Chicago native Shecky Greene dies at 97

LOS ANGELES — Chicago native Shecky Greene, the gifted comedian and master improviser who became the headliner of Las Vegas lounges and revered by peers and audiences as one of the greatest stand-up artists of his generation , is dead. He was 97 years old.

His widow, Marie Musso Green, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that her husband died early Sunday at their home. She said her husband of 41 years died of natural causes.

Those who saw Greene during his decades of comedic dominance on the Vegas Strip in the 1950s, '60s and '70s said that with a mic in hand, he could walk a room and work a crowd like no other .

He was eager to abandon written jokes for the shared pleasure of improvisation.

“I’ve never played a role,” Greene told the Las Vegas Sun in 2009. “I’m making it up as I go along.”

Greene made big fans of his fellow artists, including Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and, most famously, Frank Sinatra, who chose him as his opening act for a time. Greene couldn't resist the gig with America's biggest star of the day, but the two big personalities often clashed, and the relationship ended when the comedian was beaten up by the singer's pals at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

This led to his most famous joke:

“Frank Sinatra saved my life,” Greene said. “A group of guys were hitting me and Frank said, 'OK, that's enough.'”

Sinatra wasn't actually there, Greene later said, but the beating was real. The oft-repeated story of Greene driving his Oldsmobile into the fountains of Caesars Palace in 1968 is also true, the result of what he admitted was a serious drinking problem and a dangerous desire to go for a drive while that he had a few drinks.

He also made a famous joke from the moment, later saying that when the cops arrived at his submerged car, whose windshield wipers were working, he told them, “No spray wax please!” »

With a body like a linebacker, a mind as sharp as lightning, and a voice that suggested he might have been a lounge singer instead of a lounge comedian, Greene, over the course of a night, went through dozens of prints, did long riffs on audience members' tables and transformed musical standards into parody songs on the spot.

Tony Zoppi, who for decades served as entertainment director of the Riviera Hotel, said Greene was the best comedic mind he had ever seen.

“He’ll go on stage and do an hour of headlining,” Zoppi told the Los Angeles Times. “A waitress dropped a glass – he did it for 15 minutes.”

He made guest appearances in films including 1967's “Tony Rome” with Sinatra, 1981's “History of the World Part I” with Mel Brooks and 1984's “Splash” with Tom Hanks, and appeared in network sitcoms, including “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mad About You” and was a constant guest on talk and variety shows.

But it never really clicked on the screen. He needed a crowd to interact with and an entire night to woo them. This meant never becoming as famous as his comic contemporaries like Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett or Carson. But he made the same six-figure-a-week salaries as he did for live shows.

Born Fred Sheldon Greenfield, Greene took up singing, acting, cracking jokes and doing fake accents while growing up on Chicago's North Side.

He served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific.

Returning to Chicago, he went to community college and thought he might become a gym instructor, but began doing comedy gigs at nightclubs for money.

A two-week gig deal at New Orleans' Prevue Lounge turned into a six-year stint.

He did his first show in Las Vegas in 1953. He discovered that he and the Strip were a great fit, and a few years later he owned the city. In 1956, he opened for the young Elvis Presley at the New Frontier.

“The kid should never have been in there,” Greene told the LA Times in 2005. “He came out with a baseball jacket on. Four or five musicians behind him were wearing baseball jackets. It looked like a pike -nice. After the first show, they changed the billing and I was on the front page.

Greene would remain a mainstay of Vegas, with its playgrounds like the Riviera and the Tropicana, for the next 30 years.

From 1972 to 1982, Greene was married to Nalani Kele, a dancer whose show, the Nalani Kele Polynesian Revue, was a long-running nightclub hit. And in 1985, he married Marie Musso, daughter of jazz saxophonist Vido Musso.

Greene eventually earned her share of national fame. He was able to fill Carnegie Hall and guest hosted Carson's “Tonight Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.”

He struggled with both alcohol and gambling addictions, which was neither ideal for a man who spent most of his time in Las Vegas. He also suffered from what was later diagnosed as severe depression and panic attacks, which made his performances increasingly difficult as he aged.

Greene moved to Palm Springs in an attempt to retire in his late 60s in 2004, but the scene still had appeal and he returned for a stay in Las Vegas at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in 2009.

Returning to a city now dominated by Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil, Greene discovered he could wander around casinos anonymously.

“I’m a legend,” he told The Sun in 2009, “but no one knows me in Vegas anymore.”

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