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Tahoe Nugget #70:

Frank Sinatra & the Tahoe (Cal Neva) Connection (4 Photos)
May 2, 2006

Frank Sinatra was one of the world's most famous performers in the decades after World War II. He was a dominant force in Hollywood and captured everyone's attention with his passionate singing, gutsy acting and carousing with celebrities, politicians, and occasionally notorious crime figures. So when Sinatra acquired part ownership of the little known Cal Neva Lodge on Lake Tahoe's North Shore in 1960, it catapulted the casino into the media limelight.

The Lodge was originally built in 1926 by a wealthy San Francisco businessman who used it as a guesthouse for his friends and real estate clients. The rustic architecture was patterned after a log cabin in the hit Broadway play, "Lightnin," starring Will Rogers. In the 1930s, new owners obtained a Nevada gaming license and the casino soon became a summer playground for the rich and famous. The Lodge burned down in May 1937, but was rebuilt by 500 men in just 30 days. At that time, Norman Blitz and Adler Larsen took over ownership and installed the casino's unique Indian Room and Circle Bar. During the 1940's and 1950's, the Cal Neva Lodge was popular with serious gamblers, some with links to the criminal underworld.

When Sinatra took over in 1960, he had ambitious plans to revamp the venerable "Lady of the Lake," as the Cal Neva was fondly called, into a world-class casino and resort. Construction started immediately on the Sinatra Celebrity Showroom as a venue for big-name entertainment. Since "Ol' Blue Eyes" also intended to build or buy a major hotel-casino in nearby Reno, a helicopter pad was incorporated into the Cal Neva's new roof design so that high rollers could be flown between the Tahoe and Reno properties.
Astutely aware of the personal privacy that many performers and socialites crave, Sinatra ordered a secret tunnel built beneath the Lodge so certain guests could travel between the showroom and the bungalows behind the hotel without being seen. Sinatra and other celebrities frequently used the secret underground passageway to avoid paparazzi and autograph hunters. Lined with brick walls and carpeted, the tunnel ran beneath the kitchen, casino and Circle Bar. Entrances to the tunnel were located at Sinatra's office, in the closet of his small lake view cabin and at his private heliport atop the resort's showroom.

Frank Sinatra was no novice when it came to Nevada-style gaming or the legendary scenic pleasures of Lake Tahoe. His roots to the Silver State go back to 1951 when the entertainer arrived in Reno to establish residency in order to divorce his first wife Nancy. Sinatra was joined at the Riverside Hotel by his lover at the time, actress Ava Gardner, and the couple spent the Labor Day weekend at Lake Tahoe, drinking and gambling at the Cal Neva.

During the 1950s, Sinatra spent a lot of time in Las Vegas performing and gambling. Gambling was second nature to this working-class kid from Hoboken, New Jersey. He had grown up with a mother who had her own bookie and a father who regularly played poker. Once his singing career took off, Sinatra's bets often exceeded $10,000. Sinatra loved the 24-hour casino excitement and high roller lifestyle. By the late 1950s, he owned a percentage of the successful Sands Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and enjoyed spending summer vacations relaxing at Lake Tahoe.

Sinatra's international reputation and numerous relationships in the music and entertainment industry drew movie stars to North Tahoe like a Hollywood casting call. His fraternity of friends usually referred to as the "Rat Pack" performed at the Cal Neva regularly; people like Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Eddie Fisher and others. During the summer months, Mickey Rooney, the Andrews Sisters, Shirley Jones, the Modernairs and Vic Damone headlined there. Other noted stars from this bygone era include the sexy dancer Juliet Prowse, Latin singer Trini Lopez and the popular Maguire Sisters.

Sinatra's close friendship with movie star Peter Lawford, the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, inspired rumors of furtive exploits in Tahoe by JFK and his younger brother Robert. Legend has it that whenever Jack or Bobby were visiting Sacramento, Sinatra would send his private helicopter for them. One especially juicy nugget suggests that the blonde "sex goddess" Marilyn Monroe and JFK once made love in the Cal Neva tunnel, but a little fact-checking suggests the alleged tryst probably never happened. The only documented visit to Lake Tahoe by JFK occurred in early 1960, when the Massachusetts Senator was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. Nevada governor Grant Sawyer had invited Kennedy to address a joint session of the State Legislature in Carson City. Kennedy and his entourage arrived in Reno on Sunday, January 31, with plans to drive to a reception being held that evening in the Governor's Mansion in Carson City, 30 miles due south.

