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Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Gina Lollobrigida

Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen and Gina Lollobrigida

In 1959, Sammy Davis Jr. was set to act in a war movie alongside Frank Sinatra, when Sammy apparently made some negative remarks about Frank in a radio interview.  Frank wasn’t too pleased, and as a result, Sammy was dropped from the cast, which also happened to include Rat Pack member Peter Lawford.  The movie, for which Frank had purchased the film rights, was Never So Few, and the role would have paid Sammy $75,000.  To replace Sammy, rising star Steve McQueen was given the part, although at a considerably lower fee of $25,000, according to McQueen biographer Marc Elliot.  At the time, McQueen was also starring in the TV western series Wanted:  Dead Or Alive. 

McQueen and Sinatra hit it off right way, and became playful pals on the set.  It’s been reported that they engaged in some pranks on each other involving firecrackers and prop machine guns.  They admired each other and bonded strongly.  According to Marc Elliot, Steve was even invited into Frank’s tight-knit circle of Rat Pack friends.  Frank was generous with Steve during the filming, often calling on the director to give the close-ups to McQueen.

After filming Never So Few, Frank wanted Steve to appear in the Rat Pack film Ocean’s Eleven, but Steve was advised that he would not reach the individual stardom he sought if he was perceived as one of Frank’s group.  So Steve turned the film down, and Frank never asked him to appear with him on film again.  It didn’t stop Steve however, from going on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

For a look at the life of Steve McQueen, the biography by Marc Elliot is highly recommended.  And for more stories of Frank Sinatra that you might not have heard, visit the Frank Sinatra Tribute website.

 

Rat Pack and Johnny Carson

An exciting song that energized Rat Pack shows during the sixties in Las Vegas and elsewhere was originally published in 1926.  The Birth Of The Blues was first recorded by an artist named Whispering Jack Smith in 1927.  It was also the title of a film starring Bing Crosby in 1941.  Along with renditions by artists like Pearl Bailey and Keely Smith, Rat Pack stars Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. were also heard performing the song from time to time.

But probably the most notable performance of The Birth Of The Blues was at a Rat Pack benefit concert in 1965.  It took place at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis and featured Frank, Sammy and Dean, along with emcee Johnny Carson, filling in for comedian and Rat Pack member Joey Bishop. 

It was the closing song of the show, and featured Johnny joining in with the Rat Pack, and Johnny’s vocal was quite respectable.  The result was a great ending to a great concert that included a wonderful line-up of songs and a lot of playful clowning around including some impressions by Sammy, and some great physical comedy moves by Dean, not to mention the surprise of Johnny Carson’s contribution to the grand finale, The Birth Of The Blues. 

To this day, the song is still performed by Las Vegas Rat Pack Impersonators, in all the historic Las Vegas venues, plus from Los Angeles to New York and around the world.

One thing everyone would probably agree on is that the Rat Pack definitely had style.  And in the movie Robin & The Seven Hoods, they even sang about it.  In that 1964 film, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are joined by Bing Crosby for a rousing song and dance number on the subject of class, charm and. . .Style.  The song, written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen makes the point that it’s not just what you wear, but how you wear it.  Or, as the lyrics say, “a flower’s not a flower if it’s wilted, and a hat’s not a  hat till its tilted”.  In that regard, Frank Sinatra certainly lived his life with style.

In the movie, the song is performed when Frank and Dean’s characters Robbo and Little John decide to give Bing Crosby’s character Allen A. Dale a  musical lesson on looking good.  First, Bing samples some outrageous outfits to the disapproval of Frank and Dean.  Then, Bing, Frank and Dean are transformed from their 1930’s era Chicago gangster wardrobe into sharp black tuxedos with canes and white straw hats. . .at a tilt, of course.  And it’s all taken in by an appreciating audience consisting of Sammy Davis Jr.’s character Will, and four other cast members. 

Many years later, Style was used as the theme music for a reunion tour featuring Frank, Sammy and Liza Minnelli who was filling in for an ailing Dean Martin.  And today, the song is still performed occasionally when the Rat Pack is re-created by Rat Pack Impersonators in Los Angeles, also seen often in Las Vegas and other cities around America.

