Vegas performers recall their high school years
Back to pencils. Back to books. And for some? Back to teachers' dirty looks.
So it goes as Las Vegas Magazine—gripped by grad fever and visions of those frumpy black frocks that hang off your shoulders like dignified potato sacks, and pointy cardboard thingamabobs that wobble on your head like teeter totters—asked Vegas entertainers to journey back through time to rummage through their high school memories.
That's the homeroom bell clanging in your ears. And as every teacher has said in every classroom: Whatever you're whispering about back there, perhaps you'd like to share it with the class?
“They kicked me out,” says raw-edged Harrah’s comic Ralphie May. We are shocked! SHOCKED! … Not.
In math they would say, ‘What is this-times-square?’’ recalls Westgate insult- funnyman Vinnie Favorito. “Id say, ‘I dunno—a Pop Tart?’” Wanna bet he wasn’t teacher’s pet?
“I was named ‘Biggest Flirt’—at least I was friendly,” says Bally’s sexy Reverie performer Maren Wade. Oooh. “But nothing more than that, let’s clarify that.” Awww.
“I was a really good kid,” says Mirage ventriloquist Terry Fator. “I never got involved in drugs or alcohol and there was no chance of getting a girl pregnant because none would go out with me.” Hey Terry, have you met Maren?
“I sang a song at assembly, ‘Blackberry Boogie,’ that in retrospect I probably shouldn’t have,” says Bally’s headliner—and “Mr. Las Vegas”—Wayne Newton. “It was probably too mature for that audience. The teachers took great umbrage to it.” Surely the students said danke schoen, Wayne.
Did we mention the dating ingenuity of the Rio’s master illusionist/iconoclast Penn Jillette? “The idea I got was you should try to have sex with smart girls. It is the only advice I will give my son.” Kindly elaborate, you devilish Casanova.
“The smart girls with the glasses and mousy demeanor that were in the advance reading and writing classes were carrying around Henry Miller books. (Tropic of Cancer—hubba, hubba.) If I asked the cheerleaders out on a date I would get nowhere. You could just go to the smart girls and say, ‘Wanna (let’s call it intimately study biology)? And they’d say yes.”
Just a few fast flashbacks plucked from memories of those good ’ol/bad ’ol days of the math you’d never use, the prophylactics you hoped to use and the pimple cream you always used.
What were YOU like in high school? Not the person you are today? Neither were they. Mostly.
“I was pretty hippie-dippy,” says Harrah’s magician Mac King.
“I was the quiet, insecure shy girl,” says Lorena Peril, who blossomed into the sassy-brassy host of Luxor’s Fantasy.
Fans of the hunka-hunka Chippendales, take note: “If there had been a caption on my yearbook photo, it would have been: ‘Least Likely to Be a Chippendales dancer,’” says—yes, Rio’s Chippendales The Show dancer—James Davis. “I was a true ’90s kid. I had the hair, the piercings, nail polish, I wore black lipstick. A real metalhead. But I was also on the wrestling team. I was a weird mix.”
Drag-queen king Frank Marino of the Linq’s Divas Las Vegas? Flamboyant now. Flamboyant then. “I thought I was cool. I’m not sure if everybody else did,” he says. “I was a crazy dresser—very disco and over the top.”
High-achiever? That was the Westgate’s Sexxy star Jennifer Romas. “I was heavily into sports—one of the female jocks. I still hold records for diving,” she says. “And I was an honor roll student. And I was in the homecoming court.” And yes—she dated the football and basketball players.
Do you recall that kid spinning on the hallway floor during that ’90s craze? Meet J.D. Rainey of Hard Rock Hotel’s Magic Mike Live. “I started breakdancing in ninth grade, during lunch, in between classes, wherever and whenever I could,” Rainey says. Then there’s the kid whose future was preordained. “Most people would call me the Magic Kid, which I didn’t mind,” says Linq prestidigitator Mat Franco. “I’d be the kid being yelled at for playing with my deck of cards instead of looking at the blackboard. But I would use magic to impress the teachers so they would like me so I’d get better grades.”
Whatever happened to the cool kids? Some simply grew up into cool grown-ups. “I was exactly how I am today,” says Nathan Morris of the Mirage’s Boyz II Men. “I’ve been pretty straightforward and laidback all my life. What you see now is what high-school Nathan was like.”
High-school dating—do the memories make you sigh with satisfaction, shrug with indifference or cringe with humiliation? Or all three?
