Steve Wynn Reflects on His Influential Friendship with Frank Sinatra
By Andrea Bennett| September 10, 2015 |
Steve Wynn reflects on his unique and prosperous friendship with Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra and Steve Wynn in a cover photo from Atlantic City magazine, one of the two autographed copies that the men exchanged.
Perhaps the best way to catch a glimpse of early 1980s Vegas— entering a new era of glamour but not yet in the age of the Strip megahotel—is to watch a series of television commercials that an upstart young hotelier named Steve Wynn made with Frank Sinatra, long secure in his title of Chairman of the Board. “All of them were the same,” Wynn laughs. “He was Frank Sinatra—been there, done that. I was the guy trying to push the hotel and he was the one saying, ‘Stop bothering me.’” One ad has Wynn strolling through the Golden Nugget’s ornate Chairman’s Apartment and running into Sinatra. “Hi, Mr. Sinatra,” he says. “I’m Steve Wynn. I run this place.” Sinatra shoves a $5 bill into Wynn’s hand and says, “You see I get enough towels,” patting Wynn’s cheek as he walks off.
Sinatra loved the exposure and Wynn gamely took his knocks; needless to say, the spots were great for his hotels. After the first commercials had been running for only two weeks, Sinatra called. “His friends had been saying, ‘Frank, this is hysterical—these commercials with the kid.’ He hadn’t had this many phone calls about television in 20 years.”
Wynn and Sinatra struck up a friendship long after Wynn first met him as a starstruck 23-year-old in Palm Springs in 1965. On December 1st of that year, he saw the Rat Pack perform for the Sands Hotel’s 13th anniversary. “It was only a 500-seat room,” Wynn recalls, “and there’s Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. It was a fantastic, unbelievable moment, and there’s nothing today that compares to the dynamism of them walking out—let alone what they did after they walked out. The night I was there, everybody in the room was either the world’s biggest player or their personal friends. Lucille Ball and her husband Gary Morton were next to me and Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique. Roger Moore and [Luisa Mattioli] and Sidney Poitier. Conducting was Quincy Jones, and the band was Count Basie. They sucked the air out of the universe. I just said, ‘I want to stay in Las Vegas; I want to be around this.’”
Dean Martin, Steve Wynn, and Frank Sinatra in an undated photo.
It wasn’t until 1981, when Wynn had opened the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City and Sinatra was working in the 1,800-seat theater of Resorts International, that Wynn approached Sinatra for a business arrangement. “When he was at Resorts International, you couldn’t get near the building,” Wynn says. “And when he wasn’t there, it was a dusty old shell.” To the singer’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin, Wynn pitched the idea of harnessing Sinatra’s magic. “The trick was to get the Sinatra power when he wasn’t there”—through the commercials and a series of cohosted parties—“and then the aura of Sinatra would surround the place the way it surrounded the Sands when Frank was one of the owners.”
Sinatra agreed, with conditions: He’d do the commercials and the parties but, Wynn recalls, “Rudin said, ‘You have to pick him up in Palm Springs in your jet and bring him home. All right?” Wynn, choking at his good fortune, mustered a “Yeah.” Incredibly, another Sinatra concern was that Wynn be able to make money on the mere 500 seats he had to fill. They’d be invitation-only, Wynn explained, for the casino’s best guests. Rudin told Wynn, “He said he’ll do a couple of weeks no contract, no nothing, don’t pay him. If your deal works for you and you don’t get killed financially, you can make a long-term deal. If you get hurt, you can walk away, or he’ll make up a few shows free. He’s not gonna ask you for proof. When do you want him to start?”
It was then that Wynn had the audacious idea that Sinatra would start on the night of his birthday, December 12th—the one night, Rudin explained, that he never worked. But the terms of the invitation were intriguing: “I could have his birthday party in the hotel on Friday night, then I’d take all 500 couples and throw them out of the hotel and bring in another 500 for the Saturday show. We’ll actually tell them why: ‘You’ve got to check out by noon because Mr. Sinatra’s going to have other people for the weekend.’” Rudin called Wynn back two hours later: “‘He says yes, dammit.’ I picked up Frank Sinatra on a Wednesday night and off we went. And that was the beginning of a five-year gig. On the weekend of my birthday, January 27th, we did it again.”
