It’s 1 a.m. and I just arrived home after an incredible evening with a true showbiz legend, Engelbert Humperdinck. I am still reeling with joy as he truly killed it, with an unbelievable show and warmth to match.
On many nights at The Arcada, we are rockin’ hard with those blazing guitars and bangin’ snares, but we also have nights like tonight, when living legends grace our stage and bring us all back to a calmer, sweeter time in our lives. A time when music was more about families joining together in front of a television, sharing the music and comedy of the day after a pot roast dinner on a Sunday afternoon.
As a child of the early ’70s, my musical heart lies within the classic rock of that decade. I am a rock ‘n’ roller deep down, but I was also brought up in a time when Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and Dick Clark were the talent “showcasers” of the day, and when variety shows hosted by Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, Dean Martin and many others were the hottest thing on our TV (in Technicolor!).
Speaking of “hottest” things on TV, what about the great Tom Jones and his show? Every single female in my extended family, from cousins to aunts, joined together to watch this “Prince of Wales” grind his way into the hearts of millions of women around the world. And the music was fabulous, too, prompting loud singalongs in the front rooms of homes everywhere.
These were classier times on TV, when the showmen of the day wore tuxedos on a regular basis. Rarely did you see Frank Sinatra, Martin, Jones, Humperdinck, Sammy Davis, Tony Bennett and the like without sporting a hand-tied bow tie and vest or cummerbund. Even Elvis wore a tux as he did duet medleys on TV with Frank.
I’m not saying I don’t like the styles of various generations as they have evolved over the years on television, but those were just plain classier days.
And I am here to tell you, that when it comes to class, rarely will you find a finer example of entertainment elegance than you will with Engelbert Humperdinck. I have had the true honor of working with him on a few occasions and each time, it is a spectacular experience.
As his musicians and vocalists usually travel in a caravan of two buses, he flies into the city of his next performance. He likes fine cars, often speaking of his classic automobiles, mainly Jaguars and Rolls-Royces. So I always pick him up from the airport and hotel in something sleek and sporty, but something spacey to accommodate his long-limbed and fit physique.
We celebrated his 80th birthday on this trip! It is hard to believe a guy who looks like him, sounds like him and moves like him, is 80! But man, he owns it, and delivers a show as good as it ever was in the grandest of Las Vegas showrooms and big-city theaters.
I pull up at the Pheasant Run Resort, where we set him up in the Presidential Suite, and prepare to welcome him back to our fair town of St. Charles. I was greeted by a huge smile, emitting his usual warmth. “Hello, my good man,” he says. “It is wonderful to see you again.” Really, who still talks like this anymore? AND especially with that soft-spoken English accent?
He got into my car and even though he was dressed down, he still had that larger-than-life presence, still sporting pork-shop sideburns, a full head of wavy hair and gold rings on half his fingers. As I looked over at him, I could not help but think about the miles he has traveled, the historic figures he has met and the countless accolades he has received after selling more than 130 million albums worldwide. A true living legend in my own car!
On the short trip to the theater, we talked about his busy schedule and his performing more than 90 shows a year. “I truly enjoy it, and I am enjoying traveling abroad more now than I ever have. I leave for Cairo in a couple of days, and I can’t wait to go! I’m to be greeted by the ‘big guy’ out there. I am pretty excited, but I go to Omaha (Nebraska) tomorrow, first,” he said.
Almost immediately he reached over to shake my hand as he re-thanked me for a painting I gave to him the last time he played The Arcada. He was sitting in our dressing rooms where at that time I had a painting of the late Woodstock-era guitar superstar Jimi Hendrix. I was walking by the room and noticed him just staring at the psychedelic representation of Hendrix. “Did you know him?” I asked.
“Oh, very well,” he said. “He was a giant of a man, a true gentleman. Everything that people say about him being a musical genius is true. The way he played those guitars, he actually played the thing upside down! He had the guitars restrung backward and played the guitar upside down to accommodate his left-handed style. He was a genius!”
Humperdinck also told me about the time Hendrix was on the bill with him, Cat Stevens and others during “Hump’s” first tour of the UK. “My guitar player got sick and could not perform. Jimi offered to step in, but he had just come out with ‘Purple Haze’ and his stardom would have disrupted our show, I felt. So he played behind a curtain! It sounded like three guitars were playing! It was incredible, and nobody knew about it.”
In a turn of activity that doesn’t usually happen, I autographed the back of the painting (With love from The Arcada Theatre) and presented HIM with a souvenir of the night! It is usually the other way around. He graciously accepted our gift, and now says it is proudly framed and mounted in his home office. A piece of The Arcada is in HIS home!
His show was a combination all-hits concert and career retrospective, including rare video footage of he and Dean Martin doing medleys, a duet with Elton John’s voice piped in, a country number with him in a cowboy hat and a couple of choreographed routines with his backup vocalists. He even shared some funny stories of Martin referring to him as “Engledinck Bumpalump!” And his voice? Powerful as ever, with an incredible range. What a night!
He announced he has not touched alcohol in 21 years, which I found strange because each time we worked together, we shared expensive cabernets after the shows. But then he proudly announced he lied about the alcohol thing — while toasting the audience with glass of Bordeaux. He really kept the crowd smiling and in sincere laughs for the entire two hours.
After the show, he took his final bows in a bright red, knee-length robe with his name embroidered on front. He proceeded to jump around the stage, throwing boxing jabs and karate chops. Remember, 80 YEARS OLD! He then made his way back to my car outside the backstage door, stopping for a few adoring fans along the way. He gave us his all, and the crowd returned the favor with all of its devotion.
It is interesting that a guy with so many syllables in his name would be so classy of an individual. Although, the “Bumpalump” name is really growing on me!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and com