Tony Ocean arrived at Piper's Alley about an hour before show time. The little guy in the suit was waiting in front of the unopened doors.
"You again?" Tony said.
It was early 1997, and Tony was playing Dean Martin in the, revue The Pack Is Back. The guy in the suit was often in line early, his hair slicked back. Sometimes he came with friends, and sometimes with an older couple, who Tony guessed were his parents. Tonight he was alone.
"Did you get my letter?" he asked.
The box office had forwarded James Martinkowski's letter. He loved Dean Martin more than anything, he wrote. And Tony did him perfectly. Tony was the closest thing to the real Rat Pack that Martinkowski had ever seen.
Tony remembered and thanked him for the compliments.
They began to talk. Martinkowski knew all about hotels in Vegas, who had played where and when. He had memorized Frank Sinatra's tour schedule year by year. Tony would later say, .."Jimmy will tell you who put the gum in seat B-3 at the June 1988 performance at Foxwood at eight o'clock."
Tony had never met anyone who loved the Rat Pack as much as he did, who believed in the same principles: You dressed up when you went out. You tipped generously. And you always kept your shoes shined. Life needed to be lived with class.
Tony pulled him out of line.
"From now on when you come," he said, "you'll always be on the guest list."
Tony had a solo act as well, and Martinkowski started showing up for those gigs too.
By day, Martinkowski worked selling suits at the Custom Shop, a store on Michigan Avenue, but Tony helped get him a job in the box office at Piper's Alley at night. He also gave him a nickname: Jimmy Vegas. When The Pack Is Back closed, Tony hired Jimmy Vegas as his personal assistant. Tony had always wanted an entourage.
The black Cadillac in the driveway distinguishes Tony's house from the other bungalows on the block in Elmwood Park. It has gold-trimmed hubs and a license plate that reads T OCEAN. Tony got it from a buddy of his who can get him deals on anything; he even threw in the installation on a 12-CD changer. Tony, who's 37, moved back in with his mom, into this house on the Des Plaines River just off North Avenue, a couple of years ago, after his father died. "She's all by herself, and she can't drive. But now I'm so busy I'm hardly ever there. I just come home and my clothes are all clean. I don't even eat at home anymore. If something kicks, I'm gonna be on the road a hell of a lot more. I'd like to get a loft somewhere in the city, maybe in New York, too."
Tony has a two-room wood-paneled basement to himself, with a queen-sized water bed. Several commemorative Frank Sinatra plates sit on the nightstand, along with New York Knicks memorabilia and a Dean Martin wig on a Styrofoam head. The walls are covered with pictures of Dean and Frank and Sammy Davis Jr., along with their sidekicks Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Tony's also hung posters for the Rat Pack movie Ocean's Eleven and innumerable photographs of Robert De Niro. He has other images of Italian-American heroes, too, including an autographed picture of John Gotti, who, Tony says, was greatly misunderstood and probably could have been president if Sammy the Bull hadn't ratted him out.
Since The Pack Is Back closed, Tony's been focusing entirely on his solo nightclub act, crooning hits by Sinatra, Martin, and Bobby Darin. Before every gig, he stops by Cafe Piazza on North Avenue in Elmwood Park, which, he says, "makes the best fucking cappuccino in the city of Chicago." When he drives around town, many people stop to wave. Recently he stopped in the middle of the street to talk to a woman going the other way in a white Cadillac.
"How ya doin', sweetheart?" he said.
She was doing fine. When she pulled away, he said, "She's in commercial real estate." Tony Ocean knows a lot of people in commercial real estate.
Tony was born Maurizio Carrara in 1962, the year his parents immigrated to Cicero from the Tuscan town of Lucca. From the beginning, he sang. He was in a youth choir that traveled to Italy and performed for the pope, and he once received an offer to sing in an opera company in Pennsylvania, which he turned down because he didn't think opera was cool.
The Rat Pack, on the other hand, was very cool. His parents mostly listened to Italian music, but around age ten, Moe Carrara started watching reruns of Dean Martin's television show. One night he caught Ocean's Eleven on WGN, and, man, it was over. Martin and Sinatra were drinking Jack Daniel's, smoking Lucky Strikes, and picking up chicks. They were dressed so hip.
He tried beer for the first time his freshman year in high school. But he knew that Sinatra had said, "Beer is for bowlers." "If Frank didn't do it, neither did I," he says. "I skipped right to Jack Daniel's, and I've been drinking it ever since."
His buddies didn't share his affection for Vegas swingers, so he adapted. He put together a cover band and got his first gig in a club at age 15, at a little joint in Stone Park. "I was an outcast in high school," he says. "I was into the Sex Pistols and everyone else was all jocks. There weren't too many punks in Elmwood Park. People come up to me now and shake my hand and say, hey, remember me from high school? I'm like, yeah, you were a jagoff then and you're a jagoff now. Fucking pricks. The people who weren't insecure in high school were very cool to me. The people who lived off their mommies and daddies, fuck 'em. Some people left school and had to bust their asses. Other people were just handed the business or the restaurant. Fuck 'em."
After high school, he went to work at the Gonnella bakery in Schaumburg, where his father was a supervisor. But when one of his bands, called 1313, scored a small-label recording contract, he left the bakery and made his father apoplectic.
"You don't quit the bakery in an Italian family," Tony says. "My father was like, 'You're a fucking bum!'"
He tried to get his bandmates to do some Sinatra projects on the side, "but they were all into glam rock and all that crap, like Poison." The band played the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, produced a video, and opened for Joan Jett at Great Lakes.
When 1313 folded, Moe's Dream Police, a Cheap Trick cover outfit, began making the summer-festival circuit. Tony didn't look anything like Cheap Trick lead singer Robin Zander, but he did a good vocal imitation. They made a point of playing B sides and the obscure cuts Cheap Trick itself wouldn't do in concert. Chicago Rocker readers voted them the region's top cover band in 1989 and 1990. During their peak they opened for the Bay City Rollers in Schaumburg.
In a 1992 Reader story about Moe's Dream Police, Tony deployed these prophetic words: "I want to get a Dean Martin/Sinatra revue....I want to play in a Vegas band. Dean Martin, he was the greatest. If I ever made enough money like that, I would go back and redo Robin and the Seven Hoods. I'd be Dean Martin and I'd get somebody to do Sinatra."
