Lounge act turned state poet laureate fights to keep post

Norman Kaye

Norman Kaye

LAS VEGAS - "It's a catchy little tune, isn't it?" asks Norman Kaye, the author and singer of this 1970 lounge ditty and, for the past 37 years, the official poet laureate of Nevada.

One problem, though. Kaye has never published a poem - or a "quote, poem, unquote," as he prefers to call it. Lyrics, he says, certainly have a poetry all their own.

The Nevada Arts Council says the time has come to put a real poet in the honorary, unpaid post. But a funny thing has happened on the way to its plan to make Kaye the Nevada poet laureate emeritus, and start rotating others into three-year hitches as the active laureate. Kaye is fighting to keep his job.

"I don't want to be the emeritus," explains Kaye, almost spitting out the last word. "Emeritus sounds like you're practically a dead guy. Do I look dead to you?"

Kaye is 82.

The ruckus over Kaye's status has put the arts council on the defensive and caused a political headache for Gov. Kenny C. Guinn. Kaye was first appointed by Gov. Grant Sawyer, a friend and big fan of his music. He has served seven governors.

Kaye is a sprightly man with a crooner's voice, bantam air and carefully combed salt-and-pepper hair. He had his heyday in Vegas in the '50s and '60s, when he played bass violin and sang with the Mary Kaye Trio. The group, headlined by his sister, cut 12 albums and played at the Frontier, the Sahara and the Tropicana.

He also wrote several successful jingles, including "Throw a Dime My Way," which became the theme song for the national March of Dimes, and "Have a Heart, Lend a Hand," the theme for Variety Club International, another charitable group. When his singing career wound down, he went on to become one of the biggest real estate agents here.

As disputes over state poets laureate go, the Nevada dust-up is not especially huge.

The New Jersey Legislature, for instance, voted to abolish its poet laureate program last year after its honoree, Amiri Baraka, wrote a poem, "Somebody Blew Up America," implying that Jews knew in advance about the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

California's poet laureate, Quincy T. Troupe, resigned in 2002 after a routine background check revealed he did not have a college degree that was listed on his resume. The vacancy has not been filled.

Indiana has two poets laureate, one designated by the Legislature and another by a privately funded poets society.

And Pennsylvania - to the consternation of poets and others in the literary community of the state where the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Gettysburg Address were produced - has left its poet laureate post vacant for the last few years.

In those 36 states that do have poets laureate, the pay is generally low or nonexistent, and the responsibilities often vague at best. Kaye, for instance, told a reporter a few years back that "nobody asks me to do diddly-do" as poet laureate, though he said he was very proud to hold the post.

Actually, he explained more recently from his home in a gated community at the western fringes of Las Vegas, he probably appeared five times or so a year at schools and women's clubs.

"A lot of the times I sang, sometimes I read" other people's poems, Kaye says. "It was always a lot of fun."

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What have we got that you haven't got?

No personal taxes in Nevada.

And what have we got that you haven't got?

Not a lot of smog.

Where do we go when we wanna go?

We go up to Lake Tahoe, or to Reno

And there's Elko and Ely,

And Carson City, too, a rooty-tooty-too.

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Kaye especially enjoys singing that jingle - which he wrote in 1969 as a lounge song - to a visitor. He doesn't sing in public much anymore, though he is not forgotten here: He is one of about 90 people honored in the Casino Legends Hall of Fame, a museum at the Tropicana.

When the Arts Council announced a few weeks ago that it would make Kaye the laureate emeritus, no one seemed to have thought he would feel particularly dishonored. Council officials said they simply wanted to promote poetry and that Kaye should take no offense at the emeritus designation.

"As I've tried to tell Norman and everyone else, it's our hope that this can be a win-win for everybody," says Shaun Griffin, a poet in Virginia City and a council member who is coordinating the search.

Griffin is also editor of "Desert Wood: An Anthology of Nevada Poets," a 1991 University of Nevada book that includes the work of 49 poets - Kaye not among them.

The poets - including Joan Cutuly, Robert Dodge, James Hazen, Billie Jean James, Stephen Liu and A. Wilber Stevens - wrote of topics ranging from personal journeys to the desert landscape and the lights of Las Vegas.

Griffin says the umbrage Kaye has taken can be smoothed over.

"I don't want to do the line in the sand," Griffin says. "We're going to work it out."

But Kaye will have none of it, and says the matter rests with Guinn.

"I serve at the pleasure of the governor, and these arts people are trying to do an end-run around the governor," says Kaye, sitting at a kitchen table covered in a mass of documents he's using to press his fight.

The evidence includes sheet music, proclamations by Nevada governors, and yellowed news clippings and pictures detailing Kaye's dealings with celebrities, including three U.S. presidents, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tiny Tim.

Kaye says the governor called him a few weeks ago about the spat and promised to "look into it." But Kaye has not heard back from him.

"The governor wants to make sure Norman is involved and honored and remains active," says Greg Bortolin, Guinn's director of communications. "We probably could have been a little bit more graceful in how we've handled this."

The position of poet laureate was created in 1957, and two people held the title before Kaye: Mildred Breedlove, an author of somewhat lyrical poems about the desert, and L.B. "Tutor" Scherer, a self-described "gambler and a rambler" and a flamboyant showman who celebrated Vegas nightlife in his poetry.

Kaye acknowledges that holding on to the title has perhaps taken on an outsize importance in his life, as other parts of it have slipped away. His third wife, Cheryle, a former Miss Nevada who was one of the finalists in the 1964 Miss America pageant - to whom he was married 39 years - died last year. She was 59.

Kaye has moved four times in the last two years, most recently into the house of a companion, Barbara Ann Meriwether, who is a widow.

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Kaye began his show business career as a child. His father, Johnny Kaaihue, better known as Johnny Ukulele for the instrument he played, put Norman and his sister to work at an early age. They traveled the country as Johnny Kaaihue and the Royal Hawaiians.

After World War II, Kaye shortened his last name. He migrated to Las Vegas and started up the Mary Kaye Trio with his sister and an accordionist from Cleveland, Biagio Rossario Blogna, who later changed his name to Frank Ross.

The group worked with up-and-coming entertainers, including a young Ronald Reagan. They recorded dozens of songs, such as "Besame Mucho," "My Funny Valentine" and "April in Paris." The trio disbanded in 1966.

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Arts Council officials, in Carson City, announced a Tuesday deadline for nominations for a new poet laureate to serve from 2005 through 2007.

"The mission," the announcement says, "is to promote poetry as both an art form and a means of inspirational public commentary."

Up to three finalists will be selected based on the criteria of "distinguished achievements, quality of work and ability to advance poetry in the public domain." The governor is to make the final selection.

Guinn is clearly feeling pressure from Kaye and some of Kaye's friends to abandon the whole process for now. Or at least, as Kaye's sister, Mary, 80, puts it, to find some way of letting Kaye keep his title.

"They should make it like the president and vice president," says Mary Kaye. "If Norman passes on, then that other person steps in."


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