“I have had at least five lifetimes.” ~Frank Sinatra
The soviet launching of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the planet, sparked alarm all over the United States in October 1957. Not in Las Vegas. Three months later at the Sands, a fearless Frank Sinatra goofed on the Cold War enemy in a Sands-nik skit in which he donned a plastic-sphere space helmet. Take that, Khrushchev baby! As if Sinatra knew that astronauts, not cosmonauts, would be the first to fly—and with his “Fly Me to the Moon” playing aboard Apollo 11, no less—to the moon for a lunar stroll. ∂ He owned that Copa Room stage. Salud! Cin cin! May you live to be 100 and may the last voice you hear be mine! Sinatra would flatter his Las Vegas crowds and affirm his ego in one fell aphorism. He would address some of the city’s racial issues. When his pallies joined in the shenanigans, the toasts multiplied and the city’s aura skyrocketed.
On December 12, he would have celebrated his own centennial. He has been gone more than 17 years and he last sang here more than 21 years ago, but his legacy endures. Chef Theo Schoenegger, at the Encore restaurant Sinatra, prepares the same spaghetti and clams he once made for the legend. Impersonators always seem to be crooning somewhere. The alt-rock trio Reckless in Vegas, a Vegas regular, includes rollicking versions of Sinatra standards such as “Luck Be a Lady” and “This Town” in its sets. And Jack Daniel’s, nectar to the pillar, appropriately first made its high-end Sinatra Select available three years ago at the duty-free shop in McCarran International Airport.
Sinatra had an impact on Las Vegas every bit as indelible as an ol’ blue-eyed meteorite.
The very beginning, however, was inauspicious. It would have been a thorny proposition to envision the tumbleweed-strewn town out on Arrowhead Highway one day honoring the boulevardier from Hoboken, New Jersey, with his own boulevard.
His television and radio shows had been canceled, he had vanished from the Billboard charts, and his recording company, movie studio and high-powered talent agency had all dumped him. He was booking his own engagements, but the phone was not ring-a-ding-dinging. He owed the government $100,000 in back taxes. To add to the indignity of Sinatra’s super spiral, he was reduced to barking when he sang “Mama Will Bark” with the pleasant, buxom Southern belle Dagmar.
When he couldn’t even bark, when he lost his voice at the famous Copacabana in New York, doctors instructed him to not utter a word for 40 days. Sinatra called this forlorn stretch his “year of Mondays,” but it lasted more like two years.
All of which had precipitated his first singing gig in Las Vegas, on September 4, 1951. The city’s population was 25,000. In its infancy, in the 1940s and months into the new decade, he had visited to gamble and cavort.
This time, however, there was work to perform, confidence to restore and an image to rebuild. That last objective might have been the most arduous since Sinatra—separated from wife Nancy and three kids—had also been gallivanting around the world with sultry actress Ava Gardner. Establishing a six-week residency to qualify for a quickie divorce topped his Las Vegas agenda.
So Wilbur Clark’s offer qualified as magnanimity. The former San Diego bellhop and Reno craps dealer ran the D.I., the city’s fifth hotel-casino when it opened the previous year. The place in the sun was finished with financial assistance from Moe Dalitz, a prominent Mafia figure in Cleveland and Detroit. Such sordid connections were not strangers to Sinatra; such innuendo in the papers always incensed him.
Cattle ranchers, wildcatters and their wives filled some of the 450 seats in the D.I.’s Painted Desert Room, but Sinatra pal Sonny King called the place empty. A reporter accused Sinatra of being feisty, “ready to punch anyone in the nose who spoke the truth about him … the fact that he had slipped badly.”
On the next day’s cover of the Las Vegas Morning Journal, Sinatra was all smiles, Gardner all lipstick and cleavage. He beamed about taking her on Lake Mead, to sail and fish, in his new 24-foot cabin cruiser.
He did not beam when the fourth estate, always keen to report on his reckless infidelity, badgered him about Gardner upon his visit to the courtroom of District Judge A.S. Henderson on November 1. “This has nothing to do with my public life,” Sinatra told journalists, as recounted in long-time Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter/columnist Mike Weatherford’s book Cult Vegas. “I ought to give a cocktail party for the press and put a mickey in every glass.” He soon exited, divorce settled and mood buoyant. “Everything’s all right now.” Six days later, he married Gardner outside Philadelphia.
He believed he was happy.
When Sinatra made his Sands debut in October 1953, his satellite was soaring yet he was about to dredge new depths. Such an enigmatic existence would define him and his music.
