I’ll Never Forget … the Rat Pack at the Sands, 1963
Frank Sinatra, et al., kibbitzing and singing as smooth as a dry martini at the Sands in Las Vegas
By Sally Wendkos Olds
August 30, 2023
The year was 1963. The place was Las Vegas. I was there, a newly minted graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, with my husband Mark Olds, general manager of 1010 WINS—New York’s top 40 radio station, on the AM dial at 93.9. (That was years before it began broadcasting All News, All the Time.) Boasting very possibly the strongest lineup in the city—Tijuana Brass, Skeeter Davis, Peter, Paul and Mary—as well as the rockers, Elvis, Chuck Berry, etc.—WINS operated out of a posh and swish studio that had been designed by that media mogul William Randolph Hearst—who not only owned the station, but the Columbus Circle building it was housed in. Those were the days, and certainly the nights, when radio still maintained its universal cachet—which television would soon usurp.
Mark came to WINS at a propitious time. The Baby Boom generation—the largest in history thus far, then in its teen years—was quickly becoming invested in pop music. Elvis, the King, while no longer overwhelming the field as he’d done in the 1950s, had made pop music indispensable, and in his wake came the Beach Boys, the Chiffons, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Vinton, and (not to forget) those upstarts from across the Atlantic Sea—the Beatles.
That was when WINS became a major force in pop music. The Home of the Big Beat and Rock ‘N Roll Music, it became known for its concerts, hosted by such legends as the top-rated Murray “the K” Kaufman and Alan Freed. So it was hardly unusual when Mark flew out to Las Vegas—the entertainment capital of the world—for a business meeting, very charitably having me tag along. And there we conveniently were when we got word of a must-see show at that mega-casino and resort, the Sands: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr.—members in good standing of the Rat Pack—were performing that very night in the hotel’s Copa Room. Named in honor of New York’s Copacabana, this was the now-hallowed cabaret where Noel Coward, Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Jane Powell, and Rita Moreno showed up, whether to perform or to see and be seen.
Yes, the Beatles were making incursions, but the old guard still held sway. And everyone was talking about the Rat Pack’s frankly show-biz-historic event. “Those were the days when $5 for the show room captain could get you a seat close to the stage for almost any show, all the shows except those where Frank and Dean were appearing. A $500 bill couldn’t buy a seat for those performances.” So relates a certain tutorial-offering card player, Sam O’Connor, in his book, Tales of Old Las Vegas.
A bit of background about the Rat Pack: This ultra-Mod Rat Pack assemblage got under way in the late 1940s, started by Humphrey Bogart, along with Errol Flynn, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Lewis, and Cesar Romero. Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and Shirley MacLaine soon joined in, as did (unofficially) a somebody or other by the name of John F. Kennedy. Various mobsters mixed with them too. Their hangout? Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s English Country-style home in the Holmby Hills section of L.A., which was where Bacall bestowed on them their group name. (She thought “they looked like rats.”)
While Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were well established from the 1950s, Sammy Davis, Jr. emerged as a new kind of ethnicity-defying entertainer. He was Black—but he didn’t have the mannerisms often associated with Black men. And there he was, hobnobbing with these White guys—even joking with them about race relations. Word has it that Sinatra once threatened to pull out of the Sands and Vegas entirely if his pal Sammy wasn’t allowed to stay at the hotel. A suite was quickly offered. Did the Rat Pack’s easy camaraderie help break down racial barriers in those pre-Black Power years? Maybe.
As for how Mark’s and my evening at the Sands came to be: I had never known him to use his influence to pressure any record company. But on this day in 1963, I heard him say to the A&R (Artists and Repertory) people, “If you want your records played on WINS, I need tickets for tonight.”
Done! We soon enjoyed an unforgettably heady and magic show business experience. The Summit at the Sands, it was called. Held in the canopied and gaudily chandelier’d Copa Room, it was attended by respectful but buoyant middle-agers. (Who else could afford to show up at the Sands?) Jammed into their cocktail tables, they wielded tons of applause after every song.
As for the show: half-singing, half-kibbitzing in their bow ties, mike in one hand, cigarette in the other, the three of them held forth in voices as assured as a dry martini. Frank Sinatra, lighting up as he joshed with the audience, cocking his head and shuffling his feet as he came forth with I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. Dean Martin, horse-playing as a charming drunk and then proceeding smooth as velvet with Volare. And Sammy Davis, Jr., the most operatic of the trio, belting out songs like the indefatigable entertainer that he was.
Whatever they did, onstage or off, these three were utter, luminous pros. And bathed in their shine, the glitz that I felt within me stayed with me for these many years to come. I feel it even now.