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3:49AM

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.

> EARLY YEARS<

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.

>MILITARY PERIOD<

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.

>EDUCATION<

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.

>EARLY MUSICAL CAREER<

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." 

>LAS VEGAS<

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.

 

>FAMILY & PERSONAL INTERESTS<

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).

1:36AM

ATLANTIC CITY - "BOARDWALK EMPIRE" - The 500 CLUB

 

In retrospect Atlantic City during the 1920s was a Mecca for gamblers and prohibition as is depicted in the Emmy Award HBO Production series “Boardwalk Empire.”

Since Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was born 1883 in Galloway Township, New Jersey, which is a short distance from Atlantic City.  – As a young man his rise to power politically as leader of a Republican organization that controlled the Atlantic County governments.  At the height of his tenure as a political boss the involvement of bootlegging and racketeering sent him to prison in the 1940s . . . his reign ended and State Sen. Frank “Hap” Farley followed Johnson, maintaining his command from 1942 to 1972, wielding his power as a mighty state senator.

In the 1940s entertainment became a big factor for the city to attract visitors along with the summer climate and the beach. The major hotels played a big part for vacationers where dining and attire was important. Chalfont Haddon Hall, Claridge, Traymore, Marborough, Shelburn, and the Ritz Carlton Hotels all welcomed prominent guest for various gala and black tie events during this time. The 500 CLUB owned by Paul "Skinny" D'Amato was a major showplace for entertainment in this South Jersey Beach town.  The Million Dollar Pier, George Hamid’s Steel Pier, played host to entire families that came to see famous singers, big bands and variety shows.  Mr. Peanut, The Diving Horse and Salt-Water Taffies were attractions for the young folks and senior citizens. 

 ~ *** ~

"Without Skinny and his club, a lot of us wouldn't have had the chance to be known nationally. He helped everybody's career jump a little higher, a little quicker. I know that because when I played the Steel Pier, I got nowhere. But when I went to Skinny's, then people knew me. They said, "There's Skinny's friend." They didn't know my name, they just knew me as 'Skinny's friend."

Frank Sinatra @ 1981 Testimonial dinner honoring Paul "Skinny" D'Amato at the International Hotel, Atlantic City, NJ.

 

 

The 500 CLUB

 

The memories made at Atlantic City's famed 500 Club, on Missouri Avenue, will last for a long time. The 500 Club was owned by a dear man, Paul “Skinny” D’Amato. Known as Mr. Atlantic City, he was directly responsible for the indoctrination of the gambling laws for this seashore town.

As a neighborhood kid with a second grade education and many street smarts, he once owned a cigar store in the early days of Atlantic City. Pursuing his goals and dreams to own an entertainment establishment he became a famous nightclub owner that would be known as the "King of Entertainment."He and his friend, Frank Sinatra, made the 500 Club into a major showplace that attracted large audiences from all parts of the country.

The club noted for the wide variety of performers, jazz musicians, popular singers and comedians they hosted. Some of the more popular performers were Milton Berle, the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr., and Jayne Mansfield. It is true; Skinny D'Amato was also responsible for discovering and launching the famed comedy team of Martin & Lewis. It happened in the late 1940's. Jerry Lewis was booked at the 500 Club as a single performer when another singer on the playbill became sick. Jerry mentioned to D'Amato that he had previously worked with a handsome Italian singer by the name of Dino Martini who lived in Steubenville, Ohio. At first, Skinny was not too thrilled with the idea of showcasing an unknown singer who he had never heard perform before. On opening night, the first show did not get a favorable reaction from the sold-out crowd. In the dressing, room backstage before the second show, Skinny approached the two performers and suggested that they combine some funny skits with their performance. Jerry Lewis quickly prepared some funny material to present during the second show. It brought the audience to a standing ovation. From that moment on, with the guidance of D'Amato, the comedy team of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis prospered. 

Other performers such as Vic Damone, Buddy Greco, also would make appearances early in their careers.

