Caesars Palace headliner singer Celine Dion pulled back the curtains on her private life with late husband and manager Rene Angelil at Wednesday night’s poignant and highly emotional “Celebration of Life” for Rene at the Colosseum in Caesars.
Incredibly, even though she went through most of a box of Kleenex to dab away tears, Celine managed to find the strength to hold herself together during the most emotional of speeches saluting Rene, who died here in Las Vegas on January 14.2016
Before the event, Celine sat with her son Rene-Charles and members of Rene’s family, including his eldest son, Patrick, to receive guests, in an hourlong receiving line.
I was privileged and honored to open and close the tribute as presenter and spoke with Celine before doors were opened to nearly 2,000 guests. I held her hands and told her, “The dark clouds will pass, and the sun will shine again.”
She told me, smiling: “And if the sun isn’t there, I will find a spotlight to sing.” I told her son Rene-Charles, who celebrated his 15th birthday just a week ago, that he had to be the rock and support for the family and live up to the promise he made at the Montreal funeral that he would live and show his younger twin brothers, Nelson and Eddy, the same standards his father had taught him.
He promised that he would, and looking him in the eyes, I knew that he meant it. Rene-Charles will be the extraordinary young man as his father wanted.
There were 11 of us speakers. Downstairs in Celine’s dressing room below the stage, we were given a five of hearts — his lucky number and suit —playing card with Rene’s autograph as a souvenir. Coincidentally, shadows of microphones on Celine’s off-the-shoulder black dress looked like the five of hearts.
Celine ordered 3,000 cookies baked by Opportunity Village with Rene’s portrait on the cellophane wrapper for guest to take home along with the playing card.
I greeted Flamingo headliner Donny Osmond; Siegfried & Roy manager Bernie Yuman; “Rock of Ages” at the Rio star Mark Shunock and his wife, Cheryl Daro; Jerry Nadal , chief of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas; Chris Phillips of Zowie Bowie; and Strip producer Adam Steck (Boyz II Men, Human Nature) and his wife, Bri.
I probably missed a dozen others in the audience of corporate execs from Caesars Entertainment represented by Gary Loveman, Gary Selesner and Tom Jenkins and AEG represented by John Meglen and John Nelson. Former Caesars Palace President Mark Juliano returned from his Sands Bethlehem hotel in Pennsylvania to speak at the ceremony.
As I reported Wednesday in the rundown of the program, a gold casting of Rene’s hand was center stage under a spotlight. It was a riveting focal point emphasizing the love between Rene and Celine during their 21-year marriage.
Caesars Gary Selesner revealed that Rene was a superstitious man and always wanted to knock on wood after a conversation or business negotiation in the head honcho’s office. “My table, though, was glass and marble,” he said. “So he sent me a wooden box that I placed on the coffee table right where he sat every time he came to see me. From then on, he had wood to knock on for good luck.”
AEG chief John Meglen said that what began as a business deal 15 years ago had developed into a family friendship because of Rene’s kindness, generosity, values and the way he treated people.
“When we were talking about the decision to build the Colosseum for Celine on our side, we really didn’t know what we were doing. But Rene knew what he wanted. He was the master of presentation, and we always sealed the deals over glorious dinners.”
John recalled the “most expensive breakfast” he’d ever attended with Rene when the Canadian businessman wanted AEG to buy an $8 million video screen, with another $1.5 million to install it. “Even when it cost us big money, he did it so well, we all smiled. He went through life wanting everybody to smile. Today he is in my soul.”
Celine’s show director, Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich, said our pal CBS specials VP Jack Sussman and he played blackjack with Rene. “He loved his fabulous meals, but he was happy when we went to the In-N-Out drive-thru or had pizzas delivered to a hotel room.
“Rene lived for food, how the tables were set, the dishes, the cutlery. He always brought a feast, but as much as he enjoyed the fanciest foods in the world, he would still love a simple spaghetti bolognaise. He was a man of the people and never forgot where he came from. Rene always dressed like a million dollars and always ended our conversations with a thank you,” said Ken.
Mark Juliano told the story of how Rene would sneak out of the house while Celine was still asleep to buy Krispy Kreme and a lottery ticket with their son Rene-Charles. “One day when Celine called, R-C was yelling that they’d won the lottery. Their gig was up. From business people to waiters, Rene was regarded as a god,” said Mark.
