Frank Marino tells us his story: The crisis that hurt him, the fans that got him through it, and his love for Vegas’ Golden Era past

Frank Marino said he is ready for the new chapter in his life, and looking forward to being the permanent emcee of "Legends in Concert" as Joan Rivers. He starts his new job Feb. 10. The show plays at the Tropicana, a hotel where Rivers once headlined.

It’s been a hell of a time for Las Vegas headliner and female impersonator, Frank Marino. Most of us have read about his troubles in the paper or heard about it on local TV. More often, it was gossip fodder, everywhere on social media, not to mention the bloggers. Probably none of us fully understand the drama that went down.

The Spectrum spent several days with Marino, listening to him describe what he has been through and what’s next for him.

Wearing a black tuxedo onesie, Marino sits in his Summerlin mansion’s living room. It and the adjoining kitchen have sexy splashes of red that stand out against the glossy white backdrop. Marino bought the home in Eagle Hills, a gated community, about four years ago. He stripped it down and said he put a “queens ransom” into the home’s renovations.

Now, he’s consumed with renovating his career, which was turned upside down on June 30, 2018 when his show, “Frank Marino’s Divas Las Vegas,” was abruptly closed at the Linq Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

He has weathered what seemed to have been a perfect storm that completely changed his life and he is now starring as Joan Rivers in “Legends in Concert” at the Tropicana. He just signed the longest and most lucrative contract in Legends history, according to Legends recent press release.

At his house, he is converting part of the large garage into a custom closet to house his expansive collection of gowns, some designed by the great Bob Mackie.

“I want everything out of storage and very accessible,” he said.

Marino, sitting on a custom, button tufted, white sofa, is fully engaged in the conversation, all the while still riding an emotional roller coaster as he tells his side of the story.

“It sent me to a black place with no glimmer of light at all,” the 56-year-old performer recalled. “I played out all of the stages of death: denial, anger, depression, all of it. For the first time in my life I sought out therapy with a psychiatrist. It was exhausting.”

Frank Marino with Oprah
Frank Marino as Joan Rivers with Joan Rivers

He found himself caught up in a crushing media cycle that went on for more than a week. His show closed. Speculation and gossip, magnified by irresponsible bloggers and social media, mostly written by people who had no idea what really happened, took its toll. “Everywhere I turned, people were claiming to be ‘in-the-know’ on what happened. I was reading stuff about the Nevada Gaming Control Board, charity scandals, internal hotel investigations and that I had stiffed Nevada on their Live Entertainment Tax. Even worse, I was being accused of ‘stealing from sick children.’

“As someone who voluntarily and eagerly gave thousands of dollars to children’s charities, that hurt! “I could not get anyone to understand my story because it was so convoluted,” he said. “My lawyers told me not to go on TV and talk. I think people took my silence as guilt.”

It didn’t help that Marino issued a statement that he was “personally embarrassed and ashamed,” and also stated, “I take full responsibility and am sincerely apologetic for this situation.” Marino told the Spectrum that what he meant was, “As an employer, I was taking responsibility for what two rogue employees did. To me, that is what any responsible business owner would do.”

The story had legs. Marino, while famous, explains, “I am a diva. Not only was it my livelihood, it was my reputation. Sure, I got emotional over it, but who wouldn’t?”

Initially, Caesars Entertainment and Marino agreed that neither party would provide media interviews, but if asked would state, “As mutually agreed, effective today, all future Divas shows will be cancelled. Guests with tickets will be refunded.”

This written statement was provided to Spectrum by Marino.

Later, Caesars Entertainment issued a new, statement that said the show’s failure to send its donations to Make-AWish was “solely” the reason the show had been cancelled.

“Caesars Entertainment holds itself to the highest standards and given the non-payment of donations to Make-AWish by Divas, we determined that a relationship with this show was no longer suitable.”


Frank Marino with Cher

Marino said the moment he found there was an alleged issue with the charity, he wrote a check, the very next day. Not only did he “make it right,” he added a sizeable, personal donation. The charity issued this statement: “We’re thankful for the support that we receive from the Las Vegas community, including from performers like Mr. Marino and so many others to strengthen our crucial mission of granting wishes to children with critical illnesses. Our ultimate goal is to transform lives, one wish at a time.”

“I just wanted the whole thing to go away,” Marino explained. “I signed an agreement with the charity that stipulated the dollar amount could not be disclosed.

“I tried to take responsibility for this whole thing and it bit me in the ass,” Marino said.

A young Frank Marino with Sammy Davis Jr. Marino began his career on the Strip at
the end of the Las Vegas Golden Era. He knew the members of the Rat Pack.

It all started when Caesars, which owns the Linq, was investigating its cocktail staff that works the showroom. Marino believes that the hotel was doing an internal investigation on the hotel-employed bar and cocktail servers in the Diva showroom. During their surveillance, the investigators suspected one of Frank’s staff members was pocketing cash after upgrading seats. Apparently, the employee told the customers a portion of the upgrade would go to the children’s charity, a foundation Marino had long supported with sales of Diva memorabilia.

“It could not have been that much money. Who buys anything with cash? Most people nowadays use a credit card, which would go through the hotel’s card processing system.” Marino continued, “I keep meticulous records of all the transactions I have knowledge of. I just didn’t know about a few transactions, which may have amounted to little more than petty cash. People failed to realize I was the victim here. Any money taken, was taken from me. I owned the show!

“That employee was like family to me. He worked for me for many years but only in that position for about six months. I told the investigators if there was any money owed, I would personally take care of it. I estimated it would be a small amount, if any, owed to the state for live entertainment tax. Had I not offered to pay it, I was afraid the investigators might take him to jail. In hindsight, it was a mistake because by taking responsibility for what my employee did, it became an excuse the hotel used to hang me out to dry.”