According to Governor Sawyer's oral history, however, the president-elect's travel itinerary included a detour up to Lake Tahoe and the Cal Neva Lodge; "When Kennedy and Pierre Salinger and their party got to Reno, they eluded the press and sneaked off in car and went up to Lake Tahoe and looked it over before coming to Carson City." The men apparently visited the Cal Neva Lodge and Squaw Valley, where the 1960 Winter Olympic Games would soon be held. It's true that JFK got a tour of the Cal Neva premises, but it seems unlikely that he encountered Marilyn Monroe there because she was in Hollywood at the time, rehearsing for her role in the movie Let's Make Love.

Sinatra and his Rat Pack buddy Dean Martin crooned duets to the sophisticated audience, which often included Marilyn Monroe, a frequent guest at the lodge. In fact, Monroe's bungalow, known as Cottage #3, was located next to Sinatra's abode Cottage #5, which enabled them to "visit" regularly. Sinatra was well known for his frequent, sometimes tumultuous love affairs. After watching Juliet Prowse perform at the Cal Neva, Sinatra fell in love with her and in 1962 proposed marriage. Choosing to pursue her career instead, Ms Prowse turned him down, saying, "Frank wants a wife who will stay at home and cook the spaghetti."

The early 1960s were great for Sinatra and the Cal Neva Lodge. Business was booming, and by 1963 the club boasted 11 cottages and 55 rooms. Unfortunately for Sinatra, some of his friends and unsavory associates were banned from Nevada casinos. The Silver State was trying to clean up the industry's shady reputation and the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) had established a unique enforcement mechanism known to the public and media as the "Black Book." This list of "Excluded Persons" included known criminals, especially high profile members of the Mafia.

Sam Giancana, a hoodlum of national repute, figured prominently in the Black Book. He was Chicago's top Mob boss, often called the "godfather" of the American Mafia, and a friend of Sinatra's. As successor to Al Capone, Giancana was a top member in La Cosa Nostra with financial interests in Las Vegas casinos like the Riviera, the Desert Inn and the Stardust. He had served time in prison and been arrested more than 70 times. It's been estimated that by 1960, Giancana had ordered the murders of more than 200 men. After being subpoenaed by a Chicago federal grand jury investigating organized crime, Giancana disappeared until he showed up at Sinatra's Cal Neva Lodge in August 1963. When the Chicago Sun-Times published a story depicting Sinatra breaking up an altercation between his maitre d' and the banned Mafia kingpin, the NGCB revoked Sinatra's license for violating Nevada gaming regulations.

Under intense pressure from the NGCB, on October 7, 1963, Sinatra told the Gaming Commission that he would sell off his Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas properties and give up his casino ambitions in Nevada. After Sinatra sold his ownership of the Cal Neva, the North Shore's golden era of star-studded performers and glitzy gambling scene was never the same.

Although it's unlikely that the "Lady of the Lake" will ever host that many famous performers and celebrities again, the casino has not lost its charm or historic legacy. The Cal Neva Resort is still the country's oldest licensed gambling facility in existence, and in the mid 1980s the property was purchased by Charles :Chuck" Bluth who revamped the historic Indian Room, Circle Bar, and Casino to their original 1937 designs. A painted "state-line" runs through the Indian Room's granite fireplace and also through the swimming pool outback. The expansive room now contains a Washoe Indian museum and comfortable lounge boasting Indian artifacts and other Lake Tahoe natural history exhibits.

Photo #1: Circa 1960s beach bag from the Cal Neva. Bag courtesy Jim Perkins who knew Frank personally.
Photo #2: Frank Sinatra's private, yet modest cabin behind the Cal Neva Lodge.
Photo #3: Where else can you swim state to state, and back again, without spilling your drink?
Photo #4: One view of the magical Indian Room when I visited in 1994.

Nugget #70 A Cal Neva beach towel bag

Nugget #70 B Sinatra's Cal Neva cabin copy

Nugget #70 C Cal Neva pool

Nugget #70 D Indian Room Cal Neva 1994 copy

 

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