In 1958, Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army and began two years of military service, starting with training at Fort Hood Texas and then deployment with the 3rd armored division in Germany.  After his two years of service were completed, Elvis returned to the United States in March of 1960.  Just two months later, he made a return to TV in a highly watched TV appearance on Frank Sinatra’s Timex TV special called It’s Nice To Go Traveling, better known as Welcome Home, Elvis.  The fee paid to Elvis for appearing was $125,000, which was a staggering amount at that time.

The show, recorded at the Fountainbleu hotel in Miami Beach, also featured guest stars Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Nancy Sinatra.  So all of the Rat Pack was together for the special, with the exception of Dean Martin.  Peter and Sammy sang and danced during a duet of the song Shall We  Dance.  Joey was around for some comedy, and Nancy and her dad sang a duet of You Make Me Feel So Young with some special lyrics.  And Elvis got to showcase two of his most recent, post-military recordings, called Fame and Fortune and Stuck On You.  But the highlight of the program was a duet between Frank and Elvis in which Frank sang Elvis’ hit Love Me Tender and Elvis sang  Frank’s hit Witchcraft.

Frank  Sinatra might have been an unlikely host to welcome Elvis home due to Frank’s previously expressed opinions of Rock ‘n Roll, but the special was a big success, Elvis was a great guest, and the Frank and Elvis duet is highly regarded and often replayed during retrospectives.  And today, an Elvis tribute performer is often featured in combination with Rat Pack Impersonators.

Every week, The Dean Martin Variety Show welcomed many of America’s top show business celebrities as guests.  Among them was legendary movie star John Wayne, with whom Dean starred in two films, Rio Bravo and The Sons of Katie Elder.

On one episode of Dean’s show, Dean and Duke Wayne do a duet of Dean’s signature song Everybody Loves Somebody.  Actually, Wayne doesn’t sing, but instead does one of the best jobs of lip-synching ever seen.  Not only is the lip-synching flawless, but his expressions and body language are perfect as well.

And making it even more memorable is the fact that Wayne lip-synchs to the voice of Frank Sinatra, who actually recorded the song before it became a huge hit for Dean. 

You can see this enduring performance at YouTube’s Rat Pack Impersonators channel.

It was the most musical of the Rat Pack films, with Frank, Dean and Sammy as gangsters in ’30’s era Chicago, with some comical rivalries, schemes and power struggles.  Fourth in the series of Rat Pack films, it continued the tradition of including a number in the title, a la Oceans Eleven, Sergeants Three, and Four For Texas

One of the film’s highlights is a musical number in which Frank introduces a song saluting Chicago, called My Kind Of Town.  He often closed his nightclub show with the song until later on when  he recorded New York, New York and it became a very popular closer for him. 

Joining Frank, Dean and Sammy in the film were Peter Falk, Barbara Rush and Edward G. Robinson, who makes a brief appearance.  Peter Lawford was also supposed to be in the movie, but his part was re-cast when he was exiled from the Rat Pack by Frank after Peter had to break the news that President Kennedy would not be staying at Frank’s home in Palm Springs on a California visit as planned.  That didn’t sit too well with Frank.  And not helping, were the elaborate plans Frank had made for the visit, which included remodeling his property to accomodate the President and his entourage.

Although Frank took it out on Peter, he apparently didn’t hold it against the star whose Palm Springs residence replaced his as the President’s destination, because it was that star, Bing Crosby, who replaced Lawford in Robin and the Seven Hoods. 

To see the cast performing one of the songs from the movie, visit the YouTube Rat Pack Impersonators site

There have been several books written about the Rat Pack.  But possibly the best work out there is titled Rat Pack Confidential, by author Shawn Levy.  True to its name, it contains a lot of inside information and stories about the individuals, and the group as a whole.  There’s Frank’s history of ups and downs both emotionally and professionally. . .Dean’s lack of interest in politics and just about everything else in favor of sex and golf. . .Sammy’s struggles and his crucial but fragile relationship with Frank. . .Joey’s thin Rat Pack affiliation that existed primarily on the stage. . .and finally, Peter’s sordid and pathetic side which intensified after his questionable Rat Pack expulsion.

