"Rough as hell, sweet as heaven, senior class of '57."Nearly everyone graduating from Lubbock High School in 1957 planned on careers in show business, given Buddy Holly's success. Larry Larson's mother, Maude Larson, had started him out on steel guitar and juggling, then settled for the ukulele. By fifth grade, she had him costumed in this tattered straw hat, fake freckles, a tooth blacked out, a huge, polka-dot bow tie, and oversized overalls. The country corn pone, hayseed, stock-character comedian. And the kids laughed at Larry's laugh. He had memorized these old vaudeville jokes. He sang something like George Burns. It somehow attracted a rich cotton buyer's daughter. Her father had a red Cadillac convertible, a big mansion on Nineteenth Street, lots of fancy foods, and a Doberman that just hated ol' Larry.
Larry was tall, gangly, awkward, with a big nose and Adam's apple, and orange-looking hair. It looked dyed, but was not. Lubbock High football players dyed their hair gold or black for the Spring game. Folks thought Larry was one of them. He wasn't good looking, but he could attract the girls. Maude made him tell folks he was a "song and dance man."
Large Mouth Maude Larson once beat a Hockley County man half to death with a bowling pin at the Cotton Club because she thought he stole her comb. Later, she found it in her purse, as all women do. She didn't feel a bit bad about it. The world-class bitch.
After High School, Larry and his Uncle Ferd (a spelling error followed him through life), expanded the act and took it on the road with a little tent show. They went around West Texas to Floydada, Lamesa, Pampa, Justiceburg, and Ralls before they ran out of money. Larry lied to his dear mother about not getting paid, but you would have lied to the aggressive bitch too, if you had known Maude.
Somehow Maude got Larry and Ferd, that's what they called the act, Larry and Ferd, booked into the lounge of the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas. Larry and the cotton buyer's daughter said their 1960 goodbye in the backseat of his Hudson on a full-moon night, parked on a dirt road right in the flight path by the airport. A big jet came over at exactly the right moment, for him anyway, if not for her.
Larry and Ferd were working this little bitty stage at the Golden Nugget in the afternoons to a little bitty crowd. Basically, Larry wore the same costume from the fifth grade. They had developed some physical comedy -- fake fights, falls and all -- but the stage was too small. When Larry juggled three golf balls, one kept rolling all around the casino floor. As he did in a panic, Larry turned up the volume on his famous laugh. It was this deep, "Ho. Ho. Ho." Followed by this high, "Hee. Hee. Hee." And he'd repeat for a proper interval. It was infectious. You could not help but laugh at or with Larry's laugh. You could hear it all over the casino.
Little Buddy Blair, Las Vegas' best known comedian and front act, was in the gift shop with Sal Bella, who had juice at the Sands. They were drawn to Larry's laugh. A moths and flames prop going in. Buddy wanted Larry to come talk with him about being a "laugher." This was a plant in the audience of Buddy's show, a shill, someone who would start the laughter and had a funny laugh. Larry had always been especially proud of his laugh. He caught on to the idea immediately.
A couple of days later, Larry and Ferd were fired at the Golden Nugget. The boss said, "People don't come out here to feel like hicks." He refused to pay them, saying Maude had lied about their Los Angeles and New York tours. You would have hated Maude. I absolutely promise that you would have hated Maude!
Ferd hi-tailed it for the flat lands. Larry called Little Buddy Blair, explaining he had dry pockets on Fremont Street, America's worst place to be broke. Sal Bella made a phone call and the man paid Buddy for the whole two weeks, not thirty minutes later. Old Vegas. Juice. Much later, Larry asked Buddy about Sal Bella's visible power in Las Vegas. Little Buddy said, "He is one of those boys from Illinois." And he winked.
