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Once Upon a Ring-a-Ding-Ding

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Rat Pack
Illustration by Chris Morris

On the 60th anniversary of Ocean’s 11, the film that introduced Sin City’s fizz to the world, a trip back in time

 

“The Sands was built in 1953, but 1960 was the year Las Vegas popped.”

— Author James Kaplan, Sinatra: The Chairman

Would this fly today?

Dino sings the opening bars of “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking,” the word “walking” pole-vaulting up several notes, per the beloved standard’s melody. Sorta.

“Did you ever see a Jew JITSU? ...” Dino sings.

Frank’s hand shoots up: “Well, I did!”

Enter faux-furious (and genuinely Jewish) Sammy, faux-restrained by Frank.

Sammy yells: “Be fair, that’s all I ask! Would you like it if I came out here and said, ‘Did you ever see a Wap-SICLE? Well, I did!”

Frank attempts to croon an Al Jolson classic. “I’m Alabam-y-bound ...”

Sammy interrupts: “You’ll go there by yourself! Leader or no leader, I ain’t goin’ wit’cha, baby! They gonna have to come up here to get me!”

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When the world was younger than today — with all the playful innocence that implies, blissfully unaware of the tortured social/cultural growing pains yet to come — six words turned Las Vegas into Vegas, baby!: “The Rat Pack at the Sands.”

Otherwise known as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop at the Sands.

That was six decades ago. And that was their shtick — Jewish, Italian, Black, and redneck jokes (plus a song snippet immortalized by a white-man-in-blackface superstar of his era) in about 90 seconds, just to start.

Audiences screamed (yes, in laughter).

In August 1960, their Rat Pack-edness (and the sights and sounds of classic Vegas) was immortalized with the release of Ocean’s 11 — the original that inspired four later films and became our global calling card. Crowds (including prez-to-be John F. Kennedy, Lawford’s bro-in-law) streamed into the Sands’ Copa Room every time the gang (or some combination of them) came to town. 

With due respect to Elvis, Liberace, and countless other superstars, it was these guys who turned this town into THE TOWN. And when they arrived for the January/February 1960 filming of the Vegas portions of Ocean’s 11 — while simultaneously wowing the Copa crowds nightly — they were elevated to legendary status in our collective memory.

Yes, they were of their time — imagine Frank’s “Swing, baby, swing!” ethos running smack into #MeToo today — but they were magic. As we grapple now with poisoned politics, racial strife, demonstrations, and a pandemic that crippled America and the globe, including our vaunted Strip, we could use their bursting-at-the-seams spirit — minus the cultural flaws and anachronisms — to reignite our own Vegas Vibe, hopefully soon.

So, through the magic of time-trippin’, we return you to the sunset of Eisenhower’s America and the sunrise of JFK’s Camelot — that historical sweet spot that launched the Rat Pack rocket to fame.

 

The Rundown

So … what’s the plot?: WWII vets Danny Ocean (Sinatra) and Jimmy Foster (Lawford) enlist nine of their comrades from their unit in the 82nd Airborne to simultaneously rob five Vegas casinos — the Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and Flamingo — on New Year’s Eve with military-style precision.

How … exactly?: Josh Howard (Sammy) takes a job as a sanitation worker driving a garbage truck, while others get gigs at the various casinos. Sam Harmon (Dino) entertains in one of the hotel’s lounges (which is how we get Dino’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”). Demolition charges are planted on an electrical transmission tower, and the backup electrical systems are covertly rewired in each casino to open the cages. At midnight, they blow the tower, the Strip goes black, the inside men sneak into the cages, hold up the cashiers and dump the bags of loot into the hotels’ garbage bins. Then Sammy’s truck picks up the booty and glides through the police blockade.

Snotty promotional tagline: “In any other town, they’d be the bad guys!”

