Thursday, August 23, 2007

What Ever Happend to Vegas?

by The Senator

Dean Martin takes another pull from his Kent, holds it for a moment, until the burn passes, his eyes peering just beyond the spotlight that has followed him for the last 20 odd years or so.

To the right he sees a familiar face, but he doesn’t recall the name or where he’s from…maybe the Villa Venice? He’s a large man, probably half-Irish, a man trying to look way too young, in a suit that looks way too old, laughing way too hard. He needs to get a haircut, lose the mustache, and maybe even the dame he’s with -- a woman who is laughing way too loud at a joke she clearly doesn’t understand. In her blonde updo, she’s a looker alright. In an instant he makes out what she’s wearing -- a blue satin sheath and long white gloves -- but he doesn’t look too long at her. He never sang to the women before and he sure as hell isn’t going to start with her. The women aren’t the ones paying the bills.

He peers back into the light, taking a deep breath while blindly flicking ashes to his piano side. He nods back over to the couple.

“You want to hear me sing serious, you better buy the album.”

More laughter.

“We’re calling my next one ‘Ballads for B-Girls.’”

Again, they laugh.

He pushes out another stream of smoke, and flicks the cigarette toward the footlights.

No way had she known what a B-girl was. The guy was nodding though…and still laughing just a bit too hard.

The bill outside The Sands that night hints that “maybe Frank” would show up, but instead, the 800 high rollers in the Copa Room are treated to the tap dancing spectacle that is the Magid Triplets. They hail from Kew Gardens, NY.

Sinatra, who is from New Jersey, holds court in the New York room at Chasen’s in Los Angeles.

These days, Frank has no time for Las Vegas. His private jet, Dago One, has been logging serious hours, shuttling the famed Chairman of the Board back and forth from the West Coast to New York. In the works is his latest comeback attempt – a shot in the kisser aimed right at the hipster generation – an hour long special called “Sinatra – A Man and His Music.” In it, he will sing 18 songs, a task that would usually be his bread and butter. But just one month before his 50th birthday and short of recent battle experience, he’s worried.

To make things worse, he has a bad cold. To most people, that wouldn’t mean much -- perhaps a few days in bed, a couple bowls of chicken soup and a chest slathered with Vicks. But Sinatra isn’t “most people” -- he’s the foremost entertainer in the entire world.

A crooner by trade, a cold means the difference between hitting the high notes and digging for clams. And though he lords over the room like a modern Caesar, it’s that nervousness, that potential vulnerability, which leads him to pick a fight, even though he’s aware that a reporter, Gay Talese, is standing nearby and watching his every move.

His mark tonight is Harlan Ellison, a 30-something writer that happens to be right in Sinatra’s space at the wrong time. Ellison, dressed in a pair of brown corduroys, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, represents everything Sinatra’s recent press release for the show railed against: “If you happen to be tired of kid singers wearing mops of hair thick enough to hide a crate of melons, it should be refreshing to consider the entertainment value of a video special titled Sinatra - A Man and His Music."

Ellison is shooting pool – poorly – against the legendary baseball manager and former Yankee Leo Durocher, a member of Sinatra’s entourage and the man who coined the phrase “nice guys finish last” (something the team he managed the year before, the Chicago Cubs, managed to do). But it’s not Ellison’s game that disgusts Sinatra – it’s the outfit.

These may be the days of the “Great Society,” but Sinatra still swears by “High Society.” Wearing brown after the sun went down was and will be forever wrong in his playbook, and boots like Ellison’s belong on a farm.

Sinatra, who sits staring at Ellison from a stool in the corner, can finally take no more. The challenge must be issued, if only because he’s boring of the entire scene.

“Hey,” he yells to Ellison, the ice in his Jack Daniel’s clinking against the glass as he leans forward. “Those Italian boots?”

“No,” Ellison replies, without a hint of deference.

“Spanish?” Sinatra asks.

“No,” Ellison replies again.

“Are they English boots?” Sinatra persists, his aim now clear to all in the newly silent room.

Ellison’s demeanor changes, too. His father died when he was a kid and ever since, he had been on the road. It was late, and he didn’t need Mr. Daddy-O himself questioning his attire.

“Look, I don’t know, man.” He turns away, fiddling with his cue-stick, agitated.

Like any great prizefighter, Sinatra knows to move in. The boxing analogy is one of two men tied together by a string – when one moves back, the other is pulled forward. Though they were separated by ideology and generation, there was little doubt that the two were bound in the moment now. And Sinatra, a relatively short man who stood 5’ 8”, actually had a height advantage on Ellison, who stood all of 5’5”.

“You expecting a storm?” Sinatra sneers, looking down into Ellison’s face, his eyes alight.

Ellison moves a step to the side.

“Any reason why you’re talking to me?”

Again the kid has it wrong. This wasn’t a talk. It was an address.

“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” is the decree.

Ellison writes episodes for Star Trek. He never once had Captain Kirk set his phaser on anything but “stun.” But he had also been in a Red Hook, Brooklyn street gang and he knew how to use a switchblade, too. His adrenaline on the rise, he stands his ground, ready to go a few rounds himself now.

“Hate to shake you up, but I dress to suit myself."

There will be no shake up this night. Not in the New York room, not on Sinatra’s watch. Ellison is shown the door by plenty of people willing to make sure that men like Sinatra didn’t have to get their hands dirty. The situation over and his music playing on the jukebox again, Sinatra announces his final, but prime directive for the club:

“I don’t want anybody in here without coats and ties.”

Three years had passed since that night in the New York room and Sinatra’s NBC special had him wearing a Nehru jacket and love beads, singing medleys with The Fifth Dimension.

