Magic was in the air that late August night. Actually, The Las Vegas air is always full of magic, but usually it is the magic that makes your money disappear. Then there is a magic argument with your spouse about where the money magically went, followed by the abra-cadabra of you storming out of your motel room and getting magically loaded on plastic cups full of cheap beer at some magical slot casino. In the morning, you wake up to a toilet bowl full of the previous night's dinner. But how? Magic!
No, the evening of August 27, 1999, while the sun set beyond the Las Vegas Valley, a wonderful magic filled the rarefied air of Ballroom Number Three at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. I was in town between business meetings, crashing on the floor of my friend Scott's room at the Riviera. He was in town for some sort of geriatric slot tournament that his name accidentally ended up on the invite list for. More intriguing for us than the actual tournament, however, was the complimentary cocktail reception, where the Riviera promised we would see "guest celebrities." We'd been promised celebrities before, only to get talking horses, circus dogs and Ed McMahon before.
The truth is, Scott and I are the two biggest star-whores in the world. We worship celebrities. We can't get enough of them. We love to see them, touch them, find out their home addresses and harass them, and pose next to their likenesses in wax. The promise of real-live stars in the same room as us was almost too much to bear. Once, Scott and I once camped in front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for two nights before the Academy Awards, just to catch a glimpse of Larry King. Little did we know that he wasn't coming. When we found out, we drove to his studio and beat the crap out of him.
Soon after checking in to the fading Strip resort, we found Marjet Lucking, an Amazon woman who ran the slot tournament and talked too much about how overworked she was.
"Who are the celebrities?" we asked. We tried to sound nonchalant, all the while shaking inside.
Marjet snorted, "I'm not sure, but not my father, I know that."
"How about my father?" asked Scott.
"Is your father Ted Lange, Steve Landesberg, Stephen Furst, Stella Stevens or Johnny Dark?"
"Mine is," I lied, "It's that Stella woman." But Marjet knew I was lying and she went on to tell us, despite our indifference, that her father was some character actor who was at the tail end of a long, prosperous career as a bunch of grapes. Besides playing grapes in an underwear ad, he had played grapes in "The Godfather" and in "Bunches of Grapes On the Loose II." Marjet lamented that there were few roles available for aging grapes.
"How about as a raisin?" suggested Scott.
"That's union work," she said sadly.
Still giddy and swooning, I asked, "What time do we meet the stars?" Then, so that I wouldn't sound like an obsessed fan, I added, "and get loaded on free booze?"
For anyone who has been living in a septic tank for the last twenty years, I'll fill you in on who the stars were. Ted Lange was Isaac on the "Love Boat," and someone about whom I knew something I was sure nobody else in the Riviera knew. Steve Landesberg was Det. Arthur Dietrich on "Barney Miller." Stephen Furst was the fat guy from "Animal House." Stella Stevens is a name that those of you who enjoy soft-core pornography will recognize from "Body Chemistry III," "Bikini Hotel," "Illicit Dreams," and the hotel-pay-per-view classic "Point of Seduction." She is beyond her boobie-showing prime now, though. And Johnny Dark has been the epitome of bad Las Vegas comedy for over 25 years. In short, these were five dimming stars on the outer edge of the celebrity galaxy. They were stars that once burned bright, but were now imploding, become black holes that will consume themselves and everything near them. But, they were still stars and the Riviera was giving them to us for free.
An hour later, we found ourselves walking among the constellations. Entering Ballroom Three, we were overwhelmed by the aura and power. Scattered about, the stars glittered among the gathering of freeloading senior citizens. The few chairs the Riviera provided were quickly taken, some by celebrities presiding over a court of admirers, and we were left to fight for a piece of wall to lean against. We ended up standing beside an elderly man in overalls and a ball cap with two enormous foam breasts on its bill. Off to the sides, bartenders dressed nicer than the stars manned two liquor carts. Scott and I got ourselves some complimentary, and watered-down, gin and tonics to wash down the coconut-flavored chicken things.
