I remember it clearly, in New York to celebrate a close friend’s 40th and my bedside reading magazine stack, purchased en route included Rolling Stone, issue 1160 from 5 July 2012. What grabbed me was not just Deadmau5 on the cover with his Jeff Koons-esque ‘mash get smash’ robot-rodent mask grinning back at me, it was also the key quote from the article about the life of this enthralling EDM-DJ:
"Zimmerman, better known as the electronic-dance musician Deadmau5, is about to fly to Oslo to kick off his European summer tour. His flight was supposed to take off two hours ago, but he was late coming into Heathrow from Las Vegas, where he was performing one of his frequent gigs at the Encore Resort - for which he's paid, as his friend Steve Wynn, the resort's owner, put it, "more than Sinatra at his peak."
I had recently produced a BBC Radio 2 documentary about the Paul Anka penned song “My Way”, recognised by its most famous proponent, Frank Sinatra, (so, still fresh in my mind), and having been immersed in DJ culture since the late 80s, primarily during my early career at MTV Europe, I noted this intriguing cultural crossroads. Here, one of the most respected recording artists of all time, whose celebrity still reverberates even stronger as I write this, in 2015, the centenary year of his birth being celebrated globally, was competing with what appeared to be a faceless, simple button-pushing fashionable Canadian DJ in his early 30s who had seemingly scuttled out of nowhere.
This paradox about cultural value i.e. iconic artist vs nouveau riche DJ lingered, resurfacing when a friend approached the Hyman Archive for content on Poker, Gaming, Las Vegas which quickly developed into this article. With Tory Turk, I initially ventured into deep research mode, digging for comparative earnings of Las Vegas performers from the last 7 decades.
60 years ago, December 1953 at nearly 52, Marlene Dietrich commanded $30,000 a week (approximately $270K today) from the Sahara in the Congo Room and on 17 November 1955, according to The Las Vegas Sun newspaper, Liberace’s $50,000 weekly pay packet (approximately $450K today) made him the city’s highest paid entertainer.
4 years on, the 1957 Xmas issue of Variety trumpets, “George Jessel’s $6,000 Eve, a Las Vegas Record. Biggest one-night salary ever set for Las Vegas, where stratospheric pay for performers is the rule. He’ll get $6,000 for bicycling between the Royal Nevada and the New Frontier Hotels New Year’s Eve, playing one performance in each place. What makes the deal particularly interesting is that talent in Las Vegas normally is used as a come-on for the gambling casinos - and neither hotel currently has a gambling room operating.”
The following June (1958), Esquire reported that, “The entertainment is mostly free” and their sample of the acts on the menu included Betty Grable headlining Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, a Minsky show at the Dunes, Joe E. Lewis and Eydie Gorme at El Rancho Vegas and Judy Garland at the Flamingo. Harry Belafonte was playing the Riviera, Donald O’ Connor at the Sahara, Dorothy Kirsten was at the Tropicana and the unbelievably talented Sammy David, Jr. at the Sands. In addition, the Silver Slipper Club was presenting the perennial Hank Henry, an ex-burlesque comic who has become as much a part of Las Vegas as the ‘Howdy Pardner!’ trade-mark, and who has to be seen to be believed, and even then you’re not sure. Coming up in the following few weeks were such stars as Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Dan Dailey, Jerry Lewis. All the Strip hotels give two shows nightly, a dinner show at 8:15 and another show at midnight.”
11 years later in Womens Wear Daily (18 August 1969), “Barbra Streisand is supposed to be getting $100,000 a week on a $4 million contract to play the new International Hotel in Las Vegas. It is said (Biblical jargon is appropriate to Las Vegas) both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra command such high salaries that their hotels (the Riviera and Caesar’s Palace, respectively) are literally their hotels - they have been given a percentage of the ownership as salary. Even a fading singer like Vic Damone is supposed to get $25,000 a week.”
Martin Gottfried’s “Las Vegas Graveyard Of Stars” report from the WWD (above) continues by answering its own question of why the salaries are so absurd by a valid point that’s fundamental in economic law, namely ‘supply and demand’ and at this moment in time night clubs had practically disappeared from US cities; like a David Copperfield or Siegfried & Roy illusion, they had been magiced firmly into Nevada’s decadent desert.
