Okay, Billy Boy, now you've got the world by the horns! Let's see some action. Everyone knows who you are from the newspapers, TV, radio and word of mouth. You've got a film started about yourself. A super, experienced man named Roscoe is guiding your career towards opportunities you'd never dreamed of before. All signs point to instant success. So let's roll!
Talk about no sleep. Man, I was taking two sleeping tablets per night and awakening two hours later. But I only had a few more days before leaving for Florida to perform for a fortnight. Everything had to be set up for my return to Vegas to make all the big appearances scheduled. Ben Roscoe was clicking with LA contacts and Vegas juice in order to make the most of my contemporary flag waving event. Remember, due to TV, Americans forget faster than you can dream up the next spectacular for their approval.
First, Ben lined up my appearance on Joe Delaney's afternoon radio show at the Sahara Hotel. We went only two days after the big event and gloated over my determined endurance disaster. I sounded like a frog with laryngitis, but Joe and his guests praised me highly. This is a feeling I wasn't used to, so my ego enjoyed every minute in spite of the sore throat.
It happened that one of Joe's guests was the unbelievable satirist of Vegas, Cork Proctor. This man can build you up in three seconds, destroy your pride in two more seconds, and have you laughing and crying at the same time without you knowing why. He's worked every hotel in Vegas five times, been fired or let go because of uneducated management and still his biggest enemies hire him over and over because no one else is as boldly clever as Proctor with a microphone. Cork and I had met previously in 1975 and we'd caught each other's show. Our acts are entirely different, but both of us require a large amount of turnover in our audience to accomplish our goals and expectations. Our respect for each other's talents is a lasting pact.
Cork interjected during Joe's program that the Roast for the Clark County Commissioners was coming up at the Stardust on Saturday night. He kept insisting through suggestions that I should be included on the list of comics to add fuel to this bonfire of dignitaries. I was honored, but at first I didn't feel he was serious. In the midst of conversation, I heard myself volunteer to contribute my loving little jabs into the Clark County Big-Wheels on Saturday night. Hey, Man, I was invited to jump on the bandwagon just because of one silly, publicity stunt. Sure, what's next?
Somehow I returned to Silver City that night and tried to maintain that rigid schedule of non-stop shows. Rough as it was, I began to wear thin. But Ben had my head filled with ideas of all these wonderful things he was lining up and my head only continued to swell. I was great and I knew it! My days at Silver City would soon be over and then no more long, long shows.
Dennis and I discussed his editing the film while I was away in Florida. The word from Help Them Walk Again charity was if we gave them the rights to it all, we'd have no tab to pay in production costs for a finished product. So we worked diligently as hard as possible to finish in time to complete the project. Between Ben and Joanne Toadvine, we foresaw no difficulty. Dennis was to line up showing this film in New York by mid-summer and then it would be spread across the country. We would press records of the Mountain song and sell them for the charity which would own it all. We really were going all out to try and inspire all Americans to attain their greatest potential in whatever field they excelled, no matter what their challenges appeared to be. Any one who would be willing to try would be climbing the biggest mountain in their life ---the first step to reaching the top is to be willing to try!
Saturday came and the Roast went super. I was seated on stage next to Beverly Harrell, a madam of a brothel called the Cottontail Ranch. Next to her was Bob Mitchell, a longtime established comic in the Magic City. Both of them, along with others like Pete Barbutti, were scheduled to grind away at this board of commissioners who govern Clark County. Actually, I was in pretty heavy company. And when my name was mispronounced in the introduction, I quivered inside. But I boldly jumped up and walked briskly to the podium trying to look confident and relaxed. I must have done alright because I received a large round of applause for my efforts.
Quickly, I was rushed back to Silver City to perform for six hours and then pack up everything in my 22 cases in order to catch that plane to Florida. Was I tired? No, not at all. How can you be tired when you're not sure what day it is? By the time I reached Atlanta, I was staggering around the airport trying to maintain stability. The wait was forever, making one wish General Sherman had really done a number on this part of Georgia. I guess I was afraid if I didn't get going soon, I'd collapse right in the terminal doing my Rip Van Winkle impression.
