Sin-atra City: The story of Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas
Frank Sinatra didn't actually put Las Vegas on the map, but he certainly made it worth the trip.
In 1941, when an uncredited Sinatra made his big screen debut in a Paramount feature called Las Vegas Nights, he was a painfully skinny crooner who sang with Tommy Dorsey's band, and the stretch of Highway 91 that would become the Las Vegas Strip was home to a single hotel resort, El Rancho Vegas. Ten years later, when Sinatra made his first Vegas headlining appearance at the Desert Inn, he was a seasoned solo artist whose career was ripe for a stunning rebirth; and the city was just beginning to emerge as a "fabulous" desert destination. Over the course of the ensuing four decades, the legends of the Chairman of the Board and Las Vegas became so intertwined it is impossible to tell one story without the other.
The style, swing and swagger Sinatra brought to such fabled Vegas venues as the Sands, the Sahara, the Riviera, Caesars Palace, and the Golden Nugget largely defined the city's image as a sophisticated adult playground. And the blend of impeccable showmanship and anything-goes merriment that Sinatra embodied in his Las Vegas engagements established the city as a home to world-class entertainment. In fact, it's difficult to overestimate the impact that Francis Albert Sinatra had on the very essence of Las Vegas, Nevada.
"Frank wouldn't go out after dark without a sport jacket on, let alone perform out of a tuxedo," former Nevada Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt-Bono told Smithsonian magazine in 2013. "He was the spark that changed Vegas from a dusty Western town into something glamorous."
Sinatra began his long relationship with the Sands in October 1953, at a time when his career was in need of a boost. At age 37, his status as heartthrob to teen bobby-soxers had faded, his record sales were slumping and he had received a great deal of negative press over his divorce from first wife Nancy Barbato and subsequent marriage to Ava Gardner. From the stage of the Sands' Copa Room, however, Sinatra's star power was resurgent. His swinging takes of standards such as Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and "I've Got You Under My Skin" and the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me" perfectly captured the equally earthy and urbane vibe of Vegas, and the voice of Sinatra quickly became the de facto soundtrack to nights on the Strip. Sinatra soon had a real stake in the city as well — in addition to being a Copa Room headliner, he became a co-owner of the Sands.
Of course, at the same time he was packing the Sands, Sinatra's success extended beyond Las Vegas. He received an Actor In A Supporting Role Oscar for his part in the 1953 hit From Here To Eternity, and he went on to achieve bona fide movie stardom with leads in such films as The Man With The Golden Arm, Guys And Dolls, High Society, and Pal Joey. The extraordinary series of concept albums he recorded for Capitol Records through the '50s and '60s, including In The Wee Small Hours, Songs For Swingin' Lovers! and the 1959 Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner, Come Dance With Me!, were startling artistic breakthroughs and unquestionable commercial triumphs. In collaboration with talented arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and Billy May, Sinatra perfected the bold, innovative, swinging sound he brought to Vegas stages.
Down Interstate 15, in Los Angeles, Sinatra had been a part of the circle of drinking buddies around Humphrey Bogart, a group Bogart's wife, Lauren Bacall, referred to as a "rat pack." At the Sands, Sinatra reassembled his own pack, living it up onstage and off with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. The Sinatra-led group cemented its suave image and madcap reputation in early 1960 when, after days filming location shots for Ocean's 11, they appeared together at the Copa Room in now-legendary shows referred to as the "Summit At The Sands." (Reportedly, Sinatra himself never used the term "Rat Pack," preferring "the Summit" or "the Clan" instead.) Sinatra and his cohorts' high-life ethos of open-hearted performance, stylish machismo, all-night parties, and anything-for-a-gag laughs indelibly defined Las Vegas cool.
Sinatra's friendship with Davis points to an impact Sinatra had on Las Vegas beyond the realm of entertainment. Through the '50s, Las Vegas was a deeply segregated town, with black performers not allowed to stay at the hotels and casinos in which they performed. Sinatra frequently dined with Davis at the Golden Steer Steak House rather than eating without him in segregated hotel dining rooms, and when his tremendous success at the Copa Room gave him enough leverage, he demanded that Davis be allowed to stay at the Sands. Sinatra continued to be an advocate for racial equality, which played a role in the March 1960 agreement among hotel and casino owners that effectively desegregated Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, the Chairman's presence in Las Vegas made the town a top draw not only for his own fans, but for fellow celebrities. A typical crowd in the intimate Copa Room might include such stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Gregory Peck. And, on the opening night of a Rat Pack engagement in December 1965, the audience included a 23-year-old Steve Wynn. The magnate-to-be was actually there as one of Sinatra's guests, having just recently met the singer by chance in Palm Springs, Calif., through a family friend. That evening marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Wynn and Sinatra, as well as the beginning of Wynn's impactful career in Las Vegas.
"It's hard to explain what seeing the Rat Pack was like," says Wynn. "They were kings of the universe. And the secret was that not only did they have so much talent, but they were real buddies. They had a gorgeous intimacy with each other. Sammy was the court jester, Dean was Mr. Cool and Frank was the boss. At one point that night Frank leaned over to me and said, 'How do you like the seats, kid?' That was the night I decided I was going to stay in Las Vegas."
