A tribute to Blackie stood at Palm Mortuary on Jan. 2.
By Gregory Crosby
And the show goes on.
Another Friday night at the Bootlegger Bistro at
a quarter to 10, everything seems to be in place. The bar is full. Tables
are filled with the typical crowd -- a mix of young and old, locals and
intrepid visitors, elderly families and younger hipsters, with a
smattering of folks who might show up at an extras audition for "The
Sopranos." There are the only-in-Vegas sightings: an Omar Sharif
look-alike in a full-length chinchilla coat, a hulking punk who resembles
Travis Bickle with a diabolical goatee, bleach-blonde lounge performer
Jimmy Hopper holding court at a back table.
Up front, just beyond the comfy half-moon booths
and tables, the band is laying out. Pianist Tommy Deering, dapper in his
purple tuxedo shirt, is playing something low-key but jazzy while the
bassist and drummer swing behind. A screen with images of the Chairman of
the Board behind the baby grand watches over the scene, as if to say:
"This is old school, Clyde." This is the last remnant of the style of
entertainment that once dominated the Strip, the last perhaps of Lounge
itself, a little show called "Off the Cuff" that for almost three years
has revived that spirit of informal song and comedy.
At least, it used to be called "Off the Cuff."
The promotional photo of the stars, Sonny King and Charles "Blackie" Hunt,
that once dotted the tables of the Bootlegger are gone. But nothing else
seems amiss. Deering leans into his microphone and introduces King, who a
few moments ago was an old man in a tuxedo, wearing glasses and looking
tired, and shuffling near the bar. Now he's transformed -- sort of, he
still shuffles -- his scowl replaced by a broad, bright smile tempered
with a glint of world-weary defiance, as if to say to the audience: "Oh,
you people again?" A tiny cross dangles, silver and black, on his shirt
front just below his black tie, as he grabs the microphone -- which
Sonny utters a sailor's curse, tosses the
microphone at Tommy and grabs another before launching into (what else?)
"There's No Business Like Show Business." King, who spent 28 years as
Jimmy Durante's opening act (a fact he reminds his audience of several
times over the evening), has to be in his 70s, and truth be told, can't
really sing anymore -- the timing is there, but the pipes have rusted out.
But that's beside the point here at the Bootlegger, and Sonny doesn't
pretend otherwise. After finishing to rousing applause, he scowls and
says: "That's as good as I'm getting all night."
Everyone laughs. Another evening of classic
lounge at the Bootlegger. Except there's something missing, and it's not
merely the presence of Bootlegger owner and former lounge performer
Lorraine Hunt, "our singing lieutenant governor," who most nights would be
on hand. What's missing is Sonny's foil, Charles "Blackie" Hunt, who
passed away four days before in his 70s. Blackie Hunt, comedian and
musician, who helped put lounge entertainment on the map with his group
the Characters (who had a 14-year run at the Sahara); who married a young
singer named Lorraine Perry and later retired from performing to run a
popular Italian joint at Tropicana and Eastern; who helped create "Off the
Cuff" when the Bootlegger was relocated and expanded; who with his timing
and his sense of pure shtick was the perfect counterpoint to King's songs
and anecdotes. He is gone.
This is sad enough, but it gets sadder, because
Blackie Hunt hadn't performed at the Bootlegger since October. In July,
Lorraine Hunt filed for divorce from her husband of 35 years, and though
Blackie kept performing, whatever rift had developed between husband and
wife had expanded to a chasm. A restraining order prevented Blackie from
going anywhere near the Bootlegger.
That rift consumed Sonny and Blackie as well.
Rumor had it that not only had Sonny sided professionally with Lorraine
against her estranged husband, but the friendship had been a casualty as
"Within six months Blackie lost his wife, his
restaurant and his act," a Bootlegger regular said. "No wonder he gave up
Speculations abound on the reasons for the rifts,
personal and professional. Chances are no one will ever know, and that's
perhaps as it should be. The private lives of the Hunts remain private.
But the question this night was this: Would Sonny acknowledge his recent
partner's passing? Would the hatchet be buried, if for one night, and a
After all, it was the chemistry between Sonny and
Blackie, along with a dash of Lorraine, that made "Off the Cuff" so
appealing. They were the reason so many lounge performers, from the most
exalted to the young and obscure, made the trek out to the south Strip.
Week after week, the cream of lounge talent would be prevailed upon to get
up and do a song or two, along with -- and this was a big part of the
show's anything-goes charm -- various amateurs, usually someone's aunt who
once did summer stock or a kid who had misplaced dreams of being Harry
Sitting there as Sonny launched into another
song, so many memories of nights at the Bootlegger arose in my mind,
nights when we dragged friends and visitors out to catch this echo of the
old Las Vegas: the night the legendary Dick Contino got up and played a
45-minute accordion medley. The night the Dean Martin impersonator from
"The Rat Pack Is Back" got up and did a spot on Sinatra instead. The way
Blackie would do anything for a laugh, walking out in the middle of
Sonny's monologues wearing lederhosen, or a sombrero, or simply a
hilarious, pop-eyed expression. The fact that Lorraine and Blackie did a
touching version of "Moon River" every show, and once even did it again
after we asked them for an encore for a friend who arrived late.
Suddenly, as more applause swirled around Sonny,
the Travis Bickle look-alike yelled out, for no apparent reason,
"Blackie!" The room got a little quiet. Sonny looked in that direction,
feigning that he hadn't heard what had been said. Maybe he didn't. Sonny's
hearing is actually not so hot anymore. Before the gentleman with the
mohawk could yell it again, Sonny took one look at him and whapped him
with a shtick: Patting his mouth, Sonny let go with some Indian whoops.
The tension diffused, Sonny launched into "I'm
Confessin' That I Love You." The show continued, interrupted only by Sonny
beginning each new song with: "Let me tell you about a friend of mine." We
hung on the edge. Would this be the moment, the tribute? No. Kind words
for Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante.
Blackie (left) and Sonny
At one point, Sonny even talked about how "Off
the Cuff" got started, when "Lorraine asked me to do it." Blackie's
contribution, it seemed, had been airbrushed out.
"Ladies and gentleman, I'm having a wonderful
time," joked Sonny. "I wish I was here." The show goes on, and the crowd
that night was having a good time. But for anyone who enjoyed the
marvelous spectacle of two veteran performers, men who otherwise would be
sitting around a retirement home, recall and revive the classic Vegas
lounge show -- well, it's just not the same.
Poor Blackie. As F. Scott Fitzgerald observed,
"There are no second acts in American lives." Except in Las Vegas, where
second and third acts run as long as entertainment directors have
showrooms and lounges to fill. But the most unlikely second act of all was
the Vegas lounge show itself, and for that unexpected encore, enacted
every Friday and Saturday night at the Bootlegger these past two and a
half years, we have Lorraine Hunt and Sonny King to thank