In a short while, I was again GONE WITH THE WIND, arriving in Daytona only long enough to throw the equipment into the U-Haul trailer Pam had rented. All four of us sped away from the parking lot, turned left in the middle of the night and headed for St. Petersburg. Needless to say, I could barely see the road. But the WORLD'S ENDURANCE KING can do anything. Bring it on---the harder, the better!
We finally got settled into the motel by daybreak and I got my much needed three hour nap. Up at nine o'clock, my equipment man, Jerry Masters, and I set up all the necessary montage of wires and junk I needed to play that night. But I'm never satisfied with the way things are available on stage on opening nights. Therefore, I was still in the showroom double checking everything until five o'clock that afternoon. Pam and the kids finally saw me for about three minutes before I took a short rest prior to show time.
Arriving at the stage area only fifteen minutes before showtime, I was caught off guard by the unexpected appearance of a very special friend from my past. Jimmie Vestal, my bass guitar player from the combo I had while in college in NC was standing there with a five foot smile knowing he had caught me totally unaware. As I picked up the extra wires and props on the stage, Jimmie brought me up to date on how he had spent the last ten years writing and producing song after song. This was no surprise to me since I had even played organ and guitar on a couple of sessions he did in 1966 when his studio was located in the basement of an older Winston-Salem home. Instantly, I remembered that I actually played guitar on Jimmie's most original composition of those days entitled, "Wooly Bully Again". Here he was telling me that he was still promoting that song and all the others he had recorded by making key contacts with major labels for big enough distribution to cover the whole market with Jimmie Vestal Music. He talked faster and faster as the clock was ticking away and right before I sat down to begin, he made sure I had a package of his material to bring me up to date on everything he was doing. It was fantastic to see another cohort from my earlier days was also climbing his mountain, pressing hard to make his mark in this crazy world called "Show-Biz". I told my wife later that night not to be a bit surprised if one day soon you turn on the radio or TV and see our old NC friend Jimmie singing his number one hit record. Go get'em Jimmie!
At 8:00 PM, Old Bill was pounding the piano at
the Breckenridge Hotel for the nicer dinner crowd. My musical
comedy act wouldn't really swing until about 9:00 PM, so I dimmed
the lights and did my thing playing legit keyboards and singing
mellow vocals. While adjusting equipment between the piano and
guitar changeover, I did pause to have a few words of greeting
with the agent, Russ Byrd, who was responsible for my appearance
there. He and his friends made me feel more relaxed and even my
tenseness from the trip disappeared.
All in all, I lived through
the entire weekend trip and the first night. At least, that's
what they told me when I awoke the next morning.
All in all, I lived through the entire weekend trip and the first night. At least, that's what they told me when I awoke the next morning.
Spending time with the family was extremely refreshing. Being away so long at a time, we hadn't had a chance to go places and do things that families normally do. I don't usually let loose because all I think about is work. But for once, I did let go and enjoyed myself thoroughly as our time together was quality time. We came very close to the edge of playing tourists in our outings during those two weeks.
Since St. Petersburg is only 30 minutes away from Largo, Florida, the location of a local recording studio someone had recommended, I couldn't resist the chance to record the song for the soundtrack of Dennis' film. My voice was shot, but this was my only opportunity. When I got back to Vegas, Ben would have me on tour all over the world. This would have to be my vacation.
The studio owner and engineer were excited enough to cancel everything else they had scheduled and even brought in extra personnel to assist in my session. After laying down the guitar, bass, piano and lead voice myself, I overdubbed the four backup harmony voices. Three years earlier in my little home studio in Daytona, I had produced dozens of local radio jingles all by myself. One recording I did had 16 different instruments and vocal parts overdubbed and mixed together on my four track machine. However, it took almost a week of 12 hour days to complete. That previous experience of putting something together all by yourself made this session a piece of cake. So I felt right at home overdubbing vocal and instrumental parts on the "Mountain Song". And with a professional engineer operating the controls on the console, all I had to do was perform my musical talents for him to capture the magic on tape.
It's pretty hard to sing four different vocal parts one at a time on tape when you can barely talk. But I knew it had to be done. So I did it! We made it have a gospel style feel by adding in some plain old handclapping to the beat. It works every time. The studio staff slaved away at getting it all on tape, knowing I only had a limited time to sing with my voice going away fast. Later, after two full days of hard work, the engineer invited Wally Dow, another local picker, to fill in the drums and to add an additional guitar part. Bless their hearts, they spent 30 hours mixing and remixing this song.
