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SAM DISTEFANO - A Tribute to a Friend & Colleague - Part III

It was just brought to my attention by Mike Distefano, his dad Sam Distefano will be celebrating his 87th birthday in this month of December 2013.

Mike also mentioned. Since they both retired from the Riviera Hotel & casino in 1993 -they formed their own entertainment management & consulting firm which they continued to operate successfully until 2003.  Currently they both maintain a healthy lifestyle consisting of a low-fat diet combined with daily exercise that includes swimming, cardio workouts, and resistance training with weights.


***As a Tribute to Sam Distefano in this Part III section***

I would like to share a Bio and some interesting facts from his respected career in as a Musician, Production, and position of V.P. of Entertainment for various major casinos.


Sam Distefano is an exceptionally gifted, brilliant-minded, Italian-American jazz-pianist & talent executive born on the south side of Chicago, IL, in December 1926.  He exhibited signs of genius at an early age by demonstrating a wide range of talents that included speaking 2 languages fluently, performing piano recitals of complicated classical pieces (including the 'William Tell Overture' perfectly at only 8 years old & with a high fever no less), & earning straight A’s throughout elementary school & high school.  He was elected editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper at Tilden Tech & interviewed then General Dwight Eisenhower at the Drake Hotel for the paper when he was only 16.  As a teen & early-aged adult, he worked many jazz clubs on piano in the Chicagoland area.  He studied time & motion engineering at IT&T Institute & attended college briefly at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier before joining the military in the early '50’s.


It was during this period that his lifelong, close friendship with the famous jazz pianist, Bill Evans, ensued.  During the Korean War, Sam & Bill Evans were stationed together at Ft. Sheridan in northern Illinois, bunkmates in the same platoon, & performed together in the 5th Army Band.  This unique opportunity enabled Sam to further develop his jazz piano playing.  It was also during this period that his wide range of talents once again shone through as he was accepted into the 5th Army Band on trumpet, called upon to perform "Taps" at many Chicagoland area Vet funerals, assigned percussion parts (including crash cymbals in the marching band), & was awarded the National Defense Service Marksmanship Medal for having demonstrated perfect firearms skills & proficiency in combat training.


After serving honorably in the U.S. Army from '52-'55, Sam moved to Miami, FL & invested in a notable nightclub named the Crab Shanty that he changed to the Stut N’ Tut where he performed with the legendary jazz trombonist, Carl Fontana.  Performing in & operating the Stut N’ Tut enabled Sam to return to college.  Majoring in accounting, he graduated from the University of Miami in '57 with a 4-year Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration.  He accomplished this degree on limited amounts of sleep from having to work nights at the Stut N’ Tut while attending his full class load during the days.


After graduating college, Sam was able to returned to his hometown of Chicago where his versatility of talent was exhibited yet again as he was working days as an industrial engineer for IT&T, & nights as a musician playing both piano & upright acoustic string bass.  Sam performed in many of the city’s famous nightclubs such as the Cloister, the Tradewinds, & the Living Room, relieving such famous pianists as Joe Parnello (Frank Sinatra’s pianist), Larry Novak, & Joe Iacco on their off-nights.  It was at one of these clubs that Victor Lownes & Hugh Hefner caught Sam performing with his trio & accompanying female jazz vocalists on piano.

PLAYBOY – Victor Lownes & Hugh Hefner liked Sam’s playing enough to ask him to perform with his trio at the 1st Playboy Club, which opened on Walton St. in Chicago, in February of 1960.  This launched what would turn into an elaborate 25-year career with Playboy that included Sam being promoted to musical director at their club in Miami from 1962-1969; orchestra leader, conductor, & entertainment director at their country club & resort hotel in Lake Geneva, WI from 1969-1978 (where he led his own 32-piece orchestra, accompanied on piano, & conducted for, such artists as Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Anthony Newley,The Smothers Brothers & Ann Margaret, to name a few); & eventually vice-president of entertainment for their entire international chain of clubs & hotels worldwide.  He also served, along with producer/director, Peter Jackson, as executive producer of the "Playboy Fantasy" production show & revue at the Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, NJ from 1981-1983.  Sam was retained as a consultant for Playboy through the end of 1984. 

During this period that Sam owned, operated, & often hosted at, Doro’s Italian Restaurant & Lounge at 871 N. Rush St., a popular downtown Chicago nightspot frequented by VIP’s, Hollywood stars, & every "who’s-who" of the entire Tri-State area.  A Chicago VIP himself, He was often featured in Irv Kupcinet’s Chicago Sun-Times "Kup’s Column," plus local radio interviews, & on T.V. journal shows like WFLD’s "PM Magazine Chicago." 


