The Vegas-style show “That’s Italian,” at the Northern Quest Casino on Saturday, is all about nostalgia – nostalgia for the Rat Pack days of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
For Spokane, the show has an even deeper level of nostalgia – for the days when a young, unknown comedian named Pete Barbutti knocked ’em dead at the Stockyards Inn and the Plantation.
Barbutti arrived in Spokane in 1962 to launch a solo comedy act, which would soon take him to “The Steve Allen Show” and more than a dozen appearances on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and eventually to a long and lucrative career playing Leno, Letterman and Las Vegas.
“And it’s all because of those early days in Spokane,” said Barbutti, by phone from his Las Vegas home.
Barbutti is one of three attractions in “That’s Italian.” The headliner is Frankie Randall, a singer and longtime friend of Frank Sinatra from the days when Sinatra was hanging out at Jilly’s Saloon in New York. Randall will sing many of the songs associated with Sinatra, backed by a 15-piece band playing the classic Sinatra arrangements by Nelson Riddle and others.
The other star of the show is Deana Martin, Dean’s daughter, who sings a number of her father’s songs and even does a duet with him (actually, with his image on a video screen).
“It’s like a throwback to the Rat Pack,” said Randall. “It’s a bunch of people on stage, all having a lot of fun.”
And it’s a safe bet that at least a few people in the Northern Quest audience will remember the fun that Barbutti brought to Spokane in 1962, 1963 and on into the 1970s.
Barbutti, an accomplished jazz pianist, bassist and trumpeter from Pennsylvania, had already established a lucrative Las Vegas career with a comic-musical act called the Millionaires. Yet in 1962, the Millionaires broke up and Barbutti had to fend for himself. He had to come up with a solo comedy act.
“I had no choice,” he said. “It was absolute desperation.”
An agent suggested that Barbutti hone his new act “somewhere far away, where nobody knows you.” So an agent booked Barbutti for two weeks at the Stockyards Inn in Spokane, a town Barbutti knew nothing about.
This goateed Vegas jazz man arrived at the Stockyards Inn and noticed that the marquee said “Direct from Las Vegas!” – and Las Vegas was spelled wrong.
“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” said Barbutti.
Alone for the first time on stage, he had to fill four 45-minute sets a night. His act included jokes, banter and musical gags, in the vein of Victor Borge. For instance, he would start to play “Falling Leaves” and then stop in the middle, looking for a chord, and cry in despair, “Who washed the piano keys? I know I had that marked.”
He also played “Holiday for Strings” – with his nose.
He soon began to attract big crowds. The Spokesman-Review’s Ed Costello wrote a rave review of Barbutti’s show.
“Barbutti will come as a bit of a shock to Spokane, where the night spot entertainment tends to a trifle traditional, if not plain stuffy,” wrote Costello.
Barbutti moved to the Plantation and the crowds moved with him. Over the next two years he played clubs all over town and had the lines snaking out the door.
Barbutti was also booked into Rosellini’s Four-Ten, one of the poshest restaurant-nightspots in Seattle. Yet he came back often for regular gigs in Spokane clubs. He also made a TV special in Spokane. That tape was eventually seen by Steve Allen, who hired him as a “semi-regular” on his show.
That made him a national act. He went on tour with Nat King Cole, opened for Frank Sinatra and was a staple of TV talk shows. Yet he returned for a number of Spokane gigs through the 1980s, playing spots such as the Spokane House and the Top of the Ridpath.
“I still had lots of friends in Spokane,” said Barbutti.
It’s been a while since he’s been back, but he said he might break out some of his old material. He might, for instance, talk about Spokane’s airport, better known to Barbutti as “the fog factory.”