“Crammed they are, a thousand and more in the bigger rooms. Nor are these night clubs as we remembered them. Few tables for individual parties - not even the tiny ones jammed around a miniature dance floor. In these larger clubs, there isn’t even the pretence of night club service: No food – not even any liquor, really. You’re given a couple of drinks when you sit down, are told they cover the minimum charge and that’s it.”
As the piece unravels, more insight:
“And who are these star singers? Sinatra and Martin, of course. Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Streisand. They’re who are passing for stars now. Tom Jones, Wayne Newton - you’ve got to be kidding. Some of the hotels recently were headlining Jerry Vale, Donald O’ Connor, Gene Barry, Pat Boone, Teresa (Tessie) Brewer, Nancy Sinatra and her boots…they (the audience) have come to see the world where all these Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin things happen and so have Sinatra and Martin. And in this ‘Circus Maximus’ they can all believe it’s true for a $12.50 minimum, a couple of drinks and a shoulder-to-shoulder seat on a plastic chair. Well what does Sinatra actually do for that hour – for that $12.50 a person? Well, not much actually – nor have the customers come to see him do anything. They’ve come just to see his body on that stage, and he’s been paid to put it there…It’s just about the same at all the shows. Tony Bennett, an ordinary singer in anyone’s Reader’s Digest, sings 15-year-old juke box hits and snaps his fingers to the drumming, as if in a World War II movie short.”
Reading the above, some of the complaints are no different from those who complain today about high earning DJs like David Guetta, Paul Oakenfold, Tiesto and of course Deadmau5 who just stand there pressing a button from time to time, throw some shapes and fall back into a cushioned comfort zone of a literally blinding visual light show.
Josh Eels however, in an excellent New Yorker piece from 30 September 2013 gives detailed descriptions of a new EDM-ified Vegas; it’s clear that dance music is currently giving the gam(bl)ing side of the city a run for its money, pulling in the clubbing crowd piles on the dough:
“A maxim in Vegas goes that the person who invented gambling was smart, but the person who invented chips was a genius. The same could be said of night clubs and bottle service.
Last year, (the club) XS earned more than eighty per cent of its revenue from alcohol sales. A bottle of Grey Goose that wholesales for forty-five dollars costs more than six hundred in the club - a mark up of more than a thousand per cent. The biggest customers often spend half a million dollars on drinks in a night. Because the clubs are often full, the extravagance of the bar tabs distinguishes a great night from a good one. “It’s a whole new metric,” will.i.am, the leader of the Black Eyed Peas, who also d.j.s at the Wynn, told me. “What makes a hit in pop music is how many times a song gets played on the radio. A hit in d.j.-land is how much alcohol is bought.”
In 1979, Robert Windeler claimed, in the 30 April edition of People magazine, that the most successful performer in Vegas History was not Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, it was Wayne Newton. “It is four hours before the evening's first show and already the crowds are queuing up six deep to watch the performance of a man who has not had a hit record in seven years and seldom appears on TV or outside Nevada. Most of the 900 or so tickets have been reserved days, even weeks, in advance, and many of the people waiting will never get in. It is like that twice a night, seven nights a week, 36 weeks a year, and it has been for nearly nine years. Wayne Newton never plays to an empty seat.
Nor to an empty checkbook either. His contract with the Summa Corporation, the conglomerate offspring of the late Howard Hughes, guarantees him at least $8 million a year for 504 performances - some at the Desert Inn, the rest at the other Summa-owned hotels in Vegas, the Sands and the Frontier. Additional appearances in Reno, Lake Tahoe and an occasional tour boost Newton's annual income another $2 million. Anything extra, like the roughly $50,000 he received for last month's rare TV special for Buick, is really loose change. A few other male superstars - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Johnny Carson - can shake down the same kind of money in Vegas, but only for a few weeks at a time. Pound for pound, day for day, Wayne Newton is the highest-paid cabaret entertainer ever.”
And back then what were Wayne Newton fans getting for their $32?