Immediately following his successful 25-year career with Playboy Enterprises, Inc., Sam was contacted and hired by corporate conglomerate tycoon, Meshulam Riklis in 1984 to head the entertainment department as vice-president of entertainment & special events at Riklis’ legendary Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, NV.  Launching and booking many successful entertainment events at "The Riviera” during his decade-long tenure there.  These included numerous world-heavyweight championship-boxing bouts, concerts, & full-scale production shows like "A New Year’s Eve with Frank Sinatra & Pia Zadora;" the "Legends of Comedy" event, which featured Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, & Danny Thomas; "Burns & Hope Together," wherein George Burns & Bob Hope performed live together for the first time; "Luciano Pavarotti with the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra;" the "Evening At La Cage" female impersonator show; the "Evening at the Improv" comedy club; the "Crazy Girls" sexy revue; & the award-winning "Splash" multi-million-dollar production-extravaganza, which Distefano associate-produced, that ran successfully for over 20 years in the Versailles Theater, & was acclaimed as "Las Vegas’ International Show of the Year" by the Las Vegas Review Journal for over 10 years in a row.  Sam was often a featured guest on the KVVU Las Vegas hit T.V. show "AM Southern Nevada," as well as a judge on the popular '80’s & '90’s national T.V. series "Star Search," with Ed McMahon, that paved the way for today’s talent search shows like "American Idol" & "America’s Got Talent."

The career of Sam Distefano was a highlighted exhibit in the Las Vegas Museum of Entertainment History at the Tropicana Hotel & Casino, & in '97, he was honorably inducted into the Casino Legends Hall Of Fame.  To this day, Sam remains the frequent subject of numerous, popular books about the history of music & entertainment in Chicago, Las Vegas, & the iconic Playboy Clubs.



Sam hailed from humble beginnings.  His parents were both Roman Catholic immigrants from Sicily, with limited education.  His mother was a seamstress & his father was a meat plant worker on Chicago’s south side in the famous "Back of the Yards" union stockyard district during the Great Depression.  Yet they succeeded in raising 2 children – Sam & his only sister, Mary.  Distefano married in '67 in Miami (his wife, Pam, was an airline stewardess for Eastern Airlines), had 1 child in '69 (a son, Michael), divorced in '78, & never remarried.  His personal interests include reading National Geographic magazine, traveling, fishing, & playing poker (he was the 1st place winner of 3, large, international poker tournaments hosted at the Riviera & Desert Inn Hotels & Casinos in Las Vegas in '88 & '94, respectively).  He is an avid movie & T.V. fan of Charles Bronson, Steven Segal, Peter Sellers (the 'Pink Panther' films), & Peter Falk (particularly the '70’s detective series, 'Columbo.').  Sam participated in many large, charitable, fundraising events in both Chicago & Las Vegas for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, Alzheimer’s Association, & Injured Police Officers’ Fund.  A devout Catholic, he attends Mass regularly at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Las Vegas.  Sam also enjoys performing music with his son Mike (who also plays jazz piano & drums).


STAN ROSS - Special Comment For Joe Fortunato

 My friend Stan Ross forwarded this photo from his archives -

Ray Fern - Joe Fortunato and Stan (himself-circ. 1974)

"I had the privilege of sharing the bandstand with Joe; he was "HOT." 

 "When the smoke cleared, you knew it was from him.  That is why I called him "Smokin' Joe Fortunato."

                                                  "We miss ya Big Guy!"

                                    Stan Ross


JOE FORTUNATO - A Remembrance Tribute to a Friend

 Joe Fortunato was a Jazz legend in the Philadelphia music scene for over 70 years. His contribution to Jazz has always lived-up too the old standard song title cliché

“It Don’t Mean a Thing . . . If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” 

I honestly can say that, because for more than 50 years he was my best friend and brother in the field of music and everyday life. I would like to share this video clip of some memorable thoughts plus experiences that I was fortunate to incur and pay homage for a real “Gentleman of Jazz.”



A brief recap: In December 1984, After Sam Distefano left Atlantic City and relocated to Las Vegas to begin his position as Vice President of Entertainment and Special Events at The Riviera Hotel & Casino, owned by conglomerate billionaire Meshulam Riklis. During Sam’s tenure at the Rivera, he succeeded in booking top-name performers that include Paul Anka, Milton Berle, George Burns, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli and co-produced many production shows including “An Evening at LaCage” - "An Evening at the Improv" - the sexy "Crazy Girls" revue. In addition, Sam hosted the debut and associated produced the multi-million production “SPLASH” a show that has been wowing audiences with its showcase of sexy showgirls, dynamic dancers, motorcycle stuntmen, and an ever-changing line-up of top specialty acts on The Las Vegas Strip, since 1985. Sam also secured a major two-year exclusive contract with Frank Sinatra in the year of 1990.

On various occasions, I had the opportunity to visit Sam in Las Vegas during that time. Then for a period, many transitions occurred in my business career and I had lost all contact with Sam since his retirement from his position at the Riviera Hotel until present.

Recently I was fortunate to receive an email link from one of my associates who knew of my unsuccessful search for Sam. The email link directed me to Mike Distefano; this was Sam’s son who I had met as a young man; coming to Atlantic City and visiting his dad . . . during the time Sam was at The Playboy Hotel & Casino in the 1980s.  I immediately contacted Mike and discovered that his dad Sam has retired and they both live in Las Vegas.
Since I have not seen Mike for a long time I discovered that, he has worked with various Jazz musicians & vocalist as a pianist and drummer including jazz trombonist Carl Fontana, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, and others including George Gaffney, Carol Novak, Gary Novak, Bill Acosta, Mike Barnett, Eddie DeHaas, Cleveland Eaton, and the Sam Distefano Trio.


