In this space for the past two weeks, we have chronicled a couple of times that Frank Sinatra had been in northern Nevada. In each case it was at a low point in his professional and personal life. The first occurred when he appeared at the Riverside Hotel in the early ’50s, having been dropped by his record company and his marriage in distress. The second was in 1963 when he was here to deal with his son’s kidnapping from South Shore Lake Tahoe.
It is probably also worth noting that this series of articles only focuses on the northern half of the Silver State when it comes to “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”
As the world knows, the majority of Frank’s time in Nevada was spent in Las Vegas, where for several decades he was the King of the Strip. He and his Rat Pack buddies — Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop — ruled the nightclub scene, particularly when appearing at the then relatively small showroom at the Sands. Making “Ocean’s Eleven” in Las Vegas did as much to boost the popularity of the town as did to firmly establish the talented act as the top one in show business. It was also in Vegas that Frank earned his title as “Chairman of the Board.”
Back to Washoe County: One of the more salubrious occasions for Frank here occurred in the summer of 1960 when he was appearing at the Cal Neva Lodge on the North Shore of Tahoe at Crystal Bay.
At that time, the head man at the Cal Neva was a crusty individual named “Wingy” Grober. A small man with one withered arm, he earned his nickname during his school days because of his deformity. Nonetheless, he was a loud, quick-tempered individual who left no doubt who was in charge. He ran a good “store” and the Cal Neva clientele was of the highest caliber.
At that particular time Frank did not have title to the resort, nor had he built the new showroom, which he opened the year he took over. In 1960 he was appearing in the old showroom, which was bisected by the California/Nevada state line, so technically he was in California when he was on stage.
It was sometime in August 1960 when the cast and crew of “The Misfits” motion picture company was headquartered in Reno at the Mapes Hotel for the protracted location shoot of the film. One mid-morning I got a phone call in my Mapes office from Wingy (I had previously had numerous dealings with him and knew him quite well). He started off with, “Frank wants to invite Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, John Huston and Arthur Miller to be his guests at the dinner show here on Saturday night.”
I asked Wingy, “What about Thelma Ritter and Eli Wallach?”
“OK, OK, them, too,” Wingy responded in a slightly irritated voice.
“Fine, “ I responded, “I’ll check with all of them and get back to you.”
Knowing that Gable was the most easily approachable of anyone in the cast, I decided to leave him until last and started with Marilyn. Frank’s name was magic at that time and all the principals quickly accepted his invitation.
Approaching Gable on the set at Pyramid Lake, I informed him of Frank’s request and the fact that everyone else on the list had accepted. He flashed his famous celluloid smile and said, “Tell Frank I’ll be happy to show up — provided that the entire company can also go!”
Somewhat taken aback, I suddenly realized why Gable had earned the moniker of “King” in Hollywood. He was as concerned about the lowliest member of the shooting company as he was his fellow co-stars. I dialed Wingy with a certain amount of trepidation, since Clark’s request would add a minimum of 100 people to the party.
My fears were well founded, for when I told Wingy the Gable answer his voice exploded over the phone, laced with expletives that can’t be printed in a family newspaper.
Finally, he settled down and said, “Let me check with Frank. I’ll call you back!” True to his word, about an hour later, he was on the phone again with the following: “Frank says its OK, but make sure you keep all those other people in the back of the room” (which sat about 250 max).
The next task was to get the word to “Doc” Erickson, who was in charge of the company, so that we could get a sign-up sheet of attendees. Following that, a quick call to the local Gray Line bus company reserved four limos and four charter buses for the trip to the lake.
The big night arrived and for the first time that summer Marilyn was dressed to the nines and ready to go on time. The principals in the four limos were followed by the four busloads and we arrived at the Cal-Neva on time.
Unfortunately, Wingy — being the promoter that he was — had placed the following on the resort’s marquee, “Here in Person Tonight! Gable, Monroe, Clift, Miller, Huston, Ritter & Wallach!” Additionally, he had rented klieg lights, so the area was lit up like a Hollywood premiere. The worst part was that there were several hundred eager autograph hounds clustered about the front entrance.
Realizing the celebs would never get through the crush of fans on time, the only option I had was to direct the limos to the rear of the building and disembark the stars through the kitchen entrance and thence to their seats, ringside in the showroom. It was said later that when one of the salad chefs looked over his shoulder and saw Marilyn slink by in a form-fitting evening gown, he inadvertently sliced off the tip of one of his fingers.
Getting the buses unloaded wasn’t much of a problem and we instructed the rest of the party — per Wingy’s instructions — to remain on the outdoor porch area that ran along the lake side of the showroom. Wingy’s plan was to let his high-paying guests enter the showroom first to sit at the choice tables and my group could bring up the rear. Again, unfortunately, the only thing separating the porch from the showroom was a couple of sets of French doors. One of the more ingenius members of the crew quickly jimmied the lock and my hundred or so piled in and grabbed the best seats.
Now I had the pleasure of Wingy exploding in person. But rather than cause any more of a fuss he resigned himself to the situation, mainly because he did not want to upset Frank. From that point on the evening was spectacular and my friend, photographer Don Donero, shot the picture of Frank and Marilyn (purportedly the only photo ever taken of the two together in public). We partially assuaged Wingy’s apoplectic evening by having him in the shot, hovering benevolently over the two superstars.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.