Cal Neva says goodbye to Sinatra | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Cal Neva says goodbye to Sinatra

by Ronda C. Sluder

A fitting tribute was made in remembrance of Frank Sinatra on Friday at the Cal Neva Lodge Resort, which he owned from 1960 to 1963.

Beginning at 5 p.m., people from all around came to pay their last respects in the one place that seemed to capture Sinatra’s irreplaceable character – the Celebrity Showroom, where he gave numerous performances.

“We’ve been playing his music all day long and giving away blue-colored drinks – for his eyes,” said Kathy O’Connell, executive assistant to Cal Neva’s owner, Charles Bluth. “This place is the closest they can be to Sinatra here. It was a piece of him.”



O’Connell gave complimentary champagne toast to Sinatra, on the showroom stage where a grand piano sat with a single red rose and a portrait of the young man who impacted so many lives in that room. A huge wreath of red and white flowers stood next to his smiling face.

“I thanked everyone for coming and gave a history of when Sinatra owned the casino and how he built the showroom,” O’Connell said. “He touched all of our lives and we are going to miss him.”



Inside the showroom, smaller pictures of Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and other famous celebrities who have performed at Cal Neva line the walls, capturing the unique talent and glamour of an era gone by. One could almost hear the laughter and music as these entertainers put on their spectacular shows, mesmerizing the audience with their dynamic charisma.

Once again, the area was filled with people – this time, however, to remember the timeless music and attitude Sinatra had created. Overall, about 300 people came to visit the temporary shrine, milling around the arched room with its three-dimensional murals depicting the history of the theater. Some snapped pictures of the silent stage, others gazed sadly at a lifelike portrait of Sinatra. Many fans sat in tiered booths and quietly spoke of their recollections of Sinatra and how he had influenced their lives.

“I have enjoyed him all my life,” said Roy Marshall of Los Gatos. “I was a big swing fan in the 1940s. I regret that I never saw him (perform) live. It would have been worth it. He gave a lot of entertainment to a lot of people.”

Cal Neva employees also gave visitors a tour through hidden tunnels constructed when he purchased the casino in 1960.

“The tunnels were used for performers and famous people to get from the showroom to the bungalows,” O’Connell said.

Most of the tunnels have been sealed off, though a few are still used by Cal Neva employees.

Casino host Bill Schu, led the tours and gave vivid descriptions of how Marilyn Monroe, Peter Lawford and John F. Kennedy, to name a few, used the dimly lit, narrow underground walkways.

Monroe’s bungalow was often frequented by Sinatra, who gained access via the tunnel. This cabin is still in use today and looks exactly the way it did when Monroe used it, complete with a heart-shaped bed, Schu said. Supposedly, Monroe also had a secret rendezvous with Kennedy during one of her stays, according to a historical brochure provided by the hotel.

“I imagine Frank used to spend a lot of time in her bungalow,” he said. “He also used the tunnels when he had to get out of a place fast.”

Before a performance, Sinatra could secretly enter the showroom through the underground passageway and retire to his own private dressing room behind the stage. With a mirrored wall, wet bar and spacious bathroom, he had all the comforts of home. Outside, his rather large and tough bodyguards were on hand to ensure Sinatra was not disturbed. If he was in need of something all he had to do was speak through an intercom by the door which also connected to additional dressing rooms above the stage area. Today, this room is now used as an office.

Upstairs, friends like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Doris Day would get ready in one of many private dressing rooms complete with brightly lit mirrors lining the walls.

These rooms are a walk back in time. Though slightly worn, the 1960s-style decor looks exactly the same. Whether making himself a drink or getting ready to sing his swinging tunes, he took a lot of time to make the Cal Neva his home away from home.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be Sinatra’s permanent stomping ground. In 1963, gaming control agents revoked his gaming license after they spotted mafia leader Sam Giancana on the premises.

“There was a rumor that Sinatra got the mafia mad at him,” Schu said.

Whatever the reason, Sinatra never returned to the Cal Neva again.

“We tried to get him back when his son played here in 1994, but he had no interest,” O’Connell said. “He didn’t have a lot of fond memories here.”

Regardless of how he felt, Sinatra gave glamour and dignity to the Cal Neva and added to the colorful history of the lake. Even if it was only for three years, his unique style has left a lasting impression that will continue to impact visitors. He truly is an idol that transgress all generations.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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