 Mike's Experience Include: Riviera Hotel & Casino Resort, Las Vegas, NV., Assistant Entertainment Director/Musician, September 1984-March 1992  - Booked many specialty acts and lounge performers into the Versailles Theater and LeBistro Lounge.   - Oversaw, managed, and directed headlining performer relations and personal valets for numerous performers including Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, George Burns, Norm Crosby, Jay Leno, etc.  - Managed office duties (typed contracts, improved order processing and filing systems in the entertainment department).  - Assisted in management of physical logistics in showrooms - acted as Personal Assistant to the Vice-President of Entertainment.  - House Cocktail Pianist!  (Gourmet Dinner Buffet, Kristofer's Restaurant, 'Top of the Riv' private functions, Riviera Wedding Chapel)

   In addition to a long list of Special Honors, Credits, Awards, and Accomplishments,

Mike, has been a good friend with the contribution of photos, bios and information

about his Dad and my friend . . . Sam Distefano.

For more information, visit WEBSITE: WWW.MIKERDISTEFANO.COM 


SAM DISTEFANO - VP OF Entertainment For Playboy Enterprises & My Introduction to a Friend - Part I

It was during the early 1960’s - before the passing of legalized gambling in Atlantic City. Looking back at this seashore town, I distinctly remember many of the musical lounges and nightclubs within a distance of approx. 2 miles. I had the privilege of playing with a number of combos and show-revues that were located on both Pacific and Atlantic Avenues. To name a few of these venues, there was “The Chez Paree’ - “Fort Pitt” – “The Sea Shell” – “McGettigan’s & Maguire” – “The Erin Sho-Bar” – “The Bamboo” – "The 7:30 Lounge" - “The LeBistro” – “Rocky Castellani’s” – “Club Harlem” – “The Hialeah” and many others including the Famous “500 Club” on Missouri Avenue. It was a special time I can recall, on breaks, visiting other bands and sitting-in for Jam Sessions until it was time to return back to play the original club. This would continue nightly throughout the summer season until the dawn.  Also, many of these musicians and Jazz players were from other states including Chicago played Atlantic City’s Steel Pier as side-men with the big bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey in addition to the major recording celebrities during that time. Some of the musicians that came from the Chicago area often talked about various venues located on the North and South side of the city. On the other side of the coin, this gave the opportunity for my local musician friends from the Tri-state area that played The Ambassador East Hotel, Continental Plaza, Hyatt Regency located downtown on Wacker Drive, they would often visit The Cloister, Tradewinds, & The Living Room nightclubs, all within driving distance. These venues would feature The Sam Distefano Trio performing nightly with visiting Jazz musicians and vocalists. Upon returning to the Philadelphia area, my friends would often talk about the talent & musicianship of Sam Distefano’s Trio and their welcoming of musicians plus vocalists from other areas. 

As we fast-forward to the year of 1976, 
legalized gambling in Atlantic City was approved. There was a big change to unfold as the building and reconstructing of existing hotels to Casinos took place. The nightlife and musical lounges that stretched along this 2 mile area of Pacific and Atlantic Avenues plus the Boardwalk sections of the city was becoming a memory of the past. Resorts International was the first casino and others to follow were The Sands, Claridge, and Bally’s, Tropicana, Golden Nuggett and The Playboy Casino.
Since Resorts International featured the Top-Name celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Diana Ross, and others – the lounge would be featuring Sam Butera & The Witnesses, The Treniers, The Checkmates, Freddie Bell & the Bellboys on a regular basis.  
***At that time, I organized a theatrical booking agency named International Entertainment Associates (IEA). In the year of 1979, my agency was active in promoting various fund-raising events for organizations in the Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate New Jersey areas.  When “Playboy” Casino opened for business – I had the opportunity to meet a respected Entertainment Director Sam Distefano, he was also VP of Entertainment for Playboy Enterprises. This was in the year of 1981. Even though my agency was active in securing entertainment for other casinos along the boardwalk area, it was my good fortune to meet Sam and to explain the entertainment roster of Show-Band Revues from the area with their following of fans and friends, which would be an asset to the Lounge at The Playboy Casino.  During the length of time that Sam was in Atlantic City, he gave me the opportunity to secure engagements for my entertainment roster of bands in addition, the producing of the afternoon show-revue  

“Summers & Winters” for the bus tours bringing visitors to the Playboy Casino. We developed a working friendship and spoke about various mutual friends in the entertainment business. I in-turn introduced Sam to my colleagues in Atlantic City. 


<*> More to follow - about Sam Distefano's association with many Top-Name entertainment celebrities

of Atlantic City, Chicago, and Las Vegas . . . in addition, the sharing of friendly anecdotes

during the time, he spent in Atlantic City.  Also my appreciation & gratitude with more information to follow - about the career of Mike Distefano (son), and for his contribution of photos & memorabilia of Sam's respected career in the world of entertainment. <>