PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — The piano player wants to know, does he have to stay for Sonny's act? The time before last, another old comic made him hang around 45 minutes just to play a little hut-tut-tut to close the show.
"No offense," the musician says. "I'll play for the girl singer, then give you your intro, then head out."
"Go, go," the comic answers, flipping his hand at the wrist. "Bob Hope, this isn't. I'm a hit with music. I'm a hit without."
Forty years in the business, Sonny Sands doesn't need a piano. He could use a few pounds since he had the surgery, and it would be nice if they paid him more than peanuts. But laughs he can still get without a piano, knock wood.
A half-hour later, slight as a pixie, he walks on stage. He is 69, and many in the audience have blown out more candles than that. He puts a cup of coffee by the piano for when his throat gets dry. Then he opens his palms and shrugs his shoulders.
"I can see you didn't expect such a big, good-looking guy out here," he tells them--and off he goes, into his lifeblood, into his shtick.
This is the South Florida condominium circuit, and Sonny Sands is a condo comic, playing out the last laughs in the recreation halls of an American retirement capital. Sonny will tell you that at this stage of the game all he wants to do is to get on, get off, get the money and go home.
But that's a fib. Stay around a bit and he talks about what it is to be wanted, to be loved--to make people forget their aches and pains and to make him forget his own. The thing is to keep going.
"Life is like a composition," Sonny Sands says. "There's a beginning, a middle and an end. At first, everything is new and exciting. Then, in the middle, it all begins to look like Newark. Finally, life can become a little disappointing if you let it."
The condo crowd understands this. Like Sonny, they never made it big, never became a name or a millionaire. They had some ups, some downs, some near-misses. Now the years have rocked their dreams to sleep, and there are more memories to remember than memories to be made.
Not that anyone should take up a collection. After all, these people have a place in Florida, a few bucks in the bank and white shoes to go with the new golf bag. Their hip may forecast the weather, but the weather is usually good. They like a good kibitz.
"I enjoy the condominiums," Sonny tells them, a blue pin-stripe suit not quite camouflaging the skinniness of his 110 pounds. "I'm on by 8; the audience is asleep by 8:30; I'm home by 9:15.
"Recently, I worked a convention of doctors. I think they booked me because I looked like a patient."
The delivery is slow, with a rhythm that massages the room like ointment. What goes over are jokes about a visit from the grandchildren, the widows who want to dance with the widowers, a trip to the eye doctor:
"I told him my right eye is blurry. He said, I'm sorry, I'm only a left eye doctor. In the next building is a right eye doctor."
Dirty No Good
Mention a street in Brooklyn and applause fizzes up like seltzer. The birds and bees make good material, but never the pollinating. Dirty is no good here.
"She was wearing a V-neck dress. So I asked her, is that V for victory? No, it's V for virgin, she said. You're a virgin? I asked. No, she said, it's an old dress."
God bless, Sonny says, that there are still places to tell these jokes. After all, for a comic, live entertainment is not so alive these days.
Las Vegas and Atlantic City are for the big stars. Even in the Borscht Belt--the few remaining resorts in the Catskill Mountains--they mostly use names that at least ring a bell, a Red Buttons or a Henny Youngman or a Sid Caesar.
So, if not the Florida condominiums, where else could the old-timers go--guys like Sonny Sands and Lou Shor and Eddie Barton, guys who made a little noise but never so much it didn't die down?
'I Was Good'
"I was never that big a talent," Sonny says, staring back across the spotlights of a thousand lounges, drinks on the tables and hookers at the bar. "I was good. I was big. But I was never that big."
Long time ago, when Sonny was a boy in Brooklyn, and the boy's name was Seymour Schneider, a comic could find all the work he wanted within a 5-cent subway ride. Then, in the summers, there was the Borscht Belt. Sonny started out in a tiny hotel. He was part bellboy, part chauffeur, part emcee.
After a while, he stole enough jokes to break in an act. He was lousy, but he didn't know it. That's a good thing. Being lousy is bad enough without getting hit in the eye with it.
In those days, everyplace needed some kind of show, and the comics worked doubles and triples, driving like madmen from job to job on the same night.
Some of them eventually became big hits--Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis and the rest. Go believe in miracles--Jack Roy dropped out to sell paint for a living, then started over as Rodney Dangerfield and is now a superstar at 64. His new movie made $80 million!