Starring the Rat Pack with support from … Angie Dickinson, Cesar Romero, Richard Conte, Akim Tamiroff, Henry Silva, Ilka Chase, Norman Fell, Patrice Wymore, Buddy Lester; and cameos by Shirley MacLaine (getting drunk and smoochy with Dino), Red Skelton, George Raft, and Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

Low Rat on the Pack: Yes, the movie “starred” the Rat Pack (for the record, Sinatra preferred calling themselves “The Clan” and their live performances “The Summit”).  But the opening animated credits has the movie “starring” Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter — and Dickinson and Conte. Joey Bishop? Listed third down under the “also starring” title card in smaller font, even though he is the first character to appear in the film, and narrates, kicking off the action. Nor is he on the main poster, replaced by Dickinson. (Is it possible she had more sex appeal?) Plus, Joey — who also wrote most of the Rats’ Copa Room material — is saddled with one of filmdom’s worst character names: “Mushy.”

No Rat on the Pack: Up-and-comer Steve McQueen turned down a role in Ocean’s after being counseled by gossip queen Hedda Hopper to be his own man, not a Sinatra “flunky.” Smart.

Other people would just treat him to McDonald’s: As a favor to Sinatra, director Billy Wilder helped work on the script. To show his appreciation, Sinatra gave him a sketch by Pablo Picasso

Get the wax outta your ears: Due to a “mishearing” when the film was announced to the press, the Hollywood Reporter reported its title as Oceans of Loving. If that inferred plotline involved all 11 of them, it would have left Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice looking like a game of spin the bottle.

Location, location, location: Despite its status as a totem of Las Vegas, Ocean’s 11 does not, in fact, show up in Las Vegas until one hour and three minutes in. Then Sin City takes over, with scenes shot at the casinos and on the Strip, as well as one lensed at the former Las Vegas Union Pacific Depot.

Work all day, sing all evening, carouse all night — repeat: Or so the legend goes, when the Pack Rats played the Sands while filming Ocean’s 11. The truth, depending on the source, is more nuanced. One account insists Joey is the most obedient Rat, always punctual for the traditional 9 a.m. start; Lawford will only work mornings; Dino and Sammy show up midafternoon; and, finally, Frank ambles in at 5 p.m.

Coming up short: Wooden blocks had to be added to the pedals of the garbage truck for Sammy to reach them. However, one of the producers’ biggest headaches was persuading Clark County officials to let them borrow one measly garbage truck.

Retroactive apology, anyone?: The infamous blackface scene. In the cab of the sanitation truck. Lawford, Dino, and Frank apply black shoe polish (for plot-driven reasons) while Sammy drives — and giggles. Frank: “What’s so funny?” Sammy: “I knew this color would come in handy someday.” Dino: “How do you get this stuff off?” Sammy: “Well, what I usually …,” then realizes he’s being teased. “Ha ha ha.”

Cringe.

Crash or burn?: Originally, the script’s ending had the gang escaping with the cash in a chartered plane — that crashes. Deciding it was too downbeat, the writers rewrote it so the fellas lose the dough when it’s stashed alongside the corpse of one of their colleagues, to be collected after the funeral — except the corpse is cremated. So’s the dough. Cheerier, no? 

 

Whoops!

When Dino performs “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” a trumpet solo is prominently heard. Check out the jazz combo backing him. See any trumpeter?

After the power goes out, an emcee at one of the casinos tells the orchestra leader to keep playing … on a working PA system.

Dino’s character jokingly says he’d like to “repeal the 14th and 20th Amendments. Take the vote away from women and make slaves out of them.” Actually, he’s talking about the 13th (abolishing slavery) and the 19th (granting women the right to vote) amendments.

The wartime buddies are supposed to have served together with the 82nd Airborne during World War II — except that the Army was segregated during that war, which would have excluded Sammy’s character, who would have instead been with the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

When Sinatra’s Danny asks the cashier for $25 in chips, he hands over a single bill.

 

Notable Script Quotables

Sammy’s character assesses the odds: "The way I figure it? The 11 of us cats against this one little city? We're an overlay."

