Lost in Lost Vegas
Anyone who spends any time with Chicken John is compelled to accept certain laws of serendipity -- "Something will happen," "Someone will show up with a thing," "Sometimes the keys just fit," "Chaos provides," "Sham-a Lam-a" -- so I was not altogether surprised that the very mention of his upcoming event, "Lost Vegas," brought into my life a deluge of gambling, Rat Pack, and showgirl detritus. Not surprised that, after I helped remove the ace of spades from a case of 112 poker decks, I was seated on a commuter flight next to a woman dripping in ace-of-spades paraphernalia who proposed luck might be a flulike germ; not surprised that every time someone mentioned "Lost Vegas" on the road a Las Vegas bumper sticker cruised by; not surprised that a white-haired sprite at a garage sale pushed two feather boas into my hand for that "showgirl moment"; not surprised that, after noticing a billboard for a card room in San Bruno, I met a serious-faced old drunk who rattled off the attributes of nearly 50 such gambling establishments in the Bay Area; not surprised that Ron Hawking rolled into town from Chicago, with a show dedicated to Frank Sinatra; not surprised that the quote-of-the-week referred to chance as "the pseudonym of God when He did not want to sign." Not surprised at all. When the chips fall, you just have to follow that trail of vice.
On the second floor of the luxurious Kensington Park Hotel (once home to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks), Ron Hawking has transformed Theater on the Square into the Chairman of the Board's Copa Room. Palm trees, cityscapes, and night skies shimmer across the ornate concert hall. The flawless, 14-piece His Way Orchestra -- led by Sinatra's former arranger, Bill Rogers -- glides downstage on a dais, nestled behind carnation-pink His Way music stands. Hawking's caramel-toned baritone tumbles out from under a rakishly angled fedora. He sounds decadent and Rat Pack sure. The well-dressed crowd cheers as if it's the real thing. "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Ring-A Ding," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "Too Marvelous for Words," "Fly Me to the Moon." Hawking's mimicry is eerie. (You might recognize his voice from television jingles as StarKist's Charlie the Tuna, Progresso Soup's Louis Prima, Hershey's Nat King Cole, or Subaru's Ritchie Valens, but sight unseen you wouldn't guess at the talent.) With a simple prop -- glasses, handkerchief, cigar, cocktail glass -- and a tilt of the head, Hawking fills the theater with Sinatra's best pals: Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte, even George Burns and Carol Channing (?). He toasts the crowd, wishing them "health, wealth, and plenty of it," and saunters into "Under My Skin." A downy-haired gal at my right brushes a tear from her eye. There are whistles and standing ovations, and you wonder what kind of deals are being made in the back room. Afterward, the San Francisco skyline is disappointing as hell -- no tumbling neon dice, no twirling chorus girls.
I set out in search of a poker game. Sure, Artichoke Joe's is no Sands, and San Bruno isn't exactly Sin City. Still, it's only 15 minutes away and, with 54 tables and an 83-year-old reputation, it is one of the largest and oldest card rooms in the Bay Area. By 9 p.m., the sprawling brown-and-gold casino is bustling. Blackjack, California Low-ball, Hold 'Em. Heavy traffic on the Pai Gow tables. The crowd is a no-nonsense jean-and-T-shirt lot. (Sequins, fedoras, and boas seem slightly inappropriate, but not completely unappreciated.) It's early and not everyone has been swallowed by the dead-eyed wagering stare; the room might even be described as congenial. Hearing of my "Lost Vegas" plans, Harry Lou -- a 43-year-old apple-cheeked man playing Double Hand Poker -- offers some advice: Always leave the table after four losses, and never sit at a table unless you can cover at least 20 bets ($200 for a $10 table). Taking his own advice, Lou picks up and clears out, but not before reminding me that America was built by gamblers.
Outside Lost Vegas -- held in an undisclosed location -- a small group of seedy lounge lizards, dime-store gangsters, and overtly tan blondes waits in line to spin the "Wheel of Fortune" (commonly referred to as "Chicken's Fortune" since the wheel is supposedly weighted, causing folks to pay $10, but which typically, pathetically, lands on $5 or $7). Each "invited" guest receives a handful of chips for his trouble, and a warning not to behave. Somebody stumbles past saying it's sinful to piss in the alley.
Inside the casino, a roiling jumble of tinselly beauties and gold-toothed smooth-talkers crowds around the gaming tables. Cheap booze flows like water, once you've stood in line awhile. Mr. Lucky & the Cocktail Party dish up some sweating-and-betting tunes, with horn-blower Ralph Carney wearing a red plaid jacket that outdoes the fez he wore onstage with Tom Waits two nights before. Large-and-lovely go-go dancers from "Stinky's Peep Show" gyrate on the balcony above. Chicken John squeezes through the crowd in a suit covered in broken mirrors, greasing palms with drink tickets and shouting, "Don't touch me or I'll cut you!" The Rev. Hal Robins performs short-duration marriages by the power invested in him through the Church of the SubGenius, and folks rush upstairs -- past bribable security -- to consummate on the couches in the "Peep Show," where a masked marauder named Senor Bueno forces young ladies to pick cards out of his deck and, failing to levitate the correct card, rushes the bodacious Tigger Le Twang onstage. Miss Twang straddles anyone with green in his hand or a suit on his back; she deep-throats a corn dog, does a backward somersault, and rips off her top, revealing the nine of clubs. The gin-impaired are stupefied, again.