©06 The Media Desk
UPDATE 18 Oct/07: Joey Bishop has left us. And now, they are all gone, and we are the poorer for it. -Doc L
[NOTE:This is a brief, in the Desk's style, on the subject which was, and even is still, a cultural phenomenon. The idea here is to explore a little of what happened with one eye on the question of how and why it happened. There are dozens of differing and conflicting theories on the matter, the Desk is going to present its own. You are welcome to disagree, as long as you have a valid argument, the Desk will listen. Thank you]
The Desk is in no way an expert on this subject. Truth be told, Nobody is. There is too much there for anybody to honestly call themselves an expert. There are those that are still around who were part of the scene, and one of the insiders who Were The Scene is still alive and well (as of this writing he is almost 90). But for the most part those now talking about it were the bit players, the extras that rounded out the cast. They were called in for their part, they spoke their lines and did their routine then they were escorted out to be called back out for a curtain call by the headliners.
Of course we are discussing the Rat Pack.
Not the Original Rat Pack, the one that surrounded Humphrey Bogart in his heyday. While it was the original, it was scarcely the one everybody thinks of when they say the words. Nor are we discussing the cheap plastic imitations with names like 'Brat Pack' or the current 'B* Pack' female version that centers around a wanna-be porn star heiress and a former teenage singer now bimbo divorcee and their assorted hangers-on.
No. Each of the group we are discussing were stars in their own right before and after their Golden Age. And these people had talent, they were not famous for being famous. Some were movie stars, others were singers (or both), and others were more of the 'also staring' type in one or the other realm, but they were all stars.
Yes. They were.
In depth biographies are available on each and every one of them, and that is not what we're doing here. But to set the stage we'll look at the men, and yes, they were all men.
Let's stop right there for a minute.
They were men.....
They were men.
No, that's not quite right. They were Men. In every sense of the word, both good and bad. They did not apologize for it, they did not make concessions to those of lesser stature male or female because of it, they did not hide it, it was them. They were Men.
In today's terms, they might be labeled Uber-men or some other such meaningless word.
They were macho, but they did not practice Machismo.
They were masculine, but without using the affectations you see today.
What you saw was for the most part who they were. And whether or not you approved of it, accepted it, admired it or even cared, made not one whit of difference to them. Not at all.
If they arrived someplace in a rumpled suit with a day's growth of beard stubble, it wasn't a fashion statement (as it was on 'Miami Vice') it was because they has slept off last night's party in the back of a limmo with some woman they'd just met and the empty pack of cigarettes peeking from their pocket had been come by honestly and was not a prop.
Yes most of them smoked. And if you looked at them with a glare they'd blow smoke in your face. They smoked on stage, in their hotel rooms, at dinner. Wherever it suited Them.
They drank. Some more, some less, rumor has it that one barely drank at all. But they, as a group, did. And heavily too. And not the super-sweet candy flavored cocktails you see in clubs today. They drank hard liquor, whiskey, vodka, Scotch, gin, straight or on the rocks, highballs, with soda, martinis by the gallon and beer by the pitcher.
No salad munchers they either. Steaks were as much for breakfast as dinner.
Then there was sex. They were sexy, if anybody at the time could be, they were. They told suggestive jokes and naughty stories ...on stage with an audience with WOMEN in it no less... and everybody knew about them and the women.
And the women....
And the women.
I'm supposed to have a Ph.D. on the subject of women. But the truth is I've flunked more often than not. I'm very fond of women; I admire them. But, like all men, I don't understand them.The Rat Pack guys didn't so much chase women as women waited for them to acknowledge their presence and invite them into their world for a time.
Be all that as it may, this is about the guys so let's look at them, then we'll look at Them.
Francis Albert Sinatra
There is no argument about whose Rat Pack it was.
Frank was called the 'Chairman of the Board' or 'The Boss' or whatever with his own encouragement and permission, Bogart himself hung the 'chairman' label on Frank, and it stuck. He always wanted to be, and indeed, HAD to be the center of.... the center of the universe.
As the various biographies point out, Frank had started out as small potatoes and an outsider. And he hated it. Once he had the opportunity to become THE insider he seized it with both hands and rode it as far as he could. Which was to the logical extreme.
