It was 12:30 a.m., May 15, when the news flashed across my TV screen: “We interrupt this program for a special bulletin.” I braced myself for news of some devastating world event. A moment later, a picture of Frank Sinatra with the dates 1915-1998 told the story. I didn’t hear what the announcer said after that, I was lost in thought, remembering the day I met the world-renowned icon and the time I’d spent with him and Jilly Rizzo in Lake Tahoe, California.
It happened during the mid-1970s, when Lake Tahoe was a mecca for superstar entertainment. In those days, the elaborate showrooms of Harrah’s, Harvey’s and Del Webb’s Sahara Hotel played host to the greatest names in show business. Their marquees offered a changing menu of stars: Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Bill Cosby, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Thomas, Liza Minnelli, Liberace, Jimmy Durante, Alan King and the Smothers Brothers. And I was lucky enough to have met them all. My family owned a vacation home at the lake.
I spent a lot of vacation time at the clubs, even working as a bingo runner at Harrah’s. At the time, Sinatra and John Denver were appearing together at Harrah’s hotel and casino. Denver was rarely around the clubs, preferring the fresh mountain air. Sinatra loved the night life and made himself very visible at the casino cafes, bars, lounges and gaming tables. When an attractive cocktail waitress brought Sinatra’s drink to the gaming table he’d give her a tall stack of chips along with his customary words of approval,
“Ring-a-ding-ding!” Perhaps they were politically incorrect by today’s standards, but nonetheless, women loved Sinatra’s hip remarks. Sinatra’s friendly demeanor was a sharp contrast to the hot-tempered leader of the Rat Pack that we’d all read so much about. Perhaps Sinatra’s new personality was due to the propriety and respectability
of the company he was keeping that week: Spiro Agnew, Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Peck, Mary Livingston (Mrs. Jack Benny) and Mr. and Mrs. Milton Berle. Whatever the reason, Sinatra was on his best behavior.
There were a number of quiet little bars around Harrah’s. Sinatra took a liking to the Hidden Tree Lounge, which was also my favorite. For Sinatra, the dark, deeply set-in booths offered the privacy needed to visit with his famous pals. For me and my fellow casino workers, it was a convenient place to stop after our work shifts had ended.
Sinatra’s buddies, comedian Pat Henry (his opening act) and Jilly Rizzo, always said hello to me as they passed my table, stopping sometimes to tell me a funny story or joke before taking their seats at Sinatra’s booth.
After work, I often joined Henry and Rizzo at their table. Frank Sinatra was a man of average height and average looks, but in person he somehow seemed larger than life. Maybe it was those magnetic blue eyes or that self-assured manner of his, or maybe it was just the Sinatra mystique. I still get goosebumps when I recall meeting Sinatra at his table. He gazed straight at me with his dazzling blue eyes and in a sexy, low voice he simply said, “Hi, doll!” It was Sinatra’s trademark to call all the ladies “doll.” But the day Sinatra called me doll was a day I’ll never forget.
One night an inebriated fan pushed herself into Sinatra’s booth, landing on his lap. Security rushed in and took the lady away as she kicked and screamed all the way out. Sinatra, much to our surprise, was unruffled by the event, and lightened the atmosphere with his typical charm. Snapping his fingers and pointing to his booth, Sinatra called out to the cafe hostess, “Hey, Doll, we have room for one more over here at table 23!” The room roared with laughter as Sinatra displayed his good-natured side.
Spending time with the Sinatra entourage was always exciting. One evening, Henry told Rizzo that “Tom” was going to stop by. I didn’t know who “Tom” was until a few minutes later when I felt someone squeeze into the booth next to me. I turned to see who it was and found myself hip to hip, face to face, with the fabulous Tom Jones.
Surprisingly, Jones wasn’t as imposing in person as I had imagined, but he was even more handsome. A nicer, more polite gentleman would be hard to find.
He was traveling with his teenage son, Terry, at the time, and both father and son ordered a soft drink from the bar. Tom was on his way to the airport, eager to catch the next flight home to his family.
On another occasion, Sinatra was scheduled to check out a new singer appearing in the lounge, but changed his mind at the last minute. He instructed Rizzo to go in his place. “And take “Doll-face” here with you,” he added, pointing to me. “Come on, babe, let’s go,” said Rizzo, and away we sped.
The young lounge singer interrupted his act to introduce Rizzo as Sinatra’s best friend. The spotlight shone down on the two of us, and everyone in the room applauded loudly. For a fleeting moment, with the bright glare of the spotlight in my eyes and the applause ringing in my ears, I could feel the wonderful thrill of Hollywood’s glitz and
glamor. A few minutes later, however, my brush with fame was over; it was back to my job and dull reality.
The young singer really didn’t impress me much. He was rather plump, bearded and somewhat tacky-looking, and his voice had a funny, gravely sound to it. I didn’t think he had much of a chance in show business.
The young singer was Kenny Rogers. Who knew?? Cookie Curci is an experienced syndicated writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. She writes interesting stories for many websites and has a short story in the new book ‘ELVIS’, Live at the Sahara Tahoe.