Frank Sinatra easily ranks among the greatest singers to grace a stage in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. In Nevada, he achieved this status despite an often-cantankerous demeanor, run-ins with casino executives and state officials, and onstage struggles as he played major showrooms long past his peak. He also set a new standard in defining what was “cool,” enhancing Las Vegas’s image on the national entertainment scene as the de facto leader of the Rat Pack in the early 1960s with fun-loving cohorts Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.
Yet when Sinatra first arrived in Las Vegas, his career was at a low point. Born in Hoboken in 1915, and a singer with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra, he had been a rail-thin pop idol in the 1940s, particularly with “Bobby Soxers” (young women so-called for their low socks and saddle shoes). His marriage was on the rocks and his new relationship–stormy in its own way–with screen goddess Ava Gardner was generating fodder for gossip columnists. Not only did he leave his wife and three children for her, but they also fought regularly and publicly.
Gardner’s career was doing far better in 1951 when Sinatra, by then considered a fallen idol, made his Las Vegas debut on September 4 at Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn. The local press gave him mostly positive reviews. Sinatra’s divorce was finalized under quickie Nevada laws and he soon wed Gardner. He played the Desert Inn once more, in July 1952, and a modest newspaper ad proclaimed him “America’s foremost balladeer singing the songs you want to hear.”
In 1953, Sinatra returned to play the newly opened Sands Hotel’s Copa Room, the town’s most popular showroom, just as he was about to become the Strip’s hottest star. Sands general manager Jack Entratter’s progressive vision for the Copa Room generated the biggest-name headliners Las Vegas had hosted, including singer Johnny Ray, comedian and television star Danny Thomas, and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Sinatra respected Entratter, a former New York Copacabana nightclub executive who reportedly stood by him during his worst days. The Sands became Sinatra’s personal playground, on and off stage. If he acted as if he owned part of the place, he did: Sinatra held a two-percent interest in the hotel that increased to nine percent before he had to sell it.
Meanwhile, Sinatra’s popularity grew. His career turned around, and Las Vegas both contributed to and benefited from it. He fought for and won the role of Maggio in the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity, receiving an Oscar for his performance. He signed a new record contract with Capitol Records, and teamed with young arranger Nelson Riddle on a series of best-selling, critically acclaimed albums. Sinatra’s Las Vegas shows drew Hollywood stars and high-rolling gamblers, generating climbing revenues for the Sands.
His stardom hit a new high in 1960. Several years earlier, actress Lauren Bacall had used the words “Rat Pack” to describe those hanging around with her husband, actor Humphrey Bogart. Bogart’s death made Sinatra–the most prominent film or recording star in the group–their leader. From January 26 to February 16, 1960, he headlined the “Summit at the Sands,” shows in the Copa Room featuring seeming ad-libs and sundry mischief from Martin, Davis, Bishop, Lawford, and any other celebrities who showed up–including future president John F. Kennedy, Lawford’s brother-in-law. The Rat Pack would work days filming the crime caper Oceans 11 at the resort, retire to the steam room for a couple of hours, then put on a pair of shows that became the hottest ticket in town.
But Sands bosses sometimes resented Sinatra’s behavior. In the late 1950s, he forced the casino’s managers to let Sammy Davis, Jr. become the first African American entertainer to stay at the resort; Sinatra allegedly threatened not to perform there any more. The performer’s mercurial ways, often aided by alcohol, included legendary post-show parties at the Sands and loose playing at the blackjack tables; Sinatra’s losses were reportedly written off in exchange for the thrill patrons had in seeing the star at the tables.
However, not everyone appreciated his attitude and alleged mob connections. In 1963, the Nevada Gaming Control Board moved to revoke Sinatra’s gaming license at the Cal-Neva resort straddling the state line at Lake Tahoe. The board claimed that the singer gave “red carpet” treatment to known Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana, who was in Nevada’s Black Book or List of Excluded Persons and thus ineligible to set foot in a casino. Sinatra cursed out the state’s top gaming regulator, Control Board chair Ed Olsen, in a heated phone call. Olsen divulged none of the details at the time, but later published a memorandum of their conversation that included Sinatra swearing at him and verging on threatening him physically. Sinatra surrendered his license rather than go through a public hearing.
Shortly thereafter, the Rat Pack lost much of its luster. Lawford’s failing marriage and Sinatra’s inability to keep out of gossip columns drove a wedge between the group and the Kennedy administration, and thus between Sinatra and Lawford. Other acts began garnering attention, nationally and locally: the Beatles’ performances at the Las Vegas Convention Center drew considerable notice. But Sinatra’s career continued to climb with the 1966 release of Sinatra at the Sands, recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, and he remained a viable headliner for decades to come.
Sinatra’s split with the Sands after its purchase by Howard Hughes points out how difficult the star could be. Hughes cut off the singer’s credit line at the hotel and a drunken Sinatra confronted Sands executive Carl Cohen in a hotel restaurant. After Sinatra toppled a table and apparently swore at him, the usually easy-going Cohen, who weighed about 250 pounds, punched Sinatra in the face, bloodying his nose and knocking out two front teeth.
Sinatra left the Sands cursing and driving a golf cart through a front window. The next day he signed with Caesars Palace across the street. Other confrontations would follow, including one in which a hotel security guard pulled a gun on the singer. Despite the altercations, Sinatra remained a top draw at Caesars Palace until announcing his retirement at age fifty-five in 1971.
Sinatra returned to Caesars in 1974, saying his retirement “seemed like a good idea at the time.” He reclaimed much of his former luster. Sinatra helped local charities, sometimes quietly, sometimes in benefit performances, prompting the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to give him an honorary doctorate in 1976. In 1981, the Nevada Gaming Commission approved Sinatra as an entertainment consultant for Caesars Palace–nearly two decades after he had to surrender his previous license.
Sinatra remained elusive to the press and continued performing at various hotels well past his prime, forgetting the words of songs despite using teleprompters. In 1992, his troubles with lyrics and his declining voice made his seventy-seventh birthday performance at the Desert Inn disappointing. Sinatra’s final Las Vegas show came on May 29, 1994, at the MGM Grand.
While audiences were forgiving of his diminished skills, Sinatra never returned to Las Vegas. He died at his home in California on May 14, 1998, prompting Las Vegas Strip hotels to dim their lights in his honor. Sinatra’s career in Las Vegas and Northern Nevada casinos assured his legendary status as the last of the great “saloon singers.”