“Precisely at 8 p.m. (and at midnight, for the second show), the curtain at the Desert Inn rises amid a mounting hubbub of anticipation, and an offstage voice booms, "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. WAYNE NEWTON!" To swelling applause he lopes onstage through seven pools of colored light like Jimmy Durante pursuing the lost Mrs. Calabash. At stage center he stands resplendent, a vision in scarlet, his tails open in front to show off a turquoise-and-silver belt buckle as massive as a heavyweight champion's. Newton's luminescent smile is dazzling against the swarthiness that proclaims his Indian blood. He stands 6'2", weighs 175 pounds (down from a blimpish 275 in 1965) and is, at 37, a strikingly handsome man.
Suddenly the 33-piece Wayne Newton Band materializes behind him, and the show is on, with Wayne belting out Johnny Nash's I Can See Clearly Now. For the next two and a half hours—or even three if the mood is right—he sings ballads, country, folk and rock—ending with My Way done his way. Never a songwriter himself ("It's like flying an airplane—the people who do it best do it all the time"), he borrows freely and openly from other performers. Currently he is doing a medley of songs associated with his friend and onetime Vegas rival, Elvis, and a tribute (Splish Splash) to his old mentor, the late Bobby Darin. When requested, which is almost always, he serves up a piece of Teutonic fudge (Danke Schoen) from his own Greatest Hits. Newton's rapport with his audience is unfailing. "This is not television," he announces. "You can't turn me off, and you can talk to me." He twirls the mike cord like a ringmaster's whip, and banters easily with the down-front customers. ("Do you realize you just gave firewater to an Indian?" he asks as he sips from a beaming admirer's drink.) Because of his infallible sense of pitch, says Wayne, "I can start any song they ask for and be in the right key for the band's arrangement."
Sometimes it almost seems as if he is the band. Shucking his tailcoat midway through the show, he begins to perform on the banjo, only one of the 11 instruments he plays—though he has never read a note of music. Enraptured audiences salute every third or fourth number by leaping to their feet with applause, and a Newton performance with fewer than five standing ovations is considered an off evening indeed. At last his marathon show draws to a close, and he wanders offstage through the spots, pausing every few feet, like Durante, to wave adieu to the cheering legions.
It is a performance, of course, right off the cob, but it is also seamlessly smooth, and it is Wayne Newton's down to the dimout. He selects the program, picks the arrangements and costumes and supervises the lighting. Even the bandstand and stage floor were built to his specifications. "There isn't anything up there onstage that I wasn't totally involved in," he says. "I have to take all of the blame and some of the credit. People may dislike Wayne Newton, but they're never gonna be able to say Wayne Newton didn't work hard."
Nobody does, of course, nor does anyone tell him his business. Lesser stars are instructed to hold their acts to 90 minutes in Vegas, so the customers can get back to the gambling tables. Newton performs as long as he wants to. Many of the dining rooms on the Strip stop serving drinks and food during performances. Newton doesn't think that makes sense. "In a nightclub, people eat and drink and smoke," he explains. "That's what they're there for, so how can I complain?" Philosophically, he is a public defender, siding with the people who pay to get in. "The performer's first responsibility is to his audience, way over his responsibility to the club and its policies," he says. "If people leave a show feeling entertained, and not feeling they've been done a favor by someone who's phoning an act in, they'll come back, No. 1, and, No. 2 , they'll be so happy they'll stay in your hotel and gamble."
According to the Sunday Times of 22 December 2002, “Catherine Zeta-Jones, Britain’s most glamorous Hollywood star is being wooed with offers of £100,000 a night to perform in Las Vegas next autumn” (i.e. 2003). Total earnings were to be £7m for a 3 month run of 70 shows. The same article cited ‘Vegas’s Big Earners’ (based on annual earnings) as Celine Dion (£40m), Siegfried & Roy (Magicians) (£15m+), Rita Rudner (£5M), Sheena Easton (£4m) and Elvis Presley £1m for his 4-week comeback in July 1969 plus a mention of Michael Flatley signing a £170m deal for a 5-year run of his ‘Lord Of The Dance Show’.
