For the past three weeks, we have reminisced about some of the famous times that the crooner spent in this area and Lake Tahoe. To recount some of the specific dates in the life of Frank Sinatra, one has only to go to the excellent biographical book that his daughter Nancy published. It is entitled “Frank Sinatra: An American Legend” and is part of a carefully researched diary of the exact dates of the many highs and lows in his life, a family album of pictures that starts with the wedding photo of his father and mother and other traces through Frank’s life. His first picture is of a nude baby lying on a rug.
The book is also a complete research tool of his career since it lists all of the songs he ever recorded, all of his films and TV shows as well as dates and places that he appeared in his famous “Summit” live shows from 1976 to 1984.
The final section of the book is entitled “In Memoriam” and lists many of the personal notes of condolences upon his passing. The section starts with a letter from the White House signed by President Bill Clinton. If you are a true Sinatra fan, the book was published by General Publishing Group and may still be available.
Back to Frank in northern Nevada: A year following his hosting of “The Misfits” cast and crew at the Cal-Neva Lodge in 1960, Frank was the senior partner of the Cal-Neva with Hank Sanicola and Sanford Waterman. The minute Frank took over, he immediately started building a new showroom on the Nevada side of the casino. We made several trips to see him during the construction of the room and he noted he had personally sat in every seat in order to check that the sound system was the best that could be purchased (a far cry from the single mic and inadequate speakers in the old showroom at the resort).
One day, while two of us were waiting for Frank to join us in the famous “Circle” bar at the Cal-Neva, we were admiring a glycerine, waterfall-type fountain that had been installed in the center of the back bar. Glancing up at the high ceiling, we noted that a shelf had been put all the way around the room and residing on the shelf were all sorts of stuffed animals (like a miniature Circus Circus display). Both my friend and I exclaimed at almost the same time, “Who the hell would ruin this great room by putting that crap up there?” We both said we would call it to Frank’s attention when he showed up.
A few minutes later, in walked the singer and after a drink and some idle chitchat, I was on the verge of mentioning the seemingly inappropriate stuffed animal display. At that very second, Frank looked up and pointed to the shelf and said, “How do you like the animals — that was my idea!” We both quickly assured him that they looked great and congratulated him on his good taste.
When opening night for the new showroom finally arrived, we were fortunate to have a ringside table and the Rat Pack was never better, putting on a show that lasted well past the two-hour mark. There were turnaway crowds all that summer as Frank and his show business pals packed the resort.
Following that first night’s show, our party and Frank hooked up in the adjacent show lounge and during the after-show cocktails, Frank leaned over and asked me, in a surprisingly humble voice, “Was I OK tonight?” Everyone assured him he was more than OK and all predicted that the evening’s performance would go down in history as the greatest ever staged in Nevada.
It still is.
Unfortunately for Frank, his ownership of the Cal-Neva had a short life for in 1963, he was forced to surrender his Nevada gaming license because of an incident that happened when a couple of Gaming Control investigators were steered away from the counting room of the resort by a friend of Frank’s, who was sort of an ex-officio executive at the Cal-Neva. His name was “Skinny” D’Amato, the owner of a once popular nightclub in Atlantic City, the 500 Club, in which it was rumored that gangster Sam Giancana was a partner. With the flap over D’Amato’s actions with the gaming agents and rumors to the effect that Giancana had been a guest at the Cal-Neva when visiting his girlfriend, Phyllis Maguire, while she was performing with her sisters; Frank was eventually forced to surrender his gaming license.
The rest of the story on that incident was that the head of the Nevada Gaming Commission in those days was one Ed Olsen. This was the same Ed Olsen who had had his camera smashed by Sinatra at the Reno airport when Frank arrived for his first-ever Nevada nightclub appearance at the Riverside Hotel in Reno in August of 1951. Olsen was quick to put the heat on Frank and in a “what goes around, comes around” scenario took his vengeance on the singer.
When the “Skinny” incident with the gaming agents first started, I was dispatched to the Cal-Neva by a couple of Nevada law officials to interview “Skinny” and get his version of the incident. I arrived at the front desk of the Cal-Neva Lodge and was informed that “Skinny” was in his private cabin, a few hundred yards away from the main building. Knocking at the door of the tiny cabin, I was greeted by a razor-thin individual of medium height, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his black hair combed straight back in his best George Raft imitation style. He was dressed in black slacks, black shoes and socks and a “he man” undershirt.
Once inside the small building, he motioned me to the only chair in the room and he flopped on his bed, still smoking and making sure I saw the small caliber black revolver he had tucked in his waistband.
“OK if I keep the TV on while we are talking?” he enquired.
I nodded alright and glanced up at a 13-inch black-and-white mounted on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. It didn’t take long to get his version of what happened with the agents — it was well laced with epithets. When we finished, he asked what I thought of Frank’s chances were. I told him I’d report back to the authorities and then call him with their conclusions.
Once the interview had been scanned, both officials advised Frank not to fight for his license. I relayed this information to “Skinny” by phone and was treated to another flood of locker-room language. Fortunately, that was my last contact with him.
As time went by and Frank became relicensed, several of us were invited to his Las Vegas openings as his guests. No one could ever rival his generosity and friendliness on every occasion.
He has been known by many titles but the one that fits him best is, “The greatest entertainer of the twentieth century.”
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.