NORTH TONAWANDA – Although the true stars of the show barely graced the stage, Saturday night in the Riviera Theatre saw a star-studded ensemble give glowing performances for the eighth annual Concert with the Stars – the prelude to today’s 51st annual Variety Kids Telethon for Women & Children’s Hospital on WKBW-TV, Channel 7.
Part of a weekend full of events leading up to one of the nation’s largest and longest-running telethons, the concert merges Variety and “The Riv” in a perfect pairing.
The former was founded in Pittsburgh, where a group of entertainers known as the Variety Club took in a baby who had been abandoned on the steps of the Sheridan Square Film Theatre on Christmas Eve 1928, with a note of hope for “the goodness of showbusiness people.” The latter beauty was built in 1926 and has been revitalized as a nonprofit on the National Register of Historic Places, cared for by a small staff and community of volunteers.
Fittingly, the evening’s entertainment, before a full first floor in the majestic theater, began with a solo performances on “The Mighty Wurlitzer” pipe organ, followed by a welcome from event and longtime WKBW “AM Buffalo” host Linda Pellegrino, who proved to be as bubbly after dusk as she is at dawn. Pellegrino declared the theme of this year’s telethon to be “Making Their Dreams Come True,” and in keeping, she introduced Buffalo-raised Las Vegas headliners the Scintas and Clint Holmes, along with singer/actor Ilene Graff, for a telethon-spun take on the theme song from the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.”
Buffalo’s veteran Elvis impersonator Terry Buchwald arrived onstage on a real motorcycle to give a set of the King’s classics backed by recorded tracks. Saying it’s his 17th year performing for the telethon, he saluted his family and serenaded ladies in the crowd with gifts of sashes and leis before riding off to a standing ovation.
Pellegrino then introduced 2013 event Chairman Mike Benevento and Celebrity Child Emily Klima, 6, who with a little help from her family walked to center stage. Emily, who has cerebral palsy, is a veteran of multiple surgeries and weekly physical therapy, as well as the good will of the City of Good Neighbors.
“It’s pretty amazing what people will do for somebody else, and really what separates Buffalo from other cities,” her father, Tim, told me in 2011, before a benefit for a surgery in St. Louis that successfully eased her spasticity.
Broadway and big-screen star Graff delivered a warm set of songs set to a theme of dreams, from her own in the Mann-Weil/Leiber-Stoller classic “On Broadway” to a nod to the kids, Buffalo and our own Harold Arlen in “Come Rain or Come Shine.” She was accompanied brilliantly by her husband and pianist, Ben Lanzarone, who led an ace 10-piece band of Buffalo talent, including pianist John Hasselback and saxmen Bobby Militello and Dave Schiavone.
A warm memorial was given to the late Art Ginsburg, TV’s “Mr. Food,” who made the telethon a favorite event to attend for 19 years. Torch carrier Howard Rosenthal introduced a tribute video, and Ginsburg’s daughter Carol spoke and took to the piano to play “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with Graff on vocals.
Farnham-raised Vegas star Holmes took over with a show-stopping set that showed no age on the 66-year-old singer, as he danced around the stage with gusto to his greatest hit, “Playground on My Mind,” and earned a standing ovation with a medley of classic ballads.
The Scintas “Let the Good Times Roll” from the get-go, brothers Frankie and Joe serving up a bevy of jokes, as always, with help from another locally raised singer, Ashlee Amoia.
With a closing ensemble take on the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ it to the Streets” and an all-hands-on-board “God Bless America,” the cast sent the crowd to the streets with a convincing sermon to support the kids in today’s 12-hour telethon.