His psychological neuroses had been documented, but they were not included in medical paperwork that had rejected him from World War II service with a 4-F exemption, because of a punctured eardrum at birth. (That fueled press criticism, which included the Army’s Stars and Stripes. A dust-up with New York Daily Mirror scribe Lee Mortimer led to an out-of-court settlement of $9,000 and a written apology from Sinatra, who would allegedly execute ultimate vengeance by urinating on Mortimer’s grave.)
A 13 1/2-pound baby, Sinatra had also sustained forceps scars on his left ear, face and neck—his badges—from a difficult breech delivery. Other scars were not so evident. Sinatra called himself “an 18-karat manic-depressive. I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation.”
For creativity, too, even at his nadir. He perused James Jones’ novel From Here to Eternity and saw himself in Angelo Maggio, a scrawny, mouthy buck private from Brooklyn. He begged Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn for the movie gig, as if he knew that his once-adoring public needed to see him repent—even expire, albeit on the silver screen—for his transgressions, and that the movie would be a box-office smash. Cohn hired him, over Eli Wallach, and the 38-year-old Sinatra won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, part of the movie’s overall haul of eight Oscars.
Exactly a year after a tepid stay at the Riviera, Sinatra had renewed stature. A euphonious union with the 32-year-old arranger Nelson Riddle was about to meld into a medley of strings and woodwinds and brass and sass and impromptu finger snaps by the king of contradiction that Capitol Records (In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, A Swingin’ Affair and Come Fly With Me, 1955-1957) would capture elegantly.
That’s what Sinatra brought to the Sands. He imbibed prodigiously and bedded a statuesque showgirl in his ground-floor (he was afraid of heights) Presidential Suite. He called Ava pronto in Palm Springs to inform her that he was not alone, that if she continued to accuse him of messing around—when he was innocent—he might as well reap the pleasures of being guilty. That begat his second divorce, which required four turbulent years to complete.
Sinatra had mined a volatile mix of fury and passion and loneliness, generating profound authenticity that convinced his many Vegas audiences that he was serenading each and every one of them, alone. It was Ava who did that, said Riddle.
A syndicate of racketeers, led by Joseph “Doc” Stacher of New Jersey, had built the Sands south of the D.I. Jack Entratter, who had run the Copacabana, was lured west to handle entertainment at the new property. The showroom wasn’t called the Copa Room by accident.
Stacher, in author James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice, said the object was to get the ascendant Sinatra inside that room, “because there’s no bigger draw in Las Vegas. When Frankie was performing, the hotel really filled up.” As did its—and the city’s—coffers. In a very real way, Kaplan wrote, Sinatra built Vegas. “Not only was he present at the creation, but he was responsible for it.”
He gave Las Vegas panache, courtesy of his mother. In his early teens, she had opened an account for her only child at a Hoboken department store and Sinatra pushed its limit, soon owning 13 sports coats and so many pairs of natty slacks that his friends called him “Slacksey O’Brien.”
He wore his fedoras just right. He’d approach a beautiful woman and flutter his silk tie … out of view of a husband or boyfriend. He so despised brown shoes he’d alight firecrackers and slip them into the pairs that buddies dared to possess. His mohair tuxedos and sharkskin suits and shiny British black shoes so dazzled Lorraine Hunt she nearly believed the soles had been polished. The future entertainer and lieutenant governor of Nevada watched the Copa shows beside Entratter’s daughter Carol. In Cult Vegas, Hunt said, “We came from this cowboy town to ultra sophistication.”
Sinatra henchmen Jilly Rizzo, Ed Pucci, Henri Giné and Frankie Shore were always near, quick to dole out $100 tips, the C-notes folded in triplicate inside the palm to avoid gauche detection. “Duke ’im” is how Sinatra triggered such remuneration.
He was reciprocated handsomely. An initial inducement of two percent of the Sands would be bumped eventually to nine percent. He’d earn $100,000 a week working the Copa. His annual income doubled to $2 million in 1956, and again in ’57—when actress Lauren Bacall accompanied him to the Las Vegas premier of Pal Joey—to $4 million, a record at the time for an entertainer. He was a pioneer performer in the world’s spectacular new capital of live entertainment, wrote adoring daughter Nancy Sinatra in her comprehensive Frank Sinatra: An American Legend. “He … transformed [Las Vegas] into a giant sandbox for grown-ups—and invited everybody in the world to come and play.”
