Mon 25 Aug 2008
I first met him backstage at the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas. I was involved in a hotsy-totsy, topsy-turvy lovefest with a little lady who went by the name of Joey Heatherton. Her real name was Jo E. Heatherton but I had wisely advised her to change her name to “Joey” since “Jo E.” sounded awfully funny rolling off the old tongue meat and I felt strongly she would have never made it with a moniker like that.
She was a perky blonde number. The sort of performer who gives 110% or nothing. Joey never fully understood the mathematical principles behind percentages, which was why she was able to give 110%. I tried explaining percentages to her once; she Stooge-slapped me, kneed me in the groin and pulled my eyelids with needle-nosed pliers. I decided then and there maybe she knew enough math to get by.
While she belted-out showtunes on stage, I’d be backstage in her dressing room trying on some of her outfits while no one was looking. I was wearing a black sequin backless number and bright pink pumps when he walked in.
“Well, well, well,” Frank said looking me up and down, “what are you all dolled-up for, kid?”
“None of your bee’s wax,” I retorted laying my feather boa aside. A garter strap cut deeply into my thigh bringing forth a little liquid I call “blood.”
“Hey, you’re quick with the comeback,” he said, “I like your spunk, kid-o, and the cut of your jib ain’t half bad, either!” Then the door flung open and in marched Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Dean Martin. And so it was that I, a kid all of 6 years old, would be recruited by Frank Sinatra himself to be a member of his infamous Rat Pack (or, as we liked to call ourselves “The Wanderlust Pioneer Explorers”).
The hurly burly times of the sixties looked pretty distorted from the bottom of a martini glass. Frank, me and the guys were rarely apart, and we were seldom far from the center of a tornado. When the world saw us coming, it took shelter in the root cellar and barred the door. After we’d passed, all that remained were the splinters of our martini toothpicks and spent pimentos.
Although I was only a young kid, I was already working on an adman’s liver. Dino used to shake his head in amazement at my endless capacity for gin ‘n grape Kool-Aids. “How can you drink that stuff, kid?” he’d blurt in his smooth bourbon baritone.
“Hell, Dino,” I’d say polishing off a tall tumbler of the stuff on the rocks, “you should see me workin’ a vodka ‘n Ovaltine.”
‘The Rat Pack’ was not all smiles and whistles though. The public may have thought we were tighter than a virgin’s nylons, but we were not without our petty bickering. In fact, me and Joey B. got into scraps on a fairly regular basis.
See, Joey had always been Frank’s ‘funny boy’–– his personal jester. When I entered the scene, all that changed. I had a wacky sense of humor that The Chairman called “friggin’ brilliant–– a laff riot!” The sounds I made with a cupped hand and armpit kept Frank laughing ‘til his baby blues were red.
Bishop was none too happy being upstaged by a young punk. He’d say, “Hey, Frank– we should pummel the kid’s face with our fists, chop him with a rusty machete into tiny chunks of adolescent flesh and scatter his entrails to hungry rabid dogs.”
Maybe I was over-reacting, but I sensed Joey wasn’t fond of me. I kept my distance from him, not out of fear for what he might do to me, but rather fear of my own rage. You see, the reason I was on the lam in Vegas is I had shot a man in Reno–– just to watch him die. Then, after he died, I figured Vegas might have more in the way of entertainment.
I was right.
In the desert, the greatest stars in the universe burned their brightest. And when it came to cats who were swinging entertainers, none topped Sammy D. Whether wringing every last drop of emotion out of a love ballad, or hoofing tap, Sammy didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit.’
“Sammy,” I’d explain to him, “Webster defines quit as to stop!”
“Can’t hear ya, babe!” he’d shout over his tap shoes rat-a-tat-tattin’ like Morse code announcing Armageddon. He had such an infectious happy-go-lucky nature, well, I’d just have to join him hoofing. And when we’d finish, ten or eleven hours later, Sammy would give me a soggy bear hug and say, “I love you, man, I love you!”
“Right back at ya, babe,” I’d say lighting a Lucky and flicking the burning match in the direction of Joey B.
I didn’t know Peter Lawford very well. Oh, we’d snap a towel at one another passing in the sauna, but I think it was Socrates who said you never truly know a man until you spend fourteen, sixteen years together in a squat Turkish prison cell. The old Greek sure knew people!
Lawford did introduce me to Marilyn, the Camelot crowd, and he pulled some strings and got me a gig mowing the White House lawn. Take it from me, that thing’s a lot bigger than it looks.
When I went to get paid, I was ushered into the Oval Office. JFK was in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis or something and seemed distracted. “You’ll, ah, have to excuse me,” he said in his chowder dialect, “I seem to have left my, ah, billfold in my, ah, other trousers.”
He left to go fetch the do ri mi, and I snooped around a bit. I opened a desk drawer and saw the ‘red button’, the one that would send nuclear missiles screaming to Havana. Being quite the joker, I had my finger poised to give the button a poke. “Put this in your cigar and smoke it, you bearded infidel, Fidel!” I said smugly. But my arm was snatched and held firm. I looked up and a tussled JFK said, “Please, ah, leave solving the, ah, world crisis to me.”
“Okee-dokee,” I said. He paid me ($15 was tall green for a kid back then!) and I had a story that tickled Frank and the boys no end.
Soon after that, the Rat Pack began to disband. Dino got belligerent with me when I told him I wouldn’t pair-up with him as a musical comedy duo.
“C’mon, Scoots,” he sobbed pitifully, “I’ll play the geeky spaz, you’ll be the smooth crooner who gets all the dames.” It just wasn’t my scene, I told him, maybe we’d talk after puberty. Dino was crushed. Dino drank. I split.
Joey B.’s jealousy spun out of control. He hired a couple goons to bust my legs, then had me hailed with sniper-fire. I took a couple slugs in the chest and head, but had some clean exit wounds. As the docs wheeled me through the hospital on a gurney, Frank was by my side crying like a baby slicing onions. “You’re gonna be all right, ain’t ya, kid?” he asked. I mustered what little strength I had and cupped my hand under an armpit, giving Frank a taste of his favorite sound in the world. Frank convulsed with laughter. Made me smile.
My parents finally tracked me down at the Vegas hospital and took me back to Ohio. They didn’t like their sweet son hanging around hard drinking entertainers.
Weeks after I returned to the motherland, I got a call from Frank. He and the boys wanted to have one last little bash. I told Frank I couldn’t get away, my parents had grounded me. But Frank had a plan.
And so it came to pass on a warm August night in Hubbard, Ohio, the Rat Pack had one final get together in a pup tent in my back yard. I told my parents I was sleeping out with Kevin Moran and Joey Riccitelli.
I did spend the night with a Joey (she brought some new slinky shear things for me to try on), and a group of guys who were about the best pals a kid could ever hope for.
The Wanderlust Pioneer Explorers would ride into the sunset of memories and opportunistic memoirs. Mine will come out sometime in the near future, if I can ever get off this damned gin and grape Kool-Aid bender.