Frank Sinatra didn't like to call his guys the Rat Pack; that was Humphrey Bogart's term for the Hollywood crew Bogie palled around town with a few years earlier. To Sinatra, the gang that got together in Las Vegas in January 1960 was simply the Summit: Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.
Vegas had never seen anything like it... and neither had Chicago or any of the other towns they visited when the Summit took its act on the road. "The idea was to have the cast of Ocean's Eleven perform at the Sands while they filmed on location in Vegas," says Bill Miller, Sinatra's longtime pianist. "Each artist would do 10 or 15 minutes on their own, and then [they] would all get together at the end of the show. We'd just sit back and laugh through the entire show."
Instantly, it was the hot ticket in town; in the first six days, the Sands had to turn down more than 18,000 people who requested reservations. "The Summit at the Sands changed my life," said Sammy Davis Jr. "Anybody that was anybody was there. People like Elizabeth Taylor, Danny Thomas, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and a wonderful senator by the name of Jack Kennedy. For two weeks while we were filming Ocean's Eleven, Frank, Dean, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and I had a party every night onstage at the Sands."
In his liner notes to the Sinatra: Vegas box set, Charles Pignone picks up the story:
"The show ran for four weeks with two shows nightly... If you were not one of the lucky patrons who had the privilege of attending The Summit, here is what you missed. Joey Bishop would open the show, followed usually by Martin, then Davis, then Lawford, and then Sinatra. For the finale the group would return en masse to joke and sing. More often than not, Davis and Lawford would sing and dance one number, Martin and Sinatra would heckle Davis, and Frank and Dean would roll a bar out onstage and sing parodies. This was the basic pattern of the show. No event before it or since achieved such legendary status in Las Vegas. Frank and friends had conquered the town!"
Sinatra, Martin, and Davis periodically reunited at the Sands for the next few years, occasionally with Bishop joining in the fun. And when the gang headed for Chicago in 1962 to shoot the final Rat Pack movie, Robin and the 7 Hoods, they brought their show to the Villa Venice Night Club, where the audio disc in Live and Swingin' was recorded.
The DVD in the set was shot three years later, at a black-tie charity concert in St. Louis on Father's Day, 1965. Billed as "The Frank Sinatra Spectacular," it was beamed live via satellite to movie theaters around the country, with a young emcee named Johnny Carson subbing for the ailing Joey Bishop. Thirty years later, that footage was located in Nancy Sinatra's possession, cleaned up, and shown at the Museum of Television and Radio. And now it's included on this essential collection - the only time cameras fully captured a proper Summit meeting.
Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Hold it!
Skipping the anatomical subtext - I invoke their own onstage fraternal cry for order amid the ring and the ding and the ding. They would shout this a lot at each other, the holding-it thing, although nothing ever really got held, or held back, as you will learn soon enough.
But I digress, as would they: It's not as if just anyone could do this, do what they did when they were together. (Accept no further counterfeits, especially in bad cable movies, thank you.) Herewith, finally, legitimately, is the genuine article - that which would somehow come to be so misunderstood, that which has ever ruffled the starchiest of clydes, that which not nearly enough of us were permitted to get an authentic motherly load of. Woe to that last, especially.
This, children, is what really went on. What went on was a miracle, fused purely of a nocturnal moment and of a sublime chemical collision between three grown boys in formal wear, three completely different packages of atoms and ions - nevertheless, all three absolute equals in the loftiest of realms. You had to be there. Would that you were. (The logistics! The odds! How to pull their three separate unforgiving schedules into one lucky room!) To see them was to be them. Such hubris is infectious, you know. (Seated drunks and damsels always tended to converse with them throughout the act.) But what they did only they could do, only because of who they were - to each other, to us.
This was them together: Giddy sovereigns who played onstage - played, that is, like kids, like pallies (parlance-wise), as in sandbox, school yard, street corner, locker room, steam room, bar room - and magnificently sung and swung while doing so. By doing so, they made each other very happy, obviously slaphappy, obviously pluperfectly coo-coo (their most inalienable privilege), teasing the holy hell out of each other, with actual love, letting us watch, letting us behold their legendary friendship, letting us in on their actual guy love, making us feel part of it all. No popular ego today would dare time-share spotlight as they did. (The world of talent suffers because. Stardom is nowadays handed to insecure ninnies who might do well to listen deeply to the evidence at hand - and lighten up quickly, please.)
These boys, they did not break rules as much as make new ones, under the safe sway of a Leader who hated stuffiness - and who, not-so-by-the-way, loved all Little Guys Who Got the Rub, particularly and gloriously, his heroic dark young brother with the false eye.
No apology here, but merely insight: This Pack, this Clan, this Summit (the term most preferable to its select membership) first convened in times of great political unrest. The sixties were dawning and the fight for civil rights stormed down yonder and all over and here was a tiny giant named Sam (or Smokey, by dint of vast nicotine intake, nothing else, so wise up already) whose work had dazzled a color-blind fella named Francis who did what he could for a pal, because he could, because he would dream of doing nothing else but. (No man loathed bigotry more than Sinatra.) So Little Brother Sam rose to proper prominence, as he would have anyhow, only maybe a little faster than the societal curve might have wished to allow.
