When you die you pay the biggest price for fame. —Wayne Newton
Wayne Newton had just spent $13,000 to secure the release of the young woman on his couch, whom he knew only from television and, though he would be embarrassed to admit it, the June 1989 issue of Playboy.
A few hours earlier she had been arrested for holding up a Las Vegas adult video store (which, several years later, would carry her video Different Strokes) with a pellet gun for rent money. Or, arguably, for the ultimate purpose of obtaining Valium, which is where her rent money had gone in the first place.
He would also be embarrassed to admit, given the circumstances, that Dana Plato was still strikingly attractive for an opiate addict not 30 minutes out of jail. And not even attractive in a wasted-degenerate sense but pleasantly and robustly, in the manner of an unusually attractive middle-school teacher.
Wayne Newton, who considered himself pleasantly and robustly handsome in a way that reflected his relative virtuousness, considered the possibility that his impulsive decision to cut a $13,000 check for a fellow former child star, as well as his willingness to let her pour out her life story and tears on his shoulder, was not entirely scrupulous, but he was beyond the point where he could ask her to stop and would have to, as they say, play it as it lays.
When he was only four, an age when children who are not prodigies are merely determining how the world around them works in a mechanical sense, young Wayne looked up at the stage lights of the Grand Ole Opry and was seized with a vision of his future so compelling that it would ultimately come to bear.
Kitty Wells left the stage to polite applause and was followed by a gaunt young singer named Hank Williams. The 23-year-old was just a few months shy of rewriting country music history and six years from passing away in the back seat of a black Cadillac, a bottle of whiskey in his hand and morphine in his veins. He was far, at this point, from the ragged skeleton of popular myth, and when he broke open “Move It On Over” and skirts began to sweep the floor, young Wayne Newton was utterly transfixed.
He bounded into his mother’s arms, pointed at the stage and said: “That’s what I want to be.” Wayne would be on that stage within a couple of years, though he didn’t know when he made his pronouncement that he was a preternaturally talented multi-instrumentalist. Nor did he appreciate what a “big dog” was or that “honky tonkin'” meant something other than dancing to music. He merely saw the tall thin figure consumed by white light and was transformed.
His mother, who did know these things but was, of course, the mother of a four-year-old boy, smiled and tousled his hair and resolved to buy Wayne a guitar.
“My mother... she wouldn’t let me be in The Exorcist. She told me that it would ruin me. She said that once you vomit split-pea soup everywhere and your head spins around and you float around the room, you’re never going to be anything but a freak. And I guess she was right, you know? Because Linda, she played a bunch of crazy girls: we were in The Exorcist II together—isn’t that funny?—I mean, she was in Chained Heat. People always ask, ‘Can you imagine how things would be different if you’d been Regan?’ but when you think about it, we both dated rock stars—she dated Rick James, can you believe it? Isn’t that messed up?—and we both got arrested for drugs. I don’t know—I don’t think it would have been different, actually. But now she’s the girl puking pea soup everywhere, and she always will be, and people will always think of me as the girl from Diff’rent Strokes. I think I’d rather be the girl from Diff’rent Strokes, right?”
She’d regained some of her composure, and accepted a Diet Coke and a cigarette from Wayne. Wayne didn’t smoke and had briefly considered how long the smell would linger in the suite, but then he felt guilty for thinking that, given that she could, who knows, start detoxing from something at any minute, so a cigarette seemed the least he could do. He’d had room service bring up some Camels and an ashtray.
“But you know, I was in this Dole commercial, Dole bananas, you know, and I had to eat 82 of them—82! The director, who was this gross old guy, kept doing take after take after take. It took all day, and I started to get sick, and the director made us go faster because I was sort of turning green, I guess, and finally I just threw up all over my dress, and all over the woman playing my mom and the dog who was playing our dog. She screamed and ran off to the bathroom, and the dog, well the dog didn’t care, and my mom took me off and cleaned me up, and said we were almost done, and baby, can you just eat a couple more bananas? She kind of gave the director the evil eye, and of course I felt a bit better at this point, like when you’ve been drinking for too long and you puke and your head clears up, except with bananas, and we got through.
“I kept my puking off-screen, I guess.”