The band wasn't interested, but Tony started frequenting the bars at various Holiday Inns, where crooners plied their trade. In particular he became friendly with an old-timer who was backed only by a four-track.
"It just hit me on the head," Tony says. "Whoa! I didn't need five other guys. Fuck it. I can do this myself."
He hired Dave Gage, a soundman he knew with a four-track player. Gage explains, "I used to rent out karaoke machines and Tony would come to my shows and sing."
He took the name of Frank Sinatra's character Danny Ocean, from Ocean's Eleven, but changed it to Tony Ocean because Danny sounded "too Irish." In 1994, Tony Ocean donned a tuxedo, slicked back his hair, and started playing weddings, christenings, wherever he could. In 1995, he did his first club gig, at Carmie's, a restaurant in Northlake. The crowd of retirees was small, but it was a beginning.
He was married briefly in 1996 and then divorced. By day, he worked, drifting from job to job. He got certified by Hewlett-Packard to sell computer hardware, and completed a training program for lift-truck operators. For a while, he collected money from cigarette machines and jukeboxes. At night, he either played with Moe's Dream Police or, increasingly, sang as Tony Ocean. The Dream Police broke up in 1996, and the era of Moe Carrara, rocker, ended.
"All those groups I was in, all those guys I played with, they're all married with kids now," he says. "They've all quit playing. They come see me and they're like, Moe, you never quit, you never stopped working. And they're right. I never quit."
One night in the summer of 1996, Tony was singing at Cafe Clemenza, an Italian restaurant in Hoffman Estates. In the audience was Jimmy Cerone, a guy from Elmwood Park. Cerone's aunt had said "You've gotta see this guy." At the time Cerone was working in commercial real estate and insurance, but he'd always dreamed of being in the entertainment business. Tony might be his ticket. "I thought I would be able to help. I had a great desire to see this kid from the neighborhood move along."
Meanwhile, Tony had befriended a guy named Frank Fortuna, who did a Sinatra act. Fortuna knew the owner of the Jazz Buffet, a club in Logan Square, who wanted him for a regular show. He told them he knew a Dean Martin, meaning Tony. The Jazz Buffet guy happened to know a Sammy Davis Jr. named Kenny Davis Jr. The show that emerged had the trio shticking it up in a fantasy reunion at the "Phantom Sands Casino." When the Jazz Buffet closed, the producers wanted to remount the show at Piper's Alley, but the rent was high. Jimmy Cerone knew some guys. The show ran at Piper's Alley through the summer of '97.
Jimmy Vegas saw the show once at the Jazz Buffet, but he became a regular at Piper's Alley. He had dreamed about the Rat Pack all his life. As a kid growing up in South Bend he couldn't go to sleep until his mother played the Dean Martin song that went, "Everybody needs somebody, sometime..."
"I saw Sinatra sing for the first time when I was four, and I was hooked," he says. "When I was a kid, I never had any friends, so I escaped by reading stuff about Frank and Dean and Sammy. Until Tony Ocean, the Rat Pack was the only group where no one made fun of me. When I was nine, my parents took me on a cruise. Now, Richard Conte, the actor, his brother looked just like him. His brother was the cruise director, and I went up and tugged on his pants leg. He looked around but he didn't see anybody. Then he looked down and I said, 'Aren't you Richard Conte's brother?' He said, 'How'd you know that?' I said, 'I saw him in Ocean's Eleven.' That's the kind of kid I was."
Jimmy, who's 30, is still close to his parents. He moved into a condo on Ohio about five years ago, but his folks, Jim and Helen Martinkowski, come up from South Bend every other weekend.
When he wasn't playing Dean Martin, Tony Ocean was doing his own solo act. One night during a sound check at a restaurant in Berwyn, Tony threw in a Rod Stewart song for a change of pace.
"Someone in the room said, 'God, you've got to do more of that,'" he says.
Tony started adding Rod Stewart numbers, and some by Joe Cocker and Tom Jones. He kept his hair slicked back, but he ditched the tux and replaced it with a more casual lounge look. His audience gradually grew younger. "There were more chicks, too," he says, "which I appreciated."
Tony's fan base was growing along with his dating options. A woman friend offered to handle his increasing mail and to set up a Web site. He was drawing a crowd, mostly women from the suburbs in their 30s and 40s. Some came to see him sing two, three, even four nights a week.
Tony Ocean, Jimmy Vegas, and Jimmy Cerone started planning Tony's future. Tony was going to play Las Vegas, the ultimate gig for a lounge singer. But after The Pack Is Back, Tony suddenly found himself without a manager. Cerone left the scene because of "personal health and family issues." Tony hooked up with someone else, but he didn't have Cerone's connections, and Tony floundered in the suburbs. In 1998, Tony took a gig playing Dean Martin in a Rat Pack revue in Aruba, and the plans they'd once hatched faded. Las Vegas seemed very far away.
About a year ago, Cerone came back on the scene. He was acquainted with the guys at Jilly's, an Italian steak house on Rush Street. The original Jilly's was a legendary dive bar and Chinese restaurant, at 52nd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. The owner, Jilly Rizzo, Sinatra's right-hand man, was widely known as the only person who could tell Sinatra when to shut up. The new Jilly's was a lot slicker and less spontaneous but its pedigree was legit. It was operated by Stan Wozniak, Nick Caruso, and Nick Caruso Jr. The elder Caruso, or "Uncle Nick," as Wozniak called him, had been one of Sinatra's main running buddies. Wozniak's family had owned a polka-and-banquet hall on the south side where Sinatra loved to hang out. When Sinatra came to town, a teenage Wozniak rubbed elbows with the likes of Don Rickles, Sammy, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Eventually he joined the inner clique. He started doing Sinatra's security, and traveled with him to Las Vegas.
"If you want to go to Las Vegas, you want to go with Sinatra," he says. "Everywhere we went, he was king of the town."
The new Jilly's opened in 1995 as a Chinese joint but switched to steak before long, and added a retro-themed disco bar in the basement. Celebrities came by. Billy Joel commandeered the piano once, and they all still talk about when Tom Jones staggered out the door at 4 AM singing "What's New Pussycat?"
