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CHRIS FIO RITO - "Entertainment King" of the Las Vegas Strip during 1960s & 1970s  

During his childhood in New Rochelle, NY in the early 1940's, Chris Fio Rito always knew that his dreams would come true someday. When Chris was five years old, his father took him to the Paramount Theater in New York City to see a movie and a stage show, it only cost fifty cents back then. For Chris the excitement he felt seeing the live stage show was the highlight of his day. Chris recalls, "... sometimes I don't remember what movie was playing, other than it may have been a western or musical film. I just couldn't wait until the live show came on with the big bands and the popular singers of that time." The first time Chris saw Louis Prima and his band, was on that stage at the Paramount. Prima played his golden trumpet that glistened like a jewel in the spotlight, sang, and joked. He would always create such a rapport with his audience that would receive many standing ovations."When I saw Louis Prima and his golden horn, I knew in my heart that I wanted to be an entertainer," Chris said. He did become one and he even became a close friend of Louie Prima's. A few years later, Chris' Dad, Chris Sr. who drove a taxicab for a living, found a banged-up trumpet in the back seat of his cab. When nobody had claimed it after a period of time, it became Chris Sr's property. Knowing that his son was inspired by what he saw in Louis Prima, he brought the trumpet home to Chris.
The beat- up old horn was hard to play, mostly because the valve keys were leaking air and the badly damaged tone holes needed much repair work done. Nevertheless, Chris had the drive and determination to learn as much as he could and he was able to overcome the obstacles a damaged instrument presented.
It was about seven years before his father could afford to buy a new trumpet for his son. "It was a pleasure to play a new trumpet, I couldn't believe how easy it was to play an instrument that was able to respond quickly to what I wanted to play." He diligently listened during his trumpeting lessons and practiced hours upon hours, and eventually, he was able to start a small combo and dance band. After he was drafted, he headed up a 30 piece US Navy orchestra while in the Navy. His big break came after leaving the Navy. He was booked at the Americana Club in Miami, Florida but he wanted to work somewhere else. The Dream Lounge, also in Miami, was another hot spot that attracted Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and other top personalities in the music and entertainment business, and it also attracted Chris.
The owner of the Dream Lounge was so impressed by Chris' performance at the Americana that he instantly hired him to work for him. Ironically, what was supposed to be a four week booking lasted four years.
The many personalities and musicians that were working in the Miami area at the time would always stop-in to see Chris play. His performance of Louis Prima's favorite tunes like "Oh Marie, Angelina" and many others, gained him his nickname of "Little Louie," a name that he was proud to be associated with.
Chris recalls that one day Louis Prima came in to see his show, and after his performance he said, "Hey, you're the guy they call 'Little Louie!.'" When Chris admitted that he was, Prima turned to him and said, "you're not bad kid, not bad. "Louie also asked, if Chris had ever been to Las Vegas, and when Chris said no, Prima said, "I know that someday you will, so here's my number. I have a home on a golf course, you do play golf, don't you?" Chris said he did, he did not know that quite a memorable event was going to happen on that golf course one day. As time passed, Chris found jobs working at many of the top showrooms and lounges in Miami, while at the Fontainbleau Hotel, the owner of the ritzy El Morroco in New York City saw the act and invited Chris to play a private party for Manhattan's elite jet set at the world famous, Copacabana.
The entertainment director for the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas had also heard so much about the act that he booked Chris and his band for a two week engagement. It turned into a two-year contract, because of the amount of people and business that Chris brought into that casino.
Finally he had arrived in Las Vegas! That contract was just the beginning of a long career that awarded him the title of "The Greatest Entertainer in Las Vegas. A Man and His Horn." During the day, Chris would spend most of his time playing golf with Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and other celebrities on the golf course named "Fairway to the Stars," owned by his idol, Louis Prima. Over the entrance to the fairway was a sign with a motto that read: "Be Happy, Have Fun, Relax, Enjoy Yourself!" This couldalso be considered Chris Fio Rito's motto. That eventful day on the golf course finally took place. Louis Prima and Chris were in a golf cart, passing right next to Prima's house. Louie stopped the cart, got out and walked inside. Prima emerged from his house carrying the same golden horn that so captivated Chris at the Paramount Theater so long ago.
Prima handed the trumpet to a surprised Chris, saying, "the doctors tell me I can't play this anymore. So here, you take it. Only promise me one thing, you'11  play pretty for the people."That was in the Spring of 1975. During the summer of that same year, Louis Prima was operated on for a brain tumor. After the
operation he remained in a coma for three years and died in 1978. He was 66 years old. The memories of Louis Prima will continue for a long time to come. He and his wife, Keeley Smith, along with Sam Butera and the Witnesses, entertained thousands of people on both coasts since the inception of the band in 1954. Their
band also had a top selling album entitled The Wildest. To this day, Keeley Smith ends her performance in concert or nightclub setting, with a dedication to her former husband Louis Prima.
Chris also recalled when he met our mutual friend, Tony Torcasio, in Las Vegas. Tony was CEO at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. "He was one of a kind," Chris remarked, "Tony came to see my band at the Desert Inn and said to give him a call when my contract was up. After a few months, my contract expired and I made the call to Tony. He booked us for two years with options. That's the type of person he was, always trying to lend a helping hand. *** In a recent conversation I had with Chris in Atlantic City, NJ while he was performing in the lounge at Harrah's Marina Hotel and Casino, we talked extensively about how jazz and the music business has changed through the years. He told me about when he was working in Las Vegas.
"There were many places to play and sit-in all along the strip. Ella Fitzgerald, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Dinah Washington, Don Rickels, Louis Bellson, The Dukes of Dixieland and others could be seen just sitting-in and relaxing after their performance. They would often stay out till dawn. -... Currently, in Las Vegas and Atlantic City live music is almost a thing of the past. Taped music, also known as canned music, is used more and more in all of these places, because the corporate budgets allocated for live entertainment and production shows are so lousy. It's not the same, that's for sure!"
I was curious and asked him, how he feels about the younger jazz musicians who are on the scene today. He smiled, chuckled a little and said, "although the young players today are better schooled, there aren 't too many places where they can go to jam and practice their craft like in the old days."He also told me his favorite musicians are Louie Armstrong, Chet Baker, Scott Hamilton, and Sam Butera, just to name a few, and, of course, my friend and mentor Louis Prima."
Time passed quickly while we were talking about the good old days. But I still had one more question I wanted to asked him. Since we are both jazz players at heart and have played many tunes and played many improvised choruses throughout our careers, we both know that an improvised solo can never be duplicated to sound the same when played at another time.
Therefore, I wanted his opinion on where all those improvised notes go after they have been played by us all and all those jazz greats throughout the years. Chris replied with warm glow in his eye, "I hope they went with the people when they left our club, after experiencing a moment that can never be duplicated, no matter what. I just hope for the future, I can live up to Louie Prima's expectations of me and his horn, to play pretty for the people."
As we said our good-byes, we embraced one another and Chris said in a soft voice,
"Danny, please remember, be happy, have fun, relax, and enjoy yourself!"...

 

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    Response: website indexer
    Superb page, Carry on the great job. Thanks a lot.

Reader Comments (2)

Great post, I can remember hearing stories of these legends from my parents at a very young age.
July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGolf Las Vegas
Glad that you enjoyed - Thanks for the visit
July 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterDanny Luciano

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