Cristina Silva, AP
Jeneane Marie Cranert boasts of touring Europe with the Funk Brothers and Tito Jackson and warming up the stage over the years for such stars as Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Wayne Newton. It sounds glamorous, only Cranert is telling the story from beneath the covers of her bed, where a bone disease has confined her for weeks because she doesn't have health insurance and can't afford hip replacement surgery.
The 53-year-old singer's face is bloated, her speech punctuated by tearful fits, shrieks and long gasps. The Las Vegas Strip is ripe with entertainers hungry for fame and fortune. They sing, dance, tell jokes and play their instruments. Most gauge their success by the times they share the stage with headliners like Tony Bennett, Charo, Elvis Presley and Dean Martin. But stage life comes without the promise of steady paychecks and employer-sponsored health insurance.
"Entertainers are second-class citizens until they make it and then they are royalty," said Tony Sacca, who has been singing in Las Vegas for 30 years. "We help each other out." Sacca heads the Showbiz Society, a charity group that raises money for Las Vegas performers in need. He and more than a dozen other performers will charge $22 a head at a benefit concert Sunday to raise money to pay for Cranert's medical bills. Jim Marsh, owner of the Skyline casino, said he will match up to $6,000 of the donations for a bill that could exceed $100,000. Cranert has applied for Medicare but is not sure she can wait for her paperwork to be processed.
Cranert said she was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in August, three months after returning from Spain with Tito Jackson's tour. Blood no longer reaches her hip, which could lead to the bone's eventual collapse. A blood clot could reach her heart, and she could die. It began as a dull ache and matured into a piercing pain. Now the tiniest hip swivel feels like someone ripping her flesh with a hot poker. She can't stand up, let alone dance.
"For me to lay here like this," she said from her bed, her French manicure clutching a blanket around her chin, "it is the most depressing thing I've ever gone through." The recession has been hard on Las Vegas. Unemployment is at record levels and jobless people don't go to shows often. As singing gigs dried up, Cranert accepted her first office job ever. She was paid $9 an hour to help rent out apartments. The part-time job didn't come with health insurance.
Her friends would pull her from bed in the morning, helped her down the stairs of her two-story home and into her car. With each wiggle of her hip, groin or leg, she screamed in pain. She crawled into bed and stayed there. She has no savings and her 2,251 square-foot home is in foreclosure.
Cranert started singing and dancing when she was 3, pushed to perform by her stage mom in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I wanted to be Bette Davis," Cranert said. After high school graduation, she joined a pop band named "Colored Rain" and toured the nation, doing shows in Alaska, California and Texas. During a stop in Las Vegas in 1980, she climbed on stage in front of Don Rickles, who she said liked what he heard.
She performed up and down the Las Vegas Strip. Everyone knew her. She had a three-octave vocal range and a quick wit. "She's probably one of the best I've ever heard in town," said impersonator Babe Pier. "She can sing like hell, I'll tell you that." Cranert, who goes by Jeneane Marie on stage, said she opened for Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Rickles. She also did her own show at casinos along the strip. In videos, she roars out soul music in between poking fun at herself and two-stepping across the stage.
But the money is all gone, she said. The house, which she bought for $195,000 in 2002 before her divorce, is now worth $144,000. She has not made a mortgage payment in about a year. She already owes a big hospital bill from a pneumonia attack in 2009. Cranert isn't sure how much she owes, but she knows it could leave her homeless. "I don't even open them," she said of her medical bills, "because I can't pay them."
Next to her bed is a photograph of her daughter, a 25-year-old unemployed cocktail waitress. Cranert's parents are dead. She has no one to turn to for a loan. She's gained 60 pounds in six months. "I just lay here. That's all I do," she said.
If Sunday's benefit doesn't succeed, the performers say they will throw another concert, and another one, until they can afford to buy her a new hip. "Entertainers, we are independent contractors, and the last thing you have is money to buy health insurance, which is sad," Sacca said. Cranert acknowledged that she should have been more responsible with the money she earned from her craft.
"If you want to get into showbiz, you better have a business degree, you better save and be smart," she said. "It sounds so exciting. 'Oooooh, I'm on tour with Tito Jackson.' By the time you come back, you have $100 to show for it."
Cranert's only collateral is her voice, a big personality and the hope that she will be able to perform again. "It's who I feel like God made me to be," she said. "It's all right. I'll be on my feet next year, singing my ass off. You'll see."