Cerone had lots of ideas for Jilly's. He thought they should do a Love Boat-style TV show called "My Favorite Bistro." He wanted to see the show filmed like Martin Scorsese's movie Casino, which he had playing on an almost continuous loop at home. According to a pitch letter Cerone wrote intended for Aaron Spelling, the show would "focus on the glitz and glamour of sex, power, money, and celebrity status where everybody is equal, occasionally keying on someone who became fabulously powerful, wealthy, and successful and paid a stiff price for that success with jealousy, betrayal, divorce, and alcoholism."
Cerone had another idea. Jilly's should get into entertainment promotion and put him in charge. Tony Ocean was the perfect act to launch the business. Jilly let him have an office to start Jilly's Entertainment Group, but he had to work for it. When they opened a Jilly's in Lake Geneva in May 1999, Cerone was up there a month in advance, hanging pictures and sanding wood.
Tony entertained the folks at Jilly's, especially Wozniak. He was always bringing guys around. There was Jimmy Vegas, and a guy who Tony called Captain Rick, who had once done lights for Iron Maiden. They called Cerone and Jimmy Vegas Tony's "bookends." Cerone's devotion to Tony was a constant source of amusement. "Jimmy's pager vibrates faster and faster the closer Tony gets," Wozniak says. "It's the old-school way things were done. Every entertainer had their clique they hung around with, and everybody was part of the clique. Sinatra always had enough guys, like Jilly and Nick Caruso, and in every town we went into we had the local coppers, and we always picked up a couple of extra groupies. These days, black artists have the best entourages. I saw Barry White walking down the street the other day and he had 15 to 20 people with him. The idea is to hang out and have fun. One thing about Sinatra, he always had fun. The primary thing was to take the work serious, but after work, whoever was on the road with him, that was family, and whoever was family had fun. Clean good fun, unlike the rumors. There were women around, to be sure, but it's not like we had decadent orgies every night. That's not the case with Tony, either. We're not trying to re-create anything. It's just happening."
At Jilly's, Tony and Jimmy Vegas and Cerone got close to the legend. They met Bill Miller, who was once Sinatra's piano player, and Tina Sinatra. They saw themselves as the Rat Pack at the end of Ocean's Eleven, walking down the Las Vegas strip in their neatly pressed suits, side by side.
"Live your life, have a good time," says Tony. "When my father died, I had a completely different look on life. He was 58 years old. Never drank, never smoked, saved every penny. Bam! Liver cancer killed him. Like that. He was gonna do everything after he retired. He died three years ago. I was in Aruba and I went home to see him. He was like 100 pounds. I could see him lying in bed all yellow. He was supposed to die weeks before, but he waited for me. I gave him a kiss on the forehead and said, dad, I'll see you in the morning. I could see his hand waving good-bye. He died in the middle of the night. He always said his dream was to see me play Vegas. Well, I'm gonna play Vegas just for him. I'll sing for anybody. Plumbers, politicians, sports guys, I don't care. A person's a person. A job's a job. Corporations have turned me down because they say I'm with a bad element. They think that I'm run by a buncha fucking wise guys. You think I'd be working six nights a week if I were run by wise guys? Us guys, we have heart. We may look rough, but if you have a heart, you're fine. It's the guys who don't screw around who you've gotta watch out for. We're living the life that they tried to live back then. I'm here to keep the message alive. The way you dress, the way you tip people, and it's a great way to be. We take it to another extreme. Those guys laid down the law. We're just playin' with the law. It's about the mystery. It's about the fucking hype. Any guy can show up and play his songs, but they're going to remember the guy who shows up with a slick entourage and a limo. I'm not saying we don't push the limits, because we do, but the 'element'? Give me a fucking break! Some guys that come to the show, they can't stand me sometimes, but they come. You know why? Because Ocean brings in the broads!"
In 1999, Tony played about 25 shows a month, mostly at small clubs in the suburbs. He sang at Giannotti's in Norridge, Zaza Cucina in Dundee, Tuscany of Oakbrook, and Johnny's Capri in Berwyn. He played weddings, christenings, fund-raisers, political dinners, awards ceremonies, and grand openings. He opened for Rick Springfield in La Grange, sang at the Columbus Fest in Columbus, Ohio, and gave a private concert for masons' union local 502 in Hickory Hills. There was always another gig.
By the start of this year the quality of Tony's bookings had started to improve. In late January he played his second of three gigs at Carmichael's, a classy steak joint on Monroe at Morgan. A bitter snowstorm was blowing outside, but as Tony emerged with his girlfriend Gina from a chauffeured limousine, he looked dry and untouched, like a star should. Tony came on at 8, in a lounge area separate from the restaurant. Other than a leopard-print vest, his clothes were all black. His hair was slicked back into a short ponytail. Gage's four-track whirred. Tony swung into one of his favorite Dean Martin tunes: "How lucky can one guy be?"
In the audience, white-haired ladies were smoking cigars. Men in their 60s were dancing with women in their 30s. Dan Rostenkowski and his wife sat in the back with a party of eight. Plenty of fans had shown up.
Tony said to his people, "I work six nights a week doing what I love to do. Bless you folks. Bless you."
Someone handed him a card requesting a song for a couple's 59th wedding anniversary.
"Fifty-nine years!" Tony said. "My first marriage only lasted six months. I got to keep a Sinatra record. That was it."
The Rod Stewart number that followed got the younger women in the crowd dancing. He sang, "Have I told you lately that I love you?"
"So, have you seen Tony Ocean play before?" I asked a woman who was clearly enjoying herself. She was wearing a tight black dress with silver sequins on the chest and matching sequins on her knit jacket. She had very frizzy red hair.
"Are you a big fan?"
"I would hope so," she said. "I'm his attorney."
Jimmy Cerone and Jimmy Vegas were on hand, too. Cerone admitted that the logistics at Carmichael's weren't perfect. The first time Tony played there, he didn't have a riser and the people in the back couldn't see him. This time, they'd ordered a follow spot, but the restaurant provided them with a stationary light instead.
Tony leaped into "Unchain My Heart."
"Normally he would do this later in the show," said Cerone. "But because he's got people dancing, he wants to keep them going."
Then Tony said, "I'd like to dedicate this one to a very special guest tonight. The Chairman. Dan Rostenkowski. God bless you, sir. By request."
Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all and I stood tall and did it my way
Rosty hadn't heard the dedication; he was paying his tab.
