Clint Holmes was opening for Bill Cosby one time in Las Vegas. The two of them looked out on the packed showroom, but noticed two empty seats.
"Your people didn't show," said Cosby.
Holmes was reminiscing about a career that has taken him from casino cabarets to opening spots to extended headliner engagements to a showroom named for him on the Las Vegas Strip. In the course of his conversation, he pays ample tribute to Cosby.
"Bill always insisted my picture be the same size as his and right alongside. Once at Harrah's Tahoe, he saw a poster with only his picture, so he went to the entertainment director and asked: 'Where's Mr. Holmes' picture?'
" 'You're the star,' he was told. 'Yes, but they already know what I look like.' The picture was changed."
Not everybody was as accommodating. Holmes was always a formidable opening act, and there were a few performers who didn't want anybody strong opening the show. He was no threat to Cosby, or to Don Rickles, or to Joan Rivers, all of whom could follow anybody and all of whom encouraged young talent.
"But I can tell you that once I was called into a dressing room by a star after the show and told I talk too much and that when I receive a standing ovation, like I did that night, I was to tell the audience to sit down."
Holmes performs in the South Shore Room at Harrah's Tahoe this Saturday. It's only a one-night engagement, but it's a return home, of sorts. He started in Harrah's cabarets as Clint Holmes and Bacchanal. After his years opening for others, he was a hit in Atlantic City, then was hired by Steve Wynn for the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas, and then moved to Harrah's Las Vegas, where he had a run upward of seven years in what was to become the Clint Holmes Theater.
"I always wondered why the hell I never got to come back to Tahoe. When you're at another Harrah's property so long, you figure they're going to get you back up there, but it never happened."
He has conquered New York, however. A month ago, he performed for a week at Feinstein's at the Regency and got great notices, beginning to sell out right after they were published. They want him back.
"There was this one critic, and we had been warned. He tends not to like anybody or any show associated with Las Vegas," Holmes said. "He began the review with comments on Vegas entertainment, even mentioned Wayne Newton, and I thought why all of that? Newton is a great guy and the show was mine, but then he went into praise."
Holmes attributes much of his Vegas success to timing, pointing out that when he went to Harrah's on the Strip there were no other singers performing "before Celine, just magicians and Danny Gans and production shows."
He is, however, far too modest. When he was beginning, every writer in Nevada was predicting great things. He had scored a modest hit record ("Playground in My Mind"), and others were sure to follow. They haven't, but he knows his roots and he knows the nightclub scene probably as well as anybody. That will be evidenced by his show this coming Saturday. It's called "Inspired."
"This is the show I did at Feinstein's, although we're enlarging it. It's about my inspiration but also about other inspirations. I go back to when I was 9 years old and Nat King Cole came on television. My father said, 'Look, Clint, that guy's cooler than Sinatra. Then came Sammy (Davis Jr.) and (Harry) Belafonte and Bobby Darin and Marvin Gaye, and (Frank) Sinatra, and Lena Horne.
"But it's not a tribute show. It goes deeper than that. It's about moments that were life-changing, like: 'And then I heard Harry Belafonte sing 'Day-O' and then Sammy was marching with Martin Luther King Jr., and then Bobby Darin was stepping out of his tux to join protests.'
"Michael Jackson would visit Sammy Davis at his house when he was little, and you could see Sammy's influence every time Michael danced. Then, years later, Lena Horne, 60, retired, thought she had nothing else to give and heard Michael Jackson on the radio, and was inspired to do 'A Lady and Her Music.' There are all these connections that I use to connect songs in the show."
Holmes wrote a song for Harry Belafonte, remembering the rhythms the singer created. He calls it "At the Feet of Belafonte," and Belafonte was at his Feinstein's performance. He also wrote a song when he was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo surgery, called "If Not Now, When." (He's now cancer-free.)
"If you want to do something, do it now."
And what hasn't he done?
"I have always had the dream of being on Broadway, of being in a show. I've had it ever since I saw 'West Side Story' on stage in 1957. It was my first inspiration that wasn't from a single artist. In fact, I include a suite of songs from the musical in the show.
"I've gone with the forward motion of my career."
He's also been willing to share with those who may be thinking of starting out in show business, through the Clint Holmes Foundation for the Performing Arts, mentoring in the Las Vegas schools. Maybe he can insist that some young performer's picture is put up alongside his some day.
What: The longtime Las Vegas showman returns to Reno for the first time in many years.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Harrah's Tahoe
Information: (800) 427-7247 or SouthShoreRoom.com.