They saw the potential of what could happen in my career if the momentum continued to grow. We were all trying to help each other climb this mountain to the top hoping our unending efforts would bring success to all involved. Due to the terrible strain the Guinness record had put on my voice, this recording has much gruffness in the overall vocal sound. But every bit of love I had went into these special moments at the microphone, because I wanted so badly to share with others the meaning behind the words of the song.
"Sittin' here again feeling sorry for myself...when others have a greater need...I should be thankful for the talents God's granted me...and a willingness to succeed...Sometimes everything just seems to go wrong...it's natural to wanna give in...But you can solve any problem big or small...Just find a place to begin!" I'LL CLIMB THAT MOUNTAIN...I'LL MAKE IT SOMEDAY...EVEN THOUGH I MAY STUMBLE AND FALL...SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY...I'LL NEVER STOP...TILL I REACH THE TOP...HOLD MY HEAD UP IN THE CLOUDS AND SAY...THANK YOU JESUS...FOR HELPING ME TO CLIMB THAT MOUNTAIN YESTERDAY...
Finally the mix down was put on reel to reel tape and it was ready to be shared with the world. And I knew Dennis was waiting for this recording back in Vegas to put the icing on the documentary. Wouldn't they all be surprised to hear the masterpiece we'd produced in Florida? Well it wouldn't be long now, because this two week gig in the Sunshine State was almost over.
The plane spit me out one more time in the Entertainment Capital Of The World, only a few hours after Pam and the girls had waved good-bye to Daddy in Daytona. I felt like a ping pong ball being hit across a table back and forth from Vegas to Florida and from Florida back to Vegas. Now even though I loved the excitement, my enthusiasm was about six years ahead of my physical condition. Please make a note. Las Vegas is not really very comfortable to some of us in the summer. Sometimes it reaches 120 to 130 degrees out in the surrounding desert area. Don't believe that baloney about there being a different kind of dry heat either. Even 7-11 stores remove their microwave ovens that warm their sandwiches during July and August. Stepping off the plane, I thought I had reached hell and the thermostat was hung!
To top it off, three days after returning to the casino and getting into a daily work routine, my apartment played a unique trick on me. The dumb air conditioner pretended not to function. It did such a good job that I reported it to the manager for being a bad boy. However, the bad guy turned out to be the complex manager who played head games with me for 2 or 3 days. Finally I was told that they couldn't get the right part to fix the cooler. Remember my friend, Jim Locke, from the marathon? Well, Jim is in the air conditioner repair business. It seems he had no problem finding the right part, but he was not allowed to do any type of work in the apartment complex where I was staying due to insurance or something legal. And do you think the manager was going to get a technician to put in Jim's newly found part for my cooler? No way! When it was all over, I found out a new company from Minnesota had purchased the apartments. Their policy was to spend no money on any repairs for the rest of the year. Real smart? I looked like an Armour Star bacon strip with bloodshot eyes after two weeks of no sleep and enough sweat to make a greased pig contest look like a visit to the dry cleaners. I went crazy!
With my rent already paid in advance for June and July, I tried to hold out. But finally, I just moved to a motel with ---yes--- heavenly air conditioning. My anger disappeared when I could breathe again. The extra $65.00 a week for double lodging was worth the good nights' rest. Guess when the manager got the air conditioner fixed? Three days before my rent was due ! By then I'd found a weekly cheap motel to move to and I stayed there throughout the rest of the summer. Remember I had no time or energy to fight some clown over trivialities like this. I was a big star now and things were about to really heat up for my career.
Meanwhile, back at Silver City, Ben Roscoe and I were doing our last minute scheduling in order to arrange all the personal appearances he had lined up. Ben had a list a mile long. I was tired, but pacified. Dennis and I were set to go to LA to edit the film for the charity show promotions. Ben lined up his connections with his friends in California. We planned the trip on my day off and cruised into Smog City.
