was Cook E. Jarr and the Crumbs. Cook E. played from 10:30 PM to 3:30 AM Wednesday through Sunday.
Cook E. and the Crumbs were a trio; keyboard player laid down the beat with a drum machine and provided the background with an occasional solo, while a guitar player did rhythm and solo work. Out front was Cook E. Cook E., an experienced Italian singer from the East Coast, with the heart and voice of Dean Martin/Rod Stewart, and the outfit of the ultimate lounge singer; spandex singlet body suit, hip boots, no shirt, open jacket, heavy tan, long black wig, sunglasses, multiple necklaces and around 20 gigantic gold rings. He sang party songs for people to dance to, and they, and I, did and had a great time. He sprinkled in some of the classic Frank/Sammy/Dean music he loved. Cook E. always talked in between his songs, sometimes telling stories, sometimes working the room, sometimes selling Cook E. chips, recordings and pictures. I have nothing but respect for Cook E. and he and I have become friends over the years. He has never been anything but kind and gracious to me. I respect his ability to work, and that fact that he did what he did so many times.
One time sticks in my mind particularly. Cook E. was at one of the worst/best places I ever saw him, the since demolished Continental. The Continental was a rat hole by this point in time, I don’t know what it was before, it might have been great. Located off the strip on Maryland Parkway, the tan stucco exterior was lit with lots of tiny white lights that blinked on and off inside of red neon letters. As you walked in the front door you where met with slots. Behind the slots was the bar, which was long and stretched the length of the slots. The stage was directly to the right side of the bar and at the same height, set back enough to allow a seating area in front. The bar curved around and merged into the stage. To the right of the stage was a small dance floor bordered by a carpeted wall. On the other side of that was was the hallway to the restrooms. Behind the lounge area were more slot machines.
Late at night Cook E. attracted and eclectic crowd. There were plenty of comedians, musicians, waitresses, dealers (of both kinds), hookers and tourists. Occasionally I big name would stumble in, everyone knew Cook E.He would always point performers out in the crowd, listing their many accomplishments before finally saying their name and welcoming them. He was good.
This night was no different. In the waning hours of a long night, the crowd thinning and Cook E. pushing himself to perform for an underwhelming audience, he started talking to someone in the audience in between songs. A guy sitting at the bar, obviously drunk, stood up and yelled, “Cook E.! What happened to you?! You used to be somebody!”
“What happened to you? You used to BE somebody!” he yelled again.
Then they started arguing, Cook E. from the stage and the guy from the bar. Cook E. had a mic and the guy had a voice. They argued about what Cook E. was doing at a place like this. What was Cook E. doing with his talent? This?! They guy was actually on Cook E.’s side as he destroyed him. He saw Cook E. as magnificent and this was not magnificent.
But it was. Cook E. was doing honest performing work. I saw the blame be the audience’s. What were we doing letting Cook E. perform in a place like this? He deserved better, not we deserved better. We were getting everything he had. It’s not his fault the crowd sucked. Trust me, it’s a lot harder to play for a few tough people in a tough environment than a large packed, adoring theater. Trust me. The honesty in performing comes when you are not appreciated. Rock that mic. Cook E. was good.
But here was a guy yelling out loud what the voices in many performers head say: What are you doing? Are you any good? You are better than this, or maybe this is exactly what you deserve. Someone was screaming these thoughts out loud to his face. Cook E. brushed it off and kept going, he was a professional. It was like batter taking a fastball to the head. But he got up and kept playing. I respect that.
I will never forget that moment.
I have had my own Meet the Voices in Your Head moment. That story for another time.