Some of my first memories — the ones that are in Technicolor — are of Las Vegas in the mid-to-late 1950s, when the gambling mecca was not much more than a few glamorous casinos lining a two-lane, blacktop strip in an empty, widescreen desert. I would go to Las Vegas with my parents from our home in Los Angeles. Dad drove the family Woody. He had a job selling All Laundry detergent, and Las Vegas was part of his territory.
His job required him to put on demonstrations at trade shows that showed the amazing cleaning powers of his soap. To that end, he and a Gale Storm look-a-like would perform a skit together. She went by the stage name of “Miss Wishy Washy Blues.” I don’t know what her real name was, or how she got to Vegas. Not in the Woody.
I remember, while Dad worked, playing in the swimming pool of the Thunderbird Hotel, which is no longer there. It boasted the world’s biggest pool, which looked to me like an ocean. I distinctly recall the turquoise water, and the rock ‘n’ roll music that played on the outdoor radios.
It’s because of those memories that I retain a romantic fascination with Las Vegas in its early years — before it became what it is now, “Disneyland with slot machines,” as Paul Anka describes it in his just-released biography, “My Way.” When I heard the crooner had written a revealing memoir that had new revelations about the Rat Pack, the mob, and how Vegas was built, I had to buy it.
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Originally from Canada, Anka has lived and performed in Las Vegas since moving there from New York in 1972. He raised his five daughters there and was the owner of a flashy nightclub called Jubilation.
Over the years he got to know everyone who performed in the gambling mecca. Although Anka was a generation younger than the famed members of the Rat Pack, like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, he was made an honorary member of their circle. Sinatra dubbed him “The Kid.” The Rat Packers even welcomed him into their daily steam room sessions, where, according to the book, naked, giggling showgirls would tiptoe in. They offered massages and sex.
“Rat” might be the word that Sinatra and his celebrity entourage would use to describe Anka if they had lived to read his bio. It contains some pretty juicy revelations about their over-the-top behaviors. Turns out affable Bob Hope gave waitresses autographs instead of tips and had girls stashed everywhere. Sammy Davis Jr. was addicted to porn and even shared his bed for a while with his wife and Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace.
Equally shocking is the revelation that Dean Martin wasn't a lush. He barely drank. He was a party-pooper who liked to watch TV Westerns backstage between shows.
But it’s Anka’s pal, Sinatra, who gets the most scrutiny for doing things his way. Anka makes it clear that he worships Ol' Blue Eyes, and gives plenty of examples of his charm and generosity, like never accepting money for charity performances. He even revitalized Sinatra’s career in 1968 by writing the song “My Way” for him.
But Anka also shows Sinatra’s fearful, violent side, like the time he went on a two-day, alcohol-infused rampage. It was because the Sands Hotel refused to lend him more gambling money during a losing streak. It culminates with Sinatra scalding the hotel manager with boiling water.
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Fame affects celebrities in different ways, as Anka’s close relationship with Elvis Presley also shows. The King had such social terror that he would panic if Anka suggested they go outside for a walk. Presley, on a vacation in Vail, Colo., sleeps all day then goes snowmobiling at night. “Sometimes you sat and talked to him and it was as if he were already gone,” Anka writes. “You couldn’t save him.”
The Vegas years are covered in the second part of Anka’s book, but I was in no hurry to get there. That’s because the first half is about his teen-idol years, when he wrote and recorded such million-plus sellers as “Diana,” “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” and “Lonely Boy.”
He got discovered at age 16 by going to New York and knocking unannounced on record producers' doors. During those early years he toured the United States by bus with the stellar likes of Chuck Berry, Bobby Darin, James Brown, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. (Anka wrote his last hit song, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore.") Sometimes his girlfriend, Annette Funicello, came, too.
Then there was his friendship with the Beatles, before they were famous.
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As the decades passed and musical tastes changed, careers came and went. But Anka, who's 71 now, has survived. He has a practical knack for adapting and reinventing himself every few years. And for raking in the chips
To me, the only disappointing aspect of the revealing book is that there's no mention of "Miss Wishy Washy Blues," or who she really was.
I’d wager, however, that she’s the reason why my mother always insisted we accompany my father to Las Vegas when he had to put on a cleaning demonstration. I remember her beautiful smile and Technicolor blue eyes.