Red Norvo and his Sextet who featured the legendary guitarist Tal Farlow would often perform at the 500 Club. On any given night during Norvo's performances, the attending audiences would be in for some surprises. Many jazz greats, who were just passing through town, would visit the club just to pay homage to Red Norvo.

I can recall seeing bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist James Moody walking up to the bandstand with their instruments in hand while Louis Bellson took his place behind the drums. After they were settled, they counted off a swinging rendition of "Cherokee." It was reminiscent of the early days of jazz when Norvo co-led a sextet with Charlie Barnet.

On other occasions, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would make impromptu appearances on stage at the 500 Club. Each vocalist would sing their jazz favorites giving the crowd a performance to be remembered for many years to come.

Unfortunately, in 1973 the famed 500 Club had its final curtain call. A devastating fire engulfed the building that played host to some of the biggest names in show business. After the flames died down, the only piece of historical memorabilia that could be salvaged was the cement sidewalk that surrounded the entrance of the 500 Club. Why was the sidewalk so important?

Well, Hollywood has the original walk of fame - where the names of personalities appear in stars on the sidewalk. Numerous signatures and footprints are embedded in the cement sidewalk in front of Grumann's Chinese Theater. The 500 Club had its own version of this tourist attraction. A large section of a sidewalk, more than two-hundred feet, was devoted to the signings, handprints, and footprints of famous personalities that either worked or made special appearances in the Atlantic City area. The list of names is long. Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante, Jack E. Leonard, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Jayne Mansfield, Louis Prima, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, George Raft and many more are immortalized in that cement. After the fire the sidewalk was carefully removed and replaced in the back courtyard of Skinny's home.

On Missouri Avenue, where the 500 Club used to be located, a permanent street sign designates the renaming of this street as 500 Club Lane. It is all that presently stands to commemorate the 500 Club. The parking lot for Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino is now located where the club once sat. Sadly, although there are many tourists that come into Atlantic City from all parts of the world just to gamble and vacation, only a small percentage may be aware that Trump's parking lot sits on the location where a popular nightclub once played the top-names in entertainment.

My friendship with Skinny gave me many opportunies to attend numerous party gatherings in Atlantic City. Resorts International Hotel Casino always had a front-table reserved for Skinny and his guests when Frank Sinatra was appearing there. I remember one evening, Ella Fitzgerald was sitting at our table and reminiscing about the 500 Club and the good times she and others had there.

I also invited Skinny D'Amato to be my guest to attend a performance with his longtime friend, Tony Bennett, who was appearing at the Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. Skinny graciously accepted my invitation even though he was a bit tired from his business day. Also attending were two other couples plus my associate and colleague, Guy Galante, television producer \director and “Skinny" D'Amato.

The management of the hotel somehow found out that D'Amato was attending the show with us, so after the performance, we were escorted to the Penthouse Lounge, for an exclusive private after-hours get-together. Tony Bennett attended the party, and my friend Sam DiStefano, Playboy's Executive Entertainment Director and an accomplished jazz musician, played piano, this was an enjoyable time had by all.

On June 5, 1984 at 1:22 a.m. Skinny D'Amato was admitted to Atlantic City Medical Center with chest pains. He died from a heart attack at 5:45 a.m. A fond memory that will always stay vivid in my mind is his smiling face on the night before his death. Guy Galante and I were visiting at his home, having a good time talking and joking, but we had to decline his invitation to stay for a late dinner because of prior business commitments. We all embraced and said goodnight when we left about ten o'clock that evening. That was the last time I saw him alive.

Frank Sinatra was among those to come to pay their last respects to “Skinny” D'Amato. As his last act of friendship, Frank served as a pallbearer.