In 1953 Frank took home an Academy Award for his part in "From here to Eternity". A couple of years later he picked up another one. But music was his first best calling and he longed to get back to it.
First with Capital Records then under his own label he took control of his material and himself and set out to conquer the world.
Frank ruled his world with an iron and sometimes violent fist. He relished in the attention of 'made men' like Sam Giancana the famous (infamous) gangster. But Frank never really understood that Giancana saw Frank (and the rest of the Pack) as little more than a colorful hood ornament, something that was nice to have, but could be discarded and replaced if it ever became annoying. Sinatra had two reasons for kissing up to the Mafia: One, the mob ran Vegas, period, and he could buy his way into their control of various casinos, and thereby guarantee his own future employment. And two, which was almost equally important to Sinatra, he liked to be important, being seen with major Mafia bosses made him important by association if not in fact.
Sinatra dictated the terms under which his movies were shot, that his TV specials operated under (he never 'got' TV, not like Dean Martin did) and how his records were done. Doing so earned him the rewards and accolades of the successes, but it also aimed all the criticism from, and the expenses of, the failures his way.
And Frank controlled who was in, and who was out, and who was way out of- The Rat Pack.
Dino, yes his real name was 'Dino'. Dino Paul Crocetti to be exact.
Dean Martin may be the hardest one to account for.
The others wanted to be around Frank. Maybe they Needed to be around Frank. Dean didn't, really, he didn't like the spotlight (although he thrived on the attention), didn't want to live his life on the schedule (any schedule), and most certainly didn't need Frank to bolster his career.
Martin had made it, after much struggling, as the more or less straight man to the industrial disaster slapstick of Jerry Lewis on stage and through a string of movies. If Lewis was a clown's clown, Martin was becoming a sex symbol and women who usually hated Lewis, would go to the movies to see Dean and hear him sing. But by the middle fifties the partnership was wearing thin and the duo split up, after a battle worthy a Hollywood divorce, and Dean struck out on his own. He hit a dry spot, but by the end of the decade was back on top and near equal in star magnitude to Sinatra.
In the end Martin sold himself as much as the various publicists and press agents did as the 'king of cool'. Whether or not he really was is purely subjective. Dean was passably handsome, charming, sincere and suave and smooth with a mellow voice that just oozed sex to the women of Middle America.
If women swooned when Frank sang, they had a sexual climax when Dean sang. Because Dean, unlike Frank, could sing to one person at a time in an auditorium holding a couple of thousand people, and it would be an even bet that that one person was a good looking woman. On TV he was always one raised eyebrow and smirk from being censored for conveying too much naughtiness, even though that's one reason his show was such a hit.
On stage he could play a nearly helpless bumbling drunk and do so as a sympathetic character. However, he was seldom sloshed on stage. Dean was a master entertainer, he could read his audience and knew what was working and what wasn't and change the act on the fly to keep the audience engaged. No matter how inebriated he appeared, it was unlikely any of today's breathalyzers would convict him of Singing While Intoxicated.
But part of the nonchalance that made up his character on stage was from real life. He was a star, but he didn't care one way or the other. Something that at times infuriated everybody except Sinatra. Sinatra always cared, but he wished he didn't have to.
Sammy Davis Junior
Not only was show business in his blood, he was in its blood.
Sammy grew up on stage. Touring in Vaudeville with the Will Mastin Trio then solo, he sang and danced and told jokes and took abuse as the butt of jokes and... made it.
No, Sammy did NOT break the entertainment color barrier. That was done years before by Burt Williams in the nineteen teens (see article and photos). But racism still existed off stage. Sammy would headline on a major Las Vegas hotel stage, then be relegated to a rooming house on the other side of town.
Through his association with Frank, and thereby others who Frank was associated with who owned and otherwise controlled the Vegas hotels, Sammy was finally allowed to stay in the same suites white performers enjoyed. Sinatra simply put out the word that some of the Strip hotels and casinos were slighting Sammy, the people that counted would refuse to go there and very soon the hotel management would have a change of heart.
In the end, Sammy had it all. Whatever it was, he had it. A beautiful blonde Swedish wife in May Britt. Residences in all the high spots, fancy cars, fancier watches, fame, recognition of both him and his talent, equal footing with white performers... he had it.