Sinatra's Rat Pack persona was always supported by exceptional musicianship, and his image and voice were captured in peak form on the 1966 album Sinatra At The Sands, his first commercially released concert album. For the shows that album was drawn from, Sinatra teamed with Count Basie & His Orchestra, with Quincy Jones serving as conductor and arranger. The set list included future Sinatra staples such as "Come Fly With Me," "One For My Baby" and "It Was A Very Good Year." The album also contains "The Tea Break," during which Sinatra regales the crowd with nearly 12 minutes of loose stand-up material that includes some quintessential digs at fellow Rat Packers Martin and Davis.
Sinatra's cozy relationship with the Sands came to an end in 1967 when the hotel was purchased outright by billionaire Howard Hughes. When Hughes cut off the singer's casino credit line, Sinatra reportedly responded by driving a golf cart through the Sands' front windows. He then packed his bags and moved across the street, signing with the newly opened Caesars Palace. At Caesars, Sinatra made the transformation from star to institution. Medallions handed out to casino guests referred to Sinatra as "The noblest Roman of them all" and when Sinatra was headlining, the Caesars Palace marquee sometimes simply read "Guess Who?" or "He's Here."
By 1970 Sinatra had secured an unshakable status as a pop culture icon. But he also remained an artist of commanding focus and talent, whose very presence in town had an influence on the quality of other Vegas acts.
"Las Vegas really was a special home for him when I started working with him," says Vincent Falcone, who accompanied Sinatra as a house pianist at Caesars Palace and went on to serve as Sinatra's music director for nearly 10 years. "At Caesars we would perform sometimes for two weeks, seven nights a week, two shows a night, and every show would be sold out. It was hard for anybody to get a ticket. I don't see any way he couldn't have had an impact on the whole town's entertainment scene. If you were performing at another hotel when Frank Sinatra was in town performing, you knew you had better put on a good show. Every other entertainer looked up to him, and [he] was easily recognized as the greatest. The town was resplendent with great music, but Sinatra was in a class by himself."
Sinatra's ties to Las Vegas included a great deal of charity work, sometimes in the form of benefit concert appearances but more often as quiet, unpublicized charitable giving. His generosity was recognized in 1976 when the University of Nevada, Las Vegas awarded him an honorary doctorate. By all accounts, Sinatra was deeply touched by the honor, remarking that after attending "the school of hard knocks" the doctorate was the first educational degree he'd ever received.
In 1982 Wynn brought Sinatra to the revitalized Golden Nugget with a multiyear, multimillion dollar deal, and the singer continued to pack in sold-out crowds. Wynn announced the Golden Nugget's extensive upgrade — and Sinatra's presence — via a series of comic TV ads, one in which Sinatra memorably asks the hotel owner to personally make sure there are enough towels in his room.
"He started doing appearances at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, and was appearing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas," says Wynn. "He called me over to his suite there one day and asked, 'Don't you have a joint downtown where I can sing?' I thought it might bother him to appear at a place off the Strip, but he didn't care. We immediately drove over together to the Golden Nugget, went up to the ballroom, and on the spot he came up with a redesign for the space that would make it an intimate 500-seat venue like the Copa Room. He had a lot of great performances in that room, and when he sang a song just right it was still something absolutely delicious."
The 2005 album Live From Las Vegas captures a 1986 Golden Nugget appearance that finds Sinatra, who was recovering from abdominal surgery, still in fine form as a master entertainer. In a chipper mood throughout, he delivers classics such as "New York, New York," "I've Got The World On A String" and "For Once In My Life." The monologue breaks are still part of the act, though in this post-Rat Pack era Sinatra was more likely to make jokes about comedian pal Don Rickles. The album also records Sinatra taking a request for "My Way," and remarking that though he had at one point grown somewhat tired of the song, he now sings it with "a new fresh breath."
Sinatra's final Las Vegas performance took place on May 29, 1994, at the MGM Grand. He was inducted into the Las Vegas-based Gaming Hall of Fame in 1997. The following year, on the night after Sinatra's death on May 14, 1998, the lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honor.
Nearly 20 years since his passing, Sinatra's Las Vegas legacy continues to endure. "Frank The Man. The Music," a recent show at the Venetian Las Vegas featuring impressionist Bob Anderson, was labeled the "most authentic reenactment" of a Sinatra concert. The Wynn Las Vegas opened a restaurant dedicated to Sinatra in 2008, which features a menu containing some of Ol' Blue Eyes' favorite Italian dishes and memorabilia from Sinatra's life and career, including one of his GRAMMYs for "Strangers In The Night." Near the Las Vegas Strip, cars motor up and down Frank Sinatra Drive, a street named in his honor.
Fittingly, the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birth will be capped in grand Las Vegas fashion with the airing of "Sinatra 100 — An All-Star GRAMMY Concert." The televised special, which will feature performances by artists such as Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood, and U2, will be broadcast on CBS on Dec. 6. Geographically, the concert brings the Sinatra/Vegas connection full circle, as the concert was taped at the Encore Theater, which is housed in the Wynn Las Vegas — the former site of the Desert Inn, where Sinatra got his Vegas start.
Sinatra will forever remain a powerful figure in Las Vegas mythology. Although the city's modern-day entertainment landscape is ripe with numerous shows, concert engagements and residencies, the particular magic the Chairman once brought to various Vegas stages is hard to find.
"As big a star as Mr. Sinatra was, there was something intimate and personal in the way he connected with an audience," says Falcone. "That intimacy is not a part of the big spectacles you see in Las Vegas now. Those shows are beautiful and full of talent, but it's a different type of entertainment. If there were 1,200 people in the audience to see Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace, everybody thought he was talking to them. That's the kind of connection that he was able to make."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)