New Cirque chief Mitch Garber, who also is president of Caesars Interactive, added: “It must have been the Quebec way because Rene was nice to everybody whatever their station in life. He always told us, ‘Be nice and be successful at the same time.’ He treated everybody from waiters, barbers and golf caddies with respect.
“He was a king who walked with kings, yet never lost the common touch. You’d try to put your credit card down to pay for dinner, and the waiter would say that Rene had already taken care of it. Try and give the waiter an extra tip, and he’d refuse because Rene had taken care of that, too. Can you imagine a Las Vegas waiter turning down an extra tip?
“We played a golf game once, and I had to get to the clubhouse early to buy clothes, clubs and balls. I went to pay for it, but a voice came out from behind to the cashier. ‘Don’t take his money. It’s already paid for.’ It was Rene-Charles, and I said, “Now there’s two of them!” The Rocky Marciano of being generous. Celine and Rene were the greatest team in the history of show business.”
Linda Smith, chief development officer of our beloved charity Opportunity Village, told how Celine and Rene had helped build the campus by raising $1 million at a donor concert in the Colosseum.
“They came every year to our Magical Forest at Christmastime. They’d eat our hot dogs and funnel cakes, and Rene said they were the best ever. Rene-Charles would ride our Forest Train every visit, and this year the twins Nelson and Eddy came for the first time, so the tradition continues.”
Celine left the stage briefly to hug three of the Opportunity Village mentally challenged young people who were standing upfront to listen to Linda’s speech.
David Foster The Color of My Love
David Foster, Celine’s record producer who helped her break into an English singing career, told intimate stories before singing and playing “The Color of My Love” that he played for Celine and Rene at their wedding 21 years ago. David asked the audience to make noise at the end so that Rene could hear it in heaven.
Rob Prinz was Celine’s first and only agent in North America from the start of her touring career. He’s still her trusted confidante 26 years later. He said of Rene, “He transformed this entire city of Las Vegas. If Yankee Stadium is the house that (Babe) Ruth built, the Colosseum is the house Rene built.”
Rene’s business affairs director, Paul Faberman, who signed the couple’s first contract with CBS Records Canada, told how the “Titanic” theme song “My Heart Will Go On” was almost a non-starter. “It didn’t look like this was going to be a big success story,” said Paul. “I’ll never forget though how Rene literally stood up from the table and said, ‘I’m a gambler, and I’m going to bet on this one.’ Of course the rest is history.”
I read two sonnets about how Rene had lived the dash between his birthdate of Jan. 16, 1941, through Jan. 14, 2016, and how he might have written to Celine, “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. Do not stand and cry. I am not there. I did not die. I am alive.”
I told of how Celine came to my rescue with our Keep Memory Alive charity first with a concert for donors that raised $1.5 million for our Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, then when she flew round trip from Boston last summer at her expense to sing alongside Andrea Bocelli at this past fundraiser.
I also recalled how Rene had comforted a crying South American girl who had flown here to see the show and was sobbing on the steps that the performance had been canceled. Rene comforted her, inviting her back the next night with replacement tickets and to visit Celine in her dressing room.
Another random act of kindness was when Rene bumped into a newlywed bride and her husband in the casino who wanted a photograph. He agreed and added, “I’ll do you one better now,” and gifted them with two front-row tickets for the next night’s show.
Celine ended the celebration, and, fighting tears during a nearly 20-minute speech, said: “Rene, I love you so much.” She talked about her home away from home, the Colosseum, which was one of his dreams that came true.
“I feel the love in this room. I feel his love and his warmth and his strength,” she said. “Rene always surrounded me with the best people. Rene never, ever hated anyone or had a bad opinion of someone. He loved life so very much, and life loved him.”
She revealed that she sat with Rene, the love of her life, watching sports so much that she couldn’t find the remotes to turn them off and TV game shows such as “The Price Is Right,” with him even crying when a contestant won a car and trip to Hawaii.
Celine said Rene shielded her from the “rough and tumble” of show business. “He kept me well away from the rough of his part of his business. I was never part of any of the meetings that he had where he had to say yes or no. He protected me from Day 1 for the rest of my life. He just wanted me to focus on what I did best, and that was to sing.”
Celine plans to return to sing just as Rene wanted her to on Feb. 23.2016 Celine told me she will be there on the stage: “It will be very difficult, but I will continue without him for him. It’s what he wanted, and I will fulfill that promise I made to him.”