Stan Irwin, celebrity manager and Las Vegas talent booker, dies at 94

Stan Irwin, who was Johnny Carson's producer for two years and Pearl Bailey's manager for 25, dies at 94

When Stan Irwin was a struggling young comedian in New York, someone told him he should try out his act in Las Vegas.

"Where's that?" Irwin replied.

No matter: He signed on for an 11-day gig at a place called Club Bingo and stayed in town for decades as a booker of the day's great and not-so-great acts, including Wally Cox and the Beatles. In Los Angeles, he was Johnny Carson's producer for two years and Pearl Bailey's manager for 25. He also managed Carson's personal appearances for many years.

Irwin, a dapper impresario who used hypnosis to help stars afflicted with "Vegas throat" caused by desert heat and air conditioning, died Wednesday at an assisted care facility in Los Angeles, his wife Margie Irwin told The Times. He was 94.

In an interview, she said Irwin maintained enduring show-business friendships. After Carson retired, the two continued to play tennis. When Bailey studied for a degree in theology from Georgetown University, which she acquired at age 67, Irwin spent hours on the phone helping her with her homework.

Irwin arrived in Las Vegas before the Rat Pack and was among the first to do a TV broadcast from Sin City. His 1957 variety show, "Fabulous Las Vegas," was filmed beside a swimming pool at the Riviera hotel.

"At that time you couldn't shoot indoors," he told writer Kliph Nesteroff in a 2011 interview. "A lot of people didn't want their faces to be seen because they were with the mob or they weren't with their spouses."

At the Sahara, Irwin tried to balance the needs of temperamental stars and ardent fans. Judy Garland, swamped by drugs and alcohol, couldn't perform 15 shows a week so Irwin had her appear once daily — at 2 a.m., in the lounge.

"And you couldn't get in!" he said.

Irwin launched an all-black production of "Hello Dolly!" and turned the stage at the Sahara's Congo Room into an ice rink for Sonja Henie. In 1964, even after the Beatles' tumultuous appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," he had to explain to the hotel's skeptical entertainment committee just who they were: "British band. Rock and roll. Very hot right now."

He was the only Las Vegas talent booker willing to take a chance on the Fab Four, said author John Romero in "Las Vegas: The Untold Stories," and the event sold out the city's convention center.

When singers such as Connie Francis and Ann-Margret were hit by sore throats, Irwin used the skills he learned at a college hypnosis class, soothing them by suggestion: "When you're onstage, you'll perform as if nothing is bothering you…."

After Carson took over "The Tonight Show" in 1962, he named Irwin its executive producer. When Irwin left in 1964, he continued as Carson's road manager.

In 1970, Life magazine described him paving the way for a Carson performance in Lubbock, Texas: "He wears a Vegas smile and a Vegas tan, and the kind of professional veneer that would enable him to say later, after all the arguments and assorted disasters of the weekend, 'Johnny comes to these cities because he enjoys them.'"

Born March 28, 1920, in New York City, Irwin came from a family so steeped in show business that his father, a deli operator, urged him to avoid it at all costs. But Irwin, impressed by his uncle, a vaudeville booker, did a stand-up act at Catskills resorts. He studied advertising at New York University but never completed his degree.

During World War II, he instructed fighter pilots, but after the war he returned to comedy.

In Las Vegas, he became Club Bingo's entertainment director. When the club was transformed into the Sahara in 1952, he kept his position, bringing stars including Marlene Dietrich, Bob Newhart, Paul Anka, Jim Nabors, Bobby Darin, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme to Vegas for their first appearances there.

Irwin wrote the lyrics for "That's What God Looks Like to Me," a song dedicated to Frank Sinatra after his mother Dolly's death in 1977. The music was by Lan O'Kun.

In addition to his wife, Irwin's survivors include daughter Jody, son Lanny, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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