So Larry became Buddy Blair's laugher at varied clubs around Las Vegas. Larry was born for it. Best laugher in the history of the town! A legend! Maude was furious. Good! In no time, Buddy wrote a few lines for Larry. Buddy might have Larry interrupt, or be the mock heckler that lost every time to Buddy, just like Larry's bad-guy, wrestling uncle, Rowdy Pat O'Dowdy, would always lose in the end. Larry took to being a laugher like a duck takes to Scrabble.
Then Buddy provided Las Vegas native Jana Crawford, a six-foot, gorgeous chorus girl with natural, gigantic boobies, to sit with Larry. They'd do some bit of comic business: a fake fight, a walk out. Buddy, and the two brothers he had started out with, wrote new material every week. The couple looked funny, because Jana was so good looking and Larry was so not.
Little Buddy Blair got booked at the Sands to front the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. Sal Bella never appeared on any papers as an employee of the Sands, but he had maximum juice. He wandered around, quietly telling folks what to do. He even went into the count room. That's juice! Sal, who had zero in common with Lubbock Larry, adopted him, Old Vegas style. He became his official "sponsor." Now Larry and Jana were eating comp lobster and steak and learning about the finer comp wines. Life was good. Larry was the only guy around who can't tell that Jana is falling for him, until she just flat laid him down.
Sal spent his off hours teaching Larry how to deal blackjack and work the craps table. He wanted to teach Larry to be a gambler where he could make something out of himself. Sal Bella had worked in every imaginable type of gambling joint starting out in Chicago.
Then the word came down, "Eighty-six the laugher." Somebody up high, with more juice than Sal, wanted Larry fired, and he was. He spent the rest of his life thinking it was Frank Sinatra, or maybe Maude someway. She'd do it. Gaff the prop.
Sal Bella placed Larry dealing blackjack right outside the showroom door. Some nights, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin would take over dealing at a blackjack table. They'd just give the casino's money away, by not collecting bets or over-paying bets. One night Frank and Dean took over Larry "the Laugher" Larson's table, and kept putting tips and chips in his pockets. Sal was looking on, and Larry could not tell how Sal felt about it. Sal demanded and got his taste of the $12,000 score Larry tipped over. Thirty percent.
When Larry heard that casino manager, Carl Cohen, had knocked Frank Sinatra's two-front teeth out, he turned up that signature laugh, so that you could hear it up and down the whole Strip. Some Sands' employees applauded. Frank Sinatra was not kind to the little people.
A group from the Saudi royal family came to shoot dice upstairs in a private room at the Sands. Sal made somebody put Larry on the stick, even though it was above Larry's skill level. The Saudis loved Larry's laugh, and shoved so many tips and chips Larry's way, that Jana insisted they get married. Maude refused to come to the wedding, even though Sal offered to pay for her airline ticket. She sent some roses that were dyed black. Like the box office, Maude had no heart.
Larry started telling Sal Bella all about the cotton buyer's daughter and trading cotton futures. They put together a little bankroll and threw in partners trading cotton. Sal was very uncomfortable fading a proposition where he could not cheat, but they played lucky. It had nothing to do with Larry's barnyard patter about the weather, noxious chemicals, boll weevils, and drought in Mississippi. They made serious, lucky money for six years before Sal Bella vanished.... left no word of farewell. Will there be not a trace left behind? Little Buddy, Jana, and Larry held a little ceremony for Sal, but they never asked questions around town. Old Vegas.
Larry and Jana had a whole lot of money saved, until they decided to form a country-music singing duet. They tried it in Nashville awhile. They went broke making demos, and then records to sell in truck stops across the south. That made Maude really happy, the double-mean bitch. They limped back to Lubbock broke, and Maude took them in. Maude wouldn't speak to them. She left hurtful, vicious notes for them on a Big Chief tablet every morning. She made them go to the grocery store to get her a Moon Pie and an R.C. Cola, every single night. Maude kept a bowling pin on the mantle, right under an autographed picture of Jesus Christ. His eyes would move, and follow you around the room.
Johnny Hughes is the author of the novel Texas Poker Wisdom.