Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
Las Vegas may have been a small town in the forties and fifties, but it was well on the way to being "The Entertainment Capital of the World."  In its infancy, a Vegas floor show consisted of a headliner, eight dancing girls, and an MC--in the case of the Ramona Room at the Last Frontier, an MC who sang: Ramona, the Last Frontier is calling you…In those days, you could see the late show for the price of a cup of coffee. My father may not have been the most devoted parent, but he took me to see floor shows.  I saw most of the great comics ringside. I learned how to ride a laugh, and to milk a line. By the time I was nine or ten, my father took my girlfriends along. None of my friends’ fathers took their kids to shows, or had dinner at the hotels. I considered myself very lucky. I knew how to behave at floorshows: what to wear, when to applaud, when to laugh even when you didn’t understand the joke. My friends were in awe of me. When I ordered a frozen éclair for my treat, they followed suit, though they had no idea what it was. They were taken aback at the free hand lotion in the ladies room, but when they saw me help myself they did, too.

At the Sahara, home of the “Most American Girls in the World,” we saw Betty Hutton, aka The Blonde Bombshell. My idol. In the movies, she was best known as a comedienne but on stage she sang, she danced, she clowned, and after a standing ovation she came back in a terry cloth robe, sat on the edge of the stage, and sang her heart out for twenty or thirty minutes more. Neither she, nor we, could get enough of each other. Once, I saw her gleaming with suntan lotion at the Flamingo pool and asked for her autograph. The endless exuberance she’d had on stage was gone. She looked tired, sullen, annoyed, but I loved the way she signed her name: B with etty inside of the bottom loop. I was disappointed that the real Betty Hutton wasn't the star I had fallen in love with in movies and on stage. I promised myself I would be nice to my fans when I was famous!

Then there were the lounge shows.  For the price of a drink, you could see the best jazz and off-beat comedy in America, such as the outrageous Shecky Greene, who spied a man sneaking off to the men’s room during his act, leapt off the stage, scooped the poor fellow up and carried him back to his seat. Ella Fitzgerald at the Sands lounge, Don Rickles, The brilliant Mary Kaye Trio, Louis Prima and Keely Smith at the Sahara. You didn't even have to buy a drink. You could stand outside of the lounge and see everything. For free.

I saw so many brilliant headliners at Vegas shows—Danny Kaye, Carol Channing, Milton Berle, (who was much dirtier-and funnier-than on TV), Red Skelton, to name just a few, but by far, the most brilliant and versatile performer I ever saw was Frank Sinatra. Whether his voice thrilled you or not, he knew how to seduce an audience. In the forties, he came across as a nice, Catholic boy, devoted to his wife and family. He did a short film for movie theaters in which he sang “The House I Live In,” and spoke out against intolerance. On stage, he was positively wholesome. The teen girls of America, aka "bobbysoxers," squealed and swooned and swarmed around him. Then, in the fifties, Sinatra changed his image. He turned himself into a playboy: worldly, cynical, on-the-make. His career, which had taken a nosedive, went sky high again. I was in the audience at the Sands for that first comeback show. He shuffled out with the dancers in a number about money. A wad of fake cash clasped in his hand, he stuffed bills in the dancers' bosoms, dancing with them, singing with them, flirting with them and with every other woman in the house. He was bursting with energy and talent and cheeky charm. There was nothing remotely wholesome about him now. And we loved him for it! He had divorced “Nancy with the Laughing Face,” and carried on a scandalous affair with Ava Gardner. He was about to act in “From Here to Eternity,” and win an Oscar. He had earned the right to sing, “It Was Just One of Those Things,” because he knew from experience what a love affair too hot not to cool down meant. I disapproved of his womanizing, and his shady dealings with the mob, but the moment he came on stage and caressed that microphone like it was Ava, he had all of us in the palm of his hand. He made every woman in the audience think he was singing just for her. As for the guys, they just wanted to be like him.

Once, at the Desert Inn, I was standing in the lobby when I saw Frank and Ava. It was early in the morning. She was wearing a sundress—a shmatte, as my mother would say—and I doubt she had anything on under it. Frankie was standing below her on the stairs that led to the rooms, a drink in one hand, his white dress shirt wrinkled and half unbuttoned, his tie undone. They were both barefoot. He had a silly grin on his face. Hers was sultry. They were oblivious to me, and everything but each other.  I felt I shouldn’t be peering into their lives, but I couldn’t stop. I felt like an intruder in their home, but I was so inconsequential they couldn't see me.

