BY MIKE WALSH It was in October that we got the notice in the mail. A nearby township was running a bus to the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on a Sunday afternoon in December to see the Wayne Newton Christmas Extravaganza. The cost was only $15, which included the bus fare, ticket, and $10 in gambling chips. Since the final cost was only $5 and since we hadn’t been to AC in quite a while, and since we’re always interested in bizarre spectacles, we sent in our money.
We suspected that a Sunday afternoon Wayne Newton concert would be attended almost exclusively by old folks, and our suspicions were confirmed when we boarded the big tour bus in the township parking lot. A bus full of old folks seemed surprised to see us, but after a while, everyone was friendly and chatty.
We drank coffee and read the Sunday paper on the ride to AC. Once we got to the Taj, we were surprised to learn that getting the bus into one of the unloading docks was going to be a problem. The entire area was a bus traffic jam. The Taj has about ten bus loading docks, but they were all busy. When one opened, one of the waiting buses darted into it. Unfortunately for us, our bus driver was extremely cautious and polite. So we sat there for 40 minutes in the bus until our driver got up the gumption to juice it when a spot opened.
After exiting the bus, we joined in line with hundreds of other folks all headed in the same direction. We didn’t know where we were going exactly or even why we were in line, but we followed the people in front of us anyway. Low and behold, we were herded onto the loud, overlit casino. What a surprise. There were hundreds of people at the slots.
That sight was more than a little disheartening. Why can’t people with time and money find something more interesting to do on a Sunday morning than stand in front of a loud, whirring, beeping, flashing machine and feed it money? That’s the thing about humans. When you think you’ve seen them at their worst, they always do something that’s even more pathetic.
We wandered about the Taj, just getting a feel for the place. Most of the restaurants and bars were closed at that time. The buffets were open, however, and hundreds if not thousands of people were lined up in the corridors outside each one. We wandered through the mall that’s attached to the casino. It had all the same franchises you see at most malls. That’s a recent phenomena: All big casinos now have malls, and I suppose the thinking is, If you’ve got people in the facility with money, why not create even more opportunities to separate them from it?
We decided to get out of the Taj, so we cashed in our $20 worth of chips and went outside to the boardwalk, which in retrospect was not such a great idea since it was cold and rainy. We hadn’t dressed for such weather. A stiff wind from the surf burned our cheeks and fingers.
As we walked along the boardwalk, we got a view of the old Atlantic City. Between and behind the casinos we could see dozens of deteriorating buildings that at one time had been art deco glories.
Atlantic City was evidently a happening place in the ’20s and ’30s. Dancing. Live music. But all that faded, and by the late ’60s AC was mostly a slum. There’s a few decrepit vestiges of that past glory still standing, but most of them were demolished to make way for giant, gaudy casinos.
The new casinos are supposed to be awe-inspiring, but the buildings are made from poor materials and they aren’t built to last. Did you know that the spires of the Trump Taj Mahal are plastic? They are snapped together. The culture and heritage were bulldozed for big, flashy casinos.
We saw the Irish Pub about a half-block off the boardwalk and decided that consuming whatever they sold was better than the stinging cold drizzle. So we went in and had sandwiches and hot soup and tea. The Irish Pub seemed like a nice place. The food was just all right, but the history of AC oozed from the place. In fact, all that history was hung on the richly paneled walls in the form of thousands of photos and souvenirs from AC’s hoppin’ heyday. Someone had spent a lifetime lovingly collecting and protecting all that memorabilia. We were tempted to stay and look at the walls and drink beer all afternoon, but the Wayne Newton concert was beckoning, so we left.
We got back to the Taj and went straight into the concert hall. We were seated in the second to last row. Then the concert started and that’s when things really got grim.
As everyone knows, Wayne can sing a little. The problem was, he just didn’t do enough of it. Instead, he spent most of the 90-minute concert talking and joking and kissing-up to the old folks in the audience.