I soon realised, even if I were to algorithmically analyse those earnings with say, an ‘inflation calculator’ (in US dollars), it wouldn’t be fair because as already indicated, the ‘performer’, be it DJ, singer, magician, entertainer is completely worth what he / she receives irrespective of chronology. All ‘performers’ are artists and the price of ‘art’ is simply what someone is willing to pay for it when they paid for it.
Out of interest with the inflation calculator in effect, here’s all the crude comparisons in one place:
ARTIST YEAR FEE ($) PERIOD 2015 VALUE ($)
Marlene Dietrich 1953 $30,000 per week $268,132.58 (793.8% inflation)
Liberace 1955 $50,000 per week $445,220.15 (790.4% inflation)
George Jessel 1957 $6,000 per evening $50,954.73 (749.2% inflation)
Barbra Streisand 1969 $100,000 per week $650,239.78 (550.2% inflation)
Elvis Presley 1969 $1,550,000 per month $10,078,716.62 (550.2% inflation)
Vic Damone 1969 $25,000 per week $162,559.95 (550.2% inflation)
Catherine Zeta Jones 2002 $155,000 per night $205,608.06 (32.7% inflation)
Calvin Harris 2011 $40,000 per night / show $42,436.04 (6.1% inflation)
Afrojack 2013 $150,000 per night / show $153,657.97 (2.4% inflation)
Britney Spears 2014 $475,000 per night / show $478,816.28 (0.8% inflation)
The allure of Las Vegas, like Ibiza, both magical places where tourists flock for hedonism and nightlife therefore shifted my focus on some select performers, their relationship with Las Vegas over its history, from early foundations when 110 acres of land by the Union Pacific Railroad tracks were auctioned and the last railroad spike hit the desert floor on 15 May 1905 right through to 110 years later when you know have an eclectic mix of Rod Stewart, Skrillex, Mariah Carey, Willie Nelson and David Copperfield smashing it, ‘Strip-side’.
In Vanity Fair, October 2003, A.A. Gill’s ‘Letter from Las Vegas’ talked of Celine Dion’s reported 3-year / $100 million deal with Caesar’s Palace where a coliseum was built for her at a price of $95 million, seating 4,000 and with such awesome acoustics, “You could hear a tear drop” but the headline from that piece, “What Would Frank Say?” caught my attention, so I decided to speak to someone who could definitely answer that question, James Kaplan, the highly respected American novelist, journalist and biographer. We had met previously on 20 November 2010 when I interviewed him in tranquil Westport for the aforementioned BBC Radio 2 “My Way” broadcast. “Frank: The Voice” had just been published, the first volume of Kaplan’s definitive biography of Frank Sinatra and since we had last met, “Volume Two, Sinatra: The Chairman of the Board” was imminent, in Kaplan’s words, ‘It had been eating his brain’, so, a good time to call.
James Kaplan’s Sinatra knowledge is supreme and in relation to Ol’ Blue Eyes & Vegas, I began by scene-setting around Sinatra’s first gigs i.e. Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn on 4 September 1951 and The Sands, 7 October 1953.
“The important thing to realize about Vegas around the time Bugsy Siegel & Martin Lewis were first arriving, it was a scene out of a Ralph Steadman caricature for a Hunter S. Thompson piece. It was the desert with rattlesnakes, coyotes, tumbleweed, cactuses and a few buildings scattered along the strip.
When Sinatra began to play the Sands he became a part owner of the Sands (at the time reportedly with 9%, valued at $380,000); in many ways he created Vegas, as we know it today. As the place where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas as the world capital of the wannabe world capital of naughtiness. That idea was really created by Frank Sinatra, right around 1960 when he and his pals were shooting Oceans Eleven at The Sands and at other casinos in Las Vegas.
Despite the fact that Sinatra’s career elsewhere in the early 1950s was absolutely in the toilet, he sold out in Vegas and that was one of the reasons the loved Vegas! Vegas was always catnip to him, Vegas was the place that he was a god from the beginning, where his shows sold out, where he wasn’t derided for being a failure, the fact that he had been dropped by his movie studio, by his managers, his record label, his wife Ava Gardner and he wasn’t derided for any of that, he was Sinatra. He was always Sinatra in Vegas, he sold out from the beginning. First at the Desert Inn, then at The Sands for many years, after that at Riviera and Caesar’s Palace.”
