Shecky Greene

The following biography appeared in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall program of December 31, 1995 for a New Year's eve performance of Mr. Greene.

picture of Shecky Shecky Greene is considered by many to be the ultimate, consummate nightclub performer. He is one of less than half a dozen comedians who has headlined Las Vegas hotels and been paid in the six figures a week to do so (the others being Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Bill Cosby and Johnny Carson -- a rare fraternity indeed).

Shecky admits that all this success has come to him with no pursuit on his part. Rather than help his career along, he's probably been his own worst enemy. Tales are legion of his drinking, carousing, gambling, turning over crap tables and busting up entire casinos; many of the stories are even true.

However, Shecky has a different attitude about himself and his career today. He is a new, much better Shecky, deeply loved and respected by his audience, peers, friends and family.

Several years ago, he stopped drinking. Then he had surgery for his throat and lost his voice for over a year. He was told he would never perform again ... Shecky was devastated. He had tremendous faith, and through his own courage and the support of his many friends he completely recovered. Later, he went through cancer surgery and was completely cured. During this recent period of his life, he discovered that he loved to perform and enjoyed being a headliner. Shecky decided he'd do all he could to protect and encourage his talent.

Not to say Shecky hasn't paid his dues. He began his show business career nearly 50 years ago -- his second choice of career following a Navy discharge in 1944 after three years of service aboard the aircraft carrier Bon Homme Richard based in the Pacific.

"I enrolled at Wright Junior College in Chicago and planned to become a gym teacher," Shecky recalls. "I took a summer job at a resort near Milwaukee called Oakton Manor. They paid me $20 a week and gave me a fancy title, 'Social Director.' We couldn't afford to bring in acts so I'd get up and tell a few jokes, do pratfalls and whatever came to mind. I wasn't Red Skelton, but I got a few laughs. I went to college that September and spent a year working toward my degree. In between, I kept doing club dates and trying to put together an act."

In the late '40s a mutual friend recommended him to a club owner in New Orleans who was in desperate need of a comedian. "I was booked at the Prevue Lounge on the corner of Canal Street and University. The contract was for two weeks and I stayed three years. The band leader was a shy, fat kid named Al Hirt who played the greatest trumpet I've ever heard."

Greene eventually wound up owning a share of the Prevue and planned to settle permanently in New Orleans. Then the club burned down, so he went back to Chicago and Wright Jr. College. "I was in the dorm one night when Martha Raye called from Miami and asked me to play her club down there. I quit school again when they held me over for six weeks. This time, I made up my mind, I would stick with show business. I was only 25 years old and making $500 a week. Besides, I had a silent partner to support ... I had discovered how to bet the horses!"

The turning point of Shecky's career came in 1953 after he was signed to play the famed Chez Paree in Chicago as opening act for Ann Sothern. Those were the days when headliners like Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker and Ted Lewis were mining gold in the fast-expanding Nevada gambling casinos. When the Golden Hotel in Reno offered over $1,000 a week, Shecky made a beeline for the Wild West. The owners tore up his four-week contract on opening night and made him a deal which insured him $20,000 a year.

Over the years Shecky played many Las Vegas casinos and lounges, including the Starlight Lounge, the Tropicana and the Last Frontier, becoming one of the biggest names in lounge entertainment in Nevada. He was being offered film roles, TV shows, bookings in the best cafes. Shecky turned them down in favor of his nightclub work. (Actually, he did say "yes" over the years to many talk-variety show appearances.)

Along the way Shecky has picked up numerous awards for nightclub performances, including the Las Vegas Entertainment Award for "Best Lounge Entertainer," the Jimmy Durante Award for "Best Comedian," and "Male Comedy Star" from the Las Vegas Academy of Variety and Cabaret Artists.

He did eventually work in films, including Splash, Mel Brooks' History of the World -- Part 1, and Tony Rome. He has appeared on many game shows and was a substitute host on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

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In recent years Shecky has appeared on television series ranging from "Laverne and Shirley" to "The A-Team" to "Northern Exposure." He spends several hours a day helping fellow talents to improve their acts. Delighted that comedy is strong again, Shecky likes the new breed of comedians, but does not necessarily agree with the language used. "Funny is funny," he says; "shock is not funny." Racquetball is his favorite exercise, but he also enjoys riding and walks on the beach.

Shecky Greene biography
Shecky Greene interview on Charles Grodin Show
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