Stevie Wonder was a surprise guest star toasting Tony Bennett on his 80th birthday celebration Thursday night. “We’re 20 minutes away from the Kodak, what do you want me to sing?” Wonder phoned producer Lou Adler. “Anything you want,” Adler happily said — having tried for weeks to set him. Once backstage Wonder asked what the others on the program had sung. He chose an unknown song he’d written as a 13 year-old and then segued into “The Shadow of Your Smile” — and interspersed singing “Happy Birthday.” Of course, he brought down the house.
Jack Nicholson who was to have been one of the “hosts” bowed out. It was announced he was having throat problems. He had undergone surgery a month ago and even missed the screening of “The Departed” of which he was the host at WB studio. He is supposed to start “The Bucket List” for director Rob Reiner Dec. 11. He phoned me today and sounded strong an assured me he will be okay to start the film.
The evening was a benefit for the Hole in the Wall Camps and the toast to Tony raised two-and-a-half million-dollars. Paul Newman created the program — and continues with Camps around the world. He is indeed “an All-American Treasure.” I have seen — and been a part of — many standing ovations in the Kodak Theater — for Oscar and AFI recipients. But never was the feeling and ovation — from the topmost tier of the theater to the front row of the orchestra — more resounding.
Newman came on stage following a film showing the unbounded joy of the Hole in the Wall campers, “children with serious illness.” Newman thanked everyone for attending and added this line with a smile: “And I’d also like to thank the voters of America!”
Host Billy Crystal opened the festivities — he’s no stranger to the Kodak theater stage — with a generous routine about age — Bennett’s 80th birthday the excuse. He segued into singing “Put on a Happy Face” as Tony Bennett — as well as Yul Brynner, Robert De Niro — even Billie Holiday. Host George Clooney recalled Aunt Rosie Clooney touring with Tony. He introduced singer Madeleine Peyroux, a unique style and great voice, Bruce Willis did the honors bringing on Kelly Clarkson who has a big and gorgeous voice, Mark Anthony brought down the house with “Fly Me To The Moon” and “How Do you Keep The Music Playing?”
It was left for the master, Tony Bennett to get his standing ovation and then sing “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “Once In My Life” and “Sing your Sinners” assisted by Quincy Jones batoning the terrif Gregge Field Big Band. All joined with Tony on, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” — joined on stage with balloon-carrying kids from the Hole in the Wall camps.
Afterwards in the Grand Ballroom feted — and feasted by an Italian menu by Wolfgang Puck, I asked Tony about the future. “I plan to do more painting than singing,” he smiled. “Only seven dates a month.”
We’ll be there.