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This was Frank's baby.
Onstage, Dean, singing almost straight, then pissing away anything like real feeling with jokes.
In the wings, Sammy, Peter, Joey.
Out front, a mob scene: Marilyn, Little Caesar, Kirk, Shirl, Mr. Benny, that Swedish kid that Sammy was so crazy for, that senator and his tubby kid brother, a few broads without addresses, a few guys without real names . . .
Famous faces at ringside for the cameras, infamous ones in the shadows in the back, plus a hundred or so civilians as bait for the rest of the world--suckers with money to blow and dames to blow it with them until it ran out.
In the casino, every schmuck that couldn't pay or beg or muscle his way in was betting his rent money just to feel as big as the ones who could.
The joint was packed; the rest of town might as well have been dark.
And for what?
A movie, a party, a floating crap game, a day's work, a hustle, a joke: They'd make millions and all they had to do was show up, have a good time, pretend to give a damn, and, almost as an afterthought, sing.
Sometimes it seemed like Dean had the right idea: "You wanna hear the whole song, buy the record . . ."
But there was something in the music, wasn't there? With the right band and the right number, it was like flying--and like you could drag everybody up there with you.
So let Dean do jokes, and Sammy--Sammy would start numbers and they'd stomp all over them and he'd like it.
But when Frank sang, it would be straight. It could be New Year's Eve, the very stroke of midnight, the middle of Times Square, and he would stop time, stop their hearts beating, and remind them where the power was.
It was in his voice.
It was his.
When they finally had enough and dropped the curtain, they would wander out into the casino.
Some act'd be up there on the little stage in the lounge, and maybe they'd go over and screw around; Sammy liked that the best--more eyes on him, always more eyes.
What Dean and Frank liked was dealing. They had points in the joint, and who was gonna stop them from horsing around at a table: It was their money, right?
Dean actually knew what he was doing. He'd push aside a blackjack dealer and do a little fancy shuffling and start dealing around the layout: his rules.
"You got five? You hold. That's a winner.
"Nineteen? Hit. Twenty-six? Another winner."
He'd shovel out chips and make sure that everyone took care of the real dealer, who'd stand there looking nervous over at big Carl Cohen, the casino manager, who normally didn't go for clowning.
But Carl would be quiet. He'd lose a couple hundred during this monkey show, sure, but he'd get it all back and more: There were crowds five or ten deep just waiting to get at the tables. Besides, Dean was like family; he'd worked sneak joints back in Ohio before the war with Carl's kid brother. The big guy could afford to be a little bit indulgent.
Which wasn't the case with Lewis Milestone, the poor director saddled with making a movie in the middle of it. Every morning he came to work in an amusement park that his boss owned and woke his boss up and tried to get him to jump through hoops for a few hours, and you had to look deep into his dark old eyes to see what he really thought about it.
This movie wasn't some work of art, this wasn't All Quiet on the Western Front with poetic butterflies and mud and a moral. This was a sure thing, a money machine, a way to bring the party to the people who could only read about it in the papers. Hell, the only reason they hired him in the first place was that Jack Warner insisted on a pro and Peter guaranteed that the old guy--who was making Lassie shows, for chrissakes--would do whatever they told him.
But, still, they didn't want to make a career out of it. So come the morning, they let Millie run them around in circles for a little bit, even if they hadn't gone to sleep yet on account of last night was, as they liked to say, a gasser.
Or at least everyone but Frank let him do it. Frank was the boss, after all, and picture or no picture, he was going to work when he felt like it. He used to say that he only had one take in him, like he was an artist about it. The truth was he only had one take he gave a shit about, and if they wanted that one in the movie, then they'd have to wait until he was ready to give it.
So Sammy, a Salty Dog or two down the hatch, would show up on the set at 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning, and Dean and Peter would show up at 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning, and Joey--who was lucky to be here at all, let's face it--would be there at 7:00 or whenever they said so, showered and alert.
But Frank: 4:30 in the afternoon, maybe 5:00; and twice, twice, before lunch; and most days not at all.
They worked on the picture twenty-five days in Vegas; Frank showed up nine.
