Since no one from USA TODAY called me, I thought I would take this opportunity to reminisce about Sinatra in Nevada.
I should probably preface my remarks by noting that the two times I spent the longest time in his company were both at low points in his career — from which he rebounded, both times, to greater and greater heights.
The first meeting came about in the early ‘50s. He had just been dumped by his recording company, his marriage was on the rocks and his constant companion was Ava Gardner, who was reportedly picking up most of the couple’s tabs at that time. My interview with him started with an early-morning call from the late Frank Johnson, who was then a reporter/photographer at the Nevada State Journal, Reno’s morning newspaper. An excited Johnson started off with, “Did you hear the news? Frank Sinatra arrived at the Reno airport today and one of the first things he did was smash Ed Olsen’s camera!” I replied that wasn’t big news since Frank had been smashing cameras all over the country whenever the press tried to get a picture of him with Ava (who had accompanied him to Reno). “Yeah, but the UP and AP guys here said if I could get a picture of Frank they’d put it on the wire and pay me!”
“What’s that got to do with me?” I asked.
“Well, you are good friends with Eddie O’Dowd, the PR guy at the Riverside Hotel, where Frank is opening tomorrow night.”
“So?” I responded.
“If you could ask Eddie to ask Frank to pose for us and we get the picture I’ll split the money with you!” Johnson said.
I replied that I would call O’Dowd after lunch and see what could be arranged.
A few hours later I walked over to the Riverside, which was about a half block from my office, and caught up with O’Dowd in the hotel’s tiny coffee shop. I made the request and he said that he would check with Sinatra after his rehearsal that afternoon. True to his word, O’Dowd called me later on and said that Johnson and I could come over between the dinner show and the midnight show and Frank would be available in the showroom for a quick publicity shot. (I had mentioned to O’Dowd that the picture would go on the international wire service and that the Riverside would be mentioned in the caption). Frank Johnson was exultant when I relayed the “OK” message to him. I also cautioned him that he would have to bring the paper’s camera for the picture since I was not going to risk my own press camera in the event Frank got frisky.
The next night we arrived to watch the early show through the glass partition that separated the showroom from the casino bar. Frank was not in the best of voice and the showroom, which sat a couple of hundred, was less than half full. Both Johnson and I thought that the small crowd might have a bad effect on our project but O’Dowd showed up shortly after the last person exited the showroom and motioned for us to follow him. Way in the back row booths in the deserted room we spotted Frank, puffing on a cigarette, and snuggled up close to him was a gorgeous brunette in a low-cut, flame red dress. “Uh, oh,” I whispered to Johnson, “better get a good grip on your camera — that’s Ava with him!” Johnson grimaced and I saw his knuckles turn white on the hand holding his 4 x 5 Speed Graphic. We approached the booth and O’Dowd made the introductions and quickly departed. We chatted it up with Frank for a few minutes and noticed for the first time that we was sporting a wispy mustache. He was very low key and friendly and when Johnson set up to take the picture he lifted his hand and said, “Do you mind if Ava is in the picture also?” Both Johnson and I nodded vigorously in approval because her presence would guarantee that most papers in the world would run the photo. A few quick flashes and a hasty goodbye and we were on our way to the darkroom at the Journal, hoping that Johnson had got the shot in focus. Not to worry. The photo was so good, and with Ava’s inclusion, it doubled the price that the wire guys were willing to pay.
Shortly after that disastrous (fan-wise) first-time appearance in Nevada, Frank snagged the part of Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” that won him an Oscar and reignited his flambouyant career.
The other occasion I happened to spend a great deal of time with the crooner occurred over 10 years later when his son, Frank Jr., was kidnapped at Lake Tahoe and Frank, Sr. had to spend several anxious days at the Mapes hotel in Reno waiting to hear from the kidnappers.
But, due to space restraints, you’ll have to wait for that story until next week.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.