What followed on the stages they trod was fine goofball satire - two Italian guys, the pluckiest of paisans, privately repulsed by a segregational climate, parodying the worst of prejudice (the comic setup always), so as to let this diminutive dynamo unleash his power and scare all idiots into submission. For this, the two clever Italians would forevermore be given grief by dour network anchor persons and National Public Radio nabobs - such reflexive tsk-tskin - who miss the devastating pertinence of a most devised impertinence. You had to be there, for sure. Right in that political moment. For the record, though: Sam always won. Listen hard.
Direct from the bar, Dean said it best, if woozily, in his wise and calculated manner: "We're just out here for laughs. So if you don't like it - stay."
Nobody ever left. To see them brought eternal bragging rights. At the Sands in Vegas - where, in that hallowed Copa Room, their nuclear fission was tested and born - Summit swagger spread out to the casino, out onto the Strip, imbued the desert mecca with a new kind of neon life-lust. Because of which, these three boys owned Vegas - flushed it with their happy abandon, flushed it with cash flow contagion - and wherever this act traveled, Vegas went with.
Of course, other boys also owned Vegas, much more literally: Boys who were darkness personified, who had funny noses and friends with funnier noses. These other boys were the shadows inextricably woven into the fabric of live show business; they were the bosses of urban nightlife who kept the books and signed the checks; also, they provided favors and expected favors in return, kapeesh?
Which brings us to the gig we now behold - the why of it - for the truth, they say, sets us free. Per this particular and remarkable engagement, we must acknowledge one other Sam, the Chicago Sam whose black hand could influence minions unseen. So Frank had a senator friend from Massachusetts whose presidential campaign needed a little grease in a crucial West Virginia primary and the senator's father asked Frank if he knew anyone who could help and Frank said he knew just the guy, in Chicago, and so John F. Kennedy won his West Virginia primary and got the job he wanted and the country reaped much benefit.
Sam "Momo" Giancana, meanwhile, decided that one good turn deserved another and Frank honorably understood this. And so it was that, in the dusk of 1962, between November 26 and December 2, Sinatra's Summit came to the Villa Venice nightclub, a most unlikely venue, quietly financed by Giancana and located - as Frank noted - "somewhere on the outskirts of Chicago - about, like, Des Moines, Iowa."
Please picture the joint: This Venice was an old banquet hall done up in fresh Vegas brocade, tucked into the trees off Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling, Illinois - about a half-hour away from familiar city lights. Directly behind the premises, on the murky Des Plaines River - to add a most surreal touch - singing gondoliers aimlessly poled customers about in actual gondolas. (Venice, natch.) Meanwhile, the real Vegas of it all was hidden just two blocks to the north - a nondescript private (as in illegal) casino called the Quonset Hut, stocked with gaming tables and slots and wheels, most of them rigged. Shuttle buses ferried players door-to-door.
To lure large rollers, Giancana had begun booking the renovated eight-hundred-plus-seat showroom with Olympian headliners - Eddie Fisher had opened the club a month before Frank and Dean and Sammy arrived to lift all stakes to the heavens and beyond. The plot worked, of course: By the end of their run, Chicago Sam - a.k.a Sam "Flood," as his hired help knew him - had tallied three million in illicit gambling revenues. Vini Vendi Vegas, indeed - such dealing for Wheeling.
Other points of Venetian interest: Legend suggests that our three heroes took no pay for the fourteen shows they performed. Frank, however, countered this by bringing along engineers from his newborn Reprise record company to capture all stage hijinx on acetate. He planned to release the findings as an album, but somehow never got around to it. Among opening-night dignitaries were fellows with names like "Potatoes" and "the Monk" and "Milwaukee Phil" and "Joe Fish." (Other nights brought everyone from Sonny Liston to Hugh Hefner with Bunny bevy.)
But you will note that certain ironies of the house were not lost on the Summiteers. As Smokey hits a high-note herein, observe Frank admonish: "Whoa! Whoa! There's a gangster sleepin' upstairs! What the hell's the matter with you? Keep it quiet!" Dean used the line on other nights. (They loved grabbing each other's witticisms.) Indeed, Frank's everpresent accompanist Bill Miller remembers the guys repairing to Giancana's upstairs lair one night, whereupon Miller found himself inexplicably instructing the mob chieftan in the latest dance craze. "Which broke Frank up," says Miller. "He said, 'Look at this bum showin' the biggest man in Chicago how to do the Twist!'" He adds, "Well, it was kind of a visual thing." To put power in its proper perspective, however, know that Giancana spent much of the week in Frank's dressing room, tending bar.
So much for the history lessons and - to crib from the Leader - on with all the long-lost other-mothery jazz, in the right tempo: This playbill includes Matty Malneck (who wrote Frank's opening number, "Goody-Goody") leading the orchestra; Miller and Ken Lane and George Rhodes as respective and unparalleled piano accompanists to Mr. Sinatra, Mr. Martin, and Mr. Davis, all three of whom appear as themselves, quite indelibly, just like as if you were there. They bid you swing.
- Bill Zehme Bill Zehme is the author of New York Times bestseller
The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra And The Lost Art Of Livin' (1997).
The liner notes to Live and Swingin' also include Zehme's notes on the DVD of a Rat Pack performance in St. Louis on June 20, 1965.