By PEG CHURCHILL

When Louis Prima was seven, growing up in New Orleans, he made his first violin out of a cigar box. His parents were very poor, but as soon as they could afford to they bought him a real violin and he began taking lessons.

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"My brother Leon started it all," recalls Prima. "He played the piano. In school they made me leader of the orchestra because I played the violin, but I followed Leon and the boys in his jazz band around. I wasn't making it with the violin because I was playing all of the 'long hair' stuff."

And so, when he was 15, Prima switched to the trumpet with the knowledge that to be the leader in a popular group "you had to play trumpet."

Immediately he formed his own group, the "Little Collegiates," which played in neighborhood theaters "sometimes for as much as $2 a night."

Four years later, Prima hit New York City with the New Orleans Five and was the opening act at the Famous Door night club.

Prima "got lucky early," as he puts it, and he has been "killing audiences" ever since.

Never without a group, his current contingent consists of Sam Butera and The Witnesses appearing with him this week at Colonie Coliseum Summer Theater.

Besides Louis' singing and the seven-piece band, there is "lots of comedy" in the act which plays 20 weeks each year at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, Prima's home for many years.

"Vegas was great in the first years, but it got so big that you lost contact. You used to be able to call the boss and say 'I lost a microphone' and you'd get another one. Now you would have to get a requisition for a replacement."

Prima has recently moved back to New Orleans which will become the headquarters for his business operations. His organization will run the rooftop Skylight Room in the Hotel Monteleon, one of the city's oldest, and Prima will appear there regularly when his Vegas contract expires two years from now.

This area is familiar to Prima, who remembers playing Cohoes and Watervliet (if not the specific clubs) and the fact that "we used to make jokes about Watervliet." Brother Leon played the former Dinty's Terrace Garden almost on the site of the present Colonie Coliseum Theater.

The Louis Prima Stable of 17 thoroughbreds raced at Saratoga for years. One of his horses, Republican, "got a lot of publicity because he always ran second," remarked Prima, who has begun to assemble a new thoroughbred stable.

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Prima has been getting plenty of public exposure himself through his television commercial for "Love Italian Style," a collection of Italian songs which has sold over one million albums.

It was his first commercial and he didn't want to make it.

"We were playing golf in Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) and one day it rained so I said, "all right, let's do the commercial." It was filmed at a private estate in Miami that looked "like little Italy," said a very impressed Prima, whose parents are both of Sicilian background.

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Pretty soon Prima will be doing another commercial; this time for his own collection album "Louis Prima's Greatest Hits." What are they? Well, there's "Civilization," "Robin Hood," Please Don't Squeeza da Bananas," "Josephina, Nonja Leana on da Bell," "Felicia No Kapeesha" and. . .

Prima plays golf regularly. He owns two courses - "Fairway to the Stars" in Las Vegas and another in New Orleans.

The veteran entertainer said he never tires of performing "as long as I can see the people."

"There's nothing like walking out and watching the people get turned on. Nothing in the world could replace it."





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