Wayne was at the window, watching the sun set over the barren mountains to the west and wrestling with his desire to seduce the strangely ingenuous young woman behind him, as ingenuous as a 28-year-old possible felon could ever be. Wrestling with his desire in the sense that an old but very spry demon within him knew that it was a possibility—the casinos were full of desperately wholesome blondes, as distant from their lives as housewives or nurses as Dana Plato was from her life of Hollywood stardom—but it was a possibility that made the well-respected showman Wayne Newton, the devout husband Wayne Newton, feel extremely bad about himself.
He looked back and realized that he would not be just be touching a freckled, sunny Valium addict and adult-video store robber, but also the totality of the Dana Platos he had in his head, which included a brace-faced 14-year-old embracing Gary Coleman, and that it would be impossible not to view this young woman as anything except a psychosexual montage of Hollywood starlets, a thought that made him frankly sick to his stomach and quelled any interest he had in actually trying to make time with her. It didn’t, however, solve the problem of her presence and her immediate future with regard to Wayne Newton.
He asked her what she had wanted to do before she became an actress.
“Figure skating. It’s just such a pretty sport. Don’t you think? Now that’s what you need.” She laughed. “You’ve got all these pretty girls in dresses dancing, right? Wouldn’t it make it better if they were on ice? Really, think about it, everybody sits down at their tables and a bunch of girls come out onto the ice, on a rink that looks like a street in New York. They’re all wearing 20s dresses—what is it, flappers?—and there are handsome men skating with them. Then you come out and sing ‘Danke Schoen,’ and when you get to the part ‘how you tore your dress, what a mess’ the men tear off the bottoms of their dresses and they’re wearing regular skater’s costumes. God, I’d love to do that. I’m not really such a good skater anymore, though, not professionally, at least. Once you get older, in your late 20s, you’re practically too old for that.”
Wayne looked at his reflection looking at Dana Plato’s reflection. He stroked his moustache, cringing at his rather complicated relationship with “Danke Schoen,” the song that was more or less responsible for his adult career but that had also cemented in people’s minds a young man who sounded an awful lot like Ella Fitzgerald. No big contract or USO show or pencil-thin moustache would ever fully erase the shadow of “Danke Schoen” behind every professional achievement since. That weird, Kurt Weill-singing Bobby Darin, he thought, that was all his idea, that’s what you get when you sing weird German socialist music: you sound like a goddamn girl.
“I’m going to beat your ass, Johnny Carson. No more Liberace jokes about me. You’re the king of late-night TV? I’m the king of goddamn Vegas and the jokes end now.”
Wayne thought about the time he retired to his suite in the Aladdin after a particularly grueling show—three costume changes and a 14-minute patriotic medley during which he played five instruments, to close a personal performance for a group of D-Day veterans—and had turned on the TV to see his nemesis, Johnny Carson. Most people would turn on The Tonight Show to wind down; Wayne turned it on to get his ire up. Johnny had been making insinuations about Wayne’s sexuality throughout the years and tonight, a drunk, tired Wayne Newton was in the mood to be pissed off.
Johnny Carson had the misfortune of having scheduled a Wayne Newton joke on this very night, something about him having an unseemly relationship with a gay pianist.
Wayne threw a cocktail shaker through the television, which emitted a puff of smoke when the gin shorted out the wiring.
“The king of Vegas, you little no-talent Burbank fucker,” he said to the dead TV. “I will see you tomorrow and I will break your legs.” He generally only spoke like that in the privacy of his suite because, truth be told, he was afraid that his voice didn’t carry such language well. He did arrange for his pilot to fly him to Burbank the next morning, though it seemed unlikely, even to him, that he would beat Johnny Carson’s ass.
The next morning in Burbank, Wayne climbed into a limo his secretary had hired to haul him the couple miles to NBC. “Wayne Newton!” the limo driver said. “Welcome to Burbank! Here to shoot a show? Make some records?”
“No,” Wayne said. “I’m here to beat Johnny Carson’s ass.”
On the way in, Wayne silenced Carson’s secretary with a shake of his index finger and pushed the office door open, grabbing a putter on his way in.
“Hello, Wayne,” Carson said. “What can I do for you?”
