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.  

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