Guest column

One night, I was at a Friars affair in Beverly Hills. Ronald Reagan was the speaker. I was so touched by his story about what happens to an actor when he goes to heaven that the next morning I went to Lew Wasserman and said, “Lew, what about Ronald Reagan for Las Vegas?”

Lew replied, “Are you serious?”

I said, “Absolutely.”

Lew shot back, “What in God’s name makes you think Ronald Reagan could do a nightclub act?”

“Well,” I told him. “I’m putting together an act with five guys. It’s being written by Johnny Bradford and Rudolf Friml Jr. I’ll offer them a stack of money to book their act in Las Vegas.

The only problem is that I’ll need only four of them — the lead will have to stay home, because that’s the role I want Ronald Reagan to fill. He can do everything the kid does in the act — a little singing, a little dancing, a little comedy.

“Here’s how we’ll do it. We’ll have some opening talk written for him. Then we’ll bring in a film-clip package, and he can narrate his movie career in an unassuming way. We then present the new act with Ronald Reagan playing the lead part. At the end, he finishes with the story he does about what happens to an actor when he goes to heaven. It’ll be dynamite. Vegas is dying for new ideas. Ronald Reagan can be the first nonmusical movie star to appear in Vegas!”

Lew was interested enough to bring in Arthur Park and George Chasen of the MCA motion picture department. I could see they were scared to death of the whole idea, but they did agree to set up a meeting between me and Ronald and Nancy Reagan. I went to their home with Johnny Bradford, the writer.

I hit it off immediately with Nancy Reagan because we had some connections. Her father was the longtime partner of Dr. Kanavel. My sister is married to Dr. Kanavel’s son, David. So, as I was relaxing into all of that Kanavel-Davis history, Ronald Reagan asked me what this was all about: “Lew tells me you think I could star in Las Vegas. It’s a preposterous idea, but I’m willing to listen, because I’m in a heavy cash crunch right now, and I understand Las Vegas money is tremendous.”

I pitched my idea. When I finished, Ronald said, “What about my image? What about the hoods and hookers in the ringside seats? What about the risk to my career if I fail?”

It took a while, but I finally got him to agree to take a good look at the act I had been building. At that time, George Gobel was playing the Hilton in downtown Los Angeles. George was a good friend, and he trusted me. I asked him if I could put the act on for 30 minutes before he went on — as a sort of opening act. George agreed.

A week later, I invited Ronald and Nancy Reagan to the Hilton to see the act. “Remember,” I said, “keep your eye on the guy in the middle; that’s your part.”

After the show, Ronald said, “You know, I can do everything he does. Maybe you’ve got something here. See how much you can get in Las Vegas and let me consider the offer.” As for Nancy, she loved the idea and urged her husband to do it.

Lew Wasserman couldn’t believe that Ronald Reagan was interested. I went to Jake Kosloff at the Last Frontier and got from him a firm offer of $15,000 a week for four weeks. Reagan liked the offer, and the show was on.

I must tell you that the man got cold feet several times before opening night. The day before, he wanted to cancel. I believe it was his training as an actor and the fact that he was a trouper that got him through, but this isn’t to say that I didn’t have a hand in holding it all together.

In the end, Ronald Reagan was an enormous hit. Yet, even though the act brought him all kinds of offers, he never did it again.

From Pierre Cossette’s memoir, “Another Day in Showbiz: One Producers Journey” (ECW Press)

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