Shortly after his death in 1998, most of the hotels on Las Vegas strips briefly shut down their neon signs in memory of the person who, perhaps more than any other entertainer, helped bring Las Vegas onto the national consciousness. He is the first person to be honored with a star in the Las Vegas Walk of Fame. The music world has changed since Frank dominated the stage of the Sands Hotel, but to many people it’s still Frank’s world, and we just live in it.
The Strip was his showroom, “ writes John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “He christened the Dunes on the back of an elephant, wowed them at the Desert Inn, held court with the Rat Pack at the Sands -- where he later lost his front teeth in a punchout with Carl Cohen -- came out of retirement at Caesars’ Palace, raised a cool million bucks for UNLV in a concert at the Aladdin, played to intimate VIP audiences at the Golden Nugget and The Mirage.....The old Las Vegas is gone now, but it has a soundtrack. It is the voice of Frank Sinatra.
Frank first hit the charts as a vocalist for Harry James orchestra in 1939, and he would remain a major star for almost 60 years. While much has been made of his Rat Pack persona and turbulent career, the real key to understanding his success and longevity is simply the talent and committment he brought to the craft of singing and his ability to communicate to the audience. He maintained the highest standard in both his search for material, his arrangements, his musicians, while making it look easy. He may have pretended he didn’t care, but he also wouldn’t sit down before a show in his tux so he wouldn’t have crease marks.
Frank and Las Vegas became identified as early as 1941 when he starred in the film Las Vegas Nights with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. The film was shot in Hollywood, of course, but it marked a successful partnership between the fledging town and young entertainer.
By the late ‘40s the young crooner with the lovesick voice was considered a has-been. As fast as he had ridden, he was now fired from MGM, his record company had let him go, while his romance with Ava Gardner and rumors of gangster affiliations had many of his fans giving up on him. On top of that, during one performance his throat hemmoraged, and was told he couldn’t speak for a month if he wanted to sing again.
At this point in his career he certainly wasn’t above going to Las Vegas and riding on a camel as a promotional stunt for the Dunes Hotel Around the same time Capitol Records decided to take a chance on Sinatra, much to the groan of Capitol sales reps. With a young arranger named Nelson Riddle, whose work with Nat King Cole was appreciated by Frank, Frank brought a more mature, vibrant, and swinging sound. Near the same time he won an Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, and suddenly Frank had the world by a string. (Thanks to Jeff Cross and www.lvstriphistory.com for use of photo)
When the new bosses of the Sands Hotel brought out Jack Entratter from the Copacabana in New York, they signed Frank to perform and become a regular in the Copa Room. They later offered Frank a piece of the action. Not only was it for Frank’s services, but they perhaps knew that with Frank’s position as the unofficial head of show business, other entertainers would also perform there and make the Sands an entertainment mecca.
And come they did...Milton Berle, Danny Thomas, Jack Benny, Judy Garland, Red Skelton. Dean Martin would join him onstage, sometimes Sammy. To middle America it seemed Las Vegas was one big playground for Frank and his show business pals.
Jack Benny remembers...”Frank was playing the Sands, and I was in the audience and he knew I was out there, and the place was jammed, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a very dear friend in the audience” and he gives this very big buildup--and then he says, My friend, Jack Benny, is in the audience.” I took a bow and said, “Frank, can I say something?” He said, “Certainly, go ahead.” I said, “This place is so packed I thought I was playing here.” He fell on the floor laughing.”
Kirk Douglas remembers this period. “In the wee hours of the morning, and after more than a few drinks, Frank insisted on waking up the manager of the Sands, Carl Cohen, a very nice Jewish man. Frank became obstreperous, an argument ensued, Carl Cohen punched Frank in the mouth and knocked him down.”
“Most people avoided ever referring to this embarrasing episode. I couldn’t resist, and asked Frank, “What happened--did you and Carl Cohen have a fight in Las Vegas?” Frank was in an embarassing siutation and, to me, that is the test of a man. Frank paused, looked at me with those steely blue eyes, and said, “Yes.” Then a twinkle came to his eyes and he added, “Kirk, I learned one thing. Never fight a Jew in the desert.”
They called themselves “The Summit”, like the Kruschev Summit, in 1959 when Peter Lawford had purchased a screenplay about ex-GI’s that plan to knock off 5 casinos on New Year’s Eve. The film would be called Ocean’s Eleven, and they would film in the day and perform in the Copa Room at night, usually all 5 (Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop). In the audience was an up-and-coming Senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy, and Frank saw a way to ingratiate himself with him and expand his sphere of powerful friends.
Peter Lawford recalls, “I couldn’t wait to get to work. Everybody was flowing on the same wavelength. It was so much fun. We would do two shows a night, get to bed at four-thirty or five, get upa gain at seven or eight, and go to work on a movie. We’d come back, go to the steam room, get something to eat, and start all over again-two shows. They were taking bets we’d all end up in a box. And Sammy adds, “It was like a team.” The only thing missing was the marching band. You had to be in that steam room. Better not show up late. That was where everything began.” (Stories from Frank Sinatra, My Father by Nancy Sinatra).
In 1967, a change was in the air in Las Vegas, and his name was Howard Hughes. He went on a buying spree of Las Vegas hotels, including the Sands. One night Frank was playing at the tables and learned that the house had cut off his casino credit. Frank flew into a drunken rage and immediately ended his reign at the Sands.
It took very little time for Frank to find a new home at Caesars’ Palace, one of the new “themed” hotel casinos and dubbed Frank “the noblest Roman of them all.”. When Frank was in town to play the Circus Maximus, the outdoor marquee would simply read, “HE’S HERE.”