On December 11, 2010, the night before what would have been Frank Sinatra’s 95th birthday, I was at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas for the premier of SINATRA: Dance With Me, a show conceived, choreographed and directed by the renowned classical, jazz and contemporary dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, who I interviewed in January 2008.
SINATRA: Dance With Me follows four couples who fall in and out of love at a night club. The show, which has no dialogue, blends the original master recordings of Frank Sinatra with a 17-piece orchestra and performances by 14 of the world’s most talented dancers who weave romance and seduction into classic standards like Fly Me to the Moon, That’s Life, and My Way.
As I sat transfixed by the artists’ fluid movements and Sinatra’s famous phrasing, the Ghost of Christmas Past brought me back to another time when Las Vegas was still a small, mob-style glamour-town rather than a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city.
Once again I found myself in the long-gone Circus Maximus showroom at Caesars Palace where back in the 70s, names like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Tom Jones, Diana Ross, Cher and Willie Nelson appeared on the marquee.
I was just a young girl in my early twenties when I left New York City and came to the Entertainment Capitol of the World. A few weeks after I arrived, I got a job as a camera girl at Caesars Palace. It was fun back then to wear a sexy, one-shouldered, black Roman toga and take photographs of people who came to see the show. The real treat was that night after night I got to watch those musical legends perform.
I was there for quite a few of Sinatra’s week-long runs. When he was at Caesars, there was electricity in the air. The showroom was always packed with high rollers and women who were dressed to the nines. Those were the days when the Maître d’s and captains’ palms were greased with huge amounts of money in exchange for the best seats in the house.
I was there on January 6, 1977, a particularly memorable day in the life of Frank Sinatra. It was opening night and the showroom was noisy, the audience eager to see Ol’ Blue Eyes. The crowd was generous and in a partying mood so I took a lot of photos that night. Then we got word that the show was being delayed because Sinatra’s 82-year-old mother, Dolly was flying in from Palm Springs to see her son and her plane was late.
The audience ordered more drinks and waited; how long I don’t remember, but it seems like it was close to an hour before we got word that the show would go on. It was only afterward that we learned that Dolly Sinatra’s plane had crashed into a mountain approximately five minutes after taking off at 4:55 p.m, which would mean that Sinatra knew his mother’s plane was missing when he got on stage. I can only think he was holding out hope for her safety and that he didn’t want to disappoint the people who had come to see him.
LIFE LESSON: We can’t escape sorrow and tragedy no matter who we are or how much we have. Money doesn’t make us immune from pain yet we place so much importance on amassing so much of it at the expense of the things that count. I’d rather be rich beyond measure when it comes to the important things like love, friends and good health.
Another Sinatra date that stands out in my mind is December 12, 1979. Again the room was abuzz with people who came to Caesars Palace to see Sinatra perform and to help him celebrate not only his 64th birthday, but also his 40th year in show business.
Lots of celebrities were there that night and I was called backstage to take some photos. Somehow I got up enough nerve to ask Mr. Sinatra if I could have a photo with him. It’s an old picture and our faces have really faded, but my memories haven’t.
Over the four years that I worked at Caesars Palace I saw many great performers such as Lena Horne and Vic Damon, Liberace, Juliet Prowse, Shirley MacLaine, Freddie Prinze, Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Cher, Harry Belafonte, and Willie Nelson, and I had my photo taken with all of them.
But the one who touched me the most was Sammy Davis Jr, who Sinatra referred to as Ol’ Brown Eye. I had the pleasure of seeing Sammy countless times and each time he sang What Kind of Fool Am I, Candy Man, and especially Mr. Bojangles, I was always aware that I was witnessing greatness. “Commit this moment to memory,” I would remind myself, “because one day he’ll be gone.”
When Sammy sang he exuded so much emotion. He would climb down deep into the very essence of a song and draw you right in with him. You felt his joy and you felt his pain.