I think we have to look at the shooting of Ocean’s Eleven and the creation of the myth of The Rat Pack, the 2nd Rat Pack you have to understand, the 1st one was Humphrey Bogart’s Rat Pack in Beverly Hills, the 2nd one was Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. The shooting of Ocean’s Eleven and the formation of the myth of The Rat Pack in 1960 was the watershed moment for Las Vegas. This was the explosion for Las Vegas; this was the quantum leap of Las Vegas from a place where you could still see tumbleweeds, cacti, rattlesnakes and you could still see guys dressed up like cowboys and guys that really were cowboys in Vegas. Suddenly in 1960, 1961, you were beginning to see high rollers flying in from all over the world and mobbing these Sinatra shows. The shooting of Ocean’s Eleven was incredible public relations for Sinatra for the Rat Pack and I put that in quotation marks the, “Rat Pack”, I will come back to that in a minute. People took it as a given that the Rat Pack really existed and the guys really ran around together, there was some of that, but mostly it was a myth. And a very powerful myth. And a myth that accelerated this idea of Vegas as naughty, a place where people came to forget, where any fantasy was possible. This all began around 1960, 1961 and only accelerated between then and now, as the strip became the mega strip that it has become.
Then onto the Rolling Stone quote comparing Sinatra’s Las Vegas earnings to Deadmau5’s. Kaplan smartly replied that no one is sure if Wynn adjusted that for inflation or not and considered the quote hyperbole with Wynn one of the masters of hyperbole and in Vegas hyperbole is redundant; “Wynn is a master of Vegas and hyperbole”. Kaplan also echoed my earlier thoughts, suggesting that one could research a trade publication like “Variety” to look what both have earned, check facts and use an inflation scale. Maybe Deadmau5 has made several multiples of what Sinatra made but again, it’s what a promoter and the public are willing to pay and more importantly, as Kaplan affirmed, “Certainly the story of Vegas today is the story of hugely higher volumes as far as customer traffic is concerned than existed back in Sinatra’s day, just because of the high number of these institutions, along the strip. These buildings, these hotel casinos are built to accommodate customers in the tens of thousands and back in Sinatra’s day it was the single number thousands.”.
Back to Sinatra’s relationship with Vegas and the highs:
“These would have been the great performances. There is a live Sinatra album, with Sinatra and the Count Basie band at the Sands and that’s the apex really, that is, that is some of the greatest music that has ever been made. It is Sinatra at his vocal peak. It is Count Basie, which is, which was one of the great jazz orchestras of all time, at their musical peak and it’s Vegas at its peak in the mid 60s. Even as the heavy artillery of Rock n Roll was landing all around the world, was pitting the landscape, was cratering the landscape, The Beatles and Rock n Roll really destroyed Sinatra’s music in how it had existed to that point even as all that was happening there was this glorious acme of Sinatra style music, of Sinatra and Basie at The Sands and that glorious album Sinatra and Basie at The Sands.”
Then the lows….
“One infamous incident in September 1966. So the watershed of Vegas was 1960 when Ocean’s Eleven and The Rat Pack were making their mark in Las Vegas but the next watershed that occurred in Las Vegas was when Howard Hughes bought up the strip. He bought casino after casino after casino and he bought The Sands, which was Sinatra’s headquarters and cut off Sinatra’s credit. Now Sinatra and Hughes had always been competitive over various women and Hughes had a huge crush on Ava Gardner, although I don’t think that she ever slept with him, but Hughes was kind of the antichrist descending on Las Vegas as far as the old time denizens and enthusiasts and mobsters and performers of Las Vegas were concerned. The mob, up until Hughes landed with his huge footprint, the mob ran Vegas. And people loved Vegas when the mob ran Vegas. It was naughty it was fun. The trains ran on time. Hughes came in with his bean counters, his accountants and he employed an army of Mormons to take over these casinos and suddenly in 1966, literally suddenly, overnight, Sinatra’s “marker”, that was his credit, he spent like, they used to say, a drunken admiral and he would go to the roulette table he would go to the craps table, the baccarat table and he would gamble in the tens of thousands of dollars and if he won he would pocket his winnings and if he lost he would just put it on his “marker”. But it was Sinatra’s rules. Suddenly when Hughes bought The Sands that changed overnight and I’m getting to the low point which is the fist fight, it’s not really a fist fight, it’s glorifying it to call it a fist fight but with the fist fight between Sinatra and the manager of The Sands, a man called Carl Cohen. Carl Cohen was a big tough mob connected Jew. Sinatra had learned that his credit had been cut off, he was infuriated, he woke Carl Cohen in the middle of the night to demand an explanation and a change. Carl Cohen and Sinatra’s always flash point temper ignited, he called Carl Cohen a kike to his face and Carl Cohen knocked Sinatra’s front teeth out. And Sinatra later said, long afterward, he said this memorable quote, “Never fight a Jew in the desert.” but that certainly was a low point, it was a low point getting his credit cut off, it was a low point getting his teeth knocked out by Carl Cohen, it was a low point that really caused him to leave Las Vegas…he swore at that point that he would never play the town again.”
