Tony Tillman 'Crowned' by Princess

ON BOARD THE CROWN PRINCESS – Off and on for a decade, singer Tony Tillman was an opening act for Bill Cosby. One night in Las Vegas, Cosby was introducing Tillman (which the famous comedian always did for his opening acts) when he noticed a man making his way towards the stage from the wings.

"Wait a minute, sir, you can't come up here…," the famous comedian said, before pausing appropriately and continuing, "…oh, I guess YOU can."

Out stepped Sammy Davis Jr.

It was a watershed moment in the long career of Tillman, who this weekend became the Entertainer of the Year for Princess Cruises.

"There on one side of me is Bill Cosby," he recalls. "On the other side is Sammy Davis Jr. — I'm in the middle, and they're treating ME feel like I belong there."

Today, Tillman  is at the head of the Princess entertainment class. In a competition decided by the Crown Princess passengers last week in the Western Caribbean, he was the leading vote-getter. No, exact results were not announced by the cruise line but it's clear the ship demographics worked in favor of the gifted, 66-year-old singer.

He outpolled two comedy acts — a one-man laughing machine named Sarge and a high-energy duo known as Alfred and Seymour — and "mentalist" Wayne Hoffman, who left  the audience mystified, which is what all good mentalists do…and this one was good.

The demographic on the Crown Princess is more from Tillman's era than the others but that's only part of how it helped him. Chatter on the ship was that the main challenger was the multi-talented Sarge, proclaiming he was "a Black Jew from New York" and with him came a predictably edgy and sometimes-insulting repertoire.

Since the Crown Princess sails out of Galveston, its 3,000-plus passengers are largely from Texas, where people don't easily warm up to New Yorkers who insult and make fun everybody, including southerners from the Bible belt.

Ironically, Sammy Davis was African-American and Jewish. In his impressive set list were songs made famous by the late song-and-dance star. The audience loved it, and him.

Sarge was equally as entertaining in the comedy department. Here's one (clean) sample…

"Everything is so politically correct. They don't have blackjack tables in Vegas any more…they're African-American tables. It's not craps…it's the number two area. You don't play poker…you take her out for dinner and a drink."

Poke-her…get it?

After bringing the house down with laughter on his first of two shows, Sarge hit his audience with a true (and not-very-funny) story for his climax. He told of being homeless and living under the Manhattan Bridge in New York City and down to his last friend, a man named Todd.

"That was 23 years ago. He pulled me out, took me to Florida and introduced me to God and a life that would change. He saved my life."

This was the second time Princess has crowned its Entertainer of the Year, but the first time on the Crown Princess. Based on feedback from passengers and cruise directors, the cruise line narrows the field to four before putting them to a final vote during the Entertainer of the Year cruise, when each finalist performs twice in the Princess Theater. Last year's winner was comedian Carlos Oscar, selected by passengers on the Ruby Princess on an Eastern Caribbean cruise.

This time, Tillman's successful formula came from Sammy Davis roots, which through the years he has embraced and nourished with respect.

"The first time I saw him perform, I was in row four, in Stockholm," says Tillman. "I sat there with my eyes buggy and my mouth open. That's when I realized what an entertainment experience could be. I was able to see what was possible, to be able to control an entire performance and change it on the fly. I cater to whoever's in front of me, because that's what I saw Sammy Davis do."

And that night in Las Vegas, where Sammy Davis (left) was known as Mister Show Business, Tillman knew something else.

He belonged, just like he now does as the Princess's Entertainer of the Year.

Coral Princess
10 nights
March 27, 2013
Fort Lauderdale (return): Aruba, Cartagena, Panama Canal, Colon, Puerto Limon, Grand Cayman
Inside: $1,099
Cost per day: $110

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