BROCKWAY, Calif. — Along with its natural beauty and legal gambling, Lake Tahoe is famous for entertainment, and its best known entertainers continue to be the Rat Pack.
Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin were the ringleaders, whose heyday was in the 1960s.
Rock ’n’ roll star George Thorogood even referred to Davis, who was known as “the world’s greatest entertainer,” before a show this past winter in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room.
“I always like working that room; you know why?” Thorogood asked. “Because if anything happens to me right after I play that gig, it’s going to say, ‘George Thorogood and Sammy Davis Jr. gave their last performances on that stage.’”
Longtime stage manager Gary Zaskoda recalled the show when Davis performed after being diagnosed with throat cancer.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Davis told Zaskoda before he took the stage. “I’ll be back.”
One of Sinatra’s most iconic songs from the early ’60s was “My Kind of Town (Chicago is).” The city beside Lake Michigan could have easily been changed in the song to Lake Tahoe by “Ol' Blue Eyes,” who owned the Cal Neva Resort from 1960-63.
Rat Pack members frequently played at the Cal Neva, which still presents shows in the Frank Sinatra Room, decorated with items purchased by the man known as “The Voice.”
A trap door at the front on the stage allowed behind-the-curtain exits for the entertainers, including an infamous escape by Martin, who was said to be too inebriated to perform. Fortunately, Sinatra was there to fill in, still laughing as the curtain rose. Martin had given him a mirthful salute as he backed down the hatch.
Martin’s song “Party Dolls and Wine” was representative of the Rat Pack credo. One of its members, Peter Lawford, married into the Kennedy family, and Joseph Kennedy was a frequent visitor to the Cal Neva. There was a special booth in the Frank Sinatra room where Kennedy and other VIPs could watch the show without being seen by the rest of the audience.
Marilyn Monroe used to stay at Cal Neva cabin No. 4, and longtime rumors are the Hollywood movie starlet had affairs with Joseph’s sons John and Robert Kennedy. Monroe’s singing, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” in front of a Madison Square Garden audience which included President John F. Kennedy and the first lady continues to feel awkward 50 years later.
Monroe died in August 1962, a week after overdosing on drugs at the Cal Neva, where she stayed after filming a movie with Clark Gable, “The Misfits.” A photo of Monroe, Sinatra and former Cal Neva owner “Wingy” Grober is displayed in the hallway leading to the Frank Sinatra Room. It probably was taken during Monroe’s last night at Tahoe.
Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, who was subsequently assassinated by Jack Ruby, a longtime Cal Neva employee.
Sinatra lost his gaming license and the Cal Neva because of his ties with mob boss Sam Giancana.
A couple of weeks after the Kennedy assassination, Sinatra’s 19-year-old son, Frank Sinatra Jr., was kidnapped from Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. The son was released two days after Sinatra paid a quarter-million dollar ransom. Three bungling kidnappers were later apprehended.
The last performance by a Rat Pack member was by Martin in May 1977 in the Celebrity Room.
The sprit of the Rat Pack continues with tribute groups like the Dean-O-Holics, who often perform at the Cal Neva.
“It's definitely haunted by the spirit of that era,” said Peter “Not Lawford” Petty. “It just washes right over you. We stalked the stage already and it just feels right. The Rat Pack is indeed coming home.”