It seems to me that the key to performing 27,000 shows is to make each show seem like it's not one out of 27,000. In order to pull that off, night after night, I figure Wayne must have learned a thing or two about human nature; he has to know what we, as audience members, want to hear, whether we know it or not. In short, I attended 11 Wayne Newton shows not only to see what I could learn about Wayne Newton but also to see what I could learn about us, the ones who sit in the audience and clap like mad to make sure he keeps singing.
Some of the women in the audience want to be kissed on the lips. Some of them want to be kissed on the cheek. And some of the women do not want to be kissed at all. The determination must be made in an instant, and it is among Newton's gifts as a performer that -- at least from the faces of the women -- he almost never guesses wrong as he walks on a platform that circles the room, kissing the women at each table and shaking the men's hands. This is the Walk of Approximately 45 Kisses; it occurs less than 10 minutes into the show, during Wayne's second number, ''Suspicious Minds,'' and it's cleverly placed, because it's such a winning moment that it overcomes any apprehensions caused by what immediately precedes it, the Incomprehensible Opener.
The Incomprehensible Opener is actually incomprehensible on two levels: First, it is incomprehensible in the narrative sense. The opener consists of Wayne appearing on stage in a helmeted space suit, illuminated by laser beams, and slowly walking to the top of the bandstand. Then the lights go out, and -- in the blink of an eye -- he sheds the space suit and appears to the crowd in a tuxedo beneath a shower of sparks. It's a nifty entrance, but I'm not sure what, if anything, it signifies. I eventually decide it's meant to suggest that he has arrived from Planet Entertainment, and his skills are not of this earth. In his dressing room one night after a show, swigging a Coors Light, Newton explains the genesis of the opener: ''I started it because of our space program, and I was very close friends with most of the astronauts -- the original group, Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin, Walt Cunningham, and all those guys.... I wrote [the opener] for a horse sale. And I actually brought in William Shatner and I had horses coming out of the spaceship and laser beams.... And it was such a smash hit I was saying, How can we incorporate this into the show? And I thought, instead of horses, it'll be me coming out of it.'' This explanation is admirably thorough, and I nod when he says it, only later realizing that I'm not sure why he or the horses come from space, or why William Shatner was necessary.
But more importantly, the opener is incomprehensible because -- there is no kind way to say this -- Wayne's voice is shot. It's raspy and ragged and frayed, and while he can hold a note on a slow song, on an up-tempo one, whole phrases can get blurry, or even lost entirely in a gravelly haze. The opening number is up-tempo, and while he performs it with great verve and energy, the first time I heard him sing it, it sounded like a fuzzy mix of vowels and plosives; he was halfway through the number before I realized that it wasn't in a foreign language. It's a jarring moment -- the singer you've paid to hear isn't in good enough voice to sing -- and more than once, when I've told the people seated next to me about my project, they lean over to me and whisper, in a concerned tone, ''Is his voice always like this?''