The editing takes more time and money than we have, so Dennis tried to just put together a four minute preview of the mountain scene with flashbacks of me during my Guinness efforts. We dubbed in the sound of the "Climb That Mountain" song behind the final minutes of our epic. Now, it's not Ben Hur, but it should be enough to show the charity board of directors the value of our creativity. Then they can approve the necessary funding for the completion of this inspiring documentary. So, generously, I had the whole project billed to my name. When you're on the verge of becoming a Big Star, you have to take a few risks. As they say, "No pain, no gain!". I'm sure it'll all work out and we've got to get back to Vegas. I can't afford to miss one single night of work now. Especially, since I just encountered another large bill.
The next day I found out that Joanne Toadvine was not sure if the film and the song were suitable for her charity's purposes. She and Ben had words and guess who was caught in the middle?
Finally, she simply said to forget it. It was too much trouble. Didn't she know what I went through to get all this done? What did it cost Dennis, Ben and the many others to get this project off the ground? Needless to say, the LA videotape company still wanted their money and they deserved it. It took me a lot of hours beating that guitar on stage, but that bill was at last paid off in November. Trust me. I'll never go to bat like that for a person or organization again without having some kind of commitment in writing that at least I can eat later on if it all goes sour. I will share the noose, but I don't have to put my neck in it and also kick the orange crate out from beneath my own feet.
All of this was quite a blow to my ego, but I still had old Ben in there plugging away at getting me exposure. Whoops! All of a sudden, Ben wasn't available. I left messages and tried to run him down. When I finally confronted him, he had more double talk than a used car salesman. And I already had a lovely set of vintage Desoto wheels in my traveling companion, Old Off-Whitie. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that Ben had deserted ship too. My true feelings along with a little investigating led me to believe that he was privately informed that I was a leper. Now if he continued to work with me, he'd be banished to the land of Never, Never Work Again.
Oh, he'd talk to me and was even very nice at times. But his enthusiasm had amazingly been transformed into a case of voluntary amnesia.
Well, there was still Dennis and his contacts in the big hotels. We had the film and had shown it on Joe Delaney's TV show. People liked it and Dennis got it privately viewed by David Brenner, that super young comic at the MGM. Dennis said that David thought it would be perfect as a novelty insert for the next time he'd be guest hosting for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Best of all Brenner was scheduled to host in July. Quickly, Dennis returned with this earth shattering news that put me back into orbit. Hey, I only needed one break and here it comes.
Brenner asked Dennis to contact Rick Bernstein, his manager in LA about confirming the date on the Carson show. By now I can't even eat, just waiting for the phone to ring. Excuse me, did I get any messages while I was out? Make'em up. I don't care! National TV, fame, fortune and then there will be no more six hour jobs. However, I must not hassle Mr. Bernstein. Come on, Bill, you just need to have a little patience. If you make him mad, your dream is over. And who wants to make waves at this point? In good faith I prepared for this awesome opportunity by giving notice at Silver City that I was volunteering to take two weeks off work during the time Brenner was scheduled to host this NBC program. This time I was setting priorities for the success of my career. I'd be free to hang out in LA after my standing ovation appearance on the Tonight Show. All I needed to do now was pace myself for this big night on national TV. Calm down, Bill. Don't panic!
I went to work the first week before my upcoming time off and felt a bit nauseous. Probably just my anxiety about the show. Bernstein is never in his office. I should know since now I'm calling twice a day. David Brenner is on concert tour in the East and can't be reached. Oh, God, why am I so sick? It's just nerves. Not being used to the hot weather, no air conditioning, the anticipated TV shot and the normal nightly pressures could be the reason my bodily functions are acting so strangely. Listen, I'm at the point where somebody has to tell me "yes" or "no". Am I going to be on the stupid show or not? I'm about to explode!
Now some of us have a big mouth and some of us can't keep anything to ourselves. I admit that excitement had totally taken over my rationality when I was told about the upcoming Tonight Show appearance. It might have been much wiser to have waited for direct confirmation of the exact date and time I was to be on with David. But as you've noticed as you've read this book, I enjoy sharing good fortune with everyone I love. The bad part was I loved everyone who would listen to me at all when I announced that I was going to be on the Tonight Show with David Brenner. Of course, anyone who entered that lounge was branded with this knowledge whether they cared or not. And all the employees at Silver City were almost each given a two hour seminar on when, where and what this gig on NBC was going to do for my career. They said they were happy it was paying off for someone they 'd watched work so hard for so long. Many asked the date, the local channel number and encouraged me by saying, "Go get'em, Wild Bill. We knew you would make it. You're the best!" Well, if you say so.
