There were no bright lights illuminating Nevada’s Arrowhead Highway in the 1940s, just a long dark stretch of road that passed through the desert on the way from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The place that would become known as Las Vegas was a stolid Western town like any other, replete with cowboy hats and Levi’s jeans, two dude ranches and a couple of casinos, known as “chuck wagons.” If you’re imagining tumbleweed, you aren’t far off.
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Meanwhile, a 20-something Frank Sinatra had just started out as a solo artist. Even as most young men his age went off to fight in World War II, Sinatra—exempt from service because of a damaged eardrum, a souvenir from the traumatic forceps birth that permanently scarred the left side of his face and neck—made his name as a crooner amongst bobby-sock-wearing female fans.
Despite a somewhat hardscrabble upbringing, the blue-eyed boy from Hoboken, New Jersey, dreamed big, idolizing Bing Crosby and utilizing his charge account at a Hoboken department store so extensively that his top-shelf wardrobe earned him the nickname, “Slacksey O’Brien.” Sinatra’s early style sense would come to define his on-stage persona and ultimately the city of Las Vegas during the four decades he headlined there, beginning in 1951.
“Frank wouldn’t go out after dark without a sport jacket on, let alone perform out of a tuxedo,” says former Lieutenant Governor and 50-year Nevada resident, Lorraine Hunt-Bono, who remembers Sinatra from his early performances. “He was the spark that changed Vegas from a dusty Western town into something glamorous.”
During the 1950s, Sinatra’s star was on the rise once again, thanks to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1953’s From Here to Eternity, his stormy, high profile marriage to Ava Gardner (his second wife of four); musical hits such as “I’ve Got the World on a String” (1953); and critically acclaimed albums “In the Wee Small Hours” (1955) and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” (1956), with its blockbuster, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” At the time, Sinatra’s performance home was the Sands Hotel and Casino in Vegas, where he eventually became a corporate vice president.
At some point during this period, actress Lauren Bacall, traveling with her husband Humphrey Bogart, came across Bogart’s ragtag assortment of drinking buddies, Sinatra among them. “You look like a goddamn rat pack,” she famously remarked when she found them inebriated at a Vegas casino. The name stuck, and Sinatra took it with him when he assembled his own court. The stylish fivesome of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford went on to film the original Ocean’s Eleven at the Sahara in 1960, the first of their three movies together. They were also frequent performers at the Sands’ Copa Room, where they worked by night under the direction of band director Antonio Morelli, then imbibed until the wee hours of the morning. In a 1976 interview, Morelli’s wife, Helen, described a week known as the Summit, when the Rat Pack performed at the Copa Room in two shows an evening. “You have never in your life seen such madness,” she said. “You never knew who was going to appear. You never knew when they were going to show up. They spent the whole time playing tricks on each other, and of course, the audience loved it.”
Sinatra was a regular Sin City fixture until 1994, just one year before his final performance in Palm Desert, California. He died of a heart attack at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1998. The Strip today burns brighter than ever, and many of Sinatra’s “Old Vegas” mainstays—the Sands and the Sahara among them—have since been demolished, blown up and paved over to make way for the next great neon sign. A few of Sinatra’s former haunts still remain, however, and there’s even a new joint that might just have met with his approval. The show must go on.
“The best steaks on earth” have made the Golden Steer an Old Vegas favorite since 1958, hosting everyone from Tinseltown starlets and pro-athletes to notorious Chicago mobsters, who must have felt right at home in the Steer’s dimly lit dining room, with its white tablecloths, tuxedoed waiters and red horseshoe-shaped booths. Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack were regulars, and Sammy Davis Jr. would often head to the Steer after shows, since many of the hotels where he performed had segregated restaurants. Reserve a spot at Sinatra’s favorite table (commemorated with a brass plaque) and save room for one of the signature flaming desserts: cherries jubilee or bananas foster.