By Lethbridge Herald on July 3, 2020.
For The Herald
No matter how long the run, every performer realizes at some point the show must end. The thought of the curtain coming down on a friendship spanning almost six decades — even an unlikely one — isn’t one Wayne Newton wanted to fathom, however.
Contacted in the days leading up to the passing of Lethbridge businessman Gary Kirk on Friday, the man known as “Mr. Las Vegas” said he never really thought about the likelihood of his first meeting with Kirk in a Vancouver nightclub leading to something so enduring and meaningful.
“As time went on — and you know with close friends, even if you don’t see them for a month or two, or a year or two, which was never the case — you just pick right up where you left off,” said Newton, in a phone conversation from his second home on Montana’s Flathead Lake. “I could not and cannot ever imagine my life without Gary Kirk in it. He is the best friend I have ever had.”
Surrounded by family, Kirk passed away in hospital after battling health concerns. He was 82. Born in Swift Current, Sask., he would join his father Bill as a partner and help make Kirk’s Tire the thriving enterprise that has become a family business.
While he made a name for himself in the tire business and the sporting community, as a National Hockey League scout and owner of the Lethbridge Broncos junior hockey team, Kirk’s friendship with Newton was the subject of many newspaper headlines.
It was in the early 1960s that Newton noted a good-humoured patron who took in his show at The Cave nightclub in Vancouver several nights in a row and invited him backstage. He and Kirk hit if off immediately and the Lethbridge businessman would go on to see Newton perform live some 1,200 times.
Theirs was much more than a celebrity-fan relationship, however, and Newton never hesitates in calling Kirk “my best friend in life.” They and their family visited each other’s homes frequently, and Kirk served as Newton’s best man at his wedding. In turn, the entertainer took Kirk and his late wife Loreen to a luncheon at The White House with then President Ronald Reagan; flew them to medical appointments in his private aircraft; and played benefit concerts in Lethbridge on his friend’s behalf in 1976 and again in 1993.
The friends visited last summer in Montana, and Newton’s desire to see Kirk one final time was only thwarted by travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has also sidelined the 78-year-old’s still busy performance schedule. He opened the casino doors at Caesars Palace for the first customers last month, but live entertainment has not yet returned. Newton still awaits word on plans to reschedule his “Up Close & Personal” show, which was originally slated for a run of more than 40 weeks.
One of the things he loved about Kirk was his sense of humour, a trait apparently also shared by his wife of almost 60 years.
Newton recalled his favourite couple sitting front row at his concert on the occasion of a milestone anniversary. “Mr. Entertainment” liked to engage with his friend while on stage, and asked what song Kirk would like him to perform.
“And he said, ‘I’ve Gotta Be Me.’ I said ‘OK, I’ll do that for you.’ And then I looked at Loreen and said, ‘and what song would you like, sweetheart?’ And she said ‘Please Release Me!’” said Newton, breaking into a belly laugh at the memory.
Kirk has noted Newton’s work ethic drove him to be a better businessman, husband and father. He has said the way the performer made every audience member believe he was singing just to them, may have also influenced the way he tried to treat his friends.
As his voice cracked at the compliment, Newton said part of the bond he shared with Kirk was the loyalty he showed to his wife and family, including sons Brad, Kevin and Richard. If he had to pick one thing that solidified his friendship with Kirk, whom he described as “one of the greatest human beings I have ever known,” it was the fact he was never judgmental no matter what Newton happened to be going through at the time.
“Gary was always there. ‘How can I help, what can I do, who can I call?’ A person moves into that very special category in your life that you know no matter what happens to you, that person is always going to be there for you,” said Newton.
Although he vowed he could share examples of what a “true friend” Kirk was for hours, Newton cited a recent visit his guest paid to his Montana home. When Kirk promised to stay no longer than 20 minutes, his host reminded him he had an open invitation to stay as long as he liked. True to his word, Kirk showed up, visited for 20 minutes and then got back in the car with one of his sons for the drive back to Lethbridge.
Newton closed out his interview by asking to share one last thing with readers.
“I would like to say that if I could wish everybody in the world (one thing), that at some point and time in their life that they are fortunate enough to have a friend like Gary Kirk. That is the most I can wish everybody that I know and love,” he said.