Now the singing wasn’t great, mind you—he’s no Tony Bennett—but it was so much better than the joking around between songs. In fact, what we learned is that Wayne Newton is fairly respectable on a number of instruments. He played guitar, piano, banjo, and fiddle. In fact, Wayne’s fiddle playing was so darn good, we looked at each other in shock. And his backing band was very good as well. It was a damn shame that he wasted so much of their time. They all laughed politely at his dumb jokes, but I bet a few of them wondered if the paycheck was worth what he put them through each show.
He had a small skating rink onstage, and as Wayne did his sappy songs, a female skater in a Santa’s helper tutus came out and twirled about the ice. This never failed to generate “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” from the audience. Every time she left the ice, she would curtsy and Newton would say, “Isn’t she just beautiful, ladies and gentlemen?”
Now the rink was only about twelve feet in diameter, so the skating was limited. The main problem was that the rink was behind the drummer, so we could see her only when she happened to skate along the edge of the ice closest to us. When she did the typical spinning move, all we could see was the top of her head spinning just above a cymbal.
Most of the jokes were so bad and so dumb that I’ve managed to rid my mind of them. They weren’t funny enough in the first place, much less to be repeated. The high point of the humor was when a planted audience member threw a pair of giant red panties onto the stage. Wayne held them up in mock fear. I chuckled, but only out of sympathy. That was as good as the humor got.
Wayne also had his enormous, muscle-bound trumpet player speak in a squeaky, high-pitched, Chipmunk type of voice, and this was evidently so hilarious that he had the trumpet player deliver about ten to fifteen different punch lines throughout the show. I never thought I’d hear myself say these words about Wayne Newton, but several times during the show I moaned, “I wish he’d just sing another damn song. Sing, Wayne, sing. Please, just sing.”
It was almost like he was trying to stall for time between each song, as if he were trying to put off the inevitability of having to sing another song. As if he had spent his entire career singing those same tired songs, and he preferred to make a fool of himself rather than sing them yet again.
The pandering to the audience was relentless. Wayne asked all the veterans of foreign conflicts to stand up. He praised them and was on the verge of tears for “what these brave men had sacrificed.” Then he sang God Bless America and the Star-Spangled Banner.
I looked about the audience from time to time, only to see that many of the old folks were as bored and annoyed as I was. Some were actually snoozing, and I had to fight the urge to wake them all up so they too could suffer the same “entertainment” that I had for some reason “chosen” to witness.
Of course, it didn’t help that we were still damp and cold from the boardwalk and that the folding metal chair was making my ass numb. Why didn’t we just get up and leave, you ask? We had given up an entire day to see that idiot, and we were sticking it out, by God.
For his intolerably long finale, Wayne brought out his latest young wife, her sisters, her mother, his Kenny Loggins-lookalike record producer, the record producer’s wife, and all of Wayne Newton’s dogs. They all sang Christmas carols arm in arm, dogs in some of their arms. I laughed, if only to keep from crying.
All right, maybe I didn’t laugh. Truth be told, I whimpered and shivered like a newborn welp. But I had been taught a valuable lessen. From my condescending, hipster doofus, ultra-ironic, unremittingly cynical perch, I thought I could get in a few yuks at Wayne Newton’s expense. Instead, it didn’t turn out that way. Nope, Wayne Newton got the better of me that day. Boy, did he ever. I thought it would be funny, but I had forgotten that pathetic is more likely to be painful than funny. But if I can keep just one of you from the same fate, then my work here today will have been worthwhile.
This particular form of hell lasted about 90 minutes, although it seemed a lot longer. Once the concert was over, we had another hour to kill before the bus left, so we headed as fast as our little feet would take us to a bar in a nearby lounge. There we had a couple cold ones, sat near a roaring fireplace, and ate snacks. This seemed to calm me down, and soon I was able to breathe normally. A choir sang Christmas songs acapella-style in a nearby lobby. They were very good. The bar was almost empty. The chairs were comfortable. The bartender was friendly. We were warm. We had done our penance. It was a perfect, perfect moment.
This piece originally ran on Mission Creep back in 2001.