When the Friends of the Sun City Libraries scheduled an illustrated lecture about the legendary “Rat Pack” in early 2020, they had no idea the pandemic would cause a delay in delivery.
The event finally came to pass when professional musician Dulais Rhys, a teacher of piano, theory, composition, technology and conducting, was able to discuss the history and formation of the so-called hottest act in 1950s Vegas March 22 at Fairway Center, 10600 W. Peoria Ave.
About 50 people attended the lecture, introduced and facilitated by Steve Tompkins, a librarian, who said Rhys knows a whole lot more about the Rat Pack than he does.
Few in attendance seemed to know the origin of the term. According to Rhys, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lived on Mapleton Drive in West Hollywood and the pair were associated with socializing, a polite term for all night parties replete with alcohol, poker and music, sometimes attended by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin. But mostly, the group was dedicated to enjoy life and not to worry about what others thought of them. However, one morning after an all-nighter, Bacall was said to remark, “You all look like a rat pack,” and the name stuck.
Of the three, perhaps Sammy Davis Jr. was the finest musician, according to Rhys. Yet, all three were very gifted musicians with different styles. “Old Blue Eyes” Sinatra idolized Bing Crosby and described himself as a skinny kid with big ears. Born in 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sinatra wanted to serve in World War II, but a perforated ear drum prohibited his eligibility, so he did the next best thing — he entertained the troops. These gigs, along with radio performances and tours, resulted in Sinatra’s sometimes singing up to 100 songs per day.
Sinatra hated racism, according to Rhys, and often required that entertainers of color opened his shows. His marriage to Ava Gardner was the stuff of Hollywood legend. She left him for a bullfighter, but it is said he never got over her. The singer moved to Las Vegas where he regularly performed and where Dean Martin followed him on stage. By that time, Martin — born Dino Paul Crocetti — met and partnered with Jerry Lewis in a comedy act largely based on slapstick and adlibbing.
Martin was born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1917, and he didn’t much care for school, so he dropped out. Rhys said Martin was a crooner, like Perry Como, and his style included breaking up words, extending syllables and sliding between notes. Once he and Sinatra got together, some of their acts included lots of drinking behaviors, but in reality, Martin drank apple juice, and Sinatra once remarked that he spills more than Martin drinks.
It was inevitable that the pair would meet up with Sammy Davis Jr., “Mr. Show Biz.” Davis had been in the entertainment business since he was a small child and was featured with the Will Masters Trio. Rhys claimed Davis met Sinatra in 1941, Martin followed Sinatra on stage in 1943, and eventually the Rat Pack formed a trio.
In the 1950s, cinema welcomed the Rat Pack in such films as “From Here to Eternity” (Sinatra) and “The Young Lions” (Martin). Other entertainers began to become part of the Rat Pack group — Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, Jane Powell, Lena Horne, Red Skelton and Danny Thomas. Most of them had appearances at the Copa Room or at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Vegas. By the early 1950s, Peter Lawford was reported to be dating Ava Gardner and it took awhile before Frank Sinatra was convinced that was a false rumor. But eventually Lawford was admitted to those parties where smoking, drinking and misbehaving became legendary.
In 1954, Lawford married Patricia Kennedy, a sister of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Sinatra became an avid supporter of Kennedys. In 1947, Meyer Lansky had an interest in the Copa Room and Sinatra’s association with the Mob began, which later resulted in Robert Kennedy’s admonition to his brother Jack that the association would injure his political reputation. But Lawford bought the rights to “Ocean’s 11” for $10, and all three Rat Packers starred.
Sorrow followed in one form or another. Howard Hughes bought the Sands and had a relationship with Gardner. He hated Sinatra and Sinatra moved his act to Caesar’s Palace. Martin’s son died in a plane crash. Davis was in an automobile accident and lost an eye.
Ironically, the youngest of the three, Davis, born in 1925 in Harlem, New York died at the age of 64 in 1990. Martin died in 1995 and Sinatra in 1998. The Rat Pack declined in popularity as Elvis Presley and the Beatles emerged, and now the Rat Pack acts would be stale to many today, according to Rhys. Yet, the music endures. Some of the old acts can still be seen on YouTube.
Currently based in Billings, Montana, Rhys was born in Wales and earned three degrees from the university there. As a musician, he appreciates that while the Vegas acts are dated now, even embarrassing, Sinatra, Martin and Davis were three truly wonderful solo performers who have made a lasting contribution to music and culture.
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