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Stardust memories

Times Staff Writer

The comedian Phyllis Diller was sitting in the Raytheon Aircraft Services terminal at Van Nuys Airport, wearing a skirt and tunic that were both a deep pink. She saw Tim Conway approaching.

“Tim!” Diller said.

“Phyllis,” Conway said, “I didn’t recognize your legs.”

They fell to talking. Both were on their way to Las Vegas on Tuesday afternoon on Wayne Newton’s personal plane, to help celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Stardust Hotel and Casino. It was a trumped-up PR event like countless others that occur daily in the entertainment business. Only this one would have none of the breathlessness that attends, say, the premiere of “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.”

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This one would feature old-pro VIPs like Diller and Conway and Don Rickles. They are entertainers who long ago learned that show business is a lot about getting on a plane and going somewhere. So now they were flying to Vegas on Newton’s F28, returning later the same evening, to fete the Stardust.

The VIPs had been asked to bring a piece of memorabilia for a Stardust-themed time capsule, “scheduled to be sunk later this year.” The Stardust, which opened July 2, 1958, and today is owned by the Boyd Gaming Corp., is one of the few hotels remaining on the Strip whose entertainment lineup doesn’t involve extremely limber French Canadian circus people.

Newton has his own showroom there, having signed a long-term deal with the Stardust in 1999; Rickles and Conway have more modest contracts to perform when Newton’s away. Diller, who as a rule no longer performs her stand-up routine, played the Stardust not long ago with Jack Jones.

In the airport departure lounge, Conway told Diller that he and his old “Carol Burnett Show” colleague Harvey Korman are doing 12 dates a year now in Vegas.

“Brilliant!” Diller said. “I see Harvey at the heart doctor’s place -- is he still alive?”

Rickles, for his part, was already on the plane, ready to go, some 45 minutes before takeoff. He is 77 now and is still Rickles, even with his schedule scaled back to 75 to 100 dates a year, 16 of them at the Stardust. Dressed in a monogrammed blue dress shirt and tie, Rickles was sitting at a table at the back of the plane with Paul Shefrin, his publicist, and a sharply groomed man named Tony Oppedisano. Oppedisano, who would subsequently introduce himself to people as “Tony O,” is Rickles’ tour manager. It is a role that, among other things, seems to involve being there whenever Rickles talks.

“They’re holding the plane up, they’re waiting for Frank,” Rickles said as the rest of the party boarded. This led to a few traveling-with-Sinatra anecdotes. Finally, actress Valerie Perrine showed up, and the plane could leave -- without Sugar Ray Leonard, though it was unclear why he was coming in the first place.

Perrine was with her friend, Ann Turkel, an actress and former model who was once married to the late Richard Harris. For the time capsule, Perrine had brought along an old program from her days as a showgirl in the Stardust’s Lido de Paris revue. She passed it around and showed off the thongs and purses she now designs. The plane had reached cruising altitude. Conway and Diller were kibitzing, and the sandwiches were out. Ham on wheat with mayonnaise, but people were eating anyway.

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Every now and then Diller would let out a Phyllis Diller cackle, and it was like somebody playing an instrument. But Rickles was the biggest presence in the cabin, easy. He reminisced about Vegas in the 1960s with musician Mickey Jones, another VIP.

“Those days, we worked over a bar, and they would be serving breakfast,” Rickles said. “We did 5-o’clock-in-the-morning shows. There he is, Don Rickles, up there with two drunks and a guy eating spinach.”

“The reality is, that was when the town functioned like clockwork,” Mickey Jones said.

“I was just gonna say that,” Rickles agreed. “I mean, today, you ask for a cup of coffee, four guys have a meeting.”

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At the Stardust, the VIPs filed into a banquet room via a roped-off red carpet that looked odd. Then you realized what was missing: people on the other side of the ropes.

After a half-hour scrum with the local media in the banquet room, an old Vegas tradition began: bombastic thanking and saluting.

An emcee saluted Bill Boyd, president of Boyd Gaming, and Boyd in turn saluted Newton, who promptly outdid them all by saluting all the people who make the Stardust function.

The banquet hall was filled with hotel employees, the Vegas entertainment fringe and lots of shellfish.

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Newton was in his tuxedo, his hair an engineering marvel. Onstage, Newton, chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle, talked of having just returned from a tour of Iraq, where it was 140 degrees. This made it winter in Vegas, he joked, where it was only around 103.

By now, it was unclear how the anniversary celebration would proceed or even why we were here. The only certainty was that the event had been over-catered: All that lobster and shrimp and lamb going uneaten. A new drink, called the Stardust, was unveiled and served.

Things picked up when the VIPs were introduced. Diller and Conway stood at their tables and got three seconds in a spotlight. Perrine was coaxed onstage. She talked about how her days going topless as a Lido girl had helped her land her first big movie, “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Then Rickles did his 10 minutes. “You are a pro, and everything they said about you is true,” he said to Newton. Rickles waited for the applause to die down. “His wife, I never liked,” Rickles continued. “No, she’s very sweet, the mother gets on my nerves, she’s out in the back going, ‘You wanna buy a shirt? Buy a shirt with Wayne’s name on it.’ ”

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After Rickles, they unveiled the Stardust time capsule, a vintage toy rocket that looked like something you might win on “The Price Is Right.” Then it was time to go.

On the flight home, Perrine complained of back pain; she’d evidently wrenched something while striking a showgirl pose for a photographer. Rickles and Conway were locked in conversation, Conway talking about his days on the road, including a brief tour opening for Sonny Bono, after Bono’s breakup with Cher.

Across the aisle, Perrine had put on white gloves to read the New York Times. “Every time you wash your hands they get older,” she explained. The tray of sandwiches reappeared. In the quiet of the plane, Diller revealed that she is an atheist. Perrine stopped reading and got weepy, saying she’d had to put down her dog two days ago. She brought out a picture of him, Mojo.

“How old was he?” Diller asked.

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“Ten and a half,” Perrine said.

“That isn’t old,” Diller said.

Perrine said she had prevented herself from crying last night, fearing her face would get puffy. Diller whispered that she wasn’t one for unbridled displays of emotion anyway. By now it was easy to forget that Rickles had had the line of the night. “What a turnout,” he’d said from the Stardust stage. “As I look at the back of the audience, there’s nobody here that’s important.”


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