STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Entertainer Tony Orlando sure is excited that there’s a Sands Casino in Bethlehem.
“I always wanted to do my Christmas show in Bethlehem,” he said of bringing his “Great American Christmas” Branson show to The Christmas City. The production is booked to run 10 days, with 12 performances in all, at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center.
The singer famous for ‘70s hits like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” “Knock Three Times,” “Candida” and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” revealed in a phone interview that he particularly enjoys being in the Lehigh Valley region because of the “symbiotic, warm, loving relationship” he has with the people there.
“You might think this is interview talk, but I swear to all that is holy, this area has affected me in my heart. I look at the beauty of the buildings and the hills and the change of seasons,” said Orlando.
He also waxed romantic on the Sands being built on the Bethlehem Steel campus. “They’re almost like rising phoenixes. ‘Hey man, don’t forget about us — we won (World War II)’,” Orlando said of the surrounding hulking, deserted steel mill facilities.
“It’s not penguins, ice skaters or scarves, I can tell you that,” he said, describing his Christmas show as inspirational — with music, drama and comedy honoring “the true meaning of Christmas.” Sure, he’ll sing “White Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad,” but audiences will also get the hits, like “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose,” and maybe even a song you’d never expect to hear Tony Orlando sing in a million years, like Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
“Robert Plant, he’s older than me,” quipped the 71-year-old Orlando, who entered the show biz world at 16 as a recording studio singer. In the years leading up to the breakout success of Tony Orlando and Dawn, Orlando was appointed by Clive Davis to be vice-president and general manager of CBS Records’ April-Blackwood music label when he was just 23 years old. One of Orlando’s most successful moves as a record company executive was signing Barry Manilow.
“I’ve worked with Jackie Wilson, Jackie Gleason, Jackie Cooper and Jackie Robinson,” Orlando said of his 54-year career. “I’ve been really fortunate to work with people that changed the music business.”
That would include his former singing partners in Dawn, Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson. According to Orlando, the duo already had an impressive resume singing backup on hit songs by The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes and others when he approached them about singing with him full-time. The group hosted a variety program, “The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show,” on CBS from 1974-1976. “We were the first multi-racial singing group with a prime-time television show,” said Orlando, emphasizing what a big deal that was by pointing out that “All in the Family,” and its bigoted lead character Archie Bunker, was one of the most popular shows on TV at that time. “When we were canceled, we had a 37 share — 40 percent of every household in America.”
After Dawn broke up in 1978, Hopkins became a successful TV actress, with roles in “Roots: The Next Generation,” “Bosom Buddies,” “Gimme a Break!,” “Family Matters,” “Are We There Yet?” and more. “Someday, I’d love to do a show with them again,” said Orlando.
Always finding opportunities to pay homage to his childhood heroes, Adam Sandler cast Orlando (as well as rapper Vanilla Ice) in his 2012 movie “That’s My Boy.” “Tony, I used to come see you on Broadway when I was 11 years old,” Orlando recalled Sandler saying to him.
Besides appearing on stage in Branson for 20 seasons, Orlando’s Broadway appearances were in the shows “Barnum” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”
“I had three months in close quarters with the funniest people. We got along so well and I had so much fun. It’s like a family when you work with him,” Orlando said of Sandler and his cast.
Even with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and a trophy case that includes a People’s Choice Award and three American Music Awards, it doesn’t sound like Orlando will ever take what he does for granted. “I go on stage and say to myself: ‘Tony, this may be the last show you ever do. If it’s not your turn, there’s someone in the audience, and this may be the last show they ever see. You bust your (expletive) and you give these people their money’s worth’,” he said.