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PAPA MIA!
Sandy Hackett joins other famous offspring in Italian American Music Festival

By Norine Dworkin - McDaniel

This guy walks into a bar and asks, "How do you get to the Italian American Music Festival?"

The patrons at the bar whip around and say in unison: "Practice!"

All right, so you've heard that one before. Some jokes never die. And neither, apparently, do some jokester dynasties.

Legendary comedian Buddy Hackett passed away a year and a half ago, but son Sandy Hackett continues to hoist the family funny banner high, sharing the stage this week with Deana Martin (daughter of Dean), Les Brown Jr. (son of Les Sr.) and singer Michael Amante at Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and at Fort Myers' Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall.

He even flew in from Las Vegas for the occasion ... and, boy, are his arms tired. Bah-dum dum.

OK, so you've heard that one too.

But what you may not have heard is that Hackett the Younger has been getting his fair share of guffaws since making his debut on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh In" at the tender age of 11.

He practically grew up in Vegas, spending his boyhood summers lifeguarding at the Stardust pool by day and watching his dad play the Sahara's showroom at night.

With some of the world's best laugh-meisters, such as Flip Wilson, Jack Benny, Rowan and Martin, George Burns, and of course, Buddy, schooling him in the fine art of stand-up, it's no surprise that Sandy Hackett went into the family biz.

Before he was even out of college, he'd landed his own showcase for new comics at the Sahara. And it wasn't too much later that he was headlining at hotels up and down the Las Vegas Strip. For 10 years, he even opened for Buddy.

"That was a heck of an experience," Hackett says over gourmet veggie burgers at a retro burger joint on the Strip. "You could feel the crowd was just itching ... waiting for Buddy."

As Hackett tells it, one night back in the day, when he was still really, really green, he got heckled onstage, and Buddy came storming out.

"He says, 'Where's the SOB who yelled out? You're gonna watch my kid and you're gonna enjoy him, or I'm not comin' back.'"

"I said, 'Dad, you can't come out here to rescue me. They want to see you, and I've got to be good enough to entertain them.' And he said, 'You're my kid, what am I supposed to do?'"

Oy! Could there be a more loving and yet more mortifying moment? And this wholly unscripted, father-son tête-à-tête played out on stage, no less ... in front of an audience.

"The first time I worked with my dad, I wasn't a polished performer," Hackett says, swirling his fries through some Thousand Island dressing before popping them in his mouth. "I told my father, 'A lot of people would love to open for you.' And he said '(expletive).'"

Here, Hackett slides into a pitch-perfect impression of his father's nasal squawk. "'*@#% 'em! Let 'em find their own famous father!'"

Fortunately, Sandy improved. Still, Hackett acknowledges, it's been a challenge to make his own way as an entertainer.

For such a short guy, Buddy cast a long shadow. But his lanky son is doggedly carving out his own show-biz niche. Perhaps that's one reason he likes sharing the stage with Deana Martin.

"I have a certain affinity for anybody in this business who's come from show-biz stock, because they understand some of what I went through," he says.

These days, when Sandy Hackett's not peddling his stand-up schtick across the country or acting in indie films, he's juggling several projects at Las Vegas's Greek Isles Hotel and Casino with the aplomb of a Cirque du Soleil performer -- co-producing the World's Greatest Magic Show, hosting other comics in his eponymous comedy club and portraying comedian Joey Bishop in the Rat Pack comedy/songfest, "A Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey and Dean."

Of course there's a certain symmetry to Dean and Buddy's kids being on the same stage. But the Italian American Music Festival? C'mon. How'd he get hooked into that?

Call it an offer that he couldn't refuse.

"When I got the call, I wasn't sure I was interested." Hackett chuckles between fries. "The next morning, my pet clam was dead ... on my pillow. ... they'd taken his head. There was this note: 'Do the festival.'"

Now, Hackett's losing it, cracking himself up: "They took my clam. God forbid they went after my guppies."

Uh, huh.

"I just hope Michael Amante doesn't tell jokes, or I'll have to start singing opera."

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