Finally on Friday afternoon, I reached Rick Bernstein's office, only to be informed that he was not there. However, if my name was Bill Cooksey, there was a message for me. Alright! See how foolish it was to be all shook up for these last few weeks. Why does anything productive always happen right at the final two minutes of the ball game? My mind raced a thousand miles a minute thinking, Wonder what time they want me for rehearsal? Yes, I can leave right now. Forget Silver City! Nobody cares there anyway. Let them get someone else to fill in this weekend in the lounge. In fact, why don't you just keep my check for the whole week? It's not that big of a deal. After next week, I'll be rolling in dough anyway. Don't forget, I'm headed out to LA. You can watch me Monday night on the...(sigh)...Tonight Show with my good friend, David Brenner. By the way, did I mention I'll be his personal guest?
Wait a second, while I was off in space reviewing what I wanted to tell a few jokers, Mr. Bernstein's secretary put me on hold. Maybe she didn't realize exactly who she was speaking to. Okay, she's probably gone to get that message Rick left for me. And I want her to read every word correctly. No mistakes, please. This is my life you hold in your hands, Lady.
"Mr. Cooksey," a new female voice came on the line and spoke, "Mr. Bernstein has asked me to tell you that there is some difficulty in the number of guests booked already on the show. So you might have to be on standby."
In my mind, I didn't care, just as long as they wanted me! Come on, Woman, spit it out! What time do you want me there?
"Mr. Bernstein also said everything's not confirmed with Mr. Brenner yet since David's been out of town working. Unfortunately, Mr. Brenner won't be back until show time on Monday," this same automated voice continued.
And then came the heartbreaker that told the story so bluntly and forced me to face reality. The terminal part of the message I was about to hear sent this crazy man into the root cellar forever.
"In fact, Mr. Cooksey, since the Democratic convention starts on Monday night, we're not even sure the Tonight Show will be aired at all. Especially with a substitute host," the voice of doom rang out as I could feel the executioner releasing the sharp blade of the guillotine.
After biting the phone cord in half with my bare teeth, I was slashed by one last sentence from this verbal, dream murderess.
"With everything up in the air like this for Monday night, Mr. Bernstein suggested it might be a better idea if we just went ahead and tried to reschedule you for the next earliest date when David will be hosting the show again. Good-bye."
The only word she said that made any sense was "Good-bye". It was the perfect synonym for my career. All my dreams were down the drain. The embarrassment of having to tell everyone that I wasn't going to be on the show made my heart pound with frantic fear! This was a miscarriage in the twelfth month! Please, God, don't do this to me! That night I started the show with I'll Climb That Mountain, because it was the only song that seemed to fit. I know people thought I was full of rubbish, but I only told it like it was. True friends still stuck by me when I needed them. Others kind of snickered or sneered and their faces seemed to form the letters, LIAR. Oh, was I sick now?
Well, with two weeks off and no income, I trucked to California anyway. Fate had brought me this far. And fate and faith must work together. Right? Day after day in LA, I ran into golpher holes. I went to an office in Hollywood to answer an ad that wanted new faces for the movies. How dumb and desperate had I become? After filling out their application, I was sent into the big boss's office to be interviewed. This shifty-eyed guy with a wall full of old movie posters behind his desk said I had great potential, but he needed me to be on file in order to present me to casting directors. Oh, yes, there was just this little $25.00 token fee to be listed with this multi-media organization. Even worse! I paid it. The secretary typed my name on this kind of dull colored membership card and then placed my application and Polaroid shot in an old dented up file cabinet from the Goodwill. And the strangest thing of all is they must have lost my number. Can you believe I'm still waiting to hear from them? They seemed like such nice people too. Oh, well, I know a lot of Hollywood producers never knew what they missed. Anyway, keeping my Oscar in the backseat of Old Off-Whitie just wouldn't have worked out.