Oh, it was his show, all right.
In the early evenings, between a few hours of the movie and going back out onstage, the steam room. Frank had it built--the first one on the Strip--and when he was in town it was off limits to anyone else. They'd drink in there and make phone calls and give each other the needle: the only time they could all be together and alone.
Some other people were allowed in: the ultimate VIP room. This Rickles would take these incredible liberties with Frank and Frank would kill himself. Sammy would take one humiliation after another--"You can't wear a white towel. Here's a brown towel for you!"--and act like he was killing himself. Actors from the movie. Business guys. Other guys who didn't say who they were. This was an inner inner circle. Men capable of all sorts of acts of power would sit like convent girls just for the pleasure of having been allowed inside. Compared to this, the show and the movie were, well, for anyone.
But not just anyone was welcome. This was a group that Frank handpicked, gliding through the world, sizing people up, then giving them the golden tap on the shoulder and bringing them in.
Talent, money, power: None of these was quite enough. You had to have something Frank had, or something that he wanted to have more of. You were a cool, leonine Italian, or a dazzling black ball of fire, or a British sophisticate with powerful relatives, or a Jewish wiseguy who could brush off the world with a shrug. You were an Irish millionaire senator or a psychotic Mafia lord. You were the acme, the original, one of a kind, and Frank wanted you up close to study. He gathered everyone around him and sat in the middle and saw little parts of himself, little things he could fix or steal--Dr. Frankenstein building a hip new kind of superman.
Frankenstein, though, or Nosferatu? Because, though everyone got rich, got famous, got laid, Frank got more. They made movies; Frank was the producer. They cut records; Frank owned the company. They played Vegas and Tahoe; it was Frank's hotel. Everyone did good work; Frank was Michelangelo.
They called him the Leader; they asked him to be their best man; they named their kids after him, their daughters, even. And when it all spun out of control, when the precious, delicate balance came undone, when the merry-go-round stopped with a jerk, everyone got thrown on their ass--or worse--except Frank, who stood there in the middle, unfazed.
Divorce, drugs, bankruptcy, death, irrelevancy: Every single one of them took a major hit.
Frank didn't get so much as a scratch.
But that would all be later. That would be after the golden time, when, for a while, no matter what they did, it would sell. No matter how many broads, no matter how much booze, no matter who they got mad at or cozied up to, it had reached a point where Frank could simply do no wrong.
The press knew the story. They didn't write it, but they knew it. They didn't rat him out because they needed him more than he needed them, and except for a few he'd chosen as whipping boys, they lined up to do whatever he wanted them to do.
He was drinking with this one or that one or fucking this one or that one--who was gonna talk?
And anyone he wanted around him, the same thing: You hiding from the G? You don't need to hide around Frank. You got a wife back home who reads the gossip page? Frank'll see that you're not in it. You running for president? Frank'll throw a little juice your way and make sure everything looks on the up-and-up.
Up close, the whole thing was not to be believed. You wanna talk about rebellion? Those rock 'n' roll punks had no idea what a real rebel did in private. They couldn't begin to understand the power and the appetites and how little you had to care. La Dolce Vita nothing: This bunch made Nero look like a Cub Scout.
But outside, from far away, it didn't look like ego or license or indulgence. It looked like a big, beautiful party in the desert, with laughs and music and cars and clothes and incredible women, and no one ever ran out of money, and no one ever got tired, and no one had to answer to anyone, and no one ever grew old, and you would just die unless you could be there--even if the closest you ever got was a movie theater or a record player.
Wherever they went, they drew a crowd. And not just yokels, but Friars and sex symbols and made men and the president himself. They made Vegas Vegas, Miami Miami, and Palm Springs Palm Springs. And they made and broke people like they were pieces of toast.
For a while, everything took a backseat. For a while, the whole world was like a gyroscope, spinning so fast that it looked like it was standing still, with Frank and his cronies smack-dab in the middle of it, smiling at you, making you think you could do anything.
The world wasn't big enough for them to bother with so they made it bigger and took it over.
And instead of resenting it, people loved it.
And there was never anything like it before or since.