To say Sammy blew through money like he did his dance routines would be an understatement. Sammy had to work like a madman because he was spending millions of dollars faster than he could earn them.
But then there was an unmistakable fact. Before Sammy, the word 'hepcat' had no meaning. After Sammy, if you were 'hip' you were compared to him. And you were probably found lacking in the comparison.
It is well documented elsewhere, so we'll conclude with this, Sammy absorbed everything Frank radiated. Wealth, fame, popularity, style. Sammy was a sponge for it. Then he brought it all forth with his touch to it. Frank sang, Sammy sang with stylish soul. Frank told jokes, Sammy brought the house down. Frank danced, Sammy hoofed. Frank smoked caroused partied gambled, Sammy held his own, and then some.
Face it, the photograph of Sammy cutting it up with Richard Nixon is one of those that if you've seen it, you never forget it.
Peter Sydney Lawford
The 'Brother in Lawford'.
Some work for fame. Some have fame thrust upon them. Then some, like Peter Lawford, trip over it almost as much by accident as ever by design.
Lawford was something along the lines of a minor league English Aristocrat. A Kennedy by marriage (he married Pat Kennedy, JFK's and RFK's sister). A 1940's movie star who seemed to be just one step from superstardom. And something of the odd man out when the Rat Pack was on stage. He was used to movies, with scripts and directors and plots and schedules, not the "rockus bash" bedlam the others set fire to on stage.
If he hadn't hooked up with Sinatra, Lawford might have had a nice career in movies and gone on to produce or perhaps get into studio management. Instead, he was an insider and Sinatra's connection to the political world and ended up in the eye of a hurricane from which he never recovered, personally or professionally.
Much has been made over Sinatra's (and thereby Sam Giancana's) connection to JFK through Lawford. However, those that wax poetic over such a connection ignore other facts in the lives of the Kennedy's including old man Joe Kennedy's and John (Honey Fitz) Fitzgerald's less than ideal background.
Joseph Abraham Gottlieb, A.K.A. Joey Bishop
As of this writing, Mr. Bishop, at age 88, is the last surviving member of the Rat Pack. He has since passed on at 89.
He's been called the ringmaster of the Summit. And Joey was the only one of the Rat Pack who actually seemed to be in awe of it all. And his absolute deference to Sinatra is the stuff of legend. Yes he pulled Frank's chain, but he never pushed Frank's button.
Bishop was an entertainment veteran as well. He had been touring and appearing on TV and feature films since the late forties (most notably "The Naked and the Dead"). Never a headliner he nonetheless had a solid career going before he caught Frank's eye with his comedy act.
Joey was the only professional comedian of the group, but was also able to go with the flow with whatever was going on on stage. Even though he wrote and re-wrote much of the material they were supposed to perform, he never got angry when his sometimes brilliant scripts were mangled beyond all attempts to salvage them.
And sometimes, what was going on on stage was absolute unscripted mayhem.
Setting the Stage.
They began small.
As we said before, Sammy grew up on stage, that the kid had talent was never the question, how much is a legend. Frank cut his showbiz teeth in seedy dives and smoke filled halls then moved up in the pecking order, had been blacklisted, recovered, and was moving again. Dean had bombed as a solo act, then with Jerry Lewis hit it big and hard and long. Peter had been on the edges of the movie business, but just wasn't a major star, and he seemed to know it. Joey was still grappling his way to the top, riding the coat-tails of whoever came by.
Frank had been around Hollywood when Bogart's group was in session. He saw him hold court and accepting callers like a King in a State Reception. Frank all but drooled. That was how you played that game. It was as if Sinatra had taken notes.
Like a coach building a playoff team, Frank began to assemble his Pack. Some in his previous orbits wouldn't pass the test, others were just wrong. He needed it to click, to have that chemistry between the players that fed and enhanced each other. It had to be It.
The players had to be able to stand on their own, they had to come in with some luster, but nobody would be allowed to upstage Frank. Which is why Peter Lawford would be the movie star in the group, not Henry Fonda or John Wayne.
The other singer had to be good, but not great. He couldn't compete with Frank. Which was one reason Bing Crosby was never even considered. He might take some of the light off Frank. Dean had a nice voice, but wasn't cut from the same canvas as Sinatra.
