- Lon Bronson, Mark OToole
Mark OToole will never forget the moment he was told that he was afflicted with Stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The physician rendering that diagnosis asked him, “How do you feel about toupees?”
OToole halted, processing the meaning of that question. Then he responded, “Screw that. I have a life. I have dogs to take care of. This is not going to happen.”
Five years later, OToole is living that life. That he is singing the great American standards at Vinyl in the Hard Rock Hotel, a resort built for such artists as Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses, is one of the more delightfully unexpected developments in our city’s entertainment scene.
OToole has been one of Las Vegas’ most popular lounge singers over the past 25 years. Popular, in a word-of-mouth sort of way. He grew up in Boston, owning an extensive education in music and theater, and moved to Las Vegas only after a successful career in radio -– but not as a singer. OToole was a voiceover character actor on a nationally syndicated interview show based in Hollywood and hosted by Jay Thomas, who played Eddie LeBec on “Cheers” and talk-show host Jerry Gold on “Murphy Brown.”
The radio gig was a lot of fun for OToole, who interviewed the celebrities of the day while performing an impression of Thomas’ grandmother. But OToole has always been a singer at the core and in the late 1980s acted on an urge to move to Las Vegas and try his luck as a lounge entertainer.
As OToole relocated, he earned a spot on “Star Search,” defeating a five-time winner by covering Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe.”
The national TV appearance helped OToole secure steady gigs and develop a solid following in lounges across the city, including the Riviera, Stardust, Aladdin and every MGM Resorts and Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment) hotel-casino in Vegas.
But one night in July 2007, while showering after a gig at Paris Las Vegas, OToole felt a lump under his chin. It is said there is no such thing as a “good” lump, and that was the case for OToole.
He was initially told that he had a cold and prescribed penicillin, but the tumor remained. Within two weeks, dozens more surfaced, and he had developed a fist-sized lump in his throat.
OToole was clearly in no condition to sing. He was barely in condition to do anything except consent to aggressive chemotherapy treatment for cancer. A team of 10 doctors agreed that OToole had four to six weeks to live. They told him to organize his affairs and hope for the best.
OToole’s 87-year-old mother moved in with him in his Las Vegas home. His friends rushed to his aid. He never said the “C Word” and refused to give in. He never did place fake hair on his head.
There were depressing moments, to be sure. One night, he awoke, having shed 40 pounds during treatment, and looked into the mirror at a round, gray face he did not recognize. He didn’t know if he would ever return to full health. But in the midst of chemo treatments, OToole was hired for a weekend engagement at the Riviera. Wearing a suit and a baseball cap, he sang through illness and depression. He did everything his doctors asked and gradually beat back the disease.
Nearly three years after detecting the first small lump, OToole was in full remission and cancer free.
In March 2010, OToole made his return to the stage official: He was introduced by his good friend Sally Struthers (the same Sally Struthers who played Gloria on “All in the Family”) at a comeback performance at Bootlegger Bistro. That appearance was the launch party for OToole’s new CD, aptly titled “The Crooner,” and preceded an extended year run at Ravello Lounge in M Resort.
That residency ended in August as the hotel snuffed out much of its live entertainment (Zowie Bowie’s run also has been spiked at M Resort). OToole continued to sing at the Roundbar in Rampart casino on Saturdays at 7 p.m. But it was not clear what direction, if any, his astonishing comeback saga would take.
In a most unlikely outcome, he wound up at the Hard Rock Hotel.
OToole is performing from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays at Vinyl. Yes, it’s a rock club -- but not when the black-suited OToole and his fans turn up. About 150 filed into the venue this weekend, and one commented, “We have upped the age demographic at the Hard Rock by 20 years.”
This is not an entirely random booking. Hard Rock Hotel Chief Executive Officer Jody Lake was GM of M Resort when OToole played Ravello and took a shot that the crooner’s followers would find him at the Hard Rock. There is no admission charge, and the hotel is fine to bring in a healthy crowd and make money off the bar in a room that would otherwise sit dark.
For these afternoon shows, dozens of table are set up in the club (usually the floor is wide open) as OToole, singing to recorded tracks, runs through such standards as “World on a String,” “Moonlight Serenade,” “Love Is in the Air” and “It’s Impossible.” Fans get up and dance, as if in collective choreography, singing along to “All of Me” and Barry Manilow’s “Even Now.”
In what might be a first at the hotel, fans line dance to a few of OToole’s country selections, which hearken to his days as frontman for a country band. During “Baby Likes to Rock It,” a young woman tending bar in a black tank top reading “Weekend Warrior” and a heavy silver Vinyl necklace looked out at the dance floor and smiled.
Suddenly, as if caught up in the moment, she began two-stepping in perfect time with the mass of dancers at the front of the stage. Worlds collide in Vegas, right?
OToole will be performing at Vinyl on Saturdays for the foreseeable future. Other days might open up, too, depending on the response to his weekend appearances.
Most important, this run is open-ended. That’s fitting. OToole, who doesn’t do well with closing dates, wouldn’t have it any other way.