Red is in the red when Mr. Skelton, in his cameo, tries to sweet-talk a casino cage cashier after issuing a physical threat: “Don’t pay any attention to that. I’m solid flab.”

Frank’s Danny asks Tony, the gang’s electrician (played by Richard Conte) about his reconnaissance mission at one of the casinos. Danny: "What did you find out last night?” Tony: "Casinos don't like to be robbed." Danny: "That's a pretty narrow attitude." 

A drunk at a burlesque show shouts, “Honey Face, I'd like to wrap you up, take you home, and spread you on my waffle!”

Apparently, visitors do naughty things here, as implied by a passerby who tells a TV reporter covering the robbery: “Say, do me a favor. If you're going to interview people, pick elderly couples. Some of the others don't always belong together.”

Woman stopped at roadblock: “Is it true somebody stole millions of dollars?” Roadblock deputy: “Oh, yes, ma’am. But there’s still some left.”

 

Critical Reception

The New York Times: “A surprisingly nonchalant and flippant attitude toward crime — an attitude so amoral it roadblocks a lot of valid gags — is maintained through Ocean’s 11. … Frank Sinatra, who is the power behind the picture, should have a couple of his merit badges taken away. … There is no built-in implication that the boys have done something wrong. There is just an ironic, unexpected, and decidedly ghoulish twist whereby they are deprived of their pickings and what seems their just desserts.”

The Los Angeles Times: “(The movie) has a pretty good surprise twist at the finish and is, of its type, a pretty good comedy-melodrama.”

The Monthly Film Bulletin: “An overlong, intermittently amusing picture full of surface effects and private jokes ... Despite (director) Milestone's efforts, the first third tends to drag, due mainly to desultory characterization, but when the raid begins both situations and dialogue improve considerably.”

The Washington Post: “Nothing more than a whopping sick joke in Technicolor ... It’s a completely amoral tale, told for laughs.”

The Los Angeles Examiner: “The film is one of the few that typifies the demoralization trend in filmmaking today. There’s no punishment for the crime.”

 

 

Closing Credits

One week after its nationwide release, The Hollywood Reporter declared Ocean’s 11 was Warner Bros’ (and Sinatra’s) most profitable pic to that point. And the Rat Pack’s familiar stomping grounds — that’s us — exploded. Las Vegas became Vegas, baby!

Lawford was the first Rat gone, dying on December 24, 1984, at age 61, of cardiac arrest complicated by kidney and liver failure.

Sammy left us on May 16, 1990, at age 64, of throat cancer.

Dino passed on December 25, 1995, at age 78, from lung cancer.

Lead Rat Frank died on May 14, 1998, at age 82, of a heart attack.

The last surviving and longest-living Rat, Bishop, succumbed on October 17, 2007, at age 89, from organ failure.

Sixty years after they gave Vegas an adrenaline injection that catapulted us into the stratosphere, we need that breezy pleasure rush shot back into our veins.

 

 

Research for this article was derived from the following sources: 

“America's Playground: Las Vegas in the 1950s" by Larry D. Gragg; "Gonna Do Great Things: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr." by Gary Fishgall; "Cult Vegas: The Weirdest! the Wildest! The Swingin'est Town on Earth!" by Mike Weatherford; Las Vegas Sun; Las Vegas News Bureau; The Monthly Film Bureau; The Washington Post; The Los Angeles Times; American Film Institute; Variety; “Rat Pack Confidential” by Shawn Levy; Artofthetitle.com; The New York Times; Rottentomatoes.comIMDB.com; TCM Movie Database;  "Sinatra: The Chairman" by James Kaplan; The Hollywood Reporter; Salon.com; Biography.com;  “Conversations with Wilder” by Cameron Crowe; YouTube, Los Angeles Daily Mirror archives; Glamamor.com;  Smithsonian Magazine;  Las Vegas Review-Journal; Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise

 

 

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