A comic would add a nice touch. But again Bob Hope wouldn't do. He was more wholesome than Frank wanted his group to be. And somebody like that might not take Frank as seriously as Frank wanted to be taken.
Then they needed an element that was slightly off center. Somebody to make it risqué just by being on stage. And if he had talent, so much the better.
The Pack wasn't an entourage, although later stars with more egos than sense would compare their 'posse' to Frank's. It is a sham of a comparison. Sinatra had an entourage of people to do everything from bring him drinks to pay off hotel help he beat up. There was security and drivers and business people, they were there for reasons other than to tell Frank how great he was. The new celebrities surround themselves with people who are there just to be there for the free lunch. The Rat Pack was there because there was no place else to be at the time.
The end of the beginning.
As the Fifties wound down Sinatra and his pals were hot stuff. They sold out venues and named their prices for appearances on TV or at events. They made movies together and separately. The 1958 film "Some came running" featured Sinatra and Martin and was a good glimpse of better things to come. Frank had cast Dean to give the picture some sex appeal and more star power. The two hit it off, the core of the Pack was born.
Men idolized them. Women threw themselves at them. Managers of nightclubs lined up to be accepted or dismissed by them apparently at a whim.
Sammy had been in and out of Frank's life for years. Now he was In. Way In.
The others came on board as things went forward and soon, They were IT.
When one was booked into a joint for an appearance, it was a fair bet that one or more of the others would roll in and 'wreck' the show by inviting themselves on stage to sing and guffaw and make a show out of the show.
It worked. They did their act and it was fun and they got paid and laid and they lived their life and their life was the act.
It was pure Sinatra. All Frank all the time. By, For and Of...
The movie that was being shot around, or in some cases in spite of, the Summit was the original "Ocean's Eleven". At first cool to the script Sinatra warmed up to it when he was given absolute control over the production (including veto on everything from the caterer to the director), and besides, it was an excuse for a wall to wall party in Vegas for the duration of the shoot.
Most say this was when the Rat Pack was at its pinnacle. And a good argument could be made that way. And historically, from here it was a long slow almost painful spiral down into oblivion. Yes there were flashes of greatness, but only flashes of the old fire. At the Summit, the flashes were a forest fire.
The chemistry between the principals was absolutely perfect. Their timing was marvelous. The entire package came together into a wonderful whole that as live on stage nightclub entertainment, may never be equaled.
While the shooting of the movie was all but neglected, the evenings on the stage at the Sands were to die for.
They sang. They kidded. They humiliated each other. Then went through it all again. And the audience. The country. Loved it.
The performances were not high comedy and stylish art. This was a staged bar fight and brutal defamation of character, set to music, based more or less loosely on a Bishop script. Well lubed with liquor and wreathed in cigarette smoke. And it was marvelous.
This was one of those rare incidents in history where the people who were there knew history was being made. After the first night of the 'concert' word got out and the demand for tickets went through the roof.
Something else. The Copa Room at the Sands was rather small even by the standards of clubs in Vegas at the time which was just starting its building boom. The lounge had been built to be small and intimate, seating between five to eight hundred depending on how the tables, yes, tables, were arranged. However, if everybody who has since claimed to have witnessed even one night of the Summit was actually there it would have had to have seated many thousands for every night of the three week engagement. Not unlike those that now say they were at Woodstock in 1969.
When the movie came out the plot of the robbery picture was as incidental to its popularity as the shooting of the movie was to the Summit. Yes it was simply a vehicle for the Rat Pack to show their fans a good time, so what?
The beginning of the end.
First JFK was killed.
Sinatra, already on the outs from the White House because of his inability to stay away from the Mob had been dismissed from anything to do with JFK. Also, since Sinatra had been unable to call RFK off from going after the Mafia, his relationship with Giancana had cooled considerably as well.
Now, he had no link to political power. Something Sinatra may have taken as a personal affront.
Then he saw his power in Hollywood diminished by the rise of outside producers.
His records were also selling fewer and slower.
While he was still selling out the clubs, his stranglehold on the Strip was diminishing as more casinos opened more shows and hired in other acts. Acts which Sinatra didn't control.
