Dean Martin was one of the most popular showroom headliner in Las Vegas entertainment history.
These days, record stores are filled with aisles of his friend Frank Sinatra's recordings, with a smattering of Dean's. Most of what we see of Dean are late night infomercials for the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, and an occasional movie rerun. It would be easy, then, for young people to assume that Dean was just part of the supporting cast of Frank's Rat Packers.
The fact is, though, few stars have endeared themselves to the public so long, and so successfully, as Dean (only one word needed). Sure, Frank was a recording artist in the true sense of the word. But that didn't bother Dean. In fact, hardly anything seemed to bother Dean. His relaxed, intimate singing style put people at ease, while his boozy, leering persona made people laugh at political incorrectness before they had a word for it.
While Dean's star has somewhat faded from its white hot glow, there are large numbers of people for whom Dean will always be the King of Cool.
The facts speak for themselves:
He was a superstar in every field he went into - recording, movies (he made over 50 films), nightclub entertainment and television. Not even Frank could conquer the medium of television.
At one time he was the largest landowner in Ventura County in California and the richest entertainer.
He was born Dino Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio, worked all sorts of jobs - steelworker, even a prize fighter - but what made an impression on him was working the gambling joints as a dealer and croupier. He had always wanted to sing, though, and joined several local bands, eventually became a hit in Cleveland, then moved to New York. Like many of his generation, he started out by emulating Bing Crosby. "When a Bing Crosby movie ever came to Steubenville, I would stay there all day and watch. And that's where I learned to sing, 'cause it's true I don't read a note," he said.
He drew immediate attention to his good looks and relaxed singing style.
In 1946 he met a young comic named Jerry Lewis. One night at the Havana Madrid club in New York, to amuse themselves they took the stage together in the early morning hours and improvised a comedy act. It got a good review in Billboard, but they just forgot about it and went on their way.
Later that year, a singing act at the Club 500 in Atlantic City got sick, and they booked Dean. Jerry was also on the bill. They both did their act until the owner of the club told them they were both out if they didn't deliver their comedy act they had promised him. The next day Jerry wrote a routine where he was a busboy who would interrupt Dean's song. They improvised an act; three hours later they knew they were a hit. Within 3 nights you couldn't get in the club.
That was the beginning, of course, of Martin and Lewis. They went onto bigger nightclubs, the Colgate Comedy Hour on TV, and a string of films for Paramount. At the same time, Dean signed a contract with Capitol Records. For "The Caddy" they needed a traditional Italian number. Dean suggested "Oh Marie," which he'd been singing since a kid, but they gave him "That's Amore", and he had his first huge hit.
Dean arrived in Las Vegas in September, 1949. He and Jerry headlined at Bugsy Siegel's creation, the Flamingo Hotel, on Highway 91 (now the Strip).
In 1950, they started filming their second movie, "My Friend Irma Goes West", has Dean and Jerry going out west to Las Vegas. Its opening, June 26, 1951, held at the El Portal Theatre in Las Vegas, was the first movie premiere in Las Vegas history.
In 1952, Dean was vacationing in Las Vegas when the Flamingo's headliner, Kay Starr, became sick. Until Dick Haymes could arrive to replace her, Dean filled in for a solo performance. It was to be the start of his solo Las Vegas career. That same year the Sands Hotel opened, with Copacabana manager Jack Entratter as Entertainment Director. Dean and Jerry left the Flamingo and were signed to play the Sands' Copa Room.
In the meantime, Dean and Jerry's relationship became more and more strained. Dean believed his singing career was becoming an afterthought in their movies, and the animosity and clash of egos was growing. Something had to give, and on July 24, 1956, they came back to Atlantic City and played their last show together, and officially broke up.
In March of 1957 he formally opened as a single at The Sands for $25,000 a week. He show only lasted 38 minutes, but he was a hit and was signed to a 5-year deal. After the show he went into the casino to deal blackjack, something he continued to do after many of his shows.
Variety had only good things to say when it reviewed Dean's Sands act. They wrote,
"Martin has everything it takes-looks, personality, poise, charm, friendliness, ease and, of course, a voice. The relaxed manner isn't pushed; on him it looks perfectly natural and is becoming. There's a feeling that he's up there for only one thing, to entertain, and that he does, in spades, without any monkey business, pretense, or side show."
