Farewell, Mr. Warmth: Paying tribute to Rickles in a way he would have wanted

10/26/71 Tony Bennett (left) and Don Rickles at Tony Bennett opening night party at the Riviera. CREDIT: Las Vegas News Bureau
Las Vegas News Bureau
Jason Scavone

Jesus, Don. If you didn’t want to play your Smith Center show, you could’ve canceled.

You had the check in hand (and we know how much that means to your people). All you had to do was show up and do the same act you’ve been doing for 60 years. We know Downtown wasn’t like playing the Casbar, but was it that bad?

At least think about rescheduling. Either way you’re playing to a room full of dummies who couldn’t get tickets to Celine. (Is he laughing? Take a look.)

This is the roughest one since Robert Goulet. Maybe Buddy Hackett. Okay, it’s at least the hardest since the lady who designed the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign went down. It gives us something to talk about until Wayne Newton drops, anyway.

The fact that you could still see a titan of golden age Las Vegas still performing speaks volumes about Don Rickles’ career. Mainly, that he must’ve racked up a hell of a bill with Dino’s bookie in the ’60s.

That was the best part of a Rickles show, though. He was a time machine. Far and away the best show in town, and he did them twice a year like clockwork.

He might’ve moved a little slower, and the showrooms were a little shabbier and the crowds less freewheeling than they were in the heyday (of course they were—by 2010, the average age of the crowd was dead) but Rickles on stage was still a virtuoso when he climbed into that tux and marched into war.

He came out on stage to “La Virgen de la Macarena,” (not the one with the dance, you dummy) because he said he always felt like a matador going out on stage. Someone was getting gored before the night was through, but it wasn’t going to be Rickles.

He would do his shtick, flipping through the ethnic Rolodex in the crowd, spreading it around to the Irish, the blacks, the Jews, the Italians, the Mexicans. If you were too slow to get the joke, he spelled it out on Hello Dummy!, recorded at the Sahara in 1968:

“My humor, ladies and gentlemen, is directed in a way to laugh at ourselves. If you accept it in that spirit, I am deeply grateful. If there be doubt, I hope you’ll see us another night. ... (Every) performer big or small needs an audience. I am no rabbi, priest or reverend, you know this. I stand here and speak of all faiths, creeds and colors. And why not? Really, why not? Because in my experience in the Navy, when things were rough, nobody bothered or cared to ask. Color, church or synagogue, who cared? Frightened to death, we stood together on the bow of the ship and said please, and that is the truth, please, when our time is up, we will all be on one team, so why do we need bigotry and nonsense? Let’s enjoy while Almighty God gives us time.”

When he was done cutting through the crowd like a mohel through your nephew, Rickles closed with a song, backed by a full orchestra. A song. An honest-to-Christ, old-showbiz moment. Highbrow sophistication as window dressing for a winking, gutter worldview. The song was “I’m a Nice Guy,” of course. Can you imagine Carrot Top closing with a song? He’d get the tape recorder stuck in his throat.

When Rickles closed the Lewis roast, he said something that can easily be turned back on him now.

“Really, Jerry, you are a kind man. … God has blessed you with a great gift and you have a delightful family. It has been my pleasure in our meetings from time to time. And from over a tough, competitive business, this guy always has a smile and his hand out to be warm and kind. That is a blessing. Your talent, we know about. Continued success, and may the man upstairs continue to watch over you and yours.”

But for God’s sake, Jerry, keep drinking your Ensure. It wouldn’t be fair to Don if you keeled over right now.

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