Then it occurred to me, if some of the comedians I'd seen on TV got their start from being discovered in LA comedy clubs, then a pro like me was guaranteed to be the next superstar. I went to observe some auditions and open mike nights at a few joints. But give me a break! All I heard was garbage language, bad drug jokes and sick examples of perverted humor. Thank goodness I didn't have my equipment with me. Being so desperate, I might have brought in thousands of dollars of musical equipment plus some of my irreplaceable, choice comedy props into some dive where I'd have at the very least been robbed. Before I departed from the City of Angels, my friend, Gallagher, invited me to come see him smash his watermelons at an afternoon job for the city's recreation department. It was a free concert outdoors in some park downtown and the crowd was huge. Being from Florida, Leo had known me from the Clearwater Hilton when he was only a Roadie ( Equipment Manager) for Jim Stafford. They had some fallouts when Stafford did his Seventies summer variety network TV show out in California. Gallagher is a scraper and put together some hilarious comedy routines determined to not take it so badly on the chin. Bingo! His Veg-A-Matic bit's finale where he smashes a large watermelon all over the audience got him numerous appearances on my beloved Tonight Show. We visited, talked about old times and discussed the business. He answered many of my questions about whether I should stick it out at the comedy clubs until I got a break. After considering Leo's advice, I realized my place was with the Vegas audiences because my material did not fit into the typical LA style of glorifying drugs and sick, perverted sex. Well, at the time, it sounded like a welcome form of justification to my ego.
Returning to Vegas, I hid in the shadows until I just had to appear back at work. Slower and slower my career seemed to drag. The Guinness Book Wonder Boy wasn't too spirited by this time. Going to work and coming home to a cheap motel with air conditioning was it! My withdrawn complex kept me from even telling friends where I lived. Ashamed and depressed, I pulled away from everyone a little more each day. My entertainment was done in a very mechanical routine and my attitude was bitter.
The only spark of happiness seemed to come from selling "Climb That Mountain" records to people who appeared to light up when I performed the song. The reflection of their smiles brought a bit of joy into my life and just a little feeling that it had not all been in vain. My pride in my work was diminishing to lower levels. I only survived my personal depression by singing the song and thinking of my wife and kids depending on me for support. And how about all those people who'd applauded me for years and years? I couldn't let them down now! Could I?
One afternoon I got the bright idea not to worry about the fact that the Help Them Walk Again charity had failed to produce the results I desired. Let that be their problem. I had to get on with my life and carry out my own philosophy. Bill Cooksey loves giving of himself to others and that is my life! That's what makes me happy! Why not set up a "Climb That Mountain" foundation to encourage people to help each other? It may not make lots of money for me, but I could not go on like this much longer without doing something. Maybe this was it!
So, I bought an old used typewriter and made out my statement of goals. Then I went to a lawyer (paid out more money) and was advised how to incorporate. As I shared my ideas with my legal advisor I related how I could sell records, key chains and hold concerts to raise funds for distribution among those who really needed help. When you are sincere, it's natural to go in head first. I may not have any money, but I can surely contribute in a non-profit manner to the benefit of mankind.
You know, all this sounded really great, until the lawyer laid the facts of life on me attorney style. Shrewdly, he'd listened to my presentation with a genuine (?) display of warmth and compassion as I talked.
When I finally took a deep breath, he praised my plans and began trying to make me believe he was about to do me a big favor.
"Bill, I see that you really want to help people, so I'm going to sincerely work with you to make this all a reality. First of all, we'll need about $500.00 to initially set up this non-profit corporation. Then we can discuss the extra costs in my administrating the activities and funds in a financially proper manner."
Obviously, I either didn't get the point across or I'd found an attorney with a cement heart. Man, I didn't even have $50.00 to eat on and I wanted to help people!??! Somehow, I crawled away from his office and went back to the cheap motel and cried. God, I really wanted to do what was right! Isn't there an answer to all of this? Double depression caused me to lose faith in everything. Only three months before, I had been riding the wind. Now, when all else had failed, I just wanted to help my fellow man and look what it got me! That's some song, I'll Climb That Mountain. Well, brother, I was rolling down the hill fast! I hated everything and everyone for many days to come. My only sure bet was that things couldn't get worse unless something terrible happened to my wife and kids in Florida. Every night I pleaded with God to take it out on me before He allowed anything to happen to Pam, Caprice or Sunshine.
