Do you remember when Sinatra played Madison Square Garden in 1974? He was singing in the middle of a boxing ring. Howard Cosell introduced Frank. The place was packed, alive and exciting. The great man’s voice was golden. He was in his prime and he never hit a false note. Those were the days. At least, those were some happy times. Frank never failed to stir my emotions.
When I moved to Las Vegas in summer of 1964, I landed in a frontier desert town covered with a hodgepodge of sage and cactus. It was not only sparse but land had no visual appeal except for about three long blocks on the Las Vegas strip where the fancy hotels were built: the Sahara Hotel, the Frontier, the Dunes, the Sands, the Desert Inn, the Stardust, the Flamingo. The El Rancho Vegas was gone by the time I got to Vegas, but I remembered it years before when my parents took me to see Sophie Tucker perform. I got her autograph that night. I was a big deal to a kid of 10.
In those days, the downtown area was small. Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, the Golden Nugget, and the Four Queens were the biggest places, but there were five or six smaller casinos – where the locals and Greyhound bus traffic frequented at all hours of the day and night. It was a seedy section of town in the mid-60’s. There were several downtown banks, a court house, some office buildings, Penny’s, Sear’s and one very small art house movie theater. That was a place where I used to hide out when the sterile environment became overwhelming for me.
And there was a kind of university off the strip – I say kind of because there were only 3 buildings and a library. It was called Nevada Southern University when it was first built. I hadn’t finished college yet when I arrived newly married so finishing college actually became an option. But not until I worked all that summer at the Sahara Hotel as the secretary to the catering director. He never found out that I didn’t take dictation and never had a course in short hand. I got the job from a friend of my ex-husband’s who knew the president of the Sahara. I think he was a mob guy.
The frontier aspect of Vegas made it easy pickings for mob control, and in the late 50’s ad throughout the 60’s, Vegas was run by the mob. It was a fairly strange existence because every body had friends in the mob. The Jews and the Italians split control over the hotels and casinos. And somewhere in the mix there were the teamsters. The mob and the teamsters had a cozy arrangement. Everybody greased everybody’s hand.
What runs in my mind every time I see clips of Sinatra and the rat pack was that I was there, in Vegas at the Sands Hotel and I bore witness to their mythology. Frank, Dean, Sammy, Joey Bishop and once in awhile Peter Lawford. They were the rage in the mid-60’s – the height of their popularity. The whole experience of living in Vegas during that time was one of excitement mixed with bewilderment. During that first summer I worked at the Sahara, I met the most popular comedians and singers of the day. During that first summer, my ex-husband studied for the bar (as in law) and I wondered how I ended up in a city where entertainment and gambling were the major recreations. It set the tone and style for many years to come.
In those early years I had a tenuous hold on my world. It was difficult to rectify leaving Berkeley in the 60’s for Vegas in the 60’s. No two universes were ever so far apart. I felt like I was wandering in the desert looking for the promised land, which by the way I had just left for a marriage and an uncertain life. I was never quite sure how I got there. I actually don’t remember make such a life-changing decision.
But Frank always made it better. I’d listen to his music, see him when he was in town, and somehow those tunes would put me in a better place – a place with some kind of hope. And it actually worked out in some kind of rational way because I went back to school, got lots of degrees, had years of teaching experience from high school to college – several years after I got my first degree, the university changed its name to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas – and I co-founded and was the artistic director of Nevada’s first legitimate year round theater. To top that off, the mob was my best fund raising arm. The donor plaque in the theater lobby had a list of who’s who in the Las Vegas mob.
I ended up by having the world on a string and it lasted for 18 years. Some people think I did time during those years, but I don’t look at that way. I remember a girl of 19 who was present at the Sahara Hotel when the Beatles landed on the roof top in a helicopter, bore witness to Elvis’s comeback at the Hilton, saw Bette Midler’s first live show at Caesar’s Palace, and was insulted by Don Rickles. I remember having the best lineup of friends, the most loyal theater customers, the best education (after Berkeley, that is) and saw most of the greatest 60’s foreign films ever made in that little art house around the corner from the Golden Nugget.
In the city of dreams and illusions, I grew up, became an adult and fulfilled most of my dreams. I became and educator, a seasoned actress and a theater entrepreneur. What more could I have asked for. And while I lived in Las Vegas that desert town with no visual appeal morphed into a bigger, brighter, thriving city with plenty of neon lights and glitz and glam.
We all made the best of it once upon a time in Las Vegas, and now the irony is that my sons and their families live and work in Vegas and they are making the best of it. Strong survival instincts are alive and well in our family’s DNA.