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 wear...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. Sammy also.
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 slots...eat the buffets...run out of dough and get back in the car to head to LA.
I had a routine doing this for a few month...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 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 you whole show for myself. the guy who followed me came in a nice 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 lounge...so 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. 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 me...it 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 grateful...as 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.
Mac was a loose cannon with staff at times and had fired a jock in DC whom he didn’t like and vice versa. He made the mistake of giving him a week’s notice and the fellow decided he’d get even by taking a contest promo we had running on the station and doing a little tape cutting job which became a classic Mac Richmond story in broadcasting.
We had a guy roaming the streets of DC and burbs as a promotion for the station...called “Mr. PG...our station call letters were WPGC....and our logo was “color radio” which I never figured out.
The promotion was tied in with the foundation to support the retarded...so the on the air announcement said:
The promotion was tied in with the foundation to support the retarded...so the on the air announcement said:
Mr. PG...color radio..is walking the streets for retarded children.
If you spot him say “hi” and he’ll give you $100 and donate $100 to the retarded children's fund on your behalf.”
Well...the fired personality...using his tape and scissors...
spliced a couple of words and switched them on the promotion which ran most the the day before someone caught it.
“Mr. PG...retarded radio...is walking the streets for color children”!!!
A great story...especially on a big, popular station in Washington DC where the FCC could monitor easily.
A fellow named Jerry Kearns worked at the station and his Grandmother ran Blair House... the big house across the street from the White House where visiting dignitaries stayed. Harry Truman had moved into the Blair House for a couple of years while the White house was refurbished.
This was during the final year of Eisenhower’s presidency and when it wasn’t occupied we had the run of the place. We used to wash our cars in the back parking area...help ourselves to anything in the frig...including the big dark Cuban cigars Ike kept in the freezer for guests.
I even stayed overnight...way upstairs in the maid’s bedroom in the most comfortable feather bed I’ve ever been in. Then the next morning I took a bath in the main guest bathroom where they had installed a gold plated bathtub for Queen Elizabeth's earlier visit.
Jerry was actually in the military at one of the closed mouth agencies that are to be found (or not found) around DC and he worked at the station part time. I commented to him one day about something we did on the air and he smiled and whispered that “they” probably heard it. I said what do you mean?
“Oh...everything is monitored... they hear everything.”
It was my first glance into the secret world of evesdropping...knowing that all the radio stations in the area were probably being taped and listened too. Kind of scary for a democracy like ours....more like something you’d expect in Russia.
My friend Mac took me to dinner one evening...and all through the meal he was bemoaning the fact that his FM station...WPGC-FM...was doing nothing but costing him a bundle of money because of the power it used. It just carried our AM programs.
Nobody listened to FM radio in 1960...in fact...nobody could because few had FM capability on their radios.
We fired up both stations at 6AM each day and the FM just carried what the AM was running. then, because the AM was limited to daytime hours only...we shut both down at sunset and so...he was correct in feeling the FM was a useless entity
“Why don’t I sell the FM to you?” he said over dessert and coffee. “I’ll sell it to you for $30,000....pay me a couple thousand down and we’ll work out the rest.”
I replied that i didn’t have the kind of money
“Call your Dad...tell him you want to buy a radio station in DC!”
“Dad still doesn’t like me being in this business...beside...what the hell would i do with it...nobody can hear FM.”
Well...I know that you know where this is going.
Now...of course...no one listens to AM anymore (hardly) and WPGC-FM in the 70’s, 80’s and later became the most valuable FM property in the entire DC area. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s worth about $100 million on today’s market...give or take a few millions.
So much for my crystal ball in the broadcasting business!
Thanks so much for letting me know about your blog! I read the whole thing through and enjoyed it greatly, especially the stories about Mac at WPGC and WMEX. The bit about him turning off KBMI and not telling the FCC is classic!
Seriously, I think you have the makings of a book here. Your writing style is easy and personable and the anecdotes often hilarious! Have you given any thought to publishing your memoirs formally? It's a great read!
Lee Chambers...WPGC pages