They were such wonderful merchants of entertainment. Five hepcats carousing on a Las Vegas stage. The marquee outside the Sands Hotel would...
They were such wonderful merchants of entertainment. Five hepcats carousing on a Las Vegas stage. The marquee outside the Sands Hotel would sometimes stack their names upon each other: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop. At other times it only said: “They’re here.”
The hotels would be booked solid. It was as if even the mountains in the distance knew that the Rat Pack was in town.
Wit and savoir-faire were their stock in trade. There wasn’t a miser among them. They each knew showbiz had more sad stories than happy ones and therefore would tip splendidly. They didn’t run from waiters and dishwashers. They each could spare a dime and did so happily.
With the Oct. 17 passing of the slyly quiet Joey Bishop, they’re all gone now. At least in the flesh.
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The group’s emergence in the ’50s as both friends and co-headliners was all so spontaneous that it is hard to imagine now how their charm and silliness — seasoned with a bit of social activism — became so popular so quickly, defining a time before Vietnam and the sexual revolution changed America.
Steve Blauner, a former Hollywood movie producer, saw the Rat Pack in person as many times as he could in Las Vegas. He was enraptured.
“They were the three greatest entertainers living,” he says of Dean, Frank and Sammy. “Everybody wanted to be Dean. Dean was the coolest. He was like your big brother. Everybody wanted to sing like Frank. And Sammy happened to be the world’s greatest entertainer.”
No longer will writers troop up to Bishop’s California home pleading for one more morsel about those days: Anything, Mr. Bishop, about Frank and the fellows? Did you ever see Sammy hanging out with Kim Novak? What about Frank and the mob? Joey mostly wouldn’t talk about the other members of the Rat Pack, he had no dark stories to share. He found nostalgia sweet and wished to keep it private. He liked each member. It’s that ephemeral thing called showbiz love.
Bishop had long worked as a stand-up comic. Sometimes he opened for Sinatra. Jess Rand — who traveled with Davis and his 1940s vaudeville act — once caught Joey opening for Frank at the Copacabana. Joey walked out onstage and the place was jampacked. He leaned into the microphone, Rand recalls, and talked about the overflow crowd. Then he said: “Hey, Frank. And you thought I couldn’t draw a crowd!”
Would stars of today risk such a group undertaking? Would egos survive such a thing? It hardly seems likely.
Rudi Eagan, a piano player, got to Las Vegas in 1955, full of music dreams. He went to the Sands Hotel, and there, goofing onstage — the cigarette smoke like a see-through curtain — was the Rat Pack. “They had a unique thing going,” says Eagan, who wound up playing gigs with Frank and Sammy. “They made you feel like you were in somebody’s living room.”
Eagan recalls Vegas as being quite small then — “less than 30,000 people” — and everyone was crazy about the Rat Pack. After the shows — after Dean had sung “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” and Sammy and Frank had sung “Me and My Shadow,” and the last view of mink coat had slid beyond the door — the guys would head out to the casino, tossing the dice, sipping drinks. “They’d be trying to help people win,” says Eagan. “They’d drive the pit bosses crazy.”
A swingin’ summit
As freewheeling as they were, they were still familiar with the politics of the day.
The Paris summit conference of 1960 had been organized by President Eisenhower, French leader Charles de Gaulle and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev. Frank said he’d have a damn summit, too: Hee, hee, hee. He said it was going to be a Rat Pack summit. The scribes of the day had their hook and ran with it. Sinatra and company all knew Jack Entratter, because he used to work at the Copacabana in New York City. Now Jack was at the Sands and began nodding happily as soon as Frank mentioned he wanted to stage a Rat Pack summit there.
The shows sold out; those who couldn’t get tickets cried. Perhaps no one benefited more than Sammy Davis Jr. A former vaudevillian, his presence made the enterprise integrated. And it was a black-and-white time of simmering racial protest across the country.
At the Sands, the tablecloths were linen and the silverware gleamed. The mobsters mingled with the actors and actresses who had come over from Hollywood. Some of the blacks in Vegas tugged at Sammy’s elbow, begging him to say something about the city’s segregation.
One night onstage, Frank told Dean that Jack Kennedy was in the audience. Who? “What did you say his name was?” Dean cracked.
Sen. Kennedy was already running for the White House; Peter Lawford happened to be his brother-in-law. Dean picked up Sammy like a wounded animal and said to Frank, “Here. This award just came to you from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”
The laughter didn’t stop for a long time. There were blacks in the kitchen who twisted uneasily.
Blauner realizes that some of the statements made by Dean and Sinatra during Rat Pack evenings would hardly be acceptable in today’s climate. “All the things that they did, many people would be scared to do today,” he says. “It just wouldn’t be politically possible.”
The years rolled over and around them. There were Rat Pack movies, such as “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Sergeants 3” and “Robin and the 7 Hoods.”
It was while they were filming a scene for the latter in a Chicago cemetery that someone tapped Frank on the shoulder. They told him Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Frank shut the production down for a while.
The Rat Pack seemed to die with Camelot. Only it didn’t, because George Clooney remade “Ocean’s Eleven,” then he made “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.” The movies were hits. Waves of nostalgia erupted about the original Rat Pack, and there were books about them. There was a cable movie. Christmas music by the Rat Pack poured out at holiday parties.
Joey outlived them all. He lived long enough to see them turned into kitsch, then magically back into a pop culture phenomenon. It was a rare return to top billing.