Wayne Newton: The USO Celebrity Chairman

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Photo above: Wayne Newton performing with General Tommy Franks in Iraq, June 2003. (Wikipedia)

Since 1941, the USO has been an important source of support for the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Las Vegas. The Celebrity Chairman of the USO, Wayne Newton, graciously answered questions about his longtime association with the USO.

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Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You have been heavily involved with the USO almost your entire life. Could you tell us a little about the first time you performed with the USO?

The first time I performed with the USO I was around seven years old, and it was in Washington, D.C. I lived in Roanoke, Virginia, and somewhere, somehow, somebody from the USO had seen my brother and me there and invited us to perform at the USO celebration, which I believed was a birthday party. It turned out to be a birthday party for Mrs. Truman. President Truman came, so I had a chance to meet President Truman for the first time. That was my first remembrance of being involved with the USO.

Which performance with the USO was the most memorable and why?

There were actually two that were the most memorable for me and, in fact they all have been, but two have been very special. In Vietnam, I went over there at the age of 16, and we were performing at all the bases. In those years, of course, it was an entirely male military. The only females were nurses that worked in the hospitals and would fly in the helicopters to pick up wounded warriors on the ground. I initiated a program, which I have followed through on from that day until this, and that is that I would phone loved ones of the soldiers that I met. I would phone their mother, father, wife, brother, children or whomever they wished me to call when I got home to tell them we had met and they’re doing fine and they send their love and all of that kind of thing.

In the first trip to Vietnam, I met this young lady who was a nurse, and she had given me her mother’s number to call when I got home. From the time I left Vietnam, got back in the United States and got to a place where we could start placing these calls – because from the first trip I think we had about 7,000 calls to make – I would simply reach out to the family members of the soldiers and say that I had been to Vietnam as a performer. “My name is Wayne Newton. I’ve been to Vietnam, and I met your loved one over there and would call them by name. They just send a message to let you know that they were doing fine and they send their love and all that kind of thing.”

It was just a way for them to stay in touch with their loved ones at home. So I get this wonderful lady on the phone and I say, “Hi, this is Wayne Newton. I was just in Vietnam, and ran into your daughter over there. She wanted me to tell you how much she loved you and that she’s doing fine and very happy and hopes that you are doing the same. And the woman said, “Mr. Newton, I have been waiting for your call because she wrote and told me that you were going to.”

Wayne Newton performing for the USO in Roanoke, VA in 2005 (Wikipedia)
Wayne Newton performing for the USO in Roanoke, VA in 2005 (Wikipedia)

And she said, “you do know that she was killed last week in a helicopter crash.” Of course, my heart went to my feet and I said, “I am so sorry to have bothered you at this time and great loss in your life.” And she said, “No. No. No, you can’t think that.” She said, “I have been waiting for this call because you were the last one to see her alive. For me to know that she was happy and doing what she was doing gives me a whole sense of calm.”

And she said, “I can’t thank you enough for calling.” So, what could have been a drastic situation turned out to be a very memorable one for me in that the lady took the message and the phone call in that manner.

The second one was not that long ago. We were in Iraq, and there was a little breakdown of communication between the USO and myself. They asked that I only take two [performers].

It was supposed to be just a meet and greet, and they asked that I take along just one performer, two Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and one comedian maybe, and so it was just going to be to take pictures and shake hands.

We flew in Chinook helicopters to the site at Balad, Iraq. The wind was blowing about 30 miles an hour. It was 148 degrees on the ground. We get off the Chinook, and there’s a Humvee waiting for us to take us to the site. As we round the corner, there are about 7,000 troops in full battle uniform, which weigh about 100 pounds each, and they had been waiting four hours for a show.

Now, we were told that we were not to do a show there. We were going to take pictures and sign autographs, but I realized quickly that they had been waiting a long time, and it was so hot that they had put up two firetrucks that were shooting water bursts into the air to just cool down the troops that were there. So I called the performers – the  few performers that I had with me.