Later on, when the Rat Pack was in full swing and Frank was newly married to Mia Farrow, they all hung out at the Sands. I heard from a friend who was a parking attendant that Frank, Mia, and the boys stole a bunch of shopping carts from Safeway on the Strip and rode them into the Sands pool. Hotel guests and management weren't happy about it, but nobody had the guts to say "no" to Sinatra. The word among strip employees was, if you were on his good side, Sinatra was the most charming, generous guy in the world. But you didn't want to get on his bad side.  I was a big fan, but I resented the fact that he could do anything he wanted, including marrying a girl who was even younger than me! He had so much power. They called him the Chairman of the Board, but he was more. Frank Sinatra was the King of Las Vegas.  

Horseshoe Club Postcard depicting atom bomb testing, circa 1950
In seventh grade, our teacher told us we were the luckiest kids in America. The above ground atomic bomb tests, at Yucca Flats, were only eighty miles from Las Vegas. We could actually feel the earth shake and see the mushroom clouds. Our teacher, who habitually drank whiskey at her desk behind a Review Journal newspaper, delighted in conducting bomb drills. She patrolled the aisles, kicking legs that protruded from under our desks. She showed us movies about Tommy the Turtle whose shell protected him from bad stuff like radioactivity. She oversaw the reading of books that told us to “duck and cover.” At John S. Park School, kids reported being pelted with greasy rain when they were in the playground. Their teacher instructed them to drop to the ground and put their arms over their heads. No one seemed to question the logic behind any of this.

When I was at North Ninth Street school, we were herded off to the nurses’ office for blood tests, after which we were issued dog tags stating our names and blood types. We didn’t ask why, nor did our parents. We were all oblivious to the chilling implications. Instead we kids argued about which blood types were superior to others. My mother, in an uncharacteristically liberal frame of mind, bought me an educational record featuring songs about intolerance. One in particular tackled the sensitive subject of blood type discrimination head on. England, China and Alaska, Mexico and Madagascar, anywhere you point your finger to—there’s someone with the same type blood as you. Nevertheless, I secretly believed that O positive was the coolest of them all.

Locals were fascinated with the bomb tests. Families would drive out and park as close to the bombsite as possible to watch the sky light up. Las Vegas was booming from bombing! People came from all over the world to watch the bomb tests from hotel roofs while sipping Atomic Bomb cocktails. The Hotel Biltmore had a Miss Atomic Bomb contest, and local beauty salons featured mushroom cloud hairdos. My mother was overjoyed. She predicted that, as our first respectable industry, the Atomic Energy Commission would be the best thing that ever happened to Las Vegas. It would attract a higher class of people. Casinos would no longer dominate the landscape. There would be art museums, symphony halls, theaters. In the meantime, sidewalks on Fremont Street were littered with glass from the impact of the explosions. Greedy shop owners collected the shards in barrels, and sold them as atomic bomb souvenirs.

Las Vegas High students were bussed to the test site where they observed three little wooden houses with mannequins inside depicting quintessentially domestic scenes, such as mom in apron feeding baby in high chair with proud papa looking on. I suppose it was a modern version of the Three Little Pigs and the big bad wolf, only this time the pigs were people and the wolf was a bomb. An unusually high number of military personnel at the test site would later be diagnosed with cancer as a result of exposure to radioactivity. Downwind of the tests, small towns in Utah would report disturbingly high instances of Leukemia, especially in old people and children. Cattle and livestock would fall ill and die. All the while, kooks with Geiger counters roamed Las Vegas streets clicking their tongues about fallout. My mother called them “dirty commies.”

There were commies everywhere, especially on TV. We watched “I Led Three Lives,” and “I Was a Communist for the FBI.” Everyone was suspect. I tried to get my friends to help me spy on suspicious looking individuals and report them to the FBI, but they were chicken. I imagined receiving a medal of commendation from President Truman for ferreting out ruskie spies. My mother, too, had visions of becoming a hero. She signed up to be a “sky watcher” on the roof of the fifteen-story Fremont Hotel. Because Las Vegas was so close to Yucca Flats, it was feared that the Russians considered us a prime target. Against his better judgement, my father drove my mother to night classes on identifying enemy planes at Las Vegas High School. I was impressed with her dedication to the cause of freedom. And she wasn’t the only patriot. The class was filled to capacity. The day of the first sky watch, my mother got up early and fixed her lunch so my father could drop her at the Fremont on his way to work. She came home in a rage. It seemed she was the only sky watcher who showed up on the Fremont roof. The others had been seduced by the slot machines in the casino on the first floor. My disillusioned mother turned her back on the cold war and took up canasta.

I was relieved when President Kennedy banned above ground bomb tests in l961, even though Las Vegas experienced a downturn in tourism. The casinos lost money. My father called Kennedy a “goddamned son-of-a-bitch.”