TAHOE, Calif./Nev. — EDITOR’S NOTE; This is the second in a two-part series. To read the first installment, click here.
The new owners of Lake Tahoe’s venerable Cal Neva Resort have closed it for major renovations with the stated intent of recreating the property as a center of style and entertainment at North Shore, while maintaining the building’s storied 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.
The early 1960s were great for Sinatra and his 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. The NGCB had established a “List of Excluded Persons,” known to the press and general public as the “Black Book.”
Giancana, a hoodlum of national repute, figured prominently in that black book. The NGCB knew challenging Sinatra would not be easy, but Nevada Governor Grant Sawyer said, “He’s no better than anybody else is and you do with him exactly as you would with anyone in that situation. Do the right thing and do not be intimidated by him.”
In response, NGCB Chairman Edward A. Olsen ordered the state to proceed with its investigation against Sinatra.
Chairman Olsen did what very few people have ever done; he stood up to Frank Sinatra. Olsen issued subpoenas against the famous entertainer when he confirmed Giancana had stayed at the Cal-Neva Lodge with his girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire. Olsen also sent two agents to supervise the Labor Day money count at the Cal-Neva.
Paul “Skinny” D’Amato, the general manager of the lodge, tried to bribe the agents and suggested that there was “nothing to worry about.” When he heard of the attempted payoff, Olson’s suspicions deepened. Trouble was brewing in paradise.
On Aug. 31, Ed Olsen received a telephone call in his Carson City office from Mr. Newell Hancock, a partner in the accounting firm that represented the Cal-Neva Lodge. Hancock said that Mr. Sinatra was “irritated” about the negative publicity surrounding the subpoenas and wanted to discuss the investigation with Olsen. Hancock suggested that Olsen drive up to the lodge to enjoy dinner and catch that evening’s performance by Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Olsen refused, realizing that this would be inappropriate under the circumstances, and insisted, “I will meet with him [Sinatra] any time, but it will be in my office.” Olsen wanted the meeting held in the presence of others, including his secretary who would make a record of the conversation. Hancock and Olsen agreed to a meeting the following day.
But according to Olsen, “Within one-half hour, about 4 p.m., my telephone rang again. It was Mr. Sinatra. To describe him as ‘irritated’ was a masterful understatement. He was infuriated. He asked why I couldn’t come up to the Cal-Neva to see him. I gave him the same reasons as I had given Hancock. To which he replied, “You’re acting like a [expletive deleted] cop. I just want to talk to you off the record.”
Sinatra continued to bully Olsen, “Listen, Ed, I haven’t had to take this kind of [expletive deleted] from anybody in the country and I’m not going to take it from you people.”
Olsen realized that he was experiencing first-hand Sinatra’s street-tough business methodology. Sinatra was livid. “It’s you and your [expletive deleted] subpoenas which have caused all this trouble,” yelled the entertainer. Olsen asserted, “If I want to see you, I’ll send a subpoena.” With that Sinatra sputtered, “You just try and find me. And if you do, you can look for a big, fat surprise. You remember that.”
The battle between Sinatra and the Gaming Commission made national headlines. Some newspaper columnists sided with Sinatra, insisting that the charges were weak and suggested “guilt by association.” When President John F. Kennedy arrived in Las Vegas on a political campaign, he asked governor Sawyer, “What are you guys doing to my friend, Frank Sinatra?”
Sawyer held his ground and responded, “Well, Mr. President, I’ll try to take care of things here in Nevada, and I wish you luck on the national level.” President Kennedy quickly dropped the subject.
On Oct. 7, 1963, hours before the deadline for Sinatra’s reply to the Gaming Commission’s charges, Frank announced he was giving up his casinos in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. He stated, “No useful purpose would be served devoting my time and energies convincing the Nevada gaming officials that I should be part of the industry.”
Sinatra sold off his Nevada properties valued at $3.5 million. It was an economic setback for the North Lake Tahoe gambling scene, which is still waiting to see so much talent and entertainment in one location.
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.