"Next month will be even better," said Cerone.
Tony's Las Vegas breakthrough had arrived. The guys at Jilly's knew Willy Rizzo, who is Jilly Rizzo's son, Frank Sinatra's godson, the daytime pit boss at the Desert Inn and the best friend of Steve Schirripa, the entertainment director at the Riviera Hotel, who plays Bobby Baccala, the bodyguard on The Sopranos. In May of 1999, David Cassidy was in casting a Vegas production of The Pack Is Back at the Desert Inn. Schirripa mentioned to Rizzo that he needed a Dean Martin and Willy said, "I got the best Dean in the country," meaning Tony. Somebody else got the part, but Schirripa agreed to give Tony a week in March in the Riviera show lounge.
It was as simple as that.
Tony likes to travel in limos. He often hires a guy in his mid-50s named Frank Herbert. Most guys who know him call him Hats, but Tony calls him Frankie the Hat. They met at the wedding of Bobby Ferrari, who runs Best Seats, the ticket brokerage. Tony was singing and Frankie was driving, and the marriage was made.
"Tony knows my car better than most, because he rides in it a lot," says Frankie the Hat, who has a worn, angular face and a clipped gray mustache. "He likes my image. I look like a hood outta the 20s."
Frankie the Hat wears fancy clothes. Usually he shows up in a Gucci suit with a black leather vest and a tuxedo shirt. He finishes off the look with a charcoal Stetson and Ferragamo shoes. "Everything class, baby," he says. "All flash, no cash."
Frankie the Hat is extremely proud of his limo, which he says is "the only silver-black two-tone Cadillac with a gold-trim package in Chicago." His baby also boasts a VCR, a color TV, a sunroof, and an always-full five-bottle bar. Frankie the Hat has driven Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Tim Allen. He lent his limo for the January 1998 Playboy centerfold shoot featuring Heather Kozar, who later became Playmate of the Year. He is exceedingly proud of this fact, partly because he received $1,500 in rental fees for the night and didn't even have to drive.
In the 70s, Frankie the Hat was a dice man in Vegas. He says that he once walked away from a dice game with $47,000. That was at the Mint. "A month later, I was at the pawnshop," he said. "I got into a baccarat game. Five thousand dollars a game, a couple of bad rolls, and you're done!"
After that, Frankie the Hat went into the haberdashery business. "I used to roll into town with a 27-foot truck, rent a 400-square-foot shop, and open up a hat store. I was a top hatter. I carried Stetson, Borsalino, Kangol, Dobbs, Farcet, Barbecio. I did 'em either in stores or hat carts. I had my own cart that I bought in a mall in Denver. I'd go to the operator and say, 'I need 40 square feet.' I was in Carlsbad, California, in 1988 and I sold Stetson hats to the marines. I sold hats in seven different states. I was called Bogart's Hat Shop in Boulder, Colorado. I was at Fisherman's Wharf and I called it Toppers. After three years, in 1987, rent got to be too high, so I took it to the streets of Seattle. I took over a flower shop and turned it into a place called Chicago Hats. It was on the Indiana Jones premise. That was the authentic thing then. I rented a kiosk in Bayside, Florida. I called it Hats a la Carte."
On a Friday afternoon in February, Tony and Frankie the Hat stopped by Jilly's to pick up Jimmy Cerone. They were heading up to Lake Geneva for shows Friday and Saturday night. First Tony had his shoes shined. He tipped the shoeshine guy generously while he puffed on a cigar.
"That's the way Sinatra would have done it," he said, turning his eyes heavenward.
When the Lake Geneva Jilly's opened at a Best Western in May 1999, Tony was on hand, performing as Dean Martin. Lately he's been appearing in Lake Geneva as himself, backed by the four-track and sometimes a guitarist named Bob Davis. When he goes to Wisconsin, he takes his crew.
Jimmy Cerone sat up front with Frankie the Hat. In back were Tony and two newer members of his posse. One was a stocky bruiser named Anthony Minnici, who Tony calls Tony the Bull. He is a friend of a friend who "just started hanging around," Tony says. Next to him was Richie the Machine, a Chicago police officer who Tony met through their acting teacher, Louis Antonelli. They're like brothers, Tony says. Jimmy Vegas had to work, but he'd be along later in the weekend.
Tony Ocean and Tony the Bull were drinking whiskey. Richie sipped a bright red cherry liqueur.
As the limo pulled away from Jilly's, Richie lifted his glass. "To the three Bs," he said. "Booze, broads, and bullets."
The car passed by the Moody Bible Institute. "That's where Catarazzo went when the Colombians fucked up his old man," Richie said. He then produced his cell phone and called his girlfriend, telling her to be sure to have dinner on the table when he got home Sunday night.
As the limo inched west on Fullerton toward the Kennedy, Tony revealed that he had recently broken up with Gina after three and a half years. He turned on the TV and mused that, if given the chance, he'd be happy to get with Jenny Jones.
"Before you sleep with someone, you should be in love," he said.
"If you don't have the trust, you don't have the love," said Tony the Bull. "When you're in love, you know it, because it hits you like a ton of bricks."
"There's always ten more bad ones out there," said Richie. "And ten more better ones."
Tony said, it's not just about getting laid anymore. If you can't talk to the girl, what good is she?
"They think all we do is screw broads," he said. "Oh sure, we could have one every night if we wanted, but it's mostly about hanging out with the guys."
"You know what I always say," said Richie. "Be thankful for the time that we have."
Frankie the Hat hit the interstate. Tony cranked up the stereo. When he travels, he brings along mix tapes of songs he likes, almost all rock tunes from the 70s and 80s. He poured another whiskey and played air guitar to "Ballroom Blitz."
"People think I listen to Sinatra 24 hours. I love Sinatra, God bless him, but when I'm in the house, I'm cranking the Clash, the Pistols. Rod Stewart--love him. Joe Cocker. When Robyn Hitchcock comes on the radio, I crank it. Not too much heavy metal. Boomtown Rats. My favorite band, I love the Replacements. They're the fucking best."
He pulled a fat black Glock out of Richie's belt and waved it around.
"Give it back!" Richie said.
"Whaddya fucking afraid of, Richie?"
Everyone thought that was funny.
"Who wants another drink?" Tony said.