Kristofferson's song," Why Me, Lord", had always been a favorite of mine because I could do a perfect Xerox of his voice. Now, I felt like I was living the lyrics. Up and down the Vegas Strip a cute little bug had been jumping from hotel to hotel. In some places, employees and customers only suffered from sick stomach and fever. But in other establishments, people turned yellow and were laid up for months. Those who've had it certainly would wish it on no one else. When you've never been exposed to it, it sounds fairly simple and kind of like a bout with a bad strain of flu. In August of '76 this bug hopped from the Sahara to the Riviera. Then it leaped through the Westward Ho Casino to Denny's restaurant. Then after it had hit the Stardust, this deathly plague jumped across the street to the scene of my Guinness Book World Record event. All this activity occurred in only a two week period. Yes, starring in every hotel in a three block area, Mr. I. M. Hepatitis brought the house down. He almost closed a few joints too. The hot weather produced summer colds and immune systems were already down for most Vegas employees. It's no wonder this viral villain was having such a field day.
Hepatitis has an incubation stage of six weeks, so I was told, before it really starts to cook. Slowly, but surely, people all over Silver City began missing work and calling in sick. It was not an epidemic, but 15 % to 20% of the help produced obvious symptoms. However, you don't close a casino unless there's a blazing fire or the house goes broke. Hepatitis is hard to spot early in a person without the proper tests. Because when you become violently ill, it's too late to take any of those preliminary actions that might have spared you the misery of the latter stages.
I don't know how long it had been in my system. With my whole body fouled up physically and emotionally for the whole summer, I was a perfect candidate. Several of our cocktail waitresses were sidelined for weeks. Bless their hearts, they always kept a fresh Coke available for me right next to the stage during my act. When you're up there for six hours straight, something to drink is pretty important. No one was more considerate than the ladies who worked the late shift with me. But hepatitis is not difficult to contract from unsterilized glasses and I'm sure the bar served thousands of drinks in an evening. It's amazing more people don't get sick everywhere, when you consider how easily germs and bacteria can be spread. No matter how I caught this culprit, there was no doubt I was soon to find out that contracting hepatitis is the complete opposite of having fun.
One Sunday night I felt terrible and went home after work to the motel. There I stayed sicker than a dog until Tuesday night at 11:00 PM when I had to go back to work. Drinking Pepto-Bismol and living in the smallest room in the motel apartment can get very depressing. I couldn't hold anything on my stomach and even water refused to stay down.
I'm just glad no one else saw me in that condition. I could barely walk onto the stage and there was no jumping around like I usually did. The time I spent back at the motel seemed pleasant compared to the painful experience I was going through those first few minutes on stage in the lounge trying to make an audience laugh.
After an hour on stage on Tuesday night, Wonder Boy had to make a nature call. This meant committing the ultimate sin in front of my adoring fans. Wild Bill had to take a-----I can't say it--bbb..br..break! The legend was crumbling before their very eyes. It was either that, or embarrass a whole lot of folks right there on the stage. This process continued time and time again nightly through Friday evening. Bravely, I had tackled a regular meal midweek which I soon regretted. By Saturday the cramps and fever were rampant in my weak, pitiful body. On Sunday night I went in and related to the Casino Manager that I felt very ill, but I was going to make every effort to provide as much entertainment as I could. He just acknowledged what I said with a nod of the head and a smile. No one ever seemed to take me serious, because they think nothing can stop Cooksey, the Endurance King.
Never on stage have I ever been unable to keep my tummy from taking the elevator to the top floor. But after only an hour and a half, I couldn't take it anymore. The rumors about the spreading hepatitis demon had aroused my suspicions enough to overcome my fear of being examined by Dr. Frankenstein at the Guinea Pig Horse-Pistol. I now chose to exit the world of denial and actually accepted the fact I might not be invincible! I also chose to exit the Silver City lounge, jump behind the wheel of Old Off-Whitie and check into the Emergency Room of Southern Nevada Hospital. Of course, they need your life history before allowing you to use the restroom.
"You definitely have hepatitis showing up in your blood," related the M.D. who had to be a direct descendant of Ghandi with that accent. "We ran the tests and you need to be admitted tonight to the hospital for treatment and observation."
"Doctor, I'm very sorry I can't afford a stay in your lovely facility. Financially, right now that would be impossible. And since I walked in here on my own, isn't there something you can give me to help me feel better?", I was so animated by this time, he probably thought I was on something already.