Daily Variety called it the most astonishing comeback in show-biz history. On “Oh! Look at Me Now” Sinatra revels in his own magnificence. Singer Keely Smith marveled about the celebrity tsunami from Hollywood, which included Tony Curtis. As Sinatra descended the Copa backstage after a show, Curtis, as he told The New Yorker, could detect a fighter’s scowl. “When he got up onstage, he seemed to say, ‘Fuck you, motherfuckers. Sit quiet. I’ll show you something.’ That was part of the kick.”
The crescendo arrived in January and February of 1960, when Sinatra and pals played the Copa at night, caroused till dawn, catnapped, convened in the first Strip steam room—Sands chiefs had it installed for Sinatra—and filmed Ocean’s 11 around town.
The vehicle served as a valentine for the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the global invitation to come gambol and gamble. The 200-room Sands would receive 18,000 reservation requests during this stretch. Arranger-composer Neal Hefti likened attending those Copa shows to hitting “five jackpots in a row.”
Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop ruled that stage. In the movie, they and six other old Army buddies gather to knock off the Sands, Sahara, Flamingo, Riviera and Desert Inn, simultaneously, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Sinatra was the undisputed leader. They pull off the caper, but … no spoiler here, not even after 55 years.
On February 7 and 8, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, whom Sinatra called “Chicky Baby,” visited the merry troupe. Sinatra would make the grand introduction on the Copa stage, JFK would stand and bow, and Martin would say, “What’d you say his name was?” There is no evidence that a certain moon tune influenced Chicky Baby’s space-race ideas, but Stolichnaya did help ease Sinatra’s volatility toward the USSR.
Sinatra had the world on a string, all right, with 20 Billboard Top Ten albums from 1958 through ’66. Count Basie and his orchestra spent the first month of 1966 in Las Vegas working with him, and the double album they produced—Sinatra at the Sands, on the Chairman’s Reprise label—was the first live Sinatra performance ever released and garnered critical acclaim.
But Howard Hughes signaled a corporate sea change at the Sands, and the rest of the sandbox, when he bought the property in 1967. Soon, Sinatra ran up marker debts of several hundred thousand dollars. When his request for more was denied, he ran a baggage cart through a plate-glass window but failed to burn down the joint; the butane in his gold lighter was empty. Denied credit the next day too, a row incited manager Carl Cohen to pop Sinatra in the mouth, ridding him of caps on his two front teeth. Pleased locals posted pictures of Sinatra, front teeth blacked out, around town in a failed effort to inspire Cohen to run for mayor.
Those episodes that Sinatra viewed as chintzy made him run to Jay Sarno’s Caesars Palace. He always detested parsimony. Even at his lowest, he picked up the check. His grand gestures of generosity to friends were known as la bella figura in his Sicilian lineage, and his acts of charity were epic.
He participated in concerts that raised more than $5 million for the UNLV athletic department. He congratulated coach Jerry Tarkanian with a phone call in his Denver hotel room the night the Rebels won the NCAA basketball championship in 1990. He performed in Las Vegas until May 1994. He might have half blushed when locals unveiled Frank Sinatra Drive in 2004.
Today, the uncouth flocks of untucked, uncuffed dress shirts in casinos and clubs would make the well-tailored Sinatra cringe. But every Panama hat or fedora is a nod to him. For nine-figure residency deals and six-figure one-offs, Celine Dion and Britney Spears and Elton John can thank the man who ignited it all so long ago on Arrowhead Highway.
Maybe he did stay too long. He forgot lyrics, stumbled on teleprompter lines and fell on a Virginia stage. He was a two-fisted guy and he lived a tough life, said comedian and longtime friend Don Rickles. “It takes its toll.” But Sinatra certainly had earned the right to hang around as long as he damn well pleased.
At the Sonny Liston-Floyd Patterson heavyweight prizefight in July 1963, at the Las Vegas Convention Center, longtime New York sportswriter and Sinatra chum Jimmy Cannon introduced the man to Pete Hamill, another writer from New York. They not only had the banks of the Hudson River in common, but all three were high school dropouts, too. To Sinatra, who spent 47 days in high school, that was not insignificant.
He viewed scraping, scrapping and striving to overcome big odds as vital and estimable qualities. In Las Vegas, he went from pauper and pawn to poet and king. The city helped him pick himself up and get back in the game, and he shepherded the city—rolling the bones, or olives, come what may—into uptown.
An affinity developed between the balladeer and the scribe, which afforded Hamill license for his splendid ode to the icon, Why Sinatra Matters. The master once relayed to Hamill what he told Harry James when the bandleader suggested that the boy singer alter his vowel-ending surname, to Satin.
“No way, baby. The name is Sinatra. Frank fucking Sinatra.”
He knew it would be one for eternity.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that the Sands was built across the main drag from the Desert Inn.