We went into a tent and I said, “They have been waiting four hours for a show, and we’re going to give them a show.” We had no musicians, no instruments, nothing like that and, in other words, were totally unprepared to do a show. It dawned on me that somebody in that audience must have a guitar, for example, so we put the word out and, sure enough, one of the soldiers had a guitar and he sent it back. We used a boombox as a means by which to have a microphone and sound system. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders did a little dance to a CD that they had, and then we put the comic on.

Neal McCoy was with us so I played backup guitar for him, and he sang behind some of the stuff that I did. It occurred to me about halfway through the show that the young man who had the guitar must sing also, so I said to the audience of about 7,000, “Is the young man among us who had the guitar? Is he out there somewhere?” Of course he raised his hand. I said “Come on up,” and he came up on this makeshift stage that was covered with camouflage so we couldn’t be shot at from the air. I said, “Do you sing?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Okay, I want you to sing your favorite song.” So, I gave him his guitar back and he sang his song, and I looked over at my sister-in-law who was on the trip with us. I said, “Make sure you film this,” and so she did.

As it turned out, about two weeks later, the young man was also killed in action. When we found that out, we had the film that we had done. She sent that film to his mother. I can’t tell you what that meant to her and to us. So, those would be my two most special memories of some of the tours that we’ve done, and we’ve been in every major confrontation for the USO. Since Vietnam, we have truly been all over the world.

You are known as a patriot, and your support of the USO over the years has won you a special place in the troops’ hearts. You performed for about 25,000 troops aboard ships stationed near Beirut in 1983 and were the first USO performer in Afghanistan. Looking out at the sea of faces, what emotions did you have?

Well, I have to tell you that anytime you walk on stage to military people who have been out there, no matter where it is, and some of the hellholes that we send them to as a country, to see their faces and to see where a song takes them, to see the fact that it isn’t really even what you do on stage, it’s the fact that you cared enough to come. That means so much to them, and it takes them home for that hour or two that you and the other performers are out there, and their faces are ones of elation.

I can’t tell you how many troops have walked up to me after a show somewhere and said, “I can’t thank you and the rest of the performers enough because you give us the energy to go on and do what we have to do.” I think it is one of the greatest compliments I have ever been paid as a performer.

Since 2001, you have served as the chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle and are instrumental in getting other celebrities to perform. Is this easy to do, or has it been difficult to recruit entertainers?

I must tell you that I have never been more proud of the entertainment community in my life as I have been in the position of being the chairman of the Celebrity Circle. I am proud to tell you that of everybody I have approached in the last 20 years, I have only been turned down two times.

One time it was from a male performer who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons. When I called to ask him, it was a great surprise to me. He said, “No, I am not interested in doing anything like that,” and he practically hung up on me. So, I realized that was not one I could depend on going. (laughs) The other was a lady performer, and she looked at me and she said when I asked her, “Well, I just want you to know that I don’t believe in war.” And I said to her, “Nobody believes in war.” I said, “You have to look at this like you would a fire. You can hate the fire, but you can’t hate the firemen.”

Those are the only two times that I have ever been turned down by a performer. That says and speaks volumes about what our country means to the performers out there.

Las Vegas, with the help of yourself and the larger community, has provided the USO lounge at McCarran for troops passing through. How did that come about?

The lounge came about at my insistence and with great help from Senator Harry Reid and, of course, the rest of our Las Vegas community.

One of my main objectives was to get a USO canteen in our airport in Las Vegas. It really started when I would be walking through the airport and would see members of the military that were on their way to different bases. Maybe a plane had been cancelled or the weather was bad or for whatever reason they couldn’t make it on the flights that they had intended to fly.

They would curl up on the floor of the airport on their duffel bags, and that’s where they would sleep. So, I started by calling the hotels in town. Without question, every single hotel, and I’m not talking one or two instances – I’m talking more like between 75 and 100 instances before we were able to get the USO canteen built, I would call the hotel and ask for the general manager.

I would tell them who I was and say, “Look, I was walking through [the airport], and there are one or two military members who have missed their plane … and they are asleep on the floor. Without exception, the hotel manager said, “Send them over to the hotel. They will be checked in, and everything will be gratis, including the room” and so Las Vegas loves our military. They love every aspect of it and have been supportive from the day I came here at the age of 15.

Interview is condensed and edited.