Sam Distefano, Talent Exec for Hugh Hefner and Meshulam Riklis, Dies at 88

Sam Distefano - P 2015
Courtesy B. Harlan Boll Public Relations

Sam Distefano - P 2015

A jazz pianist from Chicago, he booked acts for the Playboy chain of nightclubs and the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

Sam Distefano, a jazz pianist turned executive who booked talent for Playboy’s legendary chain of nightclubs and the landmark Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, has died. He was 88.

Distefano died Monday of natural causes at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center in Las Vegas, publicist Harlan Boll said.

Born on the South Side of Chicago, Distefano was playing jazz piano with his trio at many of the city’s most notable clubs when he attracted the attention of Playboy executives Hugh Hefner and Victor Lownes. He then performed at the opening of the inaugural Playboy Club, located on East Walton Street in the Windy City, in February 1960.

The gig began Distefano’s 25-year career with Playboy Enterprises, which included serving as musical director at its Miami club starting in 1962; as orchestra leader, conductor and entertainment director at the Playboy country club in Lake Geneva, Wis. (where he led his own 32-piece orchestra and conducted for such artists as Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Anthony Newley, Tony Bennett and Ann-Margret); and eventually as vp entertainment for the company’s worldwide chain of clubs and hotels.

In 1984, Riviera owner Meshulam Riklis hired Distefano to run the entertainment operations at his Vegas hotspot. During his decade on the job, Distefano shepherded such events as a New Year’s Eve concert with Frank Sinatra and Pia Zadora (Riklis’ wife); a “Legends of Comedy” showcase that featured Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Danny Thomas; and a show that had George Burns and Bob Hope performing live together for the first time.

Distefano also oversaw Riviera’s multimillion-dollar aquacade Splash, which ran for more than 20 years in the Versailles Theater.

Distefano retired from the Riviera in 1993 and formed his own entertainment management and consulting firm with his son, Michael, who survives him.

Distefano served as a judge on the syndicated talent show Star Search, hosted by Ed McMahon, and was inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame in 1997.

In addition to his son, survivors include his goddaughter Claudina, ex-wife Pam, nephew Gary and niece Linda.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4