Frank Marino with Lady Gaga

Marino said, to this day, he has never been questioned by any of the authorities, other than the initial investigators – despite what was posted all over social media and in the press.

It was a year of emotional, gutwrenching hell. He lost friends, good friends. Work associates and longtime employees called him up and told him they could no longer be associated with him. He was slighted at community drag shows by the emcees. He was attacked on social media by the drag community and others in the gay community.

“It’s like they were just kicking me while I was down,” he said. “Social media can be nasty. All these people voicing their opinions on things they don’t know anything about. Passing hurtful fiction off, claiming they had the facts.

“Unfortunately, many were fairweather friends. When I had something to give, they were there. When I didn’t, they were gone.”

He lost his Volkswagen car with Diva images splashed over it.

“They (the dealership) emailed the next day (after the show closed) and wrote, ‘sorry about what has happened to you, but we need the car back.’ I said it’s parked in front of the house with the keys in it. Come get it quick before somebody steals it.”

It hurt.

He became “untouchable” at Strip hotels when shopping his show. Several backed out at the last minute.

“It made me look like an ass to everyone,” he said.

Marino says most of his support right after the crisis was from his straight entertainer friends, such as Priscilla Presley, Tony Orlando, Mary Wilson, Theresa Caputo, “The Long Island Medium,” and always, Pia Zadora.

Presley told him: “This will pass. I know it doesn’t seem like that right now. But believe me, it will pass.”

He also called out Las Vegas drag entertainer Jimmy Emerson, Hamburger Mary’s and DW Bistro owner Bryce Krausman, specifically thanking them for their support.

“Through it all,” he said, “it was my fans and my husband, Alex Schechter that got me through it. The fans really stood by me,” he said.

Frank Marino and life partner, Alex Schechter, at home with their dogs.

Marino took some time right after the crisis and went on a Disney tour of the world. He visited Florida, Japan and Paris. He explained he was “seeking solace in Mickey or the Disney princesses, or who knows?”

He leaves to go on tour in Florida with his “Divas” show from March 4 to 13. He’s done several successful drag brunches at DW Bistro with the next scheduled for Feb. 2, on Superbowl Sunday. He was also asked to perform as Joan Rivers and fill in as guest host for “Legends in Concert,” a gig which lasted several weeks – and caused their ticket sales to dramatically increase.

Early in January, Marino and Schechter traveled to Dubai for a corporate gig, which was produced by Caroline Stanbury of Bravo’s “Ladies of London.”

It’s against the law to cross dress in Dubai. Penalties can range from heavy fines to jail time. His Dubai convention hosts assured him he would return safe and sound. He and Schechter were advised not to share a room. They did anyway. All went well and he said he had a very nice payday.

Marino is one of the few homegrown celebrities Vegas has ever produced. Apart from him, Siegfried and Roy and Wayne Newton, there aren’t any that come to mind. Marino arrived in town at the age of 20 with nothing more than lint in his pockets. He made a go of “An Evening at LaCage” at the Riviera. He worked hard. Got sued by Joan Rivers. Made friends with Joan Rivers. He bought a tract home and lived there for 32 years. You could say he settled in.

He opened his own show, “Divas” after “LaCage” closed at the Riviera. His show spent nearly 10 years at the Linq. A relentless and successful self-promoter, he had his image splashed across town on billboards and taxi cabs. He was at most every charity function with show tickets and contributions. He was everywhere.

He started his career at the end of the Golden Age of Vegas. He knew the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, and the others. Did a joke-off with Milton Berle for a TV special. Now, it’s only fitting for him to pay tribute to Rivers at the Tropicana, where she once performed, and in a show room that has those nice, big, red, old Vegas booths.

He was invited back to “Legends,” where he is now its permanent host and emcee.

He recalled when he was young and was sued by Joan Rivers for using some of her comedy material. Marino and Rivers settled their lawsuit out of court. He agreed to not say her legendary, “Can we talk?” punch line and instead displayed it on a rhinestone-studded sign behind him onstage.

The two became good friends and she began sending him her jokes. Rivers made a special guest appearance at Marino’s 25th anniversary as a Strip headliner. Upon her untimely death, he was invited to attend her shiva at Melissa Rivers’ home. Now he is immortalizing her in the “Legends in Concert” at the Tropicana.

Frank Marino at home with his dogs.

Getting sued by Rivers, along with a few very public fights with Kenny Kerr, the Mother of Las Vegas Drag, were about the only “scandals” Marino had had during his 36-year career as a Las Vegas headliner.

He explained he and Kenny Kerr became friends in the last few years of the entertainer’s life.

“I respect the people who came before me. Kenny Kerr opened the door to drag on the Las Vegas Strip and I kicked it down.”

He said he has no hard feelings about RuPaul and his show coming into the Flamingo later this year.

Several Las Vegas entertainers have speculated it may not be a coincidence that Frank’s show was booted from the Linq while the parent company was in negotiations with RuPaul’s drag show. The RuPaul show is scheduled to open adjacent to the Linq, at the Flamingo.

“I’ve known RuPaul for years. I’ve been friends with him for 25. I like him a lot and am very happy for him,” Marino said. “He and his company, World of Wonder have been very friendly to me over the years.”

Frank Marino at his desk in his master
bedroom in his Summerlin home.

As for his new gig at the Tropicana, he says he loves working with the Legends staff. The live music, large red booths with bottle service, the free parking and of course the show girls and boys, all harkens back to old Vegas. In fact, the 1,100-seat theater is Marino’s largest, permanent venue.

Currently, final edits are being done on his tell-all book which he wrote about his experiences. “Drags to Riches,” his second book, is scheduled to be published April 1.

He said he sees his future as bright.

“I went from the black sheep to a big unicorn.”