“They used to call me ‘Meatball.’ I was always with the pretty girls but not (fill in the appropriate naughty verb) them,” Favorito says. Similarly, you could have called Peril “Spaghetti.” But we won’t. “I was really thin and tiny and they called me Olive Oyl. Sometimes I’d wear a couple of layers of clothing just to look bigger,” Peril says. “I didn’t have my first date until after I graduated. I went to prom with my best friend’s brother. He was very sweet to take me.” Occupying the opposite end of the dating spectrum? “I always dated boys older than me, I never dated anyone in my class,” says Romas with a self-effacing giggle—embodying the unattainable high school hottie, at whom many of us could only gaze in hormonal frustration.
As Fator can attest, teen dating is tough when image is everything. “We were janitors and that doesn’t help when you’re in high school,” he says of the janitorial service owned by his parents, who put Fator and his siblings to work, including at his school, to pay tuition. “I remember kids throwing things on the floor just to watch us get it.” Others took advantage of their talents, such as Franco, who enlisted girls as his magic assistants. Then there’s Ralphie May, whose pursuit of adolescent carnal pleasures resulted in a story we can’t print. And earned him a nickname we can’t repeat. (When you see him, just utter the word “grape.” Seriously. Maybe—just maybe—he’ll share the R-rated tale.)
Would you believe one of the future Boyz wasn’t a ladies’ man? “I wanted to be but I was not given that type of attention unfortunately. I wasn’t on their radar,” Morris says. “But Boyz II Men came about during early senior year and that definitely turned that whole thing around.” Ditto—at least the dating drought part--for Davis, a hair-dyed dork with so many piercings that he resembled a fishing lure. “I asked this one girl I had a crush on to the prom but she crushed me when she told me she was going with a guy from the basketball team,” Davis says. “I had a friend that took me out of mercy. Oh, those high school heartbreaks.”
Prom left a sweeter legacy for Wade, who went with her future husband, a Marilyn Manson worshipper. “He had long hair and piercings everywhere—in his ears and tongue and eyebrows—and my parents were real scared,” says Wade, who wasn’t thinking marriage at the time but reconnected with her piercings-pocked beau, post-high school. “Thank God he grew out of his goth days. He looks like a nice clean gentleman these days.” Does any of his body décor remain? “Some are still there,” she admits.
Perhaps the oddest dating legacy belongs to King, whose teen and adult recollections comingle, given that his school was built out of an old hotel—and after his school days, was partially reconverted back into a resort. “My wife and I spent the first night of our honeymoon at that hotel,” King says. Interesting memory combo, no?
Were you the bully or the bullied? We have one of each. “I got beat up all the time,” Jillette recalls. “Strangely enough, I would be with my girlfriend and get beat up by four guys together calling me (that F-word slur). And I would try to explain to them that there was some breakdown to their logic of—wait a minute, you’re the ones who are with groups of guys and I’m the one with a girl. But that seemed to elude them.”
On the other side of the divide was May, who had harassed a gentle classmate and fellow churchgoer. “Monday through Friday I’d make that kid’s life a living hell, then I was nice to him on Sundays, the Lord’s day—I was a hypocrite,” says May, whose attitude reversed after he was hit by a drunk driver, landing him in the hospital with multiple broken bones. “He made his mom drive 28 miles there and 28 miles back to make sure I kept up with my homework,” says May, who turned into the boy’s protector. “When I went back to school there was a reckoning for everybody—that kid never got bullied again.”
Teen-time memories we carry can vary … widely. High school was a happy experience for King. “Me and a buddy started the school newspaper, we made short little films and made up this weird little theater and invited people to see them,” King says. “And I would stand up in the lunchroom and do magic tricks like it was a street show.”
Describing himself as a “nomad,” Rainey moved easily between those cliques kids tend to split into, which he looks back on with gratitude. “That was the best thing, especially now being out in the world,” Rainey says. “You have to deal with many different cultures and ethnicities and preferences so you have tolerance and empathy. I would hang out with whomever I pleased because they were good people with good energy.”
Yet Fator—whose family moved frequently, sending him to different schools—never got to know new friends for long, but clung to school as a safe harbor from the ultra-religious father who beat him. “I was a theater geek and that was my saving grace, that’s where I could get away,” says Fator, who performed in plays including The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. “My father beat us in the name of God and I think God made him allow me to do theater. Maybe he thought it would help me become a preacher. But my goal was to be an entertainer.”