Tony told a story about how he once played a show in a Catholic church, to a crowd that included priests and nuns. "I told them, 'You know what I say every night? I get on my knees and say, Frank, put in a good word for me up there.' Some of them laughed, and some of them didn't like me so much." Other topics of discussion included Holocaust revisionism, which he proclaimed as "fucked-up bullshit," and the colonization of Native Americans. "They got fucked," he said. "I played those Ho-Chunk casinos, and I know."
In this world, Tony said, if you have one or two people you can call 24 hours a day who will come no matter what, you are blessed, and that includes family.
"Then we are blessed," said Tony the Bull.
Frankie the Hat jumped a toll.
"What the fuck?" Richie said.
"Frankie," Tony said, "what the fuck are you doin'?"
Jimmy Cerone told everyone to shut the fuck up because he was trying to get some sleep. He had Frankie the Hat roll up the divider between the front and back seats.
Frankie hadn't noticed the noise. He was talking on his cell phone to a lawyer about his sixth ex-wife and their ugly divorce.
"This is America," he said. "We got laws here!"
Once in town, they went straight to Jilly's for a sound check with Dave Gage, then out to a greasy spoon on the strip for dinner. Then they went to drop off their stuff.
In Lake Geneva Tony and his entourage always stayed in a house that Stan Wozniak rented. It had three floors and many bedrooms and served as a sort of hotel for Jilly's employees and assorted friends and hangers-on. The furnishings were few and cheap, though there were several stereos, numerous decks, a sauna, and a Jacuzzi. It was known as Animal House. In a less polite moment, Tony referred to it as a "jizz factory."
That weekend, Tony got the master bedroom, like he always did. Tony the Bull and Richie the Machine shared another bedroom. Jimmy Cerone slept on a couch. They put me in the basement, in a moldy-smelling room with overhead red and green lightbulbs, dirty jeans on the floor, and a photo of a teenage girl under which was a drawing of four black roses and the caption "I cry for you as I die for you hoping this heartache is real."
At 7:45, Frankie the Hat drove us back over to Jilly's. The generic lobby of the Best Western opened onto the club, which was warm and comfortable and full of dark wood. In a separate room was an airy restaurant with a wall of glass overlooking the lake. The whole place was lined with photos of celebrities who'd stopped by the Jilly's on Rush Street. These included Alan King, Jackie Mason, Forest Whitaker, Bob Costas, Chris Farley, Chris O'Donnell, Kevin Spacey, George Hamilton, Franco Harris, and Kevin Costner. None of them had made it to Lake Geneva yet, though Joe Mantegna had been master of ceremonies on opening night.
When Tony played weekends in Lake Geneva he usually had a crowd of fans on Saturday night, but Fridays were slow. The crowd tonight was sparse--only a few clumps of patrons.
"One night of hell," Tony said. "Two things that are important tonight are Xantac and Maalox."
"And pussy," Richie said.
"Yes," said Tony, "and snatch."
Tony stood behind a padded black barrier that came up to his waist, with stools in front. It was a piano bar without the piano. He began a run-through of hits: "Someday," "Mack the Knife," "Love Me Tonight."
He announced to the bar patrons that he would be making his debut in Las Vegas soon.
On break, he talked to his fans.
"We love you," said a woman.
"We were here for the sound check," said her husband.
"Well, thank you very much," Tony said.
"So this is the first time you're going to Vegas?"
"My first time solo."
"That's very exciting."
"I just keep going," Tony said. "I just keep moving."
The night dragged on and Tony started running out of material. He sang a Michael Bolton song. The bartenders flung napkins around the room, just like they used to do at the old Jilly's. Napkins piled up on the floor. Frankie the Hat wandered around the room, showing women his frequent-gambler cards from the Empress and Grand Victoria casinos, which get him free steak and lobster. He said, "I'm the kind of guy you could drop in the middle of a major city with $500 in his pocket and in a year, I'll be all right. And I've done it, too."
A woman snuggled up to Tony behind the barrier.
"You smell good, Tony."
"I smell good? It's a fragrance. It's called Blue Water."
"Well, it smells like you."
"Thank you. Thanks so much."
Tony Ocean croaked his way through six sets that night. His contract said he had to play till 1:30 AM, but by 1 he was doing "My Girl" for ten people. They included Richie the Machine, Tony the Bull, Frankie the Hat, Jimmy Cerone, and me. He looked at his watch.
"Fuck," he said.
He did two country songs. He wandered into the empty restaurant behind the bar, singing, "Are you lonesome tonight?"
"Hey!" he said. "There's air-conditioning back here. Shit. Even Bruce Springsteen doesn't play six hours."
After the show, Tony and I and Tony the Bull, Frankie the Hat, Tony's soundman Dave, his guitar player Bob, an employee of Jilly's, and George, a middle-aged local guy with a ruddy tan and a bad sweater, all went to the Sugar Shack, the venerable strip joint on the outskirts of town. Everyone in the place seemed to know George, and he, along with everyone else, thought it would be amusing to buy me a table dance.
The stripper led me over to a chair in the corner.
"Are those your friends?" she asked.
"Do you like my dress?"
"It's very nice. You don't have to take if off, you know."
"No, they make me take it off. It's the rule. Did you see Analyze This?"
"It's hilarious," she said. "You have to see it."
What about this situation could possibly have made her think of a movie about a Jewish psychiatrist who falls in with a bunch of mobsters?
The song began, and so did the strip. Soon she was naked and grinding very close to my face. She gazed at me apologetically.
"I have a day job," she said.
I had no choice. "What's your day job?"
She twisted her body to the music. "I'm an office manager."
At 3 AM, after the club closed, we went to a diner with green Formica counters, puke brown paneled walls, and a cash register on a lazy Susan in the center of the room. The diner was full of stoned teenagers.
Bob the guitarist approached a girl in a fuzzy pink sweater and asked her if she'd like to smoke a joint and drink a beer with him. She indicated that she was willing, but her brother, who was with her, didn't take kindly to the suggestion. He stared at us menacingly.
Tony Ocean said, "Hey, Bull, that guy in the sweater over there is giving us all dirty looks. Go take care of him."
Tony the Bull walked over and slapped a guy upside the head.
"Cut it out," he said.
"Not that guy!" said Tony Ocean, "the other guy in the sweater!"