Kaplan continued to stress how important Sinatra as ‘Supreme Being’ in Vegas was to the singer’s legendary status:
“One of my interviewees for the second volume (Sinatra: The Chairman of the Board) was a man who was a long time Pit Boss at The Sands, he spoke of this phenomenon, a kind of wave of energy or electricity that used to run through the casino even before people actually knew that Sinatra was on the premises. They felt it instinctively and this permeated the entire town, Vegas was central to Sinatra, central to his myth, it was the place, people would fall over themselves where ever he showed up whether it was midtown Manhattan, Paris or Rome or Sunset Boulevard or Hollywood, people would fall over themselves for him, but Vegas was the place where his myth was largest.”
Quotes Kaplan pulled up from director Billy Wilder and producer George Shlatter respectively reiterated man and myth:
“Where ever Frank is there is a certain electricity permeating in the air it’s like Mac The Knife is in town and the action is starting”
“When Sinatra arrived in Vegas he was all people talked about, Frank’s in town, the cab drivers, the hookers, everybody said Frank’s here. And the marquee at Caesar’s Palace used to simply read ‘Guess who?’’”
The lovely denouement to our call was Kaplan maintaining, “If Sinatra was G-d in Vegas, “My Way” was the anthem of his godhead in Vegas. It was his declaration of his absolute domination over the entire material world and spiritual world and as much as Sinatra derided that song for its lack of subtlety it was perfect in it’s lack of subtlety for Vegas.”
This then led me back to another lead character steeped in the story of Las Vegas and someone I had also met in November 2010, Mr. Paul Anka. He was flattered by James Kaplan’s appraisal of Sinatra’s “My Way” in the context of Vegas:
“Look, it’s the common man’s song we all know how it stands up there in terms of that is embraced by every walk of life. Ok I got lucky, I hit on a nerve because I was motivated by a guy (Sinatra) I that I loved and who I’d never made a song for, and he was quitting, telling me so at dinner.”
“It just hit guys with egos and narcissism or just plain natural vibe of a man or a woman that ultimately we are doing it our way. Vegas is that kind of town. People they come and they win a lot of money, they lose a lot of money, they did it “my way”. It just fits indigenous, you know the kind of profile of people who really get off playing and turning into someone else and…there is no one like you know.”
Then I asked when 1950s teen idol Paul lost his Vegas virginity:
“My first time was in the late 50s to visit. I was with my manger Irvin Feld, my partner, and being as young as I was at the time I always needed some kind of parental guidance if you will, and he would take me there as we with our vision saw that Vegas was going to be something in the future at that time in terms of worth and gravitas. So I would go there in the late 50s and see people like Johnnie Ray, Eddie Fisher, The Rat Pack etc. and realizing that pop music was in its infancy stage back then, there weren’t a lot of places to play other than these Rock ‘N roll shows, Buddy Holly and I would do shows etc. but Vegas was the place so we wanted to go to get the lay of the land and then I was kind of enamored with it all and I round up in 59 I think with Sophie Tucker and I was on the bill with her being the youngest, in somewhat trepidation because Elvis had been there 2 months earlier and bombed so I said ok boys it’s not going to be easy. So I went with Sophie Tucker to perform with her in around 59 and then from there I evolved into the Sands Hotel with the Rat Pack in Vegas.”
