Who Was the Better Vegas Ambassador: Elvis or Frank?


Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The word “ambassador” will undoubtedly present challenges to some, as Elvis and Frank were of another time, and social values have shifted since their deaths. Both suffered faults, failures, weaknesses and public embarrassments, but that just makes both well suited to represent our city of second chancers.

It can be argued that it was in Las Vegas that the Chairman and the King made their biggest marks, each staking out important appearances that helped to reinvigorate their careers. A 35-year-old Sinatra made the first move, appearing September 4, 1951, at the Desert Inn at a time when his teen idol career (thanks to the arrival of Eddie Fisher) and personal life (thanks to the departure of Ava Gardner) were in free fall. But Vegas helped Frank find his swagger just as he helped inject a swinging sophistication into Vegas. In 1960, Ocean’s 11—the Rat Pack’s 127-minute Technicolor press release for Las Vegas—forever intertwined the two. Sinatra performed here regularly through 1994, and longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal entertainment reporter Mike Weatherford once wrote that Sinatra was Las Vegas’ “one-man Chamber of Commerce.” Go, Frank!

Barely legal but already sporting his rockabilly pompadour and sideburns, Elvis began his Vegas tenure in 1956 with a two-week, tepidly received run at the Last Frontier. He made up for it in 1964, when Viva Las Vegas gave us not only another reason to tolerate musicals, but also, finally, our very own theme song. Go, Elvis!

Presley wisely waited 13 years after appearing at the Last Frontier to return to the Vegas stage, launching (in 1969) a series of 837 sold-out performances at the Las Vegas International/Hilton. His final show here was in 1976; he died the following year. Since then we’ve lived through roughly a zillion Elvis impersonators, Elvis weddings, the Flying Elvi, and far too many broken Elvis sunglasses (complete with sideburns) littering the Strip.

So, Elvis or Frank—which is it? A quick poll of fellow natives points to a definitive answer. Unfortunately, many remember Elvis from his (ahem) “larger”-than-life, prescription-addled jump-suited era (probably thanks to all those impersonators), not Viva Las Vegas. They see the King as kitschy (probably thanks to all those souvenir shops) and as someone who, like so many others, reinvented himself and made a name here.

Conversely, Sinatra is remembered for the tailored suits and the swagger, for standing his ground when pal Sammy Davis Jr. was initially denied a room at the segregated Sands, and for his friendship with mobster Sam Giancana. For better and for worse, Frank seems to be “of Vegas” rather than just in it. So, sorry, Elvis fans: Frank gets the nod. But, hey, you’ll always have Memphis.