"Go talk to them." "No, you go talk to them." And so our conversation went for the first half-hour. From a podium, Johnny Dark introduced the celebrities, who each came up and told a different variation of a "I always lose at gambling" joke. Johnny then did a Carson impression with a punchline a man in the front row beat him to. Somewhat upset, Johnny closed his routines by encouraging us to go "screw ourselves" and also to greet the stars.
With Johnny's invitation and three drinks under my belt, I felt cocky. It was open season on celebrities. Scott and I cornered Ted Lange first, blindsiding him from both sides while he explained to a woman in a wheechair that he really did not work on a cruise ship. Ted looks the same, like an amiable bartender, only now he wears glasses and has graying hair.
"Mr. Lange," I said, eager to spring my knowledge on him, "While I was in school in Los Angeles I saw your Othello, and it was brilliant." Ted's eyes lit up like the sulfur bulbs at a ballpark.
"I loved your Othello," I continued to stretch the truth. "It's why I went to film school."
In 1989, I read an article in the L.A. Times about how Ted Lange had dumped all his Love Boat earnings into a big-screen version of Othello. It was his attempt to prove he could be more than a friendly bartender. He starred and directed, and it sucked. No distributor would touch it because no movie house in the country believed America wanted to see Isaac as the brooding Moor. But, Ted had lobbied and fought tirelessly for the film, only to see his dream of respectability as an actor go down the toilet.
Ten years later, some guy in Ballroom Three at the Riviera swore that Othello changed his life. Ted let out a whoop and made the other celebrities gather around. He made me repeat to them what I had told him. Then he said, "See! I told you I made Othello! And this guy loved it!" Scott stood beside me, telling Mr. Lange, "Yeah, he keeps raving about it and I really want to see it." We had made a friend of Ted Lange, and now it was off to make another celebrity's life easier.
The star known as Stephen Furst shone by itself in the corner. The crowd, apparently, was unfamiliar with "Animal House." Plus, he is no longer a fat star, and people like fat stars. Scott and I approached him and within seconds we were abreast of Mr. Furst's current career and how he came to be a celebrity at the slot tournament. His friend works at the Riviera and invited him. He got some money, a suite for the weekend, and probably a whole mess of buffet passes.
Mr. Furst is the successful director of such straight-to-video films as "Baby Huey's Easter." And he is so desperate for things to turn into movies that within ten minutes he had asked me to pitch some story ideas. I did, and he asked me to send him the scripts. I scribbled an address on a napkin, which I threw away as soon as Stephen was out of sight. We were off to soak in the radiance that was Steve Landesberg.
Landesberg is a bitter man with a comb-over hairdo that is hard to take your eyes off of. The wiry red strands from every side of his head is swept up to the center and then scattered. The result is this thin mass of hair that appears to float an inch above his scalp. Landesberg made sure we knew he normally didn't stay some place as crummy as the Riviera. Why he thinks our opinion counts is anybody's guess. Heck, he's the star. While we stared at his weird hair, he regaled us with sour comments on baseball and his former co-stars. I even enticed him into talking about Linda Lavin, someone whom he never appeared in a show with. He was barely even able to feign interest when people kept telling him their personal connections with "Barney Miller."
Stella Stevens was standing alone, but she sort of frightened me with all that bleached hair and binding clothing. Besides, after Landesberg, we were sort of tuckered out. Soaking in all that radiance had made us sorry we weren't celebrities with free rooms at the Riviera. Instead, we were just chumps with a free room. We grabbed some more free drinks and bid farewell to our new pals, promising that if we were ever in L.A. we would do whatever it took to get their home addresses and come visit. Stephen Furst caught up with me and made me promise to send the scripts. I promised.
We wandered out into the warm night, our heads still spinning. Scott checked his camera to make sure he really got the photos. He did. What to do next, we wondered. After meeting Ted Lange and the Steves, everything seemed like a denouement. We stood for a moment, wishing and hoping that we too will someday shine in the heavens. Then we went and got really drunk playing dollar craps at the Sahara, and that was fun too.
Who are we? ©1998 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. Questions or Comments?