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December 20, 2014

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Sinatra’s exaggerated mob ties, JFK’s unplanned campaign swing detailed in ‘10 Things’ Rat Pack episode

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Las Vegas News Bureau

All five members of the Rat Pack, from left, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, perform at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Jan. 20, 1960. Their gigs were often improvised and when one member of the Rat Pack was scheduled to give a performance, other members would show up for an impromptu show.

The Rat Pack

A postcard shows the Rat Pack (from left Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) posing in front of a Sands Hotel marquee bearing their names. Their performances at the Sands during the 60s marked the golden age of the group. Launch slideshow »
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Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin sing a duet together during a 1960s performance in the Sands' Copa Room. The Rat Pack was born when Sinatra joined Martin onstage to sing "Sleep Warm" at the Sands on Jan. 20, 1960.

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The Rat Pack's Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra.

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Members of the Rat Pack, from left, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, perform at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas on Jan. 20, 1960. An investigator from the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures" says there were "dead guests" in Sinatra's former suite at the Riviera.

There are likely more than 10 things you don’t know about the Rat Pack, but the History Channel has whittled the list to a mere 10-pack and this week aired a special episode of the series “10 Things You Don’t Know About” centering on the fabled performers who first instilled swagger in Vegas.

Several weeks ago, I was asked to contribute to this project to elaborate on the 10 pieces of triviata unearthed by History Channel producers. David G. Schwartz, director of UNLV's Center for Gaming Research, also was interviewed, and you can catch the full episode on the History Channel website.

The Rat Pack, as defined, is the original quintet of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Some of the information is prone to debate, naturally, as history morphs over time. But the information was well vetted, and the show is hosted by historian and author David Eisenbach.

Following is the list of 10 things you never knew about the Rat Pack featured in the episode:

10. The original Rat Pack was not founded by Frank Sinatra, but rather by Humphrey Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall, with Bacall observing the crew in the living room of the couple’s home in L.A. and saying they looked like a bunch of “drowned rats.” The term quickly evolved to “Rat Pack.”

9. Members of the Rat Pack never referred to themselves as such. Customarily, they called themselves “The Summit,” playing off the planned Four Powers Paris Summit in 1960, which was to involve President Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle (which was tabled after the 1960 U2 spy-plane incident, as an American aircraft was shot down in Soviet airspace). Subsequently, Sinatra said his crew was going to host its own “conference of cool.”

8. Sinatra protected Davis from harm by the mob after Davis began dating actress Kim Novak in 1957, becoming one of the first celebrity interracial couples. Executives from Columbia Pictures, Novak’s film company, reportedly contacted mob officials in Las Vegas to put a scare into Davis, but Sinatra interceded and persuaded mobsters to back off.

7. Martin’s public persona as a hard-drinking reveler was often exaggerated. Many performers recall him sipping from the same glass throughout a performance, using the drink mostly as a prop.

6. Bishop, often the forgotten member of the Rat Pack, was the brains behind the operation. He wrote most of the stage banter that seemed so effortlessly improvised and was a steady emcee while making it appear as if Sinatra were actually in charge.

5. The Rat Pack invented its own language, a kind of code understood only by its tight-knit members. An example: “Some Clyde playing the Big G wanted to send me to the Big Casino ’cause I was making a little hey-hey with some Harvey’s wife in Dullsville, Ohio.” That meant that a man playing God wanted to kill a member of the group for having sex with his wife, evidently in a boring town in Ohio.

4. Politically, the Rat Packers were left-leaning. They were firmly committed to racial equality, the onstage jokes at Davis’ expense notwithstanding. They donated money from ticket sales to Martin Luther King Jr. and afforded Davis equal billing on the marquee at the Sands.

3. Sinatra’s ties to organized crime were exaggerated. The tale of Sinatra being awarded the role of Private Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity” because a mob boss pressured studio executives has long been debunked. Sinatra himself persuaded executives to cast him in the film, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sinatra did perform in mob-run casinos, which was common for any entertainer in Las Vegas during the Rat Pack’s heyday.

2. During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy took a side trip to Vegas to hang out with Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Kennedy took in two shows from the front row of the Copa Room at the Sands, and Sinatra introduced the young senator from Massachusetts as “one of our great political minds and the next president of the United States.” The Rat Pack also held fundraising shows for the Kennedy campaign.

1. The original Rat Pack fractured over a dispute that unfolded during the Kennedy administration. As this story goes, in 1962 Sinatra had prepared his home in Palm Springs, Calif., for a visit from Kennedy. Sinatra ordered a new bedroom, office and cottages for Secret Service personnel and even a heliport to be built on the property. He envisioned the home to be known as the new “Western White House,” but the Kennedys canceled the visit just days before they were due to arrive. The reason: A photo of Sinatra hugging mob boss Sam Giancana while Giancana was walking off a plane had hit the papers. Kennedy refused to be so closely aligned with reputed mob members, even if it were one heartbeat away, and Lawford arranged for Kennedy to stay at the Palm Springs home of Bing Crosby instead. The unforgiving Sinatra refused from that moment forward to share a stage with Lawford.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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