“You can stop the fucking Liberace jokes before I beat you stupid with this. I been nothing but classy, Johnny, my whole career. You invite me on your show, and what do I do? I entertain people. With class. The way a gentleman entertains people. A man, Johnny, a man has class he’s gotta be above the blue material. Lemme ask—have I taken food from your mouth? Beat one of your kids? No, I’ve never treated you with anything but class, man to man. And I don’t see why I can’t get the same class outta you.”
“Wayne. Please. This is Hollywood. It doesn’t mean anything. Everyone knows it’s a joke.”
“Wrong, pipsqueak, this Burbank, and it does mean something, out there”—here Wayne points, with remarkable instincts, east—”to my fans. Now, if you like men, I got no beef. But I don’t, Johnny, but because people like you have been ragging on me my whole life—you gotta remember, Johnny, that I got my start as a kid—when I did “Danke Schoen” I was a kid, practically, and that sonofabitch on KFWB, when the song premiered, he said it wasn’t me and it was Margaret fucking Whiting. I’m a man, Johnny, and I sound like a man, and every time you play the same old joke you hurt me as a man. Got it?”
“Well, Wayne, if it means that much to you, I understand. The jokes end here.”
They exchanged a manly handshake, and Wayne leaned the club against the door frame. On the way out he adjusted his jacket, fingered his moustache, and smiled.
Well, fucking her won’t do either of us any good, Wayne thought, but I don’t know what will.
Dana Plato crossed her legs under herself, and seeming more composed, and even more weirdly coquettish, asked Wayne, “So, your turn, you tell me now, what about you when you were a kid? Did you want to be something different? A football player, maybe? A cowboy? Lion tamer?”
He told her the story about Kitty Wells and Hank Williams, and about how when he saw them backlit by those bright lights he never wanted to do anything but sing. And he talked about how later on, when Hank passed out drunk and dead in the Cadillac, and when word went out that Hank was dead, he cried into his pillow in a Tucson shotgun house and had an asthma attack and damn near died himself. And how he got a sweet letter from Kitty Wells, sweet, pretty, classy Kitty Wells, who he worshipped almost as much as Hank himself. The letter was about how, whatever you have to sing about, it sure isn’t worth dying in a black Cadillac on a mountain road in West Virginia for.
Wayne looked at Dana Plato, and had a thought. He thought about the early days of the Opry, before Hank died and the outlaws took over, before the old guard had to prostitute themselves in trash like “Hee Haw,” when it was a good time full of good music and courteous dancing, and saw a vision of Dana Plato in a ruffled plaid skirt and cowboy hat, kicking her legs and gliding across a stage to some Bob Wills swing number.
“Dana, I want you to come here and look at something,” he said, and she joined him at the window. “See all that desert out there? That’s why Vegas is Vegas, why it’s the oasis that I call home. That desert keeps the world out. New York City? In New York City they think I’m in with the mob. It was all over the news. You think you’ve got it bad when you took a pellet gun—a pellet gun—into a store? They think I’m part of the biggest criminal organization in the world and that I bought this here hotel with blood money.
“And in Hollywood, those jokers think I’m a fudgepacker. Can’t get enough of saying it. Well, here in Vegas, I’m Wayne Newton. I’m an entertainer, and people love me, and that’s never gonna change, come hell or high water. You know why? The desert keeps it all away. They don’t care here, Dana, they don’t care how guilty you were in a past life, and, hell, sometimes in this one. That desert out there, that desert will save you.”
He fixed his stare on her, and she thought this man is a total stranger—he’s Wayne Newton, but he’s still a stranger. And he thought this is Dana Plato, how strange.
“Now, I know everything that’s happening in this city, and everyone who’s responsible for it. A buddy of mine is putting on a little showgirl revue with Oklahoma! as the theme. If you can skate, you can dance, and Lord knows you’ve had a lot of experience being charming and pretty in front of a bunch of people. You’d be a showgirl, but a real classy one. What do you think?”
“Now, good. I want you to go down to the Mirage, I’ll have my driver take you over there. I want you to get some rest, get your head back on your shoulders. Just tell them your name and you’ll have a room looking out over the Strip. You’ll be my guest there, and they’ll take good care of you, because I insist on that. We’ll get you into that show.”
He escorted her down to the lobby. After she kissed him on the cheek and waved, she climbed into a long black limousine, which pulled away into the perpetual dusk of Las Vegas.v