His first solo movie, "Ten Thousand Bedrooms," got terrible reviews. But Dean caught a break; he signed on for "The Young Lions," and worked with Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando. and really was able to show that he had true acting talent.
Around this time bandleader Phil Harris was getting good comic mileage playing a lush, and Frank Sinatra's friend Joe E. Lewis also had based his nightclub act on his drinking. Dean kind of picked up the act and developed a new persona, that of the easy-going boozer. He started out really drinking apple juice on stage, but later on he would grow into the part for real.
January 1959 was a historic time in Las Vegas. Sinatra and his cronies, dubbed "The Rat Pack" were filming "Ocean's Eleven" and appearing together nightly at The Sands. Dean played the sidekick to Frank's Danny Ocean, and while the movie really wasn't a musical, Dean did get a number to sing ("Ain't That a Kick in the Head," a title suggested by Dan). Dean and Frank were both recording artists on Capitol, and became close friends. Dean was perhaps the only guy given a pass by Frank to excuse himself for late night partying, while the other guys were expected to hang with him.
Dean owned one-percent ownership in the Sands, and performed there throughout the decade. His act became less about singing and more about getting a laugh. "If you think I'm going to get serious, you're crazy," he said. "If you want to hear a serious song, buy one of my records."
"His singing had begun to take on a new tone. He was no longer merely selling the lie of romance. Stabbing sharply and coldly here and there into the songs with the lines of wry disdain, he was exposing his own racket as well, selling the further delusion of their sharing in the secret of the lie itself. It was an elaboration on his tried and true style of singing to the men rather than the women as if they alone could truly understand him. It was also a natural emanation of the way he felt. He simply no longer cared. He began more songs than he finished, dismissing most of them with a wisecrack partway through. Some, with the help of lyricist Sammy Cahn, were reduced to gross parody." (Dino - Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams by Nick Tosches).
NBC had seen Dean host "The Hollywood Palace", a variety show on ABC, and wanted to get him onto NBC. He didn't really want do it, and kept turning them down, finally saying yes only if they agreed to an outrageous list of demands: a huge paycheck, no rehearsal, and working one day a week. NBC said yes, and that's how The Dean Martin premiered September 16, 1965. The first year was marked by too many acts, not enough of Dean, and so-so ratings. Producer Greg Garrison then surrounded him with a dancing troupe called The Golddiggers and the biggest names in show business. Dean rehearsed the musical medleys on the day of taping, but relied on cue cards for the sketches, which only made them funnier. Within a year, the show was the highest rated show on television.
Around the same time Howard Hughes took over ownership of The Sands, and one night cut off Sinatra's credit at the casino. Frank flew into a rage, got into a fistfight and quit the hotel. When Dean stayed on; Frank deemed him disloyal, causing some friction in their relationship. When Frank left Capitol to start his own record label, Reprise, Dean soon joined him on the new label.
In the early 60s, the James Bond craze was in full force, and the studios were putting together their own secret agent film series. When Columbia began a series of Matt Helm films, starting with "The Silencers," the search was on for an agent suave enough to catch bad guys without spilling his drink. The part went to Dean, and he made 4 Matt Helm films. In his last film, Bruce Lee helped teach Dean some karate moves.
In 1968, Dean worked out a deal with The Riviera and opened at the Versailles Room on June 17, 1968. He also his own private bar there called Dino's Den for him and his guests. In 1972 he decided he only wanted to do one show per night. That was unheard of at the time, so Dean left for the new MGM Grand Hotel. In June, 1975, Dean was the first performer to play at the Celebrity Room of newly-opened MGM Grand. When the hotel changed to the Bally Grand in 1986, Dean stayed around and performed there throughout the rest of his career. In 1990 Jerry Lewis wheeled a cake onstage for his 72nd birthday.
Most everybody who worked with him says similar things about Dean. He was fun to work with and a complete professional, and on movie sets usually knew not only his lines everyone else's. He also liked to get in and out and not spend time rehearsing. He personality was that of a loner, who was almost impossible to get to know. Even if his wives had trouble really knowing him.
Dean left the world Christmas Day in 1995, but he's still around wherever you look. His music is featured prominently in the soundtracks of "Moonstruck," "Swingers," and "L.A. Confidential." Infomercials for his Dean Martin Roasts are all over late night TV. And to many young people just being introduced to his music, he's an icon for lounge culture and wears the mantle of The King of Cool. Now ain't that a kick in the head!
Click here to hear Dean open his show at the Sands Hotel