They took the gambling capital by storm, setting up shop at the Sands Hotel and Casino, where they filmed the original "Ocean's 11" and defined early-'60s cool as the hottest act in Vegas. Here, for Dean Martin's birthday, are 20 things that may surprise you about the gang of A-list entertainers known as the Rat Pack.
They Didn't Like the Name
The original Rat Pack was a circle of friends who hung out at the home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. One of them was Frank Sinatra. After Bogie died in 1957, Sinatra formed his own group, which included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. But they never referred to themselves as the Rat Pack (Sinatra once rebuked a journalist for using "that stupid phrase"). They mostly called themselves The Summit.
They Were Huge!
For years, the Rat Pack's home base was the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Nearly every performance was a sellout, and the mere presence of the Rat Pack meant an influx of high rollers to the entire town. When out-of-towners couldn't find a hotel room, which was more frequent than you might imagine, they slept in their cars. That's the kind of star power these guys had.
The Act Only Looked Spontaneous
The Rat Pack's stage performances weren't as loose (or alcohol-inspired) as they appeared. "The act was thoroughly plotted," wrote Tina Sinatra in her memoir "My Father's Daughter." "Dad and his friends were consummate pros who never drank the day of a performance. The 'bourbon' in Dean's glass—and in my father's as well—was iced tea or apple juice, at least at the first show." "I never saw Frank, Dean, Sammy or Peter drunk during performances," said Joey Bishop. "That was only a gag."
People Gambled That They'd Show Up
The marquee at the Sands sometimes only suggested that the Rat Pack might perform ("Dean Martin, Maybe Frank, Maybe Sammy"). Even so, fans turned out in droves.
A Mobster Suggested Killing Them
When the well-connected Sinatra failed to get the Kennedys to stop their crackdown on organized crime, one of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana's men offered to assassinate him. "Let's hit Sinatra," the mobster is heard saying on an FBI wiretap. "Or I could whack out a couple of those other guys." Rather than kill them, Giancana (seen here in custody of a U.S. Marshall in 1965) took advantage of the Rat Pack to build his entertainment business in Chicago. The group's core members, including Sinatra, worked for Giancana for free.
Two of the Original Members Got Booted Out
Only Frank, Dean and Sammy remained lifelong members of the Rat Pack. Peter Lawford, whose main credential was that he was John F. Kennedy's brother-in-law, was banished when the Kennedys broke ties with Sinatra over his relationship to the Chicago mob. Comedian Joey Bishop, who wrote most of the group's material but never considered himself "a full-fledged rat," was dismissed from the group before they filmed the 1964 movie "Robin and the 7 Hoods." The reason was never explained.
The Group Had (Mostly Female) Mascots
In addition to the core group, there were several "associate" members known as the Rat Pack Mascots. They included Marilyn Monroe, Shirley MacLaine, Juliet Prowse and Buddy Greco. Both Sinatra and Martin hooked up with a Mascot who was far and away their favorite: Angie Dickinson.
They Broke One Racial Barrier…
Even as a full-fledged member of Las Vegas' biggest act, Sammy Davis Jr. (seen here at the Sands with Clint Eastwood) suffered discrimination. He was even denied a room in the very hotel where he was performing. It wasn't until Sinatra stepped in and demanded that his friend receive equal treatment that Davis gained entry into whites-only establishments.
…but Couldn't Get Past Another
Davis' marriage to Swedish actress May Britt sparked a backlash that even Sinatra couldn't overcome. At a time when interracial marriage was illegal in most states, Davis wasn't invited to perform with the rest of the Rat Pack at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. In fact, Sinatra had asked his friend to postpone the wedding until after the election, fearing that it might hurt JFK's chances. Several years later, Davis and his third wife, Altovise, became the first black couple to stay at the White House—at the invitation of Richard Nixon.
Dino Dissed JFK
Sammy Davis Jr. wasn't the only Rat Packer who did not attend JFK's inauguration gala. Dean Martin was conspicuously absent, despite the fact that Sinatra had organized the star-studded event. It's possible that Martin acted in solidarity with Davis, but he also was never enamored of Kennedy.
