Sonny King, 83; Was Durante’s Stage Partner, Rat Packers’ Pal
Sonny King, a Las Vegas comedian-singer who was Jimmy Durante’s onstage sidekick for almost 30 years and had close ties to the Rat Pack, has died. He was 83.
King died Friday of cancer at his home in Las Vegas after undergoing treatment for tongue and throat cancer, said his brother, Donald Schiavone.
“He’s been a legend in this town,” Schiavone told Associated Press. “He knew all the greats, and they knew him.”
Rat Pack leader Frank Sinatra gave King the nickname “Lounge Giant,” and another member, Dean Martin, roomed with King in New York City when they were struggling young performers.
King first teamed with Durante in 1950 at the Copacabana in New York when King substituted for Durante’s usual sidekick, Eddie Jackson. Four years later, King pinch-hit again for Jackson at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
“I can’t explain it. I don’t know if it was spiritual, but we looked at each other and we couldn’t stop laughing,” King had said of his rapport with Durante. “The audience caught on, and they were laughing too.”
The pair performed together until Durante’s death in 1980.
In 1955, King joined Louis Prima in the stable of entertainers at the Sahara’s Casbar Lounge and reworked his act to fit in with Prima’s swing style.
By the end of the 1950s, King had moved to the Sands, where he worked for 13 years.
He often performed in the lounge while the Rat Pack -- which also included Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop -- played the main room. After shows, King would hang out with the entertainers in the Sands’ steam room, wrapped in his bathrobe with the “Lounge Giant” monogram.
In New York, he was Martin’s roommate for more than six years.
“We stayed at the Bryant Hotel on 54th Street,” King told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2003. “They put out a plaque that said, ‘Dean Martin and Sonny King lived here and never paid the rent.’ That’s not quite true; we would sing at all their functions in lieu of the rent.”
King and Martin were so broke that they frequented a restaurant serving two doughnuts, coffee and orange juice for a nickel -- and shared the meal. After Martin had eaten half the breakfast, King would interrupt with a ruse about an important telephone call and finish it off.
When the restaurant manager caught on, he said he would serve them both for a nickel and they could pay him back in the future. Years later, Martin and King tracked down the manager and gave him $25,000 apiece, according to “Memories Are Made of This,” a 2004 biography of her father by Deana Martin.
King is credited with introducing Martin to Jerry Lewis, who became Martin’s comedy partner.
Sinatra reportedly asked King to appear in the Rat Pack movies “Sergeants 3" (1962) and “Robin and the Seven Hoods” (1964). King asked Sinatra to be the godfather of his only daughter, Antoinette, born in 1958.
King was born Luigi Antonio Schiavone on April 1, 1922, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The second-generation entertainer had no formal voice training. He learned from his lyric tenor father, Georgie King, who performed at the Paramount Club in New York City.
Among his mentors were vaudeville greats Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker.
By 15, King was singing and emceeing in Hudson, N.J., where he earned $60 for 42 shows a week.
At New York’s Copacabana Club, King started out as a bouncer and bar manager and once served as a sparring partner for boxer Rocky Marciano.
When a Sahara executive saw King’s act at the Copacabana, he asked him to come west.
Fifty years later, King was still onstage in Las Vegas at the Bootlegger Bistro.
Last summer, he anchored his final late-night show, which featured performers from the golden era of Las Vegas.
In addition to his brother and daughter, King is survived by his wife, Peggy, whom he married in 1998; three sons; and a sister.