A girl in the next booth turned to me.
"Are you guys the mob?" she asked.
I wasn't quite sure what to tell her.
That night, around 5 AM, I awoke to find Frankie the Hat hovering over me. He said: "Who the fuck took my pool cue?"
Tony and Jimmy Cerone flew to Las Vegas on a Sunday night in March. They checked in at the Riviera, a no-frills, non-themed, regular old hotel and casino on the non-fancy north end of the strip. Tony would be playing the next six nights in the lounge there for a fee that Cerone said was below market but standard for an "entry-level opportunity." They'd have to pay for their own room and board, and probably wouldn't break even. But still, they considered the chance to play Vegas a break worth the expense.
Jimmy Vegas and his parents were arriving on Tuesday. They'd be staying at Bally's. Richie the Machine was coming too, on Wednesday. He and his girlfriend were staying at the Flamingo.
Tony and Cerone took a one-bedroom suite. Tony got the bed, Cerone got a couch. Tony the Bull showed up on Tuesday and camped out on a cot.
They approved of the Riviera because it marketed itself as "the alternative for grown-ups." Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell were in the casino shooting an Elvis impersonator movie called "3000 Miles to Graceland." The movie filmed at night, and actors fired prop machine guns loaded with blanks. "So if you're walking through the casino and see 150 Elvises walking through with Uzis," Tony said, "it ain't because you've been drinking all day." Other acts at the hotel that week included Emo Philips, the long-running female-impersonator extravaganza La Cage, starring Frank Marino as Joan Rivers, an all-nude strip revue starring the Crazy Girls, a "bizarre adults-only comic" named Tree, and Splash, which featured ice-skating showgirls and motorcycle daredevils racing inside a 14-foot-high steel globe.
In general, Tony said, there was too much family stuff in Las Vegas. Too many kids were running around, and nobody dressed up, even for dinner.
By Friday afternoon, when I showed up, Tony's group was getting a bit bleary. Tony the Bull lay moaning on the cot.
"We came out at 7:30 in the morning," Cerone said as he ironed all his clothes including his underwear. "Birds were chirpin', kids playing in the street. That's like an afternoon for us. Nights are days and days are nights. I must have been fucked-up. I lost my glasses and my lighter." Tony Ocean's head shot was plastered to the door of the bedroom, along with two Jewish stars. Cerone had wanted to put a regular star up on the door, but Tony the Bull, given the assignment, hadn't felt like making a cutout of anything more complicated than a six-pointer. Cerone had also taped up his business card, in case anyone was interested.
Inside his private chamber, Tony Ocean was lying in bed, flipping channels. He waved weakly. "How ya doin', baby?" he said.
He had attached another head shot to the mirror. His shelves held cigars and disposable cameras. His bedside reading was a paperback collection called The New York Times on The Sopranos.
Jimmy Vegas arrived saying he felt fresh because he'd gone back to his hotel early, at 3 AM.
After the first day, and a $100 room service bill, Cerone had decreed that meals would be taken in the employees' cafeteria. His card only got him and Tony in, so they all took the elevator down to the hotel basement and sneaked in through a back door.
The night before at the strip club had been pretty boring, they said. Not even as good as Lake Geneva, really.
"How about that six-foot-nine broad?" Tony said.
"She was tall," said Jimmy Vegas.
"Grindin' on top of Richie," said Tony.
"How about that broad that was flipping upside down on him?" asked Cerone.
"Same one," said Tony.
"In Vegas, unless you gamble, there ain't that much to do. End up going to a strip joint every night. We've gotta get back to the way things used to be. You feel like you're in Disneyland now."
Cerone said, "We've had dealers and bartenders come up to us and say, you brought class back to this joint. All the cocktail waitresses were buying our CDs last night. I told 'em half price."
"Because we're bringing in real drinkers," Tony says, "not like these fucking truckers and farmers. We're the hidden minority that everyone wants back, but are afraid to admit. As bad as the Mafia was, it made Vegas what it is today. All the pit bosses want the people back. They drove out all the gamblers. That's why all the food, the shows are so expensive. You've got people coming out here and blowing a roll of quarters who leave complaining. It's bullshit. And there are no headliners anymore. Who you got left? Reba McIntyre. Jimmy Buffett. Sheena Easton. In Vegas? Come on!"
He rubbed his temples and groaned.
"Fuck," he said. "I feel like I've been hit by lightning."
We went back upstairs and Tony went back to bed. Cerone set up his "office," pulling stuff from his briefcase. He worked two phones, wrote notes, chain-smoked. He paged various people, high and low, in the Las Vegas entertainment industry. He packed up a demo tape for a talent agent across town, then ordered Jimmy Vegas to drop it at FedEx because it was too slow to walk it all the way down the strip, and to pick him up a pair of glasses at Walgreens, black frames, 150 readers.
On the way, Jimmy Vegas and I saw Paris, Treasure Island, the Mirage, New York, New York, and the Bellagio, none of which had existed in the glory days. The corporations had knocked down the old Bally's showroom (where Dino had sung to more than a million people), to build a walkway to Paris, and Jimmy Vegas thought that was dead wrong.
We walked through the Venetian and sat at a gourmet coffee bar alongside a canal, under an artificial sky always on the edge of dusk.
Jimmy Vegas said, "When I came to Vegas in 1989 for the first time, Frank and Sammy and Dean were still working here, past their prime, but still attracting the high rollers. Vegas was still Vegas. When they died, you didn't have that caliber of entertainment anymore. I've always wished, if I could go back in time, to be in Vegas in the golden age, in the 60s. Just give me a week. Jimmy Cerone is lucky because he was able to see it in those days, but Tony and I just read about it. We're part of Vegas history now, whatever big part or little part, but there was nothing like Vegas when the Rat Pack was here."
It had been exciting for everybody to see Tony come out onstage that first night, Jimmy Vegas said. The goal now was to get people interested so Tony would be invited back. Everyone was confident that would happen.
"We all felt proud because we did it," he said. "I think that if you work hard and you're good, you get rewarded. Vegas is the reward."
That night, Jimmy Vegas and Tony waited backstage at the Le Bistro Lounge in a room like a closet. It was decorated with an autographed poster of the Crazy Girls, a Mickey Mouse clock, and a photo doctored to look like a guy with his head up his butt, captioned, "The problem is obvious."