The Pack was also coming apart.
Sammy was going his own way. Dean was all over TV like it had been made just for him. Joey's TV show was making a name for his sidekick- a young Regis Philbin.
Sinatra had shut out Lawford and in some ways it was mutual.
Frank still performed, but now it was more as a curiosity for a tour from a senior center than the hip new happening he had been in the fifties.
The last of the Rat Pack movies were hollow echoes of what the first couple had been. After "Robin and the Seven Hoods" there would be no more.
There had always been a bit of underlying tension between the major players. It was just fuel for the fire of their interaction. Some of the barbs were real, some of the jibes hit the mark, the inevitable retort was just as likely to be biting truth as it was a jest. Now, the remarks ended up in the papers and on late night TV shows as proof that what had once been was no more.
By the end of the Sixties, nobodies were doing what the Rat Pack had done, and in some cases, were doing it better. And with the blasting entertainment of the counter-culture, rock and roll and TV, who needed the Rat Pack?
The comedy that had made audiences roar sounded forced and lame and in some ways, inappropriate.
The songs that had won them droves of fans and legions of imitators were now being used as comedic bits themselves by those that poked fun at 'lounge singers'. Sinatra, the man that had released five albums in 1961 went without a release for longer and longer spans, at one point, over five years between records.
As the Seventies rolled on Sinatra saw his star become a faint twinkle. Oh he would reinvent himself, but he had had his day. The later albums still had some of the spark, the voice was still there most of the time, but, it just wasn't the same.
Sammy was never bigger. Dean still stole the show on TV. Joey Bishop became a fixture in Vegas and other clubs. Peter Lawford simply faded from view doing guest appearances and game show spots until the end.
But the glow that had been that brief time in on a small stage in Vegas has scarcely waned.
Perhaps we long for it now because it is the absolutely most politically incorrect thing we can think of. They demeaned anybody and everybody including 'protected classes' and each other, they drank and smoked On Stage, they flaunted their sexuality to adoring women, and did it all with a live band and THEY GOT PAID FOR IT. Four white men and a 'one-eyed black Jew' couldn't do that today and stay out of court.
Perhaps we look back at it as about half Urban Legend or a tall tale as if it didn't really happen, or if it did, it wasn't all it has been made out to be. Well, yes it happened, and yes it was just about everything it has been claimed to be. And yes they made it with all the 'broads' they are rumored to have had. Including Angie Dickinson who was an unofficial member of the pack but was never 'off limits', the stunningly beautiful Gina Lollobrigida, Mia Farrow before her "Rosemary's Baby" fame, Sophia Loren- they were all Hollywood after all, and innumerable nameless others who appear in photos of the group in various public settings and are only identified as 'an attractive escort'.
Perhaps we wonder if we had been there, and had a speck of the talent, and the chance, would we have done it for three weeks in 1960.... well, we'll just have to wonder won't we.
As we'll always fondly remember them....
Those who have left us.
In Happier Days-
From left: Peter 1923-1984. Frank 1915-1998. Sammy 1925-1990. Dean 1917-1995
"Too many times I've been asked to say something about friends who are gone - this is one of the hardest....Dean was my brother - not through blood, but through choice....He has been like the air I breathe - always there, always close by."
NOTE: The Web is thick with information, some authoritative and some... otherwise, on the Rat Pack and its members. Like the fan site www.rat-pack.net or http://library.nevada.edu/speccol/dino/ratpack.html And there are endless books on the subject, a good one is "Rat Pack Confidential" by Shawn Levy which can be purchased online as well.
The best thing to do is to drop the term, or one of their names, or the book title into a search engine like ixquick.com and see what comes back.
The Desk owes all of the above and more a thank you for their input on the subject. So Thank You from The Media Desk.
Further Note, the Wikipedia articles on the Pack and its members, like so many others on the free online encyclopedia, has been so sanitized as to be almost useless. The Desk is currently looking for another online source for good information that isn't dependant on the whims of a rat pack of a different sort than the one discussed above.
[FINAL NOTE: The Desk is solely responsible for the analysis and conclusions hereby presented. If the reader has any issues with anything in the article they may contact the Desk through the usual channels.
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