TAHOE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series about Frank Sinatra and the Cal Neva.
The recent closing of the venerable Cal Neva Resort for major renovations is welcome news for Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. The new owners have stated their intent of recreating the property’s role as a center of style and entertainment at the north end of Big Blue, while “keeping the soul” of the building’s historic past.
Cal Neva reached its apex as a tour de force of music and celebrity in the early 1960s when legendary crooner Frank Sinatra was a managing partner at the hotel-casino. Many locals and visitors are unfamiliar with the colorful Sinatra era at Lake Tahoe, so we’ll revisit it here.
KEEP IT CLEAN?
Ever since Nevada legalized gaming in 1931, the Silver State has fought to keep the industry clean. The battle against gangster infiltration in the business had its beginnings in the first two decades of legalized gambling. There was no state tax on gaming and there was almost no state control. The result was that some shady characters became casino operators in Las Vegas before any serious attempt at control was legislated.
In 1955, the Nevada Gaming Control Board was created by the state legislature and four years later the Nevada Gaming Commission was established to enforce laws regarding casino operations. Without strict enforcement state officials were worried the federal government would shut down their lucrative industry.
THE RICH AND FAMOUS
Frank Sinatra’s roots in Nevada go back to August 1951 when the entertainer arrived in Reno to establish residency in order to divorce his first wife Nancy. Sinatra was joined at the Riverside Hotel by the actress Ava Gardner, his lover at the time. During his stay, Sinatra and Gardner spent the Labor Day weekend at Lake Tahoe, drinking and gambling at the Cal Neva Lodge.
Sinatra made his first financial interest in Nevada gaming when he purchased a partnership in the Sands Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. Business was so good that in 1960 he bought a 25 percent stake in the rustic Cal Neva Lodge up at his old stomping grounds on Tahoe’s North Shore.
For the next three years he entertained the rich and famous, including John and Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, the Rat Pack and his friends in the Mafia. But his Sierra Shangri-La was not to last.
Sinatra enjoyed spending summers relaxing at beautiful Lake Tahoe and he wanted to re-vamp the quaint Cal Neva Lodge into a world-class casino. The Sinatra Celebrity Showroom was constructed as a venue for big name entertainment and tunnels were excavated so performers and celebrities could travel between the showroom and the bungalows behind the hotel unseen. Sinatra’s reputation and friendships in the music and entertainment industry drew movie stars to Tahoe like a Hollywood casting call. During the summer of 1961, classic acts like Mickey Rooney, the Andrews Sisters, the Modernairs, Dick Shawn and Vic Damone performed there.
Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddy Dean Martin performed duets crooning to an audience that often included Marilyn Monroe, a frequent guest at the lodge. Sinatra himself was often reported to have been a guest at Monroe’s Cottage #3 when the actress was visiting Tahoe.
The early 1960s were great for Sinatra and the Cal Neva Lodge, but in August 1963 Nevada’s Gaming Control Board (NGCB) accused Sinatra of allowing known mobster Sam Giancana to stay at one of the cottages. Nevada’s governor, Grant Sawyer, had empowered the NGCB to clean up the industry’s shady reputation in the Silver State. They established a “List of Excluded Persons,” known to the press and general public as the “Black Book.”
Sam Giancana, a hoodlum of national repute, figured prominently in that black book. Giancana was Chicago’s top Mafia boss, the successor to Al Capone. As a top member in La Cosa Nostra, Giancana controlled most of the organized crime in the Chicago area. He had served time in prison and been arrested more than 70 times. It was estimated that by 1960 Giancana had allegedly ordered the murders of more than 200 men.
In the summer of 1963, Giancana disappeared to avoid being subpoenaed by a Chicago federal grand jury and later showed up at the Cal Neva. His presence was a serious infraction of Nevada gaming rules. When Sinatra had purchased the license to operate the Cal Neva Lodge in 1960, Gov. Sawyer figured that the performer might be trouble.
Sawyer had told the NGCB; “Because he is Sinatra, it is obvious that we will have a problem enforcing regulations against him. Do not be intimidated by him.”
Sawyer later said, “My experience with Sinatra has been that he sets his own rules; he does his own thing, regardless, and he has violated laws with impunity and bought his way out of most problems if he could.” The imperious Sinatra didn’t know it yet, but he had met his match in Sawyer.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.