Tony was in pain. He'd forgotten to bring a pair of decent walking shoes, and in Vegas, you walk a lot. He felt terrible, and took a belt of Jack and water from a plastic cup. Sinatra's drink.
Tony's backup band, Timepiece, ran through a jazzy version of "Norwegian Wood." Tony paced.
"I can't stand this," he said. "I gotta take a leak."
He pushed out of the room and cruised through the casino, past the nickel slots, the blackjack tables, the bingo area, to the rest room. Jimmy Vegas followed him in lockstep. Tony came out of the bathroom, unlit cigarette dangling from his lip. Jimmy Vegas, waiting outside, lit it for him.
The announcer at the bingo table sang out, "B-I-N-G-O, and Bingo was his name-O."
"Fucking Vegas," Tony said. "So fucking lame."
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the bandleader, "Show time. Please welcome to the stage, from Chicago, Tony Ocean."
Tony burst out to the opening bars of "The Lady Is a Tramp," looking suave and sinister. He wore a black suit, a white shirt with no tie, and shiny black dress loafers. Everything in the cocktail lounge was brown--carpet, chairs, tables, and pleated curtain.
"Welcome, everybody," he said. "It's been a great run. How many people from Chicago in the audience?"
There were about 50 people out there, and many raised their hands. Dozens of Tony's loyal fans from Chicago had planned their vacations around his debut. Some had planned to visit a couple days but decided to stick around all week. Some celebrities had been stopping by, too, like Rocky Russo, a former actor and heavyweight boxer who achieved his greatest fame as the guy who finished off James Caan in the tollbooth scene from The Godfather. In the house that night were Tommy DeVito, of the Four Seasons, who played the opening riff on "Walk Like a Man," and Sonny Turner, onetime lead singer of the Platters.
"Ho!" Tony shouted.
It's not unusual to be loved by anyone
It's not unusual to have fun with anyone
But when I see you hanging around with
It's not unusual to see me cry,
Oh I wanna die
He blew a kiss to his mother, who was in the audience. She had been in town all week. She loves to dance to his songs, "Hot Legs" in particular.
"How ya doin', sweetheart?" he said.
"He sings from his heart," she said. "He's a good boy."
Next to Tony's mother was Patricia Giacomino, a widow from Bloomingdale. Her late husband had been a trucker with a close resemblance to Tony. One night, Tony was singing at the Pointe in Bloomingdale, and Giacomino caught his act. "I couldn't believe what I heard," she says. "It stimulated my heart. I've been following him for three years. I even came to Vegas and I left my family at home because I'm just devoted to him. I come here every night at 7:30 to make sure I get the front table and I leave at 1:30 after everyone's gone."
Giacomino and Tony's mom have become close friends. "I went to Giannotti's one night to see him, and Mrs. Carrara came in. I said, 'Hello, are you Tony's mother? You look like your son.'" Now they go to all the shows together.
"I know girls who come from everywhere to see Tony," says Giacomino. "We go to Cafe Clemenza and everywhere else. He sings 'That's Amore' and people start dancing. They get on tables and chairs. That's how he gets them moving."
All week, Giacomino had been taking Tony's mother around town. They went to Paris, and the beauty shop at the Bellagio, where Mrs. Carrara had her hair done. They both bought bottles of Chanel. After the show Giacomino was flying out on the red-eye, and Mrs. Carrara was sad.
"Oh, don't go," she said. "Take us more places!"
Giacomino didn't want to leave. "I have to tell you something," she said. "I love this man. He made me want to live again. My father was ill. I was very depressed. Tony brought love back into my heart. I used to play the piano but I stopped, and he made me play again. He changed my life.
"He respects his mother. That's what I like in him. When Tony came out tonight, he said, 'Ma, what did you do today?' He was worried about his mother before he got onstage. That's an Italian boy. He's got a good heart. This boy, this Tony Ocean, he's magnificent. He needs to be heard and seen.
"I bought him a shirt to wear for his birthday and I bought him a bottle of Cool Water. He wrote me a personal letter, which I remember word for word. It said, 'I want to thank you so much for the wonderful gift you gave me. It meant so much to me. I also want to thank you for being so supportive of my career. And thank you for being such a wonderful friend to my mother. God bless you. You're one of a kind.' I wrote him a letter calling him the king of broken hearts. I would marry him if I could. A lot of girls would. A lot of girls are in love with him."
Tony spent the rest of the night going through his usual routine: Tom Jones, Sinatra, and Bobby Darin. The crowd was the smallest of the week, but still enthusiastic. "The kid is good," said Rocky Russo, who sat up front every night. "He sings because he enjoys it. I was in The Godfather! Part one! How old were you when that came out? I'm 71! Can you believe it?"
After the show, Tony made his way around.
"Great show," Jimmy Vegas said.
"It's a different kind of crowd than in 1965," Tony said. "I was born too late."
On Saturday, Tony Ocean and Jimmy Cerone met Nick Caruso Sr. from Jilly's at the Desert Inn for brunch. Lorna Luft, Judy Garland's daughter, was there with her stage show, a tribute to her mother. Caruso knew Luft from the old days in New York.
Caruso said that certain people who knew certain other people were talking to certain entertainment directors to get some gigs for Tony. The shows at the Riviera had been well received, Caruso said, not least because the Chicago customers knew how to take care of their bartenders and waitresses.
"Elvis brought all these brown shoes into Vegas," he said. "They have their Coke and their beer and leave a dollar tip. We run a tab all night and leave 30 dollars. People remember that."
A fellow stopped by the table.
"Where's Lorna?" Caruso asked. It was Lorna Luft's husband.
"Over there," said the husband. "Talking to Jerry Lewis."
From across the room, this was heard: "LADY!"
A few minutes later, Luft came by the table. "I was just kidnapped by a madman," she said. "He said, 'I gotta come hear you sing. What night are you dark?' I said Monday. He said, 'I'll come see you Monday.'"
A few minutes after that, this was heard: "Nicky! Bleaaaah! How are ya?"
Jerry Lewis sat down. Caruso introduced Tony as an entertainer who was playing at the Riviera. As much as he wanted to, Tony didn't mention his Dean Martin tribute. Jerry Lewis wouldn't leave the table. He was having a great time. He talked for 45 minutes, mostly about himself, about the old times, about the telethon. Tony and Cerone and Caruso played it cool, but they were enraptured.
