A 1993 trip to Walmart has resulted in a Christmas gift that has kept on giving for more than four decades for supreme entertainer Tony Orlando.
It was 24 years ago that Orlando was walking through the store in his hometown, Branson, Missouri, and saw a 6-foot- 3 1//2-inch white-haired white-bearded man, who truly looked like Santa. He approached the man and asked him if he was a professional Santa and if he ever acted or sang. The man answered ‘sometimes’ to both.
“I told him that I wanted to do a Christmas show for my new theater in Branson and he asked what the show was about,” Orlando recalls. “When I told him it was about the true spirit of Christmas, he said, ‘You mean, I would become a soldier for that?’ I told him ‘yes’ and he agreed to be part of the show. His name is Dave Thompson and he’s been with me ever since. “
For the past 24 years, the star has been lighting the way to the true spirit of Christmas with his self-written “Tony Orlando’s Great American Christmas” show, which he performs in various places in the United States. He will bringing it to the South Point this coming weekend, December 16-18. It is a full production and this year, Oralndo will incorporate a couple of things he normally doesn’t do in Las Vegas, which he calls “amazing and magical." Along witht that, he will be bestowing the gift he bestows on his audiences all year round – the ability to “scratch one’s own itch.”
“My passion is people,” Orlando explains. “I am a people person. My GPS is that God gave me a gift and I love giving it to those people out there and making them happy. I don’t phone in a performance – you know I’m giving 110 percent. I feel that I owe it to each and every person in my audience to give them everything I’ve got. I call it ‘Rhonda’s itch.’ Rhonda was my sister who had cerebral palsy and was mentally retarded and died when she was 21
“I left school after the eighth grade to take care of her with my mom,” he continues. “But Rhonda was responsible for my career – the only thing that made her happy was my music and my guitar. She would get an itch through her entire body that would make her cry and cause a seizure. When I would relieve it with my music, she would smile. That’s when I realized that I could do something to make people happy. When I ask my audiences to clap or stomp to the music, I want them to scratch their own itch. That is a piston for me and the main speaker to the music I play in life. My sister taught me that simplicity is genius.”
When it comes to his Christmas show, Orlando compliments Michael Gaughn, owner of the South Point who used to own the Orleans, which was the first hotel in which Orlando performed the show in Las Vegas. Orlando also notes that the show, which he performed there for 10 days every year for four straight years, was the first ever Christmas production to work Las Vegas and consistently sold out because the locals wanted Christmas. He remembers that Gaughn had no fear about talking about the nativity and the true spirit of Christmas and told him to go for it. The show has been a phenomenal success, selling out in venues all over the country with a universal appeal to people of all religions and races.
“Michael had the courage to stand by it,” Orlando explains. “I think it’s politically correct to say ‘Christmas’ instead of ‘the holidays’.”
In mentioning names like Michael Gaughn, Orlando is highlighting one of the things that has kept him a mainstay on the entertainment scene for 55 years – his relationships. He also credits the fact that he has always had R&B music at his core -- noting that if a singer stays in the R&B, Rock ‘n Roll world, he can transition through every era -- as well as the numerous charities he has been involved with that have kept him upfront in the public’s view even though he was not initially aware of that asset. Tantamount to all is where the “wise” man comes in – Orlando truly knows and understands show business from both the stage and behind the desk.
“Your talent will always be the engine to your success but it has to be married to your business acumen,” he advises. “Show business is a business. Fame is also a business and a state of mind from the perspective of who is looking at you. How you market fame is your business. You can’t get carried away with all the frills that come with being a performer.”
Along with his 135 dates a year across America and internationally singing and performing, Orlando is the COPD Breathe national spokesman (his mother died of COPD). He was with Jerry Lewis as vice president of MDA and a co-host for the telethon for 33 years. He was also the chairman and spokesperson for the National Association of Retarded Citizens for eight years. Other groups he works with that are close to his heart are the veterans and POWs, whom he has been involved with since 1973 when “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” came out and for whom he has been a major part of raising hundreds of millions of dollars.
The constantly busy Orlando has also written two autobiographical Broadway-style shows and wants to go back to Broadway in two years to perform Zorba in “Zorba The Greek,” which he promised his Greek father in front of the original Zorba, Anthony Quinn, many years ago. (It’s also part of his continuing Five-Year Plan, which he learned to do from Bob Hope. Orlando recently received the Bob Hope Congressional Medal of Honor for Entertaining.) Indeed, Orlando has had a very colorful life, beginning when he was 16 and picked up by Don Kirschner, who paid him $50 a week and invested in him when he recorded his first hit, “Halfway To Paradise,” written by Carole King and recorded in Kirschner’s office in the famed Brill Building in New York City. According to Orlando, life comes in “chunks.”
“The next chunk was when Wally Schuster got me my first job with Clive Davis when I was 23 to run the music division at CBS Records and I recorded the first records of James Taylor; Earth, Wind and Fire, and Barry Manilow,” Orlando explains. “The next chunk of my life was the hit song “Candida” and then came Fred Silverman and the world of TV for four years, the next chunk. Understanding the chunks of your life is how you learn, grow, and accelerate, and how you can in-turn touch others’ lives and enrich them. Jerry Lewis was a major chunk in my life from when I was a kid collecting quarters in my neighborhood for MDA. Little did I know then that I would end up being his co-host foe 33 years. Another important chunk is when Norman Brokaw booked me in ‘Barnum’ on Broadway.”
Orlando ended up leaving Clive Davis, who was very supportive and told him to pursue singing, saying that he could always come back to the company. When “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” came out in 1973, which also went to number one, it was under the name Dawn with Tony Orlando with Tony Orlando in small letters. From there came the CBS variety show and that is where and when the name Tony Orlando and Dawn emerged. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So if you want to add to your Christmas, make sure that you do it right Celebrate with Tony Orlando and enjoy a truly warm and wonderful night.