On the evolution of Vegas, Paul confirmed similar thinking to James Kaplan and myself:
“It’s totally different. You know like everything in life, the evolution, the necessity of change evolves somewhat in Vegas in terms of the kind of crowd because they want to appeal in volume, to big corporates, It was run by the mob back then and it was out in front you know everybody knew it but it took pressure from the government to go after them…to somehow take the heat off them so they could continue to run it but it was pretty much just a few stores…it was very high styled in dress, it was very sophisticated a lot more of a contingent from the film world and the music world and everybody was much more tighter and closer and we all knew each other, it functioned much differently and now has obviously evolved into these mega hotels where you know all aspects of the operation count, you know from the food to the clothing…it’s for the masses you know, people are walking around in shorts they are not necessarily gambling it’s 7-Eleven, it’s different types of shows, it’s very eclectic, it's very diffused in everyway and it’s just for the masses, it’s totally different.”
“You know it’s bigger, it's the same concept, it’s pretty much a blueprint of itself. With the concepts, conceptually it’s a little different, the hotels themselves are the stars. The artists are the cherries on top, shows are also the cherry on top. It’s the hotel itself and everything that goes on. The newest dynamic if you will is the late night bar electronic music, technology as you know has changed everything.”
Paul continued our chat by validating Sinatra’s Vegas status as deity just as he states in chapter 6 of his “My Way” autobiography (p.161), “If you look through the press archives of the 1950s through the 1970s, you’ll find that no other celebrity has been written about like Frank Sinatra. He was a people’s star. We all wanted to emulate him but knew we couldn’t. He was the boss….Sinatra ruled supreme….whenever he was there, he submerged himself in Las Vegas like it was his own private hot tub. Keep in mind he had been singing in Vegas as far back as 1951 at the Desert Inn when there were only four hotels at the strip at that time”.
Some of his anecdotal recollections of his time with and without Sinatra in Vegas further peppered our conversation:
“You know you’ve got this kid that's in the middle of this crowd, who just got lucky at 16, with a song ‘Diana’ that most people hated apart from the kids, you are sitting in Vegas with these old people, the mob …you see so much, so much goes on, The Hang and The Steam Room…the openness because it wasn’t a media driven society…working with Elvis and the showgirls… getting your haircut at 4pm…(Jay) Sebring flying in before he got killed by that maniac (Charles Manson), giving him his haircut. But that way of life, the stuff that went on every night, because of the camaraderie that existed, the fact that we all knew each other well, because we were living in hotels…the beginning of where lounges prevailed, you knew every act that was in town, the shows at the lounges were better than the main ones…Don Rickles was emerging, Shecky Greene, Louis Prima. You know Frank would hear about Don Rickles and you know his kind of humour…he was knocking Frank on stage and Frank heard about it and said we are going down there tonight we will get a dozen of us, Dean Martin, Jilly (Rizzo) and Frank and everybody. So we go over, Frank is pissed, we are sitting ringside, it is a midnight show, there is a small curtain around the stage and about ten to Frank whispers to Jilly, who is his sidekick, his bodyguard, Jilly goes out the back gets all the newspapers and puts them out on the table. “Ladies and gentlemen Don Rickles” and Rickles comes out, you know all the shit he does…and Frank says “Now” and we pick up the papers, and you gotta remember Rickles is like 3 feet away. Everybody knows Sinatra is there, obviously…Frank says “go” and we pick up the papers and start reading the newspaper while Don is trying to work…and you know it’s like “Hey…what was the score at the dodgers game on the 5th?” And we are going through the contents of the newspaper which really stressed Don…but at the end of they day everybody was friends and this would go on every night…there was that closeness. There was always fun, games, Kennedy flying in, and all that stuff that was so in the open because you could get away with it.”