Lawford Was Behind Their First Movie
It was Peter Lawford who brought Frank Sinatra the project that became the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle "Ocean's 11." Lawford and his wife Pat Kennedy had paid $10,000 for film rights to the story about a group of vets who rob five Las Vegas casinos (when he heard about it, Sinatra said, "Forget the movie, let's pull the job!"). The investment paid off big time, netting the Lawfords about $500,000. Sinatra did even better, receiving $200,000 to star in the movie, plus a third of the box office.
Not Everybody Appreciated Their Act
The Rat Pack would occasionally crash another entertainer's show, often to the delight of the performer and his audience alike. But it was another story one night at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles. After Frank, Dean and Sammy took over singer Eddie Fisher's show with their usual high jinks, Milton Berle grumbled "This was a disgusting display of ego." Variety reported that "the audience was not amused." And gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote that the Rat Pack "played to a hostile audience."
There Were Offstage High Jinks Too
Frank's way with women is legend. Less well-known is that he hosted bacchanals involving showgirls—often in a hotel steam room—for his Rat Pack pallies and other hangers-on. One of them was Paul Anka, who described the wild parties in his 2013 memoir "My Way."
They Welcomed Elvis Home
Sinatra and his pals (minus Dean Martin but adding his daughter Nancy) starred in a 1960 TV special that marked Elvis Presley's return from military service in West Germany. It was the King's first TV appearance in three years. The stars traded songs, with Elvis singing "Witchcraft" and Frank singing "Love Me Tender." The show scored the highest ratings Sinatra ever had on TV.
Frank Was the Boss—Literally
In 1960, Sinatra launched his own record label, Reprise Records, and that's where he got the nickname Chairman of the Board. Both Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. signed on with Reprise, as did Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and many others. Sinatra offered artists what no other record company had given him: creative freedom and full ownership of their music.
A Great Run Came to a Sudden End
In 1967, billionaire Howard Hughes bought up some of Las Vegas's most valuable real estate, including the Rat Pack's home, the Sands. Hughes took a hard line with his talent, cutting off Sinatra's extremely generous credit line in the casino. Sinatra (seen here performing with Antonio Carlos Jobim, aka the godfather of bossa nova) quickly defected to the new Caesar's Palace, while Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin remained at the Sands. The next year, Martin moved to the Riviera.
Tragedy Linked Frank and Dean
In 1987, Dean Paul Martin Jr., a captain in the California Air National Guard, died when his fighter jet crashed in the San Bernardino mountains during a snowstorm. He was 35 years old. A decade earlier, Sinatra's mother Dolly was killed aboard a Learjet when the plane crashed into the very same mountain range. Her son had hired the private jet to fly Dolly and a friend to Las Vegas for a show and a little gambling.
A Reunion Tour Fizzled
After the death of his son, Dean Martin fell into a depression that he never really came out of. Sinatra tried to help by reassembling the Rat Pack in 1988 for a 29-date tour called Together Again. But after only five shows (including one during which Martin tossed a lit cigarette into the audience), Dino left the tour. Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. continued, with Liza Minelli as Martin's replacement.
Sammy Really Needed the Comeback
Davis and Sinatra had been estranged for some years because of Davis' drug use. The multitalented performer also had severe financial problems, so when Sinatra suggested they reunite for the 1988 tour Sammy had little choice but to sign on. The following year, Davis was diagnosed with throat cancer, and in 1990 he died. He was buried wearing a gold watch that had been given to him by Sinatra.
Their Home Came Tumbling Down
In 1996—a year after Dean Martin died—casino owner Sheldon Adelson decided to say goodbye forever to the House That the Rat Pack Built. The last dice rolled at the Sands casino on June 30, 1996. Three months later, the place was demolished to make way for a $1.5 billion mega-resort, The Venetian. Sinatra was the only member of the Rat Pack trio who lived to see the Sands turn to rubble. Less than two years later, he was gone too.
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