Desert Companion

‘You guys are the best!’

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Marty Mancuso
Photography by Bill Hughes

Working it with hustlin’ Marty Mancuso, the Rocky Balboa of the assisted-living circuit

Time for the Last Happy Hour. That’s what they call it on the assisted-living circuit. “What a crowd,” singer and saxophonist Marty Mancuso tells the two dozen clients at the Desert Springs Senior Living Center on West Flamingo Road. “It’s always a pleasure to be here.” He slides a worn CD with a bass beat into his boombox. “I’m Italian, so I’ve got this motto,” he says. “I come as a friend, but I leave as family.”

The audience is old enough to have witnessed early Sinatra, laughed at Don Rickles’ raunchy jokes, swooned over the sweet sounds of Wayne Newton or Louis Prima. Now they’re residents of an advanced care facility. These days, they move to the beat in wheelchairs, walkers, and motorized carts, eating cake and vanilla ice cream, with an occasional glass of wine. Sometimes aides whisk them away for emergency bathroom breaks. These are Mancuso’s people, and the 60-year-old singer, dancer, and inspirational speaker says he loves them. It’s not just anywhere that listeners weep at the memories his performances evoke.

“I play their songbook of life,” he says. “They’re tunes they might remember from high school, when they were on the football field and met Sharon and took her to the diner after the game. They tell me these songs bring back their greatest memories.”

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Each year, the longtime Las Vegan plays some 300-plus shows, many at area hospitals and senior centers — gigs that local musicians have played for more than half a century. He doesn’t play the same show twice. Naturally, he endures a few smirks. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, you do nursing homes.’ They dismiss you as a no-talent,” he says. “But there’s no reason to look down on this. They’re fantastic audiences.”

So what if many of the cafeterias and activity rooms in which he performs his hour-long, mid-afternoon sets often have tinny acoustics, or if the appreciative 90-year-old woman who loves a certain saxophone solo has died since his last visit. Mancuso marshals on.

“Who was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll?” he asks the Desert Springs crowd.

“Elvis!” shouts an old man up front.

“You’re so good,” Mancuso says, tightening the neck strap on his alto sax. “How did you know?”

He slips into a spirited rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel,” at the end, holding notes for impressive lengths. One woman moves her shoulders to the beat as her tablemate claps her hands. Another, who has seen Mancuso numerous times, leans toward a visitor. “I don’t know who this guy is,” she says. “But he’s good!”

Mancuso is dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, sneakers, and James Cagney cap pulled low. But for his listeners, many of whom close their eyes when he plays, he might as well be wearing a tux with tails as he moves frenetically between tables. He pauses to blow his sax softly into one woman’s ear. Then he caresses the cheek of a wheelchair-bound woman at a front table. She blushes and smiles broadly. A man in a cowboy hat, sunglasses, and Western shirt applauds.

“Every time I come here, this place is spotless,” Mancuso says. “They really clean this place up good.”

A woman shouts at a neighbor, “I keep my music up in my room!” She’s drowning out Mancuso’s shtick, but he doesn’t mind. He doesn’t miss a beat.

“That’s the way to do it,” he says, sharing the spotlight. “You got a nice voice on ya!”

He begins another Elvis hit, “Return to Sender,” as an aide dressed in a smock and white pants dances across the room. “Watch this!” Mancuso says, tipping back his head for the song’s final notes. Sweat sheens his brow as the audience breaks into applause.

Mancuso beams: “You guys are the best!”

*****

Mancuso grew from musical roots. His father, Joe, taught school and worked nights as a jazz pianist; his uncle Gus played piano and bass for Sarah Vaughn and Les Brown; and his aunt Lorraine Hunt, the former Nevada lieutenant governor, runs the Bootlegger restaurant and jazz club in town.

One of three kids, he grew up a minute from the Palace Station casino. His living room was a jazz factory where his father practiced piano and entertained his uncle and their musician friends. The soundtrack of his childhood was Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, and Steve Lawrence.

His father wanted him to attend college, but Mancuso longed for the performer’s life. At 18, he joined a lounge act called the Dance Machine, his James Brown-inspired splits and acrobatic moves leading to a hip replacement many years later. During the day, he listened to his father’s jazz albums at home.

In June 1976, he saw Rocky and went back seven times that first month. “I liked the whole story of his climb to success,” he says. “That movie was like a motivational speaker to me. It gave me inspiration that I can do whatever I want. I just had to start working on my tools.”  

That year he also fell for Charlie Parker’s crazy bebop sound and bought an alto saxophone for $150. He practiced every day, his version of Rocky Balboa guzzling a glass of raw eggs. Soon, Mancuso had worked his sax into his dance routine.