Sammy was a victim of racism throughout his life. In his 1965 best-selling autobiography, Yes I Can, he wrote how during his stint in the U.S. Army his nose was broken several times when he stood up to the taunts and how the white soldiers ganged up on him, coated him in white paint and painted racial slurs all over his body in black. He described the stark contrast between how he was warmly greeted in showrooms and how he faced segregation in the hotels where he played. Las Vegas Strip hotels didn’t allow African American customers and entertainers of the post-war era to reside in or patronize the hotel-casinos. Black entertainers entered and exited through the kitchen, and sometimes they were lucky to get a meal at the very places where white people paid to see them perform. No dressing rooms were provided for black performers so they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
When Sammy lost his left eye in a car crash in 1954, he recovered at Frank Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs. The two had been friends since 1941 and reportedly Sinatra told Sammy, “Relax, you’re going to be bigger than ever.” Sinatra’s prophecy proved to be true. In the early 1960s he joined Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop on stage at the famed “Summit at the Sands” shows, where the group became known as the Rat Pack.
When Sammy was denied a room at the Sands, Sinatra threatened to pull the Rat Pack shows unless he got his own suite. Hotel-casino brass gave in to Sinatra’s demand, which opened the door for other black performers who’d been forced to find accommodations in boarding houses and motels in West Las Vegas.
Sammy overcame addictions to drugs, gambling, alcohol, and death threats. When he got involved with Kim Novak, who was under contract to Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohen, the head of the studio, worried about the negative publicity because of the country’s taboo against miscegenation (interracial sex). Reportedly Cohen called his friend, mobster Johnny Roselli, who arranged for Sammy to be kidnapped for a few hours to scare him.
Sammy may have been slight of frame, but he was a big man who stood up to bigots and bigotry. When he and Swedish actress May Britt got married in 1960, hate mail arrived at the Broadway theatre where he was starring in Golden Boy. At the time, interracial marriages were against the law in 31 states. It was only in 1967 that those laws were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
That was the same year NBC broadcast a musical special with Nancy Sinatra Jr. entitled Movin’ With Nancy. In addition to the Emmy Award-winning musical performances, the show was notable because Nancy and Sammy greeted each other with a kiss, one of the first black-white kisses in U.S. television history.
I have fond memories of those days at Caesars. I had my photo taken with Sammy several times. Here are two of my favorites. The one with me kissing him on the cheek was just after we presented him with a birthday cake. Those are nostalgic memories.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the Ghost of Christmas Past had me back in my seat at the Wynn Hotel. I wondered how it was possible for me to do that much reminiscing and not miss one dance step on stage. I suppose that’s the magic of time travel.
Back in present time, I, along with everyone else gave SINATRA: Dance With Me a final rousing standing ovation. I’m sure there were plenty of people there that night like me, who have their own memories.
When the show was over, Nancy and Tina Sinatra came out on the stage. Both daughters said a few words about their father and then Nancy introduced Twyla Tharp, whose creative relationship with Frank Sinatra’s music began in 1976 with the premier of Once More Frank, a duet created for the American Ballet Theater and performed by Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
While they were still on the stage, Steve Wynn stood up from his seat in the audience and talked briefly about being 25 when he first met Sinatra and how 15 years later, in 1982 when Steve was 40 and he owned the Golden Nugget, he signed the 67 year -old crooner to a four-year contract. Steve went on to say how much their friendship meant to him.
LIFE LESSON: You never know where life will take you so be nice to everyone.
That evening at the Wynn touched me in several different ways. Artistically it was beautiful and very enjoyable, but on a deeper level it reminded me of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. We are no longer fighting for interracial marriages; now the battle is for gay rights. Instead of blacks being strung up or tormented by the Klu Klux Klan, young gay boys are killing themselves because of harassment and physical violence.
We have to speak out and speak up wherever we see discrimination. We have to let people know it’s not okay. My hope is that we stop hating people because of their race, their sexual orientation, their ethnicity or their religion. In God’s eyes we are all the same. It’s too bad that Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. aren’t still here to help fight for equality.