A Conversation with Tony Orlando
HULICK: Here we are sitting and looking out at the snow and getting ready to talk about your 50 years in the business.
ORLANDO: WKBW, 1961: Danny Neaverth was the disc jockey. I was promoting my first record, “Half Way to Paradise,” which Danny played. I came here and it was snowing then and it’s snowing now! (Laughs). When I think back to my first trip to Buffalo it was on Allegheny Airlines from La Guardia. I got off the plane and it was like, “What? Snow?” and I come back 50 years later to do this show and I think, “Man, things haven’t changed much in Buffalo!”
HULICK: You have done so much through these 50 years, not just making records and touring. One of my favorite parts of your career was your variety television show “Tony Orlando and Dawn.” You had some incredible guests on that show. I would like to throw a couple names out and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Jackie Gleason.
ORLANDO: He was the scariest person I ever worked with because he was the first bigger-than-life star. There was a tough side to him, but he ended up being a very good friend in the end. He used to call me every week in my dressing room and give me a critique of what I did wrong last week. Silly things like, “Make sure your tuxedo lapels are not rolled, but flat. You look thinner.” Another one was, “Don’t wear silver zippers; they shine on camera.” (Laughs).
HULICK: (Laughs) He was looking pretty close!
ORLANDO: (Laughs) Yes, pretty close! Frank Sinatra used to tell me things like that too. He told me to wear a red hanky in my tuxedo pocket; it means you’re in the club. If you noticed, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. always wore a red hanky.
HULICK: Do you still do that?
ORLANDO: When I wear my tux I do. In fact I still have the one Frank gave me and I wear it when I’m on television or award shows.
HULICK: Hank Aaron.
ORLANDO: Hank did something on my show that I don’t believe you will find in all the tape that exists of him. He sang and danced with me on “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It was so much fun watching him, because he was having the time of his life doing it. He was a very positive man.
HULICK: Alice Cooper.
ORLANDO: Alice was the most normal person with an abnormal persona I ever met. The first thing he said to me when I met him was he was going to be playing golf with George Burns that day. Do you believe that? After I got to know him he was this incredibly super-bright guy who understood his character that he created.
HULICK: Tony, you’ve received many public awards over your career, but you’ve also received awards on a very personal level that most people aren’t aware of. Tell me about those.
ORLANDO: I have an eighth-grade education. I never graduated high school, which I regret. I quit high school one week into it to stay home and help my mom take care of my sister, who needed our assistance. A few years ago I was honored at a show in Los Angeles for New York alumni, and as a surprise they flew in the principal from my high school and they presented me with my diploma signed by Mayor Bloomberg. The following year I received my Doctorate of Letters from Oral Roberts University for 45 years of giving back to society.
HULICK: Did you feel that was something missing in your life?
ORLANDO: Oh, yes. I did. You know one of the proudest things I’ve ever had happen to me is your success.
HULICK: You have done so much for me, Tony. Your support has meant everything to me.
ORLANDO: I’m serious. When I think back to doing my first interview with you, when you first started out, and then meeting you and talking about your writing and you saying to me, “How do I do this?” and now I’m sitting here with you and you’re showing me pictures of you and Frankie Avalon, who you just interviewed, and telling me about some of the others you’ve done. I told you that you had the ability to do this and you did it. You made me really proud. You are so positive in your writing and the fact that you do that without missing the truth is what sets you apart. Johnny Mathis loves your writing. He really does.
HULICK: He is such a gentle, kind man.
ORLANDO: He truly is. You are absolutely right. Even the way he holds his hands, he’s like a surgeon. He just has that whole gentle way about him.
HULICK: You have not only contributed so much to the entertainment world, but your work on behalf of veterans is also a big part of who you are.
ORLANDO: To me, if you don’t take this blessing and make it work for people who are in need or are less fortunate, just do something that helps human beings, then this blessing should not have been given to you. My whole passion for veterans is post-war experience. I feel for that guy or girl who served their country and comes home and doesn’t get their due. I would like to see a day in this country when a soldier can take their family anywhere—amusement parks, restaurants, movie theaters—and go into that establishment for free. I’m not talking Veterans Day. I mean a separate day for us to say thank you, and let them enjoy a day with their families. I’d like to get that done: a Veterans Appreciation Day.
HULICK: What was the most memorable moment for you in the past 50 years?
ORLANDO: This will surprise you. It was when Jerry Lewis walked into my dressing room in 1983 and asked me to host the New York MDA Telethon for him. I looked at him and said, “I walked up to you as a little kid with my jar of nickels and quarters and handed them to you on that show and all these years later you are standing in my dressing room and asking me to do this for you in the city where the telethon was born, in my hometown.” It’s now 30 years working for that man and every time I hit that tote board I think of that jar and I still have the same feeling I had all those years ago when I handed it to Mr. Lewis.
HULICK: Does it seem like 50 years, and did you see yourself doing all that you have done?
ORLANDO: It’s gone by so fast. I saw myself on Broadway; I saw myself making records and touring and being on television. I had all those dreams come true, every one of them. I worked hard for it, yes, but I have no complaints. So here it is 50 years later and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m 66 years old, which is still two years younger than Paul McCartney (laughs), and I still love to work on the road, to perform. And as long as people want to come and see me, I’m going to be there.