Paul’s Sin City stories are near-endless and priceless, from Howard Hughes dominating the city’s TV output with repeated screenings of the film “Ice Station Zebra”, meeting Muhammad Ali after playing Caesar’s Palace for the first time, booker Jim Murray, Moe Dalitz, “The toughest Jewish Mobster in Vegas”, Walter Kane, John F Kennedy, Tony Spilotro, Jake Freedman, “Snake Eyes”, Bobby Martin, Lester “Benny” Binion, Charlie Kandel with his meticulous (bordering on OCD) rituals and his version of events when he’s in the same room as Sinatra getting his teeth knocked out by Carl Cohen in a gambling dispute, “He (Carl) gets up and punches Frank Sinatra right in the mouth and knocks his caps out, they’re all over the floor. At least they were caps! They rush Sinatra out, Jilly says to me, ‘Paul, get him the hell outta here, the cops are going to show up”. Which they do and make a report. Meanwhile they get a Learjet to fly Sinatra out, back to L.A. to get his teeth done, and see Dr. Stein.”
Paul found strong similarities between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, both generous, never taking money for charity work and deeply embedded in Vegas’s historic legacy. Leading ‘Elvisologist’ Paul Lichter says, “If Elvis Presley had been a painter, his canvas would have been Las Vegas. He applied the most brilliant and important strokes of his life in the bright light city. From his first appearance in Las Vegas at the age of twenty-one, his wedding to Priscilla in 1967 at the Aladdin Hotel, and the eventual end of that marriage, Vegas had been witness to the triumphs and tragedies of his life.” The same could be said of Sinatra and of course there’s that link again to “My Way”.
When Paul got to know Elvis best near the end of his life and in regard to said song, ‘The King’ would tell Paul, “Those words, they mean so much to me. Boy, I want to do that song one day”; he did with his version taking on a more tragic tone than Sinatra’s and the day he died, Anka, at the time, in Vegas, had turned on the news and then simply cried just as the whole world did too.
The end of our call was near, we wrapped up on musical hologram performances including 2Pac at Coachella and Simon Cowell’s 50th where the “Chairman Of The Boad” was set to sing “My Way” and Sinatra’s spectre was still looming when I dived into the August 2015 issue of one of my favourite magazines, “Fortean Times”, its cover story asking “Is Frank Sinatra Haunting Las Vegas?” (According to Varun Dhawan, yes). I wondered how strong the spirits of other Las Vegan ghosts of past like Kiss, Cher, Beatles / Cirque De Soleil, Barry Manilow, Mike!Attack, Britney Spears etc. would spook Sin City in years to come? It’s irrelevant, irrespective of how many curtain calls or rewinds a performer commands, Vegas has always and will always be its very own desert snake, shedding skin to suit the latest style, spectacle and specific zeitgeist performers and entertainment. James Kaplan reinforces this perfectly:
“But, as far as looking back to those prehistoric times before all those places on the strip were filled in, when the night club, when the main room where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were singing actual songs with actual bands, with actual musicians behind them and in the lounges as well, where you had Louis Prima, Louis Smith, entertainers like that, it is just a whole different era and there is certainly a lot of nostalgia among a sizeable amount of people about those times, but as far as Las Vegas is concerned it is a juggernaut that moves on and history is in the rear car mirror it is a kind of powdery dust trail at the back of the juggernaut as the juggernaut continues to move on and Deadmau5 is just what is working today.”
Top 5 Movies set in Las Vegas
Ocean’s 11 (original) & Ocean’s 11 / 12 / 13 (remakes)
Leaving Las Vegas
Viva Las Vegas
Top 5 Las Vegas Music Perfomances
Elvis “Suspicious Minds” (1970)
Frank Sinatra “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1966)
Beatles / Cirque De Soleil (2006)
Liberace “Medley: As Time Goes By / Chopsticks / Send In The Clowns” (1981)
Celine Dion “I’m Alive” (2007)
Top 5 Las Vegas Movie Scenes
Casino (Opening Titles)
Diamonds Are Forever (Car Chase)
Claude Debussy “Claire De Lune” (From: Ocean’s 11)
Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas (Arriving At Hotel / On Acid)
Rain Main (Let’s Play Some Cards)
Top 5 Pop Videos shot in Las Vegas
U2 “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
ZZ Top “Viva Las Vegas”
Ma$e “Feel So Good”
Katy Perry “Waking Up In Vegas”
The Killers “All These Things That I’ve Done”