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October 25, 2014

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Bob Shemeligian: Rat Pack made Copa Room special

As the auctioneers sold pieces of the Sands bit by bit in the hotel's Celebrity Room this week, the nearby Copa Room remained as dark and dreary as an abandoned and boarded-up mansion.

The sounds of auctioneers hawking everything from slot machines to gaming tables carried only so far and died long before they reached the black curtained walls surrounding the Copa stage.

It was as if the Copa Room would be spared the ignominy of the hawkers' rapid-fire voices.

The room will remain as quiet as a mortuary anteroom, where visitors wait to pay their respects, until the wrecking ball turns the place to rubble sometime before November.

And that's the way it should be.

Those visitors who toured the Sands last weekend, and who turned away from the tagged bar stools and light fixtures and walked down the aisles of the Copa Room to the famed stage, were at first surprised by the diminutive appearance of the place.

When you take away the stars, the dancers, musicians, the VIPs, the wealthy high-rollers and the somber maitre d's in black tie, the Copa Room appears to be no bigger than a living room in a mansion.

I guess that was the appeal of the place.

The entertainment gods who ruled there during late January and early February of 1960 used the familiar and somewhat casual aspects of the showroom to their great advantage.

You all know the names, but for the record, the members of the "Rat Pack" were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

Today, only Sinatra and Bishop are with us. But like the other members who have passed on, they are more myth than protoplasm.

We choose not to think of Sinatra as an octogenarian who sometimes struggles through concert performances.

We think of him as the demigod who in 1960 ruled the Copa stage like no one in entertainment has ruled -- perhaps since Euripides.

Sinatra's coronation on that stage culminated the most amazing comeback of any down-and-out entertainer in history.

By the end of the 1940s, Sinatra was bombing. He sang dumb, stupid songs, and he played weak parts in dumb, stupid films like "Anchors Aweigh" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

But, as Martha Weinman Lear wrote in 1974, Sinatra's comeback that started with his Oscar-winning performance in "From Here to Eternity" culminated in those three weeks at the Sands, still known as "the Summit."

"All of a sudden the little loser was coming on like a bigger winner than we or he had ever dreamed, the voice sounding real and the man coming on cool, arrogant, exuberant, extravagant, powerful -- the Swinger, Il Padrone, Chairman of the Board, all that business, with his pinkie rings flashing and his cuffs ... and his women and his starched $100 bills at the gambling tables of Las Vegas, with his own Rat Pack and his own clan," Lear wrote.

Helping Sinatra rule those three weeks at the Sands was a supporting cast the likes of which the entertainment world had never seen.

There was Martin, the slow-talking genius at accentuating his lackluster reputation as a drinker, gambler and womanizer.

"I just got a call from the president," Martin told the Copa crowd after John F. Kennedy, who had attended the Summit in January, had been elected president in November.

"I'm going to be secretary of liquor," Martin said, holding up a drink.

Then there was Davis, the purest entertainer of the bunch, who dazzled the crowd with perfectly timed song and dance numbers that he had developed by working day and night since he was 2 years old.

One of those who would see Davis years later was Danny Gans, the highly regarded impressionist who today delights audiences at the Stratosphere by breathing new life into the performances and personalities of Davis, Martin and Sinatra.

"I saw Davis during the twilight of his career, and he blew me away," Gans said. "In one evening he sang, danced and did dramatic work, and he was superb."

Gans, who has worked to learn the ability to mimic hundreds of personalities and performers, acknowledges he loves to do Rat Pack members best of all.

Perhaps it's because an impressionist must get inside the head of the entertainer he mimics, and wouldn't it be cool to get inside the head of Sinatra, even for a few moments?

"They were all wonderful performers, and they worked especially well together," said Gans, who explained that audiences seemed to love Sinatra for his voice and confidence, Martin because he was such a likable guy and Davis for his awesome talent and his deprecating sense of humor.

"I think they were all friends and it's a shame there isn't that camaraderie on stage any more," Gans said. "Sometimes, Frank or Dean would be on the stage, and he would say, 'I want my friend Sammy to join me for this number.' "

Perhaps it was the ability of the performers to make the guests feel as though they were all friends during one big celebration that made them so popular.

"They were all enormously talented and they were great fun," said Valerie Allen, a Copa Girl during the heyday of the Rat Pack.

"It was very infectious, and everyone in the casino had a good time when they were there," Allen said. "You'd walk into the Sands and you'd see Frank, Sammy or Dean at the tables, and they be joking with each other. You can imagine how popular they were."

Of course, there were dark sides to all three stars.

Biographers describe Martin as really a private person, who would rather spend an evening alone watching an old Western on television than cavorting with other entertainers.

They also described Davis as spending too much time enjoying the good life and too little watching over his finances.

And many have heard the stories of Sinatra weaving a golf cart through the grounds of the Sands after too many drinks and, while swinging a golf club, screaming that he built the place and he could tear it town.

But there was also a good side to these volatile entertainers.

Allen noted that in the early '60s when her mother was quite ill, "calls were made" to City of Hope medical center in Duarte, Calif., and doctors at the facility treated her.

Martin, who had performed benefits for the facility, had quietly made the arrangements.

"That's the way they were. They didn't ask, 'How come your mother doesn't have insurance?' They didn't make a big deal about it. They just helped out."

Today, Allen's mother lives in Southern California.

And the rest of us live with our memories of those vibrant three weeks in early 1960 when the Sands was the place where nearly everyone wanted to be.

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