The Church of Phil

Crooner Phil Shane just wants the world to love him. With his wife, Michlene, hes gotten off to a good start. And now, with a Vegas tryout, all his dreams may come true

Photo by Denise TruscelloPhil Shane is ministering to the lovesick, the aged, the hip and the drunk. From atop his high stage, he bends down for the laying on of hands: in this case, a slow, tender kiss (sans tongue) for a giggling blonde who pretends to faint and then snatches his long white scarf as a pilgrim's relic.

The Celebration Lounge at Las Vegas' Tropicana Hotel and Casino is spacious, with high ceilings accented in copper and teal. Low, comfortable bucket chairs in what seems to be black pleather surround tiny tables littered with the remains of margaritas. The stage is roomy enough for his rack of sequined jackets, which he swaps according to his mood or song list.

This is neither Santa Ana's crusty Fling—equal parts groping 70-year-olds and pierced kids, where Shane sings from behind and sometimes atop the C-shaped piano bar—nor Dana Point's graying and wealthy Harpoon Henry's. It is not Fullerton's slightly creepy 2J's—a fun dive with just a whiff of speed freak—or the crowded, literally underground La Cave. It is none of the OC spots at which Shane has been gigging since 1972. Thirty years. And after 30 years, this, baby, is Vegas, even if his slot is in the middle of the afternoon.

At 5 p.m., the small crowd is still slumped into its seats. To our right is a quartet of cute folk in their very early 20s, possibly even late teens. The girls are pretty if not flashy, and their companions are dorky Midwestern guys. All are sullen for a while. But soon they understand the program: Shane will sing every song they throw at him, smiling like Stevie Wonder all the while. And if he doesn't have the request on the minidiscs he switches during the set—this is professional karaoke, hon—then he will pick up his guitar and play it. "Copacabana"? Certainly! A little Creedence? He'll get on it next! Right now, he's gonna do a little Tom Jones. Are there any Tom Jones fans here tonight? He leads us through "Delilah" and "What's New, Pussycat?" Like Jones, Shane's black pants are so tight that if he were a woman, he'd be sporting a cameltoe. I didn't think that in this environment, he'd come so close to touching his unit, but indeed his hand is mere millimeters away. Aw, yeah!

Shane will work so hard tonight, taking no breaks, pouring gallons of sweat and affixing a smile to his face every second he's onstage—but it's never, ever fake. Indeed, he would work equally hard if there were only three tables full. All he wants, God willing, is for people to enjoy themselves and have a little party. He just wants to be loved.

By 6 p.m., to the rollicking strains of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good," the girls talk the boys into dancing: though goofy, the boys try their best, undulating clumpily while the girls shake their buns with sexy grace. Later, two much cockier young men in caps and baggy jeans (they look like Irvine guys trying to be Huntington Beach thugs but unwilling to commit to the tattoos) will come and hover over the girls until the Iowans are banished. Vegas is a soap opera, and we are glued to it.

But when Shane puts on his white, studded Elvis jacket and silly, big sunglasses, the interlopers have not yet appeared. Iowa is still happily in the game, and the quartet whoops and hollers.

A break is enforced at 7:30 p.m. so that a big spin of big prizes can commence. Shane, as any of his Orange County fans will attest, does not take breaks, but this is Vegas, and he's not going to make waves. The spin is lame: nobody wins the $1,000 top prize or even the $100 prize. Instead, each of the spinners is granted dinner at Calypso's (the Trop's coffee shop) or tickets to Rick Thomas, who, judging by his publicity still, is a lonely Siegfried and Roy knock-off without the aid and comfort of a big-haired partner/longtime companion. A lovely showgirl with a face straight out of 1934 (Clara Bow lips and porcelain beauty) points to stuff, her gut sucked in every second of her shift. Her teal thong looks terribly uncomfortable to the feminine eye, but the men in my party are oblivious to her pain. They are cruel and demanding in their love.

Every Tuesday through Saturday Shane's set begins at 3 p.m.—an uncivilized hour in Las Vegas, Nevada—and ends by 8:20 p.m. The Trop management actually wanted him to do sets that ran slightly shy of an hour, with breaks in between. But Phil Shane does not do that to his fans. And by 8:20 p.m., everyone is a fan: old, mean Danish ladies will be stealing any seat that's left unattended for even a moment.

Phil and wife Michlene on a Vegas overpass.
Photo by Denise Truscello

In his silly glasses, grinning like a moron, Shane sings the Elvis classic "Love Me." I climb onto my date's lap and sprawl there, overcome. The quartet are no longer wry, laconic sneerers. They sway, enthralled and touched. They understand now. They get it. They have joined the Church of Phil. And watching over it all, enthroned at a table surrounded by Orange County friends and gazing at him with an omnipresent shy smile, is Phil's wife of eight years, Michlene. Love him? Oh, she does!

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