Monday, June 1, 2015

Vegas in the 50's....Frank, Dean, Sammy, Don, Harry...HEAVEN!



            Vegas in the late 50’s was THE hot spot on the planet.
       Sinatra and The Rat Pack at the Sands filming Oceans Eleven...
            Don Rickles in the lounge at the Sahara...for the price of one beer, I might add....but be careful what you want to be nondescript or he’ll spot you and do ten minutes on the way your dressed. 
            Harry James in the lounge at the Flamingo and his wife Betty Grable sunbathing each day at the Flamingo pool....and still looking very good!
            Franks’ buddy Hank Henry at the Golden Slipper nightly where you could eat the best buffet (all you wanted) for a buck!  Walter Winchell liked that...he was coming out when I was going in one night. 
      And then you had the infamous Howard Hughes locking himself away from the world in the Penthouse atop the Desert Inn.

        I answered an ad about a job at a radio station which was actually located in the Flamingo on the strip.  They hired me over the phone and I was on my way.
   Vegas was old hat for me even then.  When I worked in Beverly Hills I would jump in the car weekends and drive all night to Vegas.
      I’d play the the out of dough and get back in the car to head back to LA.
      I had a routine doing this for a few months...about every other weekend.  Getting there was no problem with coffee...and all the free drinks and good food made the return trip late at night a burden.
     To get back to LA I headed NORTH out of Vegas on highway 95 until I neared the Nevada test site...where they WERE testing the bomb.  I’d pull off the road and sleep in the car for an hour of so and then about dawn I’d continue on that highway until the turnoff for Death Valley. 
        I’d stop at the famous hotel there...Furnace Creek...aptly named as the temps were always over 100....pushing 110-120 at high noon.
       I had befriended the security guy (it was summer so the hotel was closed) who allowed me to take a dip in the massive pool to cool off.
      Then I’d dry off and be on my way back to LA.
     So Vegas was not new but I still marveled at the famous names playing the hotels and the sounds of slots paying off...and some did...pretty good.

         I was offered the job as the morning man at a radio station hidden in the back confines at the Flamingo Hotel.  To be a morning air personality in Vegas is something else.  Nobody gets up until noon!  One time I forgot to flip the "on" switch and did the whole show for myself.  The guy who followed me came in and said "you forgot something" and flipped the switch.  No one had called to see why we weren't on the air!
      But it was an quite an experience because of the era. 
      Pearl Bailey was the main act at the Flamingo Hotel and every night I’d chat with her as she ambled with her pearl handled walking stick thru our back building to her bungalow.  Pearly May was a gas and a lot of fun.  
      Harry James and Betty Grable...Miss Pin Up of WWII...had a couple of daughters including a young teen named Jessica who hit it off with me pretty good.  Her nickname was Jesse...and I loved to have her paged at the Flamingo.  Everyone would hear the announcement all over the hotel grounds..."paging Jesse James...will Jesse James please contact the hotel operator”.  She would scream at me for that, regularly. She never introduced me to her Mom dammit!
      A couple of my coworkers and I couldn’t wait for Rickles show at the Sahara lounge every night.  All the “in folks” in Vegas made that scene...but there were a few rules.  Don’s whole act was picking on people in the you had to wear something he would not zero in on and sit in the back where he couldn’t see you...or you could be utterly destroyed in a very short period of time.  Every night...for the price of a beer...we watched him do his thing.  
     Then we’d catch Harry James last lounge show for a little music appreciation...for the cost of another beer, of course.
     Las Vegas was different back then.  The flavor of  Ocean’s Eleven (the original) was the scene and it was great.  Each hotel had really big names headlining not only their main room but their lounge.  Just at the Sands I got to see Dean Martin and Nat “King” Cole.  Rich Little had just hit it big at the Desert Inn.   Johnny Carson topped the Sahara during his vacation from the Tonight Show.  There were a raft of others I can’t think of right now but suffice to say it was headlining in its heyday.  
When Frank Sinatra played the Sands just the invited guests and high rollers got in to see him.  And each show was sold out.
         Later...In 1970 when I got back from my NBC News tour I stopped in San Francisco and rented a car and headed for Vegas.  
      I just love driving out west.  There’s something about the desert that recharges your batteries fast...and after my experiences in Nam and Cambodia I surly could use the R & R.
      I had no reservations so I just cruised the strip to see who was playing and found Elvis at the Hilton.  I checked in and hit the sack.
     Some twelve hours later I ambled down to the casino and had breakfast and then played some slots (my favorite).  When the coins ran out I went to the entrance of the main room and asked if there were any tickets for Elvis’ show.  I was told they were all sold out for the entire run.
      I returned to my room...picked up the phone and ask for the Presley Suite.  They didn’t put me through there...but I did get someone in the entourage...connected to Col. Tom Parker...Presely’s manager. I introduced myself...explaining that I had just returned from Vietnam for NBC news and wondered if there was anyway I could see the show.  They called back in about ten minutes and told me I was Mr. Presley’s invited guest!
      That night I went through the invited guest line (no charge by the way) and was ushered right down front to a table up against the stage. (I got a great seat...within hand shaking of “E” on stage...but I forgot to tip the maitre d'!  I had a lot of money so that wasn’t it...I was so excited sitting so close to the King I just completely forgot the tip!) 

Elvis opened the show looking thin, well and refreshed and after a few numbers started shaking hands and kissing women near the stage.  
        He shook my hand and actually said: “ah...thank you man...thank you very much”.  Sounding just like Elvis.  Even for was a thrill.  I watch the taped 1970 concert at the Hilton from time to time...and it seems like a carbon of what he did that night.  

       Back to the earlier years...Mac Richmond...owner of the Las Vegas radio station flew out and for some reason chose me to drive him around.  Mac was a rich man who still had the first dollar he ever made.  He used to have code calls set up with his secretary at his Boston station and bragged about the fact that he could make long distance business calls all day and never get charged!
      Mac’s presence in Vegas became apparent when we drove out to the transmitter site in Henderson and he shut the station down.
      He had fired staff before leaving the Flamingo. But he gave everyone a nice going away check.
      He offered me a job doing a jock show at his Washington DC station which I accepted immediately and prepared to make the drive back.
     His shutting down the station would cause a problem for him in the coming months.  Before you can do that you have to notify the FCC...Federal Communications Commission...and get authority for such a move.  Apparently Mac didn’t even tell them until later and then they came sniffing around for me and I had to go into the FCC offices and cover for Mac...understandable as I was working for him at his DC station.  So I covered his ass on that and he seemed I later ended up at his big Boston station WMEX which was huge in ratings and success during the 50’s and 60’s.  I’m the only guy who ever worked at all three of Mac’s stations. I'll write more about the FCC visit to me in the next post.

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