We recently talked about the centennial of John Kennedy’s birth and his importance to Nevada. Just over a week after the descendant of Irish immigrants was born in Massachusetts, a little boy was born to an Italian barber and an Italian-American mother in Steubenville, Ohio. Dino Paul Crocetti would play an important role here as Dean Martin.
As a young man, Dean did everything from prizefighting to dealing cards in illegal casinos. He began singing professionally. His style showed the influences of two popular singers of the time: Bing Crosby, and Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers. And then Dean met Jerry, as in Lewis. They officially debuted at Atlantic City’s 500 Club in 1946 and soon became the hottest act in show biz. Dean sang and Jerry tried to. Lewis would cause pandemonium and Martin would throw things at him. They quickly rocketed to the top, and stayed there for a decade: the Copacabana nightclub, radio and television shows, and movies. They also appeared in Las Vegas, starting in 1948 at the Flamingo, where they earned $15,000 a week—in those days, a LOT of money.
But in 1956, this great show business marriage broke up. Martin and Lewis would be superstars together and separately. At first, though, it looked bad for Dean—his first movie didn’t do well. Many saw him as no more than Jerry’s straight man, though Lewis called Martin a comedy genius. But there was still Las Vegas, and Martin performed at the Sands, where entertainment boss Jack Entratter had known them since his days at the Copa. Martin also got better and more successful movie roles. In 1965, he began a TV variety series that lasted nine seasons, followed by another decade of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, many of them filmed in Las Vegas. He developed a persona as the laid-back, drunken crooner, and played it to perfection.
Dean Martin also was part of the Rat Pack. He and Frank Sinatra were close friends, and Sinatra used to joke that he spilled more than Martin drank—especially since the glass Martin carried on stage with him usually contained apple juice. Sinatra and Martin also wound up with small percentages of the Sands.
After Howard Hughes bought the Sands, Sinatra left amid a swirl of controversy, including a fight in the coffee shop. Martin quietly shifted to the Riviera, where he became a part-owner. Then, in 1973, he moved over to a new hotel. He was the opening night showroom performer for the MGM Grand. That became his main venue in Las Vegas, even after Kirk Kerkorian sold it to Bally’s in 1986.
By that time, Martin was no longer that active in movies or TV, mainly doing nightclubs and showrooms. Sadly, in 1987, his son Dean-Paul died in a plane crash, and it devastated him. His last performance was at Bally’s in 1990, when he had trouble singing and suffered physically with health issues and was still in anguish over his son’s death. He and Jerry Lewis did reunite, first on Lewis’s Labor Day telethon in 1976, and later after Dean-Paul’s funeral. But Dean went quietly into retirement and died Christmas Day, 1995, remembered, deservedly, as one of the true greats of Las Vegas entertainment.
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