I recall a brief conversation that I had with Bert Parks, former emcee for The Miss America Pageant in the early '70s, about Paul D'Amato. It was before the gambling law was passed and Atlantic City was suffering as a tourist attraction. He said, "If it wasn't for the beach, Frank Sinatra and the contributions from Skinny D'Amato and his 500 Club, Atlantic City would be a ghost town. That's a fact."Skinny felt the same but expressed his thoughts quite differently. His reply to Frank Sinatra's comment on what a great place the 500 Club was "Hey Frank, I just run a Saloon!" Yes, Bert Parks was right. Skinny D'Amato and the 500 Club, without them Atlantic City might still be a ghost town.

 

6:01AM

PENNSYLVANIA - "A WALK DOWN THE CORRIDORS OF JAZZ"

Philadelphia is a city of musical roots that span more than a 100 years of various types of music from opera, gospel, soul, rock, R&B, and especially in jazz. The "City of Brotherly Love" was called home for many jazz artists of the past decades. During the 1920's an '30s, Philadelphia's nightlife and club scene was centered around South Street, a short distance from center city. In this area, it was the Dunbar, Lincoln, and the Pearl theaters that were hosting many top names in entertainment. The Earle Theater Enlargeonce located at the corner of 11th and Market Street. This was another famous theater that featured many performers from Jack Teagarden, Louis Prima, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and many others during it's heyday of the 1940's. Other nightclubs and taverns within various sections of Philadelphia also played an important part in featuring the top names in jazz from the 1940's until the 1960's.
Another city, which was also known for its contribution to jazz was Pittsburgh, PA. This area produced a number of world- class piano players such as Mary Lou Williams, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Erroll Garner, and Billy Strayhorn along with Ray Brown on bass, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey on drums.
** Did You Know? **
 Jazz vocalist Ethel Waters a native Philadelphian
. . .starred in the title role of television's early sit-com called
"The Beaulah Show," which aired during the fifties.

 

12:41AM

DON PHILLIPS - V.P - AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS 

Another fond memory, was back in the early 1980's when close friend and associate Don Phillips, Vice President of American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) invited my colleague Guy Galante and me to attend a guest invitation at the world renowned Friars Club, located at 57 East 55th Street in New York City.

While at this dinner engagement, stopping by to say hello were numerous entertainers that included comedians Dick Shawn, Henny Youngman, and Jackie Mason. Don's association with many entertainers and musicians ranged from the small- time comics and variety acts to the biggest names in show-business plus all categories of musicians from the big bands to especially his favorites in the jazz community such as Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Arthur Prysock, Woody Herman, Bobby Short, Count Basie and a countless group of jazz legends that included female vocalist's Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and his longtime friend Ella Fitzgerald, who he often referred to as "Miss Ella." Don Phillips became a well-known personality in Atlantic City from the many years presenting the above acts and many others while serving as emcee and manager of the LeBistro Club, located on the corner of Pacific and Missouri Avenues next door to the famous 500 Club owned by "Skinny" D'Amato. His career began as a teenager singing and dancing which gave him the opportunity to perform on many stages on both the East and West coasts.  My association with Don was not only as a friend but we worked on many promotions and fund-raising community affairs for Atlantic City and surrounding areas-where Guy Galante directed and Don would emcee the events, which I had the opportunity to produce.  "The Big Band Explosion" was an event that filled Wildwood, NJ Convention Hall on July 4th, 1985.

 The show was a memorable happening that featured The Count Basie Orchestra, Directed by Thad Jones and Maynard Ferguson and his band on stage for this one-time event. To get these two bands together for a one-time appearance was an arduous task, because of their prior booking commitments that involved re-routing of their traveling schedules.

