Show business was Cecil Vaude deVille’s life — so much so that he legally changed his name to reflect his art.
When he died Saturday at Providence Mother Joseph Care Center in Olympia, deVille, 79, left behind three children, many friends and a big, big audience.
He was a singer, actor and comedian, an active member of Thurston Community Television and a longtime writer for and star of shows produced by Wrinkles of Washington, a nonprofit that raises money for Senior Services of South Sound. He also had his own production company, Jupiter Troupe, which performed at retirement communities and nursing homes. Earlier in life, he’d worked as a radio journalist and served as news director of KTNT in Tacoma using the name Gene Lewis.
“When I heard that he had passed, I thought, ‘The world is a little less bright now with the loss of Vaude,’ ” said Eileen McKenzieSullivan, executive director of Senior Services, where deVille worked for several years and later volunteered. He also produced a monthly TCTV program for Senior Services.
“We work with a lot of folks with memory loss and dementia,” she said. “He had the ability to pull a song out of his back pocket and start singing to an older woman. It would just light up her face and her eyes. These women would just become younger women or girls while he was singing to them.”
DeVille reinvented himself throughout his life, with different careers as well as three different names, but performing was always a part of his life.
“Even when he was working other jobs, from fry cook to deckhand on a fishing boat, he was also taking little side jobs as a stand-up comedian and a singer,” said his eldest son, Joe Lewis of Seattle. “He always had show business in his blood.”
DeVille, who grew up in New York and Pennsylvania, was born Eugene Levendoski and simplified his last name to Lewis as a young man. It wasn’t until 2000 that he became, legally, deVille.
To his friends and colleagues in Olympia, where he moved in the late ’80s or early ’90s, deVille was a ham, a character and a clown.
Sometimes literally, as on the day he auditioned for Wrinkles of Washington, a nonprofit theater group made up of people 55 and older who put on shows to raise money for Senior Services.
“At our very first audition, this guy in a clown suit with big shoes walked in,” said Michele Penberthy, one of the group’s founders. “We just started laughing. It was Vaude. He did a little song-and-dance revue dressed like a clown.”
That was back in 1994, and deVille performed in every one of the group’s big twice-yearly shows, up until last spring.
“That was our 20th anniversary show,” Penberthy said. “Vaude was in that show, and he said to me, ‘This is my swan song.’ ”
He had been struggling with health problems for several years, she said, and his health quickly declined after the February death of his third wife, Judith McCarthy, whom he married in 1992.
While he was known for his comic talents, one of his proudest accomplishments was a serious one from his days at KTNT.
“He covered the 1970 Puyallup fishing rights wars,” Lewis said. “There was a huge controversy that actually wound up in violence. He did extended live coverage and was tear-gassed on the air. He won a national spot news award for that.”
A video of his final performance with Wrinkles of Washington ( youtube.com/watch?v=WAJTURQpj2g) shows a thin deVille singing a song he wrote. It begins, “All the world is a stage, and we each play a part,” and ends, “When the footlights go down, that’s the end of our show.”
Besides son Joe Lewis, deVille is survived by son Steve Lewis of Petaluma, California, and daughter Janine Timko of Buckeye, Arizona.
There will be a memorial service at 11 a.m. May 30 at the Olympia Senior Center, 222 Columbia St. NW, Olympia.