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Monroe, Gable, Sinatra
by Harry Spencer
Feb 25, 2011 | 1905 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Courtesy photo/Don Dondero - Purportedly the only publicity picture ever taken of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe was snapped by Reno photographer Don Dondero during the summer of 1960. The occasion occurred when Monroe and the rest of the cast and crew of “The Misfits” motion picture attended Sinatra’s dinner show at the Cal Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe. The man in the middle is Cal Neva boss “Wingy” Grober.
Courtesy photo/Don Dondero - Purportedly the only publicity picture ever taken of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe was snapped by Reno photographer Don Dondero during the summer of 1960. The occasion occurred when Monroe and the rest of the cast and crew of “The Misfits” motion picture attended Sinatra’s dinner show at the Cal Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe. The man in the middle is Cal Neva boss “Wingy” Grober.
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As mentioned in this column last week, one of the highlights of “The Misfits” filming here in the summer of 1960 was the invitation by Frank Sinatra for the principals in the movie to be his guests at the dinner show at the Cal Neva Lodge in Crystal Bay at Lake Tahoe.

The Cal Neva at that time was under direction of one “Wingy” Grober, a diminutive man with one arm several inches shorter than the other, thus the nickname Wingy that had been bestowed upon him by inconsiderate childhood classmates. The moniker had stuck and now Wingy, probably in his mid-60s, had risen far in the oft criticized gambling business and was at the helm of the north shore’s most prestigious resort.

Like many such facilities that had been built at Tahoe prior to World War II, the Cal Neva was strictly a summertime operation. Once the cold weather hit around Oct. 1, the place was shuttered and the entire staff moved to a similar setup in Palm Springs for the winter.

Instead of the gleaming hotel tower you see at the Cal Neva today, all of the room accommodations in the old days were contained in a series of cabins that surrounded the main building on three of its four sides. The most unique feature of the place was the fact that it straddled the Nevada-California border, which might have been the inspiration for its name. The state line cut directly through the showroom and the swimming pool and both sites were clearly marked on the wall and floor of the showroom and the bottom of the swimming pool. You could dance and swim in two different states in the matter of a few seconds.

The cabins were of varying sizes and some had woodburning fireplaces. In addition, there was a huge fireplace on the right wall of the showroom as people entered.

The current state-of-the-art showroom at the other end of the building was constructed when Sinatra took over ownership of the Cal Neva and the original showroom was relegated to banquet status.

Back to the summer of 1960. Sinatra was appearing at the Cal Neva for a two-week stint when he had Wingy give me a call at the Mapes Hotel in Reno, where the cast and crew of “The Misfits” was ensconced for the duration of the Nevada shoot. Wingy’s message to me was, “Frank wants to invite Marilyn Monroe, Clark Cable, Monty Clift, John Huston and Arthur Miller to be his guests at this Saturday night’s dinner show. Can you take care of it for him?” I replied I would pass the invite along and suggested that Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter be included. Wingy said, “OK,” and I set out to make the rounds.

Knowing that Monroe was the least reliable of the group when it came to showing up on time for any event, including daily filming, I put her first on the list. She was difficult to track down but once I mentioned Frank’s name she immediately said, “Yes.” I pointed out to her that the limos would be leaving at 6:30 p.m. sharp from the front of the Mapes and if she was late we would not be able to wait for her. She responded, “I wouldn’t think of keeping Frank waiting!”

True to her word, she arrived right on the dot that Saturday.

As I worked down my list of celebrities, I was doing fine with 100 percent acceptances. I purposely put Gable at the end of the list since I had learned early on that he was the most approachable and affable of the entire cast. When I came upon him resting on the set between scenes, I told him of Sinatra’s invitation and the fact that all the other guest had accepted. He looked at me, flashed his famous grin, and said, “Sure, I’ll go, but only if the rest of the entire company can go.”

Taken aback, I told him I would have to check it out with Wingy and Sinatra. I dreaded putting in the phone call to Wingy with Gable’s demand to add a hundred plus more people to the party. As I feared, I had to listen to a string of expletives in Wingy’s familiar booming voice, but finally he settled down enough to say, “Let me check with Frank and I’ll get back to you.” In less than an hour, he was on the phone stating, “Frank says OK but those other people will have to sit in the back of the showroom.” I told him I didn’t think that would be a problem, — later on I was proven extremely wrong.

Saturday night finally arrived and we loaded the celebrities into several limos and the rest of the company into Grayline buses provided by Jim Wood. Arriving at the Cal Neva front entrance, we were greeted by a throng of several hundred people standing under the club marquee which read, “Here tonight! Monroe, Gable, Clift, Huston and Miller.”

A pair of klieg lights also were in place on either side of the front entrance. Wingy had made the appearance of “The Misfits” a world premier for his establishment. Knowing I couldn’t get the principals through the crowd in time for the show, I told the limo drivers to circle their vehicles to the side entrance of the kitchen. Then I managed to unload the buses and take the rest to their designated waiting spot, which was located on a long porch that fronted the lake on the left side of the showroom. From there you could gain access to the showroom through a series of French doors. Wingy had locked those doors so he could get his paying guests seated up front before letting the “freeloaders” take up the back seats.

I returned to the limos and led the stars through the kitchen to their seats ringside. Afterward, I learned that one of the salad chefs on duty had cut off the tip of a finger when he saw Monroe in all her glamorous glory swish by him.

Just as the celebrities were settling in there was a tremendous crashing sound as those waiting on the porch jimmied several of the French doors and the whole group charged in and took the prime seats. Wingy was on my back in an instant ant I told him that it would be up to his security people to remove my group of their choice seats.

He ranted for a while and then decided that Sinatra might not appreciate the hubbub that would cause, so he reluctantly did nothing. But he glared at me the whole evening.

Finally, the dinner and show was a huge success and Sinatra was never in a better voice when he sang and the introduced his famous guests to the crowd.

Following the performance the ringsiders and Sinatra, along with Wingy, adjourned to a small meeting room in the building for some drinks and conversation. After I loaded the buses I joined them, along with the late-top photographer sfrom Reno, Don Dondero. It was at this small gathering that the only picture of Monroe and Sinatra together was ever taken.

To assuage Wingy, we put him in the shot and that iconic moment has appeared in thousands of publications all over the world, making Dondero a very rich individual. In the picture Monroe and Sinatra are in deep conversation while seated at a table with Wingy benevolently hovering over them.

Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.

Editor’s note: Opinions expressed in Harry Spencer’s column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.
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