If there's one thing that runs in my family, it's the love of storytelling. My father, Danny Thomas, started that ball rolling. He became a nightclub star not just because of his talent for keeping his audiences in stitches, but also because he could spin a yarn that kept them perched forward in their seats. Dad passed that passion along to my sister and brother and me (when we all get together, we can't wait to tell each other a story!), and now it's moved on to the next generation: My niece, writer and filmmaker Kate Thomas, tells stories every day on her website, Travel With Kate; and this week, she's written one that truly touched my heart. Rather than tell you more, I'll hand you over to my beautiful, smart and very talented niece herself. Beautiful job, Kate! Love, Your Auntie Marlo
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Traveling Back in Time With My Dad
In my recent article for Expedia Viewfinder, I write about how I might travel using a time machine if given the opportunity. The post was inspired by Expedia's campaign in support of the new Dreamworks film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman. And in writing my piece, I was really surprised to find how personal the topic of time travel turned out to be for me.
Most people might choose to go back to some profound moment in world history. And in the film, the main characters do exactly that -- from Troy to Versailles to Ancient Egypt, accidentally wreaking havoc on the space-time continuum.
But me? I'd go back to the toe-tapping era of the 1950's in Las Vegas. Why? Well, first of all, it was the birth of Vegas as we know it today; and it was a time when legendary talents sang and danced and performed their hearts out to fabulously-clad crowds.
Also during that time, my grandfather, Danny Thomas, could often be found on stage, twice a night, in the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel and Casino. He was the first entertainer ever to perform there.
What I wouldn't give to be a fly on that wall!
I'm no comedian like my grandfather; and I can only dream of reaching his level of talent as a storyteller. But all the same, I am a storyteller. That is what I do -- either on-camera on my web-series, Travel with Kate, or in my written work. And just the thought of being able to watch him on stage brings up a lot of emotion.
I can't help but feel like I'm following a similar path as he did as I pursue my creative work. And I'm certainly not the first in my family to do so. Of course, my aunt, Marlo Thomas, became a very successful actress and author. And my father, Tony Thomas, also followed in his dad's footsteps, not as a performer but as a producer for television. And he was there in Vegas in the 50's.
So in place of a time machine (because I couldn't get my hands on one), I decided to interview my Dad about his experience growing up and watching my grandfather perform during that special time in Vegas.
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Me: I want to interview you about Vegas.
My Dad: Vegas, baby!
Me: Ha! When was your first time to Vegas?
My Dad: Dad was the opening act at the Sand's Hotel in 1952, in the Copa Room, when the hotel first opened. In '52, I was four years old. I'm sure my parents took me then.
Me: What do you remember about that time? I know you were really young.
My Dad: I went there once or twice every year for two- to three-week stints until I was at least 18 years old. In the younger years, it was just exciting. Walking into the casino was like walking into the middle of a starship. It was noisy and full of life, with bells and a lot of blinking. And it was the forbidden fruit. I wasn't allowed to be in there.
I used to sneak in to the nickel slots, run up and put a coin in a machine, pull the arm and run back out. If I ever won, I could never collect. The guards used to come and chase me away. It was kind of like that book, "Eloise at the Plaza." I had free run of the place and I ran all around.
When I got older, I started spending the evenings watching Dad perform.
Me: Can you describe to me what it felt like to walk into the back of the Copa Room on a night Bubba was performing?
My Dad: Well, unlike today, a night out in Vegas was a very fancy occasion. People lined up. And everyone was dressed in suits -- a coat and tie -- and the women were dressed to the nines. The maitre d' was wore that starched tuxedo. There was a big life-sized painting of Dad that was hung by the door. Every time a star performed, they had these big paintings -- like when Dean was there, or when Frank was there. When Dad was there they hung his painting.
And you would walk in and, of course, the family would be in the VIP line and we would walk right past the giant line. And there would be this magical place. Dad didn't like us sitting up front because he didn't want to look down and see us. We always sat off to the side in the wing. And the place was just abuzz. Everyone was very excited to be in the Copa Room.
There were times I went to both shows -- I'd go to the dinner show and the late show -- because I wanted to see him work. I wanted to pay attention to the details, and see the defference between the two shows and how each audience reacted. Sometimes different things worked at different times; and laughs came where there weren't any in the early show.
Me: Do you remember any big names? Were you ever really awed by someone you saw in the audience?
My Dad: In the audience, not so much, but backstage after the shows. You know, Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra might be playing the next week, and they would come in a day or two early sometimes. And they'd come back and visit. That was always interesting. And other comedians who were performing in other venues would come by and say hi -- Milton Berle and Don Rickles, Shecky Green. And all of the TV stars, too. It was a big deal to go to the Copa Room, and stars of that time would come backstage and say hi to Dad.
And the Copa Girls always amazed me. I mean, these were long-legged girls dressed with giant headpieces and sometimes wings on their backs. All kinds of craziness. It was surrealistic.
Me: I can imagine. So do you remember any particular night or moment that sticks out?
My Dad: I don't know if it was just one specific thing. I guess because I used to hear him talk about his act. I would notice the way he timed things. Dad's delivery was always very precise. He used dialects for his characters. And I'd observe the emphasis he would put on certain lines, and then stare at the audience. They would just laugh and laugh and laugh as he paused. It was just interesting to observe him doing that. The timing of it. Leaning into the jokes at certain perfectly placed moments.
Dad always used to say his biggest pleasure was the silence. In the middle of talking, he would stop -- dead stop -- and there wasn't anything. There was just dead silence in the room. And that's when he knew he had 'em, because they were listening and waiting in anticipation. And then on the other side of it, he used to love to make them laugh to the point that the joke was so big that their heads flew to the back of the room, then forward to the front of the stage, and then back again. He called that, "the field of wheat."
After the shows, we would go to eat Chinese food at around 2 o'clock in the morning. And Dad would eat because he couldn't go to sleep for a couple of hours after being on stage. And he would discuss his show -- what was good, what was bad, how he was going to take different pieces and move them around; take the audience to different places at different moments in the show. Things like that. Listening to him taught me how to entertain an audience.
Me: So I guess that's the root of my storytelling, huh? You watched your dad, and I watched you.
My Dad: You grew up with a father who was in show business, and you spent lots of time with me on set and in the editing room, watching me craft stories for TV audiences. And now you craft stories for internet audiences. From stage to TV to internet, it's in your DNA. It is a link we all share. Bubba would be proud.
Me: Wow. Thanks, Dad! And thank you for sharing your stories with me.
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I really love how this seemingly unrelated topic of time travel led me down a path to connect with my own family heritage. If one thing is for sure, both my dad and my grandfather worked very hard at becoming masterful storytellers. And this whole affair certainly gives me fuel and reassurance that I'm on the right track.
And it helps highlight my goals in life. I aim to entertain with my videos and my written content. But I also aim to inspire people to seek out exciting experiences through travel.
I want to help you feel alive, get out that door, let in other worlds, acquire new ways of thinking, and make new connections. For me, it's about helping enhance your life.
And to that end: here is an inside tip to help you make your travel dreams come true. In the spirit of "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," Expedia is giving away a six-day trip for two to the history-rich countries of France, Greece and Italy (winner's choice)! Here's the link to their Travel the World Sweepstakes page to enter to win!