In another three years, he would retire altogether from show business.

The rest of the Rat Pack didn’t fare much better. Peter Lawford became persona non gratis after a falling out with the Kennedy’s and Sinatra. The only person who would still hang out with him was Sammy Davis Jr., but that’s only because they shared the same predilections when it came to partying. They could still get pictures made – “Salt & Pepper” and “One More Time” kept them in celluloid, but they too took to wearing Nehru jackets, a futile attempt to prove they were still hip, instead hastening their trip into the land of famous people who were famous for being famous.

It was little surprise to any of them that Martin became the most successful of them all during that time. Unlike Frank, who never seemed to understand that in order to hold on to the girl, you had to not hold on at all, Dean had perfected the art of not giving a shit – accordingly he got most of the spoils. It was probably instilled in him years ago…don’t get your hopes up. You’re a split lipped, busted nose, son of an immigrant who can barely read or speak. Be grateful for what you’ve got, and don’t kid yourself about the people you’re with…when you’ve got money, you’ve got lots of friends.

He didn’t care that his carefully cultivated persona of the lovable drunk had worked just a little too well because the joke was on everyone else. He practically owned all of NBC’s stock after the success of his variety shows. And while Frank and Sammy struggled to stay with the times, Martin could have cared less. He still recorded an album or two a year, starred in a movie or so a year, he still played Vegas, still told the same jokes, and he still wore a tux with a red pocket square. When asked about the moon landing in an interview with Look magazine conducted in his suite at the Sands, Martin looked genuinely befuddled.

“Why would anyone want to go there,” he asked. “There’s nothing up there.”

As the years went on, there wasn’t much for him in Vegas either. He tired of the girls, whom he saw as opportunists eager to get into his wallet. He preferred milk to scotch, western movies to showgirls. The times were changing, and he was fine with it.

Dean Martin died on Christmas morning in 1995. He could have saved himself, but he declined the extensive surgery it would have taken to prolong his life.

One year later, The Sands was completely destroyed.

Unlike other cities, casinos in Vegas aren’t destroyed with wrecking balls. They blow them up with 800 sticks of dynamite. Such was the fate of The Sands on November 28, 1996.

The demolition was carried live on the local television station, an announcer who sounded far too young to know the significance of the event did his level best anyhow.

“Back in it’s heyday in the ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, it was the place to be on the strip,” he spoke without remorse. “In moments, it won’t be there anymore.”

With competition from Steve Wynn owned properties like The Mirage, The Sands’ ownership decided they needed to respond. The Sands, like those who had made it famous, was hopelessly dated. They needed to wipe the slate clean.

Architecture on the strip has been classified in two ways by experts over the years. They posit the theory that there are really only two basic types of structures in Las Vegas, the “decorated shed” and the “duck.” A decorated shed was a basic building that had ornaments applied to its façade. The duck was a sculpture in and unto itself. The Sands had been considered a decorated shed by its ownership, and the decision to make the change over to The Venetian – a duck with a canal system to boot – made all the sense in the world to them.

Plenty were complicit in the decision.

It was time for another era. Nostalgia has no place in Las Vegas. Nostalgia is last race’s losing ticket at the sports book, it’s the last Keno slip, and it’s the $2.50 redemption that’s not even worth cashing in because the line is too long.

Las Vegas started off with casinos and hotels that sought to capitalize on the image of the Wild West – the taming of the frontier, the discovery of gold. Accordingly, the names of the venues matched the fantasy…the Golden Nugget, the Frontier, Glitter Gulch.

When Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegal rightfully surmised that people all over the country would want to join the “A-list” after World War II, he decided to change the paradigm. Pouring millions of mob money into a casino he named after his mistress’s oral sex prowess, “The Flamingo” was built to take America out of the Victory garden and into the Garden of Eden.

By the mid-50s, the strip had made another change. Now casinos like the Sands, Dunes, Sahara, and the Aladdin took their spot on the main stage. Forget the old west…harem girls, sultans with gold coins and flying carpets…that was the new ticket. The powers that be in Vegas were suddenly embracing their treeless desert roots.

Wasn’t it ironic then that the news announcer would describe the Sands’ demolition in woodcutters’ terms? The dynamite, it was explained, were placed in such a way to make the building fall backward, in much the same way a lumberjack would chop down a tree.

It was a cliché to be sure, but perhaps not the most apt one he could muster. For the Sands refused to fall. Instead, it hung there, even after the charges ripped every floor from its frame, when by every engineer’s account it should have sagged to the ground in an instant, it hung there. The Sands, like an old heavyweight champion who couldn’t believe that someone could actually knock them out, refused to go down.

Thirty years ago, it was Sinatra that refused to set down. There was more to Vegas than the show – he could sing anywhere. It wasn’t for the bar – his parents had owned one back in Hoboken and if that’s what he wanted, he never would have left. Vegas meant more, because it was more to him. Upstairs, his bedroom could be Hell for the thrice divorced man. On the strip, every action was just another venial sin. So why sleep when there was a perfectly good golf cart to tour the grounds with?

At high speeds.

Through the lobby.

Swinging a golf club at the bellhop who got in the way.

“I built the place,” he would bellow, skillfully missing the head of his would-be ambusher, “and I can tear it down!”

Memories prove to be weightless in the end, and The Sands did finally come back down to Earth, much to the approval of the newsman and the blast engineers overseeing the event.

“After 44 years, the Sands has succumbed,” said the newsman.

“That looked wonderful guys,” came the crackling response over the radio. “Looked real pretty.”

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