Perhaps, though, you were the Favorito type, who ditched class to play blackjack and pitch coins in the park—then had the gall to complain to the principal when one of the kids wouldn’t pay up. “He said, ‘You’re out of your mind,’” Favorito says. “I was just that kind of kid.”
Though you wouldn’t suspect it, easygoing Franco and pals would also violate school policy by skipping out occasionally—once even waving to the principal on his way out. Later, while his parents were at work, the phone rang at his house, the irked school honcho on the line. “I answered the phone in my normal voice, and he said, ‘Hi, is this Mr. Franco?’ and technically I wasn’t lying, so I said, ‘Yes,’” he remembers, as the principal reported Mat’s infraction. “I said, ‘Thank you so much for the information’ and that was the end of it.”
Previewing his future out-there persona, Marino recalls portraying Philostrate, the palace party planner in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I got into trouble for my body language when I entered,” he says. “The director starts screaming at me, ‘Frank, you’re the servant—you don’t own the damn palace!’”
Dividing his time between classes, training in junior ROTC and performing in a weekly local TV show in Phoenix, busy Newton found that his budding celebrity tended to annoy his teachers, though that wasn’t necessarily a negative. “My music teacher in the eighth grade said to the class, ‘Boys and girls, we have a young man in our class I’m sure you’ve seen on local television and I want you to know we’re not showing him any favoritism at all,’” Newton recalls. “That took a lot of forethought. She approached it from the standpoint that I wouldn’t be a sitting duck for the other kids.”
As it turned out, the popular Newton was a star not only on television, but on school grounds—scoring a hat trick of being elected sophomore, junior and student body president, as well as excelling academically. “Part of the reason is because I was able to memorize quickly and react on it,” he says.
Yet if rules and regs were anathema to your rebel ’tude, then Jillette was your spiritual brother. One of the deepest thinkers and sharpest intellects in show business, Jillette nonetheless didn’t apply himself in class. Still, he aced the SAT tests, putting him at odds with the principal.
“I told him if I didn’t graduate--which would make my parents very, very, very unhappy—that I would go in front of the school board and tell them that they didn’t do well by their student who had done the best on the SATs,” Jillette says. “And he said, ‘Are you threatening me?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What I’d like to do is to graduate at the bottom of my class.’ So I did not go to the school pretty much my entire senior year and graduated at the bottom of my class.”
Not rebellious enough? Then consider that the then-shaggy-haired, eager-to-argue student—a lifelong teetotaler and drug-abstainer—was nonetheless suspected of being a druggie. When school officials tried to search his locker, he attached an industrial-strength lock on it and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union. When they finally got into the locker?
“They found I’d never even opened it,” he says. “It was empty, brand new from the beginning.”
As exasperated teachers tried to persuade him that he’d one day reflect back on high school as “the best time of your life,” Jillette, naturally, had a response, even years later. “For a while afterwards,” he says, “I was sending postcards to three or four of the teachers, saying, ‘Just to keep you posted, things are better than they were in high school.’”
He didn’t worry about the pencils. He didn’t sweat the books. But man, oh, man—he earned those teachers’ dirty looks.
High School Roll Call
Vinnie Favorito, Boston Technical High School, Class of ’78
Nathan Morris, Philadelphia High School for the Creative Performing Arts, Class of ’89
James Davis, Erskine Academy, South China, Maine; then Valley High School of Las Vegas, Class of ’03
Mac King, J. Graham Brown School, Louisville, Kentucky, Class of ’77
Terry Fator, five high schools (due to family relocations), then Corsicana Christian Academy, Corsicana, Texas, Class of ’83
J.D. Rainey, Federal Way High School, Federal Way, Washington, Class of ’99
Maren Wade, The Buckley School, Sherman Oaks, California, graduated
Frank Marino, Oceanside High School, Oceanside, N.Y., Class of ’81
Mat Franco, Johnston Senior High School, Johnston, Rhode Island, Class of ’06
Ralphie May, Clarksville High School, Clarksville, Arkansas, education incomplete, later received GED (General Education Diploma)
Lorena Peril, Oceana High School, Pacifica, California, Class of ’93
Jennifer Romas, Mankato High School, Mankato, Minnesota, Class of ’94
Wayne Newton, North High School, Phoenix, Arizona, left in junior year, late 1950s
Penn Jillette, Greenfield High School, Greenfield, Mass., Class of ’73