What makes Rat Pack Confidential a fascinating read is not only the depth of great content and detail, but the manner in which it’s written; a colorful, cool narrative that captures the style of the subjects, almost if as Frank had written it.

Shawn Levy

 The author, Shawn Levy, has been the film critic of the Oregonian in Portland Oregon since 1997.  Rat Pack Confidential was released in 1998, which is also the year Frank Sinatra died.  Not a Rat Pack era contemporary, Shawn Levy was actually born in 1961, possibly the peak year of the Rat Pack’s reign in Las Vegas.  Rat Pack Confidential is a must-read for Rat Pack fans as well as Rat Pack performers

Other books by Shawn Levy include King Of Comedy:  The Life And Art Of Jerry Lewis, and more recently Paul Newman:  A Life.

Showgirls of the Moulin Rouge Casino in Las Vegas

Back in the 50’s, great performers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong were not allowed to stay at the Las Vegas hotels where they performed because almost all the casinos on the Strip were segregated.  One exception was the Moulin Rouge, which became the first integrated hotel casino in Las Vegas when it opened in May of 1955.  It was located in West Las Vegas, where the black population was forced to live.

It soon became a popular late night hangout for many white performers including George Burns, Jack Benny, and Frank Sinatra, who would drop in after their shows to relax, gamble and perform.  After a while, the Moulin Rouge became so popular, they had to add a 2:30 AM show for the late night crowd.

The Moulin Rouge was launched by white investors but was later owned by the first African American woman to hold a Nevada gaming license.  And as a model of integration, it was instrumental in advancing the Civil Rights movement in Las Vegas.  Many of the people associated with the Moulin Rouge were activists and supporters of civil rights.  In fact, when a crucial meeting was held to arrange the desegregation of all Strip casinos, it took place at the Moulin Rouge.   Unfortunately, the Moulin Rouge had a short lifespan, closing its doors less than a year after it opened.  Nevertheless, it remains a significant, although little-known part of Las Vegas history.

Now, as the  Rat Pack is remembered through Rat Pack Tributes, it’s hard for today’s performers and Rat Pack Impersonators alike to imagine a time of segregation in Las Vegas, and elsewhere for that matter, but it existed.

Before Dean Martin was a Rat Pack star, he and his partner Jerry Lewis had the most successful comedy team of all time.  Martin and Lewis started out breaking attendance records at nightclubs, where people would be lined up around the block to get in, and they went on to be a huge success on TV and in the movies.

Dean and Jerry’s popularity even inspired a comic book, issued from 1952 all the way till 1958.  Many are for sale today as collectibles, with the one below available on eBay for $175, which is not a bad return on an original price of 10 cents.

From the Rat Pack Impersonators  Blog and Rat Pack Impersonators Website.

Marilyn

The biggest female star associated with the Rat Pack would have to have been Marilyn Monroe.  And as a result, there is often a characterization of Marilyn along with Frank, Dean and Sammy in today’s Rat Pack Shows.  The performer portraying Marilyn will usually sing Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and My Heart Belongs To Daddy, plus I Wanna Be Loved By You.  And there is often another song and interaction with one or more of the guys.    

The leading Marilyn Monroe Impersonator around today is Susan Griffiths, who starred in a TV movie called Marilyn & Me and was featured in Pulp Fiction

Susan Griffiths

Susan Griffiths

 
She has also appeared on the TV shows Nip/Tuck and Curb Your Enthusiasm and has been seen during Elton John’s Las Vegas concerts where her image is projected on a large screen behind Elton while he performs the song Candles In the Wind
 
Susan, who is based in Southern California, is constantly in demand for her amazing look, sound and manner that re-creates Marilyn so convincingly, as seen here in a page from TV Guide.   Susan can be found on the Web at SusanGriffiths.com