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Newton says 'Danke Schoen' to U.S. military

Performer took over from Bob Hope
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wayne Newton has received plenty of standing ovations in his day, but the response he got on a USO tour of Iraq was still extraordinary.

“(The soldiers) stand up when you walk out onstage,” Newton told The Associated Press in a dressing-room interview after a recent performance here. “They’re so happy to see somebody from home.”

Newton took over from Bob Hope as chief trouper for the United Service Organizations two years ago.

His 20-member troupe recently returned from Kuwait and Iraq. Audiences ranged from several hundred to several thousand. At Balad, a major supply depot north of Baghdad, soldiers started showing up hours early.

“You could not be lousy enough to ruin the evening,” Newton said, quoting the late comedian Jack Benny, for whom the singer used to open in Nevada.

The troupe stayed overnight at Camp Anaconda at Balad, where there was incoming mortar fire, said Julie Moulas, one of two Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders who went along. It was her 12th USO tour.

“The first time I went, I don’t think I knew what I was getting into,” Moulas said.

They visited a few military camps each day for handshakes, hugs, snapshots and to talk. At a school, Newton, actor Gary Sinise and singers Neal McCoy and Chris Isaak sang a cappella for Iraqi children. They rode out in a military convoy.

At 61, Newton has been around, and around again. At 6, he sang for President Truman. He appeared on Lucille Ball’s TV show.

His first USO tour came in 1966. He’d been rejected by the military due to severe asthma, which he says left his lungs scarred. After enthusiastic Marines filled a Lake Tahoe audience one night, he decided to go to Vietnam. He went again two years later.

Newton and some of his musicians and backup singers — “the ones who can pass through security,” he joked onstage — have done seven overseas tours in the past two years.

A troupe of five played Kabul, Afghanistan, soon after U.S. troops took control of the city. The show was cut short by a general’s order, apparently when shooting resumed and troops were needed elsewhere, Newton said.

They flew out of Iraq on a C-130 transport plane that hugged the ground and took sharp turns to minimize the threat of rocket attack. “I was up in the cockpit,” McCoy said. “It was wild.”

The USO has sent 30 tours overseas so far this year, with 10 more scheduled, mostly around the holidays. Spokeswoman Donna St. John said they’re funded by donations. “The entertainers do not get paid. It’s all volunteer,” she said.

In Schenectady, Newton performed his holiday show for a near-sellout crowd of 2,400 peppered with gray hair and red sweaters. His hair was high, stiff and as black as his tuxedo, worn over a holiday red shirt. When he played flamenco guitar, his diamond Piaget watch glittered.

Newton sang his signature “Danke Schoen” and said later his voice was a little raspy. “But it’s nothing I can’t work through and around.”

He had the houselights raised, asked all the veterans to stand, and saluted.

Outside, about 30 fans waited on a frigid night around the idling white stretch limousine.

Newton ended the show with “Silent Night,” reading an anonymous Christmas Eve poem written by a soldier in World War II.

He closed to a standing ovation.