During the telephone conversations Don, Guy and myself had with Thad Jones and Maynard Ferguson, they assured us that there would be no problem in making the play date.  Maynard Ferguson had a few days off from his work schedule and The Basie Band was returning to the states from an engagement being played in Europe. An un-forseen incident occurred when the Basie Band had problems clearing Customs in New York City as they entered the USA.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend agent Larry Bennett who was able to secure an Executive Attache in order to escort the band through Customs on such a short notice. All-in-all the show was a success in drawing a large crowd that enjoyed the performance of these two legendary bands that ended with a jam session between Thad Jones and Maynard Ferguson sharing the spotlight of center stage as they rocked Wildwood's Convention Hall for "The Big Band Explosion."  Whenever, Don Phillips was in need of assistance with his promotions he knew he could depend and rely on Guy Galante and myself to lend a helping-hand whenever necessary. He also produced a sell-out concert with pianist Bobby Short at the Rainbow Room in New York City in which he was in need of television exposure in order to promote the show. Guy was a big help in securing the necessary exposure that was needed and I was able to help with the print media.

I happened to know that Don had a secret desire to go to Hollywood to make it in the movies. Well, he did make it to Hollywood and he was in a movie. His friend, comedian Jackie Mason was instrumental in getting him a part in CaddySack II. Before his sudden illness of heart problems in the early 1980's we were in the negotiating process with Sam DeStefano, Executive V.P. of the Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, to produce a television series of 13 shows that was to eminate from the Playboy Casino.  The show was to be called "JAZZ ...One More Time" which was to feature many jazz legends such as Woody Herman, Thad Jones, Mercer Ellington, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan and many others performing and talking candidly about the future of jazz and the music industry. During this period, Don also contacted another one of his colleagues, radio personality William B. Williams who was a longtime friend to Frank Sinatra. William B. agreed to make scheduled appearances on the show throughout the series to share interesting anecdotes and friendly stories about Frank Sinatra plus some of his own personal experiences as a radio personality.  Unfortunately, the timing, scheduling and ill-fated illnesses of occurances happened to many of the key-players that the project was never able to see the light of day. To this present day . . . I still get inquiries from some of the interested investors that were to take part in the financial backing of such a project.  They want to know if the possibility of resurrecting the production is feasible. Well, my reply has been, that I firmly believe it is virtually impossible to produce such a quality package since the music business and jazz has changed drastically and most of the traditional jazz legends male and female are no longer with us.  So consequently, the project has been put on hold for the time being. But, the intentions of producing a quality series package still remains.  The consideration of a multi-media computer project utilizing vintage jazz film footage and personal interviews with some of the greats in jazz has been discussed and negotiated with these potential investors who have a warm feeling in their hearts for this American Art Form called ... JAZZ - in "Keeping Mainstream  JAZZ Alive."

Stay tuned ... 

1:31PM

FLORIDA - "A WALK DOWN THE CORRIDORS OF JAZZ"

Over the years, Miami has produced various nationally recognized jazz and blues artists from the 1930's through the 1960's. The city has had an active and sophisticated jazz scene, which catered largely to the tourist trade. What is known as the Overtown Square in the African- American section of town once featured artists such as Louis Armstrong, Lena Home and Nat King Cole.

Drummer Panama Francis, bassist Jimmy Garrison, saxophonist George Kelly, and Blue Mitchell, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and his brother Nat, Fats Navarro, Ira Sullivan, are some of the musicians that have either been born or lived in Miami and surrounding areas over the decades.
Once known as The Miami Beach Auditorium, it has been renamed The Theater of the Performing Arts which was home for "The Jackie Gleason Show" that was taped for the CBS Television network during the 1960's that featured many of his close friends including Charlie Ventura on tenor sax and Bobby Hackett on trumpet.
The lavish Eden Roc and Fountainbleau Hotels located on Collins Avenue in the Art Deco city of Miami beach. Hosted many major performers that included Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie.
Tobacco Road in Miami hosts national jazz and blues talent including B.B.King, Albert Collins,Taj Mahal plus others.
Helen O'Connell and her sextet was featured at Harry's American Bar at Miami's Eden Roc Hotel
Joe Rico's Sound of Jazz show can be heard nightly on WGBS-FM.
Producer/Manager Lew Entin negotiates play-dates at the Fontainbleau Hotel in Miami, for
future jazz concerts that will feature, Earl Bostic, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Arnett Cobb and others.