"If you refuse to check yourself in, then you must promise me you will go straight home and rest for a minimum of three weeks." Dr. Bombay compassionately spoke with authoritative concern. "I'll give you this shot and some tablets to relax your stomach muscles. Stay strictly on a soft diet. After 21 days of complete rest, you should be able to return slowly to your normal routine. In three to six months, you should feel fine."
" Oh, thank you, Doc," I spoke in a soft convincing voice. "I'll surely try to follow your advice to the letter. I really appreciate all you're doing for me."
"Mr. Cooksey, you are a very sick man right now. You go home, get in bed and allow this medicine to work. Under no conditions are you to be involved in any type of activities until your strength begins to return. And if you have any setbacks, it is imperative you come right back to see me or any other doctor on duty." This man really made things clear to his patients.
Absorbing the good doctor's years of medical advice, I paid the $90.00 bill for the emergency room services. If I wasn't sick before, I was now. Ouch! How am I going to make up that cash I just spent? That was supposed to be part of what I send Pam this week.
Okay, let's see, if I remember exactly what the doctor said to do. I believe he said to go to work for three weeks and then go home and rest. Wasn't that right? Surely they wouldn't allow me to rest on stage at Silver City for three weeks. Isn't a lounge the kind of a place where people come to sit back and relax? It works for me.
So hurriedly, I drove back to Silver City just in time to finish the last two hours of my show. I'm Wonder Boy! Remember? Boy, did I pay for that! I thought I was cute jumping around on stage the remainder of that Sunday night. But thank goodness I had the next day off. The only time between then and Labor Day that I even tried to stand up each day was the half a dozen hours nightly when I went in to play in the lounge. I was constantly sick or doped up with stomach relaxers. Most of the time I basically went through the motions from habit just to be able to collect my check on Sunday nights. And excitement was my diet of strictly cheese, crackers and hard candy.
During my sickness, the last thing to pass through my dazed brain was David Brenner's next guest hosting date. Later I found out it occurred during this time period I had committed myself to medical research. How's that for luck? I would have been pretty funny with a little help from Dr. Bombay's muscle relaxers. Couldn't you see me getting my national TV shot singing with two paramedics holding me up? Does there seem to be a pattern here ? Or am I not seeing it because I'm sinking too fast in the quicksand?
In spite of common sense, I continued to try and rush the healing process by pushing real hard for a few hours on stage. You know, mind over matter! In my case it was a problem of dysfunctional gray matter in the brain. But hepatitis doesn't adhere to the philosophy in the story about the little train saying, "I think I can...!?! I think I can...!! I think I...??...better stop or I'm going to drop!!!". You see, hepatitis does not allow your liver to function properly and food is not digested at a normal rate. In other words, you run out of gas in no time at all. That was something I'd never experienced before in my whole life. And I didn't learn this from Dr. Bombay. I accelerated and my body slammed on the brakes. As I began to feel somewhat better in my thinking abilities, I used my persistent, determined, strong will to force my actions to reach my full potential. I think I can...!?! I think I can...!?! I think I...I...I better stop for a moment!!! Okay, here we go again and again and again. But the old body is just not physically up to par quite yet. Maybe I should have heeded Dr. Bombay's counsel.
By Labor Day I didn't care who I was, I had to get home to Florida to rest and get well again. But, I couldn't afford not to work. Bill Cooksey will probably die and still retain a job as night watchman in the cemetery. So in a moment of energy, I called an agent that had booked me from l970 through 1974 throughout Florida and up the East coast. He got on the ball and booked me in a country club 60 miles from Daytona starting the week after Labor Day. Not only was it for top money, but I only had to perform the comedy act for 90 minutes nightly with two days a week off. Yep! Just what the doctor ordered.
So I called Pam and told her about this heavenly job right out our back door. Just think, to heal up meant I'd have to spend a lot of time at home with my three favorite girls. That's better than any medicine on the market. Maybe when you're climbing a mountain, it's a pretty good idea to stop and smell those roses while you still can. They'll always be more mountains to climb. That's the essence of life. However, roses are only here to enjoy for a season. One day they are in bloom and the next day they are gone.
With all my trunks of equipment and suitcases full of clothes packed up to be put on the plane to Florida, I remembered one last piece of unfinished business that had to be taken care of. This was a task I hoped I'd never have to face. But my heavy heart knew I couldn't leave Las Vegas until this grievous matter had been resolved.
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