During the second year of Sinatra’s deal with Wynn, the singer called from Palm Springs with an idea—that his pal Dean Martin join him. “‘Do you mind?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘You want to know if it’s all right if Frank Sinatra works with Dean Martin?’ I said, ‘Francis, if Dean Martin goes on stage with you, that’s a thermonuclear event.’” From then on, there were three passengers on Wynn’s jet. “Dean would be against the window, Frank would sit in the aisle, and I’m sitting across from them. They would slouch down, the ties would come off, Dean would have a vodka, Frank would drink his Jack Daniel’s and ginger ale, and they’d start telling stories.”
Sands President Jack Entratter (left), Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Sinatra, comedian Gary Morton and (behind them) Danny Thomas and Lucille Ball celebrate the Sands’ 11th anniversary.
You don’t need to look hard to find tributes to Frank Sinatra in Wynn. There is, of course, the Sinatra restaurant—the only Sinatra-themed restaurant sanctioned by his family, which has turned down more than 60 such requests over the years. In a private boardroom at Wynn, among other Sinatra memorabilia there’s a cover of Atlantic City magazine (with the cover line “The Chairmen of the Board”) autographed by Sinatra. In fact, it’s one of only two such autographed covers in existence. Wynn sent two versions of the cover to Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs for him to consider. “Take the one with the boardroom table that you picked, sign it, and send it to me,” Sinatra said. Wynn recalls taking a beat before asking, “‘Do I understand correctly that you’re asking for my autograph?’ He says, ‘Don’t be a jerk. Just sign it and send the picture.’” So they exchanged autographed pictures. Sinatra put his Wynn-signed cover photo in his bar.
Another important homage runs parallel to the Strip. “When I bought the Dunes and built the Bellagio, the city needed another road for employees,” Wynn explains. Except for the portion inhabited by Caesars, Wynn owned the land west of the Strip from Spring Mountain Road to Tropicana. “So I said, ‘Look, if you were to take any of this property by eminent domain, it would cost more money than you’ve got. So I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.’” In exchange for a sign that would straddle the freeway, Wynn would build for the city what is now Frank Sinatra Drive, with Interstate 15 identifying the exit by that name. “Now, forever, anybody driving from New York to California will see Frank Sinatra Drive. The day that they finished putting the signs up, I took pictures of one mile of Frank Sinatra Drive and I sent off copies to Barbara Sinatra, Tina, Frank Jr., and Nancy and said, ‘For all the fun I had with your dad, this evens the score.’”
In 1986, when Wynn was 44 years old, Sinatra performed his last concert at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City, before Wynn sold the property and it became Bally’s Grand Hotel and Casino. He would then turn around and build the Mirage, the most expensive hotel in Las Vegas when it opened in 1989, credited with heralding the transformation of the Strip.
During my visit with Wynn, he pulls from a stack a recording of that concert and plays it. “I’d like to get serious for just one moment,” Sinatra says. “This is not a happy occasion for me to say this, but things being what they are in our business, it happens. This is my last performance in this particular building, where I spent five years and had wonderful times.” He goes on to thank his pal Steve Wynn for his friendship and for treating him like family. “In a short period of time, you’re gonna see this man build you a hotel that’s gonna knock you right on your ass when you see this hotel.” And then, for Wynn, he sings “Luck Be a Lady.” Steve Wynn sings along softly—“Let’s keep this party polite/Never get out of my sight/Stick with me, baby, I’m the guy that you came in with”—then says, “He’d sing this every time he ever worked for me. I’d say, ‘Please sing “Lady Luck.”’ And he’d say, ‘Will you stop pestering me?’ And that was our friendship, from the man himself.”