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Gaming Guru

Jerry Fink

Las Vegas Comedy Community Mourns Two Legends

19 December 2005

Within three weeks Las Vegas has lost two giants in the field of comedy.

Joey Villa (Joseph Villani), 68, who counted among his countless friends Pat Morita, died Friday from complications from a stroke suffered in May.

Morita, 73, died Nov. 24 while awaiting a kidney transplant.

The two last performed together at a Celebrity Sunday Brunch at the Plaza last year.

Actor Larry Manetti, who at the time was an executive at the Plaza, hired Villa to host the Sunday morning shows, which featured entertainment friends of the rotund comedian dropping by and performing.

"Joey would call, and these people would come over, just out of respect for him, and perform for nothing -- Lance Burton, Sonny King, Pat Morita," Manetti said during a telephone interview from his home in Woodland Hills, Calif.

He said Villa, who moved to Las Vegas in 1990, and Morita, who moved here in 1994, worked well together.

"They got along great," he said. "It's sad when guys like these go away."

Villa, a native of New York, appeared in a handful of movies, but he made his mark as a stand-up comedian, performing in Las Vegas as well as clubs around the country. He also spent many years performing on cruise ships, and eventually booked acts for the ocean liners.

Villa opened for many entertainers, including Nat King Cole, Paul Anka, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross and the Supremes.

He was a frequent guest on talk shows, including "The Merv Griffin Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show."

Morita became a stand-up comedian in his native California, but then branched out into acting -- he is best known for his roles of Arnold on the TV show "Happy Days" and Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid" movies.

Manetti knew both performers.

"Joey was loved by everyone, from Sinatra on down," he said.

Villa, who was a headliner in "Splash!" at the Riviera for nine years, was a close friend of both Frank Sinatra and of Sinatra's close friend Jilly Rizzo. He gave an eulogy at Rizzo's funeral when the restaurateur and Sinatra ally was killed in a car crash in 1992 in Palm Springs, Calif.

"And Pat, he was a stand-up guy," Manetti said. "Whether he was in jeans or tuxedo, he was 6-feet tall."

Nelson Sardelli, a close friend of Villa, said the comedian will be cremated and his ashes cast into the sea.

"He requested that there not be any services," Sardelli said.

Villa died at a local hospice.

"He was a gentle person," Sardelli said. "Sometimes he looked like he was looking for approval.

"A little accolade, that's want he wanted."

One friend described him as "happy on the outside, but sad on the inside.

"He was sort of a lonely person, but at the same time loved to be around people and make them laugh. But I think that is the way most comedians are."

Villa had no children.

Survivors include three sisters, Santina Perugini of Bronx, N.Y.; Jenny Coccoza of Waterbury, Conn.; and Bessie Fusco of Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

His former wife, Kathy, who sells real estate in Southern California, said she and her husband were divorced in 1982, but remained close friends.

"He was a gentle man, a much kinder man than most people knew," she said. "He was born to make people laugh -- and he made thousands laugh and applaud, and for a very short time they would forget their problems.

In a tribute, Kathy Villa wrote:

"Joey's famous opening line to his act for over 40 years was, 'I'm going to live until I die,' and he would drop to the stage floor.

"Every audience roared with laughter, and Joey stood up, began his show and kept the audience laughing throughout his entire performance. At the end they always applauded and cheered and left smiling, feeling they were parting as friends."

A happy ending

A destitute family from Louisiana finally received some good news -- their stolen car is being replaced and they are moving from a blue-collar apartment complex into a luxury apartment near the Strip.

A benefactor is donating the use of a condominium (at a location he did not want disclosed) for six months to 18-year-old aspiring R&B artist Sarah Todora and her father, Phil.

Another benefactor is donating a 1993 Mercury Topaz to the family, replacing their 1986 Honda Accord that was stolen two weeks ago from the apartment complex where they have lived since arriving in the valley in August.

The two settled in Las Vegas after Hurricane Katrina devastated areas of their home state.

Newport Pacific Records, a local recording company, held a fundraiser Thursday night at the downtown Celebrity club for the Todoras and for musician Ernie Cosse and his family.

While the Todoras had already arrived in Las Vegas when Katrina hit, the Cosses survived the storm, but lost almost all of their possessions.

About 30 members of the Cosse family came to Las Vegas.

"There are so many, we are having a rough time helping them," said Margaret White, head of the independent recording company.

More than a dozen local musicians performed at Thursday night's benefit, which included a silent auction.

The amount of money raised has not been determined, White said. But the money will go to help both the Cosse and Todora families.

Friday, Encore Productions extended an offer of jobs to member of the two families.

"Seeing all of this happening," Phil Todora said after receiving news about the condo and car, "the things that people are doing is incredible. Something bigger than me is going on here."

White, who is a mortgage banker in addition to chief executive of the recording company, said many of her friends in the building industry attended the fundraiser.

"They are a wonderful group of people," she said.

Her husband, Larry, was one of the performers at the benefit.

Larry White has conducted orchestras around the world and has been the conductor for such entertainers as Johnny Mathis and Dusty Springfield.

Three years ago the Las Vegas couple decided to begin their own independent label.

In addition to providing opportunities for musicians to record, the Whites are using their company for the benefit of charitable causes, such as needy families.

They routinely make donations to the UNLV Foundation and Opportunity Village.