The '60s were a boom period for the Las Vegas casinos. It had taken a while but business magnates such as the enigmatic Howard Hughes had finally cottoned on to the huge sums of money that could be made from the Strip.
And with the big corporations willing to splash out on ambitious construction projects, the place that had been nothing but a watering hole some 30 years earlier was now the place for Americans to let their hair down.
It wasn’t just the economic boom that allowed Vegas to flourish. Indeed, the first time Hughes rolled in to town – by private train, under the cover of darkness –it was after five men had sprinkled their unique blend of showbiz glitz over Sin City.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop – they never referred to themselves as ‘The Rat Pack’ but that’s how they became known. And from the time they came to Vegas to make the original Ocean’s 11 until they moved on to pastures new by the decade’s end, the Strip was theirs.
The key to their success was a nightly stage show which functioned as an advert for all the town had to offer. Play a hand of blackjack, enjoy a drink, take in the show – people the country over flocked to enjoy temporary Rat Pack membership. And as the crowd cheered so the slot machines rang like never before.
Rewind just a few short years and Las Vegas was a very different town. The truth of the matter is the 1950s hadn’t been terribly kind to Vegas. The brief boom that followed World War II, when the first truly lavish casinos were constructed, petered out after it emerged that Nevada would have a key role to play in the preparation for World War III.
Yes, of the issues facing the town, by far the greatest was the city’s close proximity to the state’s nuclear test site. Being barely 60 miles away, the pyrotechnics were clearly visible to Las Vegans. And though there was no denying that the mushroom clouds were spectacular, they weren’t the sort of fireworks any tourist was interested in seeing. Although the government would later head to an even more remote location, colossal damage had been done to Vegas’s reputation as a vacation capital.
If a force of destruction threatened the city’s future, a force of nature all but secured it. Francis Albert Sinatra first played Vegas in 1951. A regular fixture on the casino circuit throughout the decade, it was when Sinatra brought the Rat Pack circus to town in 1960 that things really started to take off.
The first of four pictures they made together, time hasn’t have been kind to Lewis Milestone’s original Ocean’s 11. But at the time, the Clan - as they referred to themselves – took utter delight in carving up the Strip. For when the days filming was down, Frank, Dean, Sammy and Co. hit the stage, sometimes in the company of other major stars such as Shirley MacLaine and Angie Dickinson. And in an instant, a huge dollop of Hollywood glamour became available to anyone willing to travel to the Nevada desert.
And travel they did. The desire to see the boys in the flesh meant the hotels were booked out months in advance. As for those who couldn’t get a room, they settled for sleeping in their cars. The Rat Pack live was simply too big an event to miss.
Wealth wasn’t the only thing Sinatra and his celebrity friends brought to the city. Desegregation also swept Vegas after Sinatra – a noted civil rights activist – pointed up the hypocrisy of Sammy Davis playing resorts where his business wasn’t otherwise welcome. This, together with the staging of benefits concerts for Martin Luther King, helped cement the image of Vegas as a city looking to the future rather than beholden to the past.
Of course, the golden years couldn’t last forever. If the exact period of the era’s end is hard to pinpoint, it’s because, in one sense, the Rat Pack never really left Las Vegas. Sinatra – who recorded the acclaimed Live At The Sands at the eponymous casino in 1966 – maintained a home there until his death. Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin also played regular residencies, while Lawford and Bishop – undeniably the junior members of the outfit – would often return to the Strip for one-off shows.
Recapturing the magic of the 1960s was another matter. Davis, Martin and Sinatra certainly had a good go in the early ‘80s when they played a few dates to help Dino cope with his grief over his son’s premature passing.
Rolling back the years was always going to prove futile, though. For as the gang had grown older – the British-born Lawford was dead from a drink-related condition by 1984 – the point of the exercise had been proven beyond any doubt long before.
When the Rat Pack rolled into Las Vegas, they were like a posse of gun slingers riding into a ghost town in the making. When they rode away, the ghosts had been replaced with legends, and the silence substituted with roars of laughter, the chank-chank of slot machines and the sound of some of the greatest songs ever sung.