While working as a bellhop at the Hilton, he developed a one-man comedy and music variety act. He did standup. He impersonated cartoon characters such as Roger Rabbit, and even a typewriter. He played TV and movie themes, performed hat tricks and break-dance moves, all the while singing and playing his sax. When a friend of his father’s gave him a tip on a gig at Harrah’s, he brought in his alto sax and his boombox, played his heart out, and got the job. “That’s what Rocky was all about,” he says. “Give me one shot to fight the Creed. Just one shot.”

But Las Vegas was changing. By the ’90s, club bosses no longer offered impromptu auditions that allowed performers to show their stuff. Still, Mancuso persisted. He found gigs. He traveled to Southern California to perform at wineries. He began giving motivational seminars to businessmen and retirees, channeling that Rocky Balboa spirit.

In 2014, a musician friend told Mancuso about his unlikely series of new gigs at retirement homes. To Mancuso this was an opportunity. Most senior circuit performers he’d seen didn’t sing or dance; they played piano or violin or cello. And nobody played the sax like Marty.

He called the senior care facilities in Las Vegas, one by one. “I could go on for hours,” he says. “I’m a research artist. I’m a studier.” He started to get gigs, lots and lots of gigs.

*****

Working from his regular table at his neighborhood Starbucks, Mancuso hustles work by phone. Fueled by caffeine, his bible by his side (Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill), he makes 30 to 50 calls a day, following up with emails containing clips of his performances. “This is a fast-moving world,” he says. “People don’t have time to look at a website. If I meet someone, I get their email. If you tell me to send you what I’ve got, you’d better be ready.”

Call by call, email by email, he fills his calendar with gigs at hotels, restaurants, wineries, private parties, corporate, and speaking events — and 15 to 20 retirement-home gigs a month.

He’s his own marketer, promoter, producer, and arranger. “I’m not a duck; they’re only good at one thing,” he says. “I’m a peacock. I’ll color ya in red, orange, purple, and blue. Can you imagine what I could do if I had an agent?” Pursuing one job, he left 69 voice mails at Sam’s Town. He didn’t get that gig but was recently booked at Railroad Pass after 48 calls. “Success is going from one rejection or failure to another without any loss of enthusiasm,” he says. “I will call you for the rest of your life.”

Often, the hard sell doesn’t work. People tell him to get lost. But sometimes it does. “He left me a voicemail saying he was one of the best performers on the assisted-living circuit,” said Desert Springs activities director Cheryl Curry. “I liked his energy.”

Phillip Robb, director of resident engagement at the Poet’s Walk senior center in Henderson, has auditioned his share of pianists so low-key they almost fell asleep on their bench. “Marty gives it his all,” he says. “It’s like he’s performing at a Strip show or vaudeville. He’ll do anything to get a laugh or a round of applause.”

Frank Leone, a former president of the Musician’s Union of Las Vegas, said Mancuso has brought his own sense of style to the decades-old senior circuit. “There’s no disgrace to what he does,” he says. “He’s a talented player. He sells it. He’s built a reputation.”

Even at Starbucks, Mancuso can’t contain his enthusiasm. Walking out of the restroom one day he pauses, flexing his right bicep. “Sixty,” he announces. He’s proud of being in good shape for a man his age.

He breaks into a hip-hop dance, chanting his own beat. “Bam! Bam! Bam!” Then he sits down to make more cold calls. “It’s a war,” he says, gesturing to his cell phone. “And this is my weapon.”

*****

Marty Mancuso“You’re the best!” he tells a dozen residents of Poet’s Walk. “Everybody here is the best tonight!”

It is just after 3 p.m.

Tooting his saxophone, he playfully chases an aide who walks past the room. Approaching a wheelchair-bound Alzheimer’s patient who stares ahead in a trance, he begins playing “I’m in the Mood for Love” softly into her ear. She looks up and stares into his eyes; a connection.

Between songs he goes standup comedian. “I’m so ugly that when I was born, my Dad took one look at my face and my butt and yelled out, ‘Twins!’ They put me inside an incubator with tinted windows.”

A woman sips a glass of white wine, her hand shaking almost uncontrollably.

“My birth certificate is written in Roman numerals.”

A man dozes in his wheelchair.

“I just divorced my wife and — guess what? — I got to keep the cave.”

Like his audience, the jokes are old. But sometimes Mancuso makes an emotional connection, and it’s those moments that keep him coming back. At Desert Springs, 85-year-old Patricia Matthews and her dog Ruby listen from the lobby because she can’t bring her pet into the cafeteria.

She turns to a visitor. “Do you jitterbug?”

Matthews doesn’t wait for an answer. “I love to dance. My parents taught me,” she says breezily. “My husband and I used to dance. We’d go to the Strip. Then he started fooling around, so I divorced him. He’s gone now.”

Slender, cheeky, she gazes out at Mancuso and begins to dance in place.

“He’s good. I just love his pretty playing.” She smiles. “He makes you want to dance, to let it loose!”

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