Jerry Lewis wrote an address and phone number in Cerone's book.
"Call me at this number and they'll immediately connect you to my house," he said. "We can talk anytime."
He posed for a photo with Tony.
"I had a hard-on all fucking afternoon," Tony said later.
That night, Nick Caruso and Willy Rizzo went to see Lorna Luft perform at the Desert Inn. She sang tributes to Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as to Judy Garland. That part included duets with a video projection of her mother and involved the recorded voices of her children saying things like "Mommy, tell us about grandma." Caruso and Rizzo were near tears.
"I wanted the guys to see this," Caruso said. "Just so they'd really understand. They don't know what it was really like."
He was disturbed that only 80 out of the 600 seats in the hall were filled.
"She just needs to catch on," he said.
Afterward, they went backstage to talk to Luft. Rizzo is Sinatra's godson and she is Sinatra's goddaughter, so they had a lot in common.
"Jilly Rizzo!" exclaimed Lorna Luft. "Let me tell you about Jilly Rizzo!"
They told stories about the original Jilly's, of birthday parties past, of Sinatra's funeral. They talked about why Luft's audience had been so small. It was disappointing, they said, but typical. In May, Steve and Eydie were playing their final concert at Caesar's Palace, which was closing down its showroom. Even Tom Jones, singing at the MGM, only drew half-sized crowds anymore.
Tom Jones, for God's sake!
After that we went back to the Riviera to see the end of Tony's show. Richie the Machine and Tony the Bull had left earlier in the day. Jimmy Vegas went back to Bally's to hit the hay.
Tony and I and four women from the northwest side, fans who'd come to see Tony, went out after the show. Tony had discovered that the Westward Ho sold 99-cent margaritas and he wanted to take us there, because they were "fucking huge." We accidentally passed the Westward Ho and began to wander down the strip. And walk. And walk. Tony's feet hurt. We got dehydrated and lost our buzz. Tony looked at billboards for various acts and complained.
"Look at that," he said. "Ziegfield and Freud. What the fuck?"
Finally, after much moaning, we made it to the Flamingo, where Tony's fans were staying. Tony was glad we ended up there, because Bugsy Siegel had built the Flamingo, and it was old.
We went into the bar. Tony ordered a big frozen blue concoction, which the bartender said he didn't know how to make. Tony asked for a strawberry margarita instead. The bartender replied that he didn't have any strawberry margarita mix. Tony hadn't eaten in 12 hours and he'd sung for four hours and he'd walked two miles in uncomfortable shoes.
"You should be cleanin' the toilets in this fucking place!" he shouted.
Then he asked the bartender for a regular margarita, which the bartender prepared. Tony took one sip. "This tastes like shit," he said, leaning toward the bartender. "Did you put any fucking tequila in this at all?"
The bartender apologized. He said he hadn't been able to find any tequila.
"You should lose your fucking job!" Tony said. "Bugsy would have had you thrown you out on your ass!"
The bartender located a bottle, topped him off, and called security, which began to hover around. Tony took a sip and put his head in his hands.
"Fuck!" he shouted. "Fuck!"
"What?" I said.
"Fucking brain freeze," said Tony, as security took our picture.
Sunday was Tony's last show in Vegas. Jimmy Cerone brought an entertainment consultant. Earlier in the week, she'd been speaking to a friend on her cell phone and heard Tony singing in the background.
"I gotta see that guy," she said, so she came.
She gave Cerone the skinny on playing in Vegas. Performers usually make between $4,500 and $6,000 to play six nights. A couple of casinos pay $6,000 to $10,000. But you got to work your way up. Also, you have got to have a video, and you have got to grab them in the first couple of minutes.
Cerone was already doing pretty well getting Tony bookings. Earlier in the day, he'd taken a call from a talent agent who was ready to book Tony for two weeks at New York, New York in the fall. Tony also got a month at the Venetian. And in June, he'd play at the Rio, for a conference thrown by an organization called Emerging Artists and Talents in Music, or EAT'M.
Tony ended the show at 1:15 AM with "Unchain My Heart," and the curtain dropped. Cerone had arranged for a small celebratory cake to be brought in. "They said, do you want forks and plates?" he said. "Hell no. It's a symbolic cake." The remaining audience, about 25 people, crowded the stage and the curtain came up. "Whose birthday is it?" Tony said. He began to sing "Happy Birthday..."
"No," said Cerone. "This time, we're singing."
The crowd sang:
Congratulations to you
Congratulations to you
Congratulations, dear Tony
Congratulations to you.
Tony blew out the candles and took a bow. Rocky Russo presented him with a money clip.
Tony's bandleader said, "We have to say one thing, Tony. We've backed a lot of people in Las Vegas, and you have been truly a gentleman and a scholar to work with."
"God bless you," Tony said, and he left the stage.
As he emerged, he had this to say: "My calves are like fuckin' rocks. They're fuckin' killing me. I was really dragging through that last set. They were throbbing, like, boom-boom, boom. I thought I was gonna die."
Jimmy Vegas was by Tony's side. He said, "If I had my choice, I'd stay here forever."
Tony and Cerone spent the next couple of days trying to drum up more work. They intended to take the red-eye out Tuesday night but they'd been at strip clubs all night and they missed it. Tony got out the next morning, arriving in Chicago around three. He had a gig at Tuscany of Oakbrook at seven that night. Cerone slept at the airport. He couldn't get home till 9 PM. Jimmy Vegas picked him up and took him to Tony's gig. Tony spent all day Thursday in the recording studio, working on a CD, and then Thursday night he sang at Club 1000 in Schaumburg. He had a corporate gig Friday at one, then he was off to Lake Geneva for the weekend.
A few weeks later, Jimmy Cerone received a photo from Jerry Lewis meant for Jilly's, an archival shot of him with Dino and Frank. Cerone flew back to Vegas to ask Lewis to sign it. While he was there, Cerone made a proposal. He would fly Lewis to Chicago on a private jet, put him up at the Drake, and have a special picture hanging ceremony at Jilly's. Tony would perform.
"Jesus," Lewis said. "You guys are fucking serious about this!"
They were. Tony said later, "It's the closest I'll ever come to meeting Dean Martin."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.