In the new DreamWorks film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the characters use a special machine, called a WABAC (pronounced “way-back”), to go back in time and visit a number of eras throughout history. The concept has me asking myself, “if I could go back in time where would it be and when?”
I thought about dropping in on Paris in the 1920s; stopping by Ancient Egypt to see how the pyramids were built; or even watching gladiators in Rome. Turns out the place to which I would like most to travel back in time is not so distant at all. I’d go to Las Vegas in the 1950s.
Those were the days when tremendous performers—the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, and so many more—graced the stages of the original Vegas hotels. The crowds they drew included John F. Kennedy, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and scores of other iconic names of the time. You know who else was there? MY GRANDFATHER!
My grandfather, Danny Thomas, was a stand-up comedian, actor, and singer. He was a stellar talent, well-known for masterful storytelling, expressive eyes and a hooked nose. What I wouldn’t give to take a seat in the audience, watching him dazzle the crowds during that spectacular time in United States entertainment history.
Those were special days in Vegas for many reasons. World War II was over, and much of American society was rebounding after the gravity of the prior decade. Our popular culture was reinventing itself with vigor by way of music and comedy. The 50s in Vegas, in particular, had an aura of splendor. Women wore elegant up-do’s and pearl necklaces. They cinched their waists and gloved their hands. They had a mystique about them: one of elegance. Men dressed in sleek suits with bowties and ascots. And Marilyn, well, she pushed with abandon at the conservative boundaries of the day.
The early 1950s brought life to Las Vegas, setting the stage for what it has become today. At that time, it was home to only a few casinos in the middle of the desert. Top-notch performers were invited to draw crowds. And new traditions of showmanship were born.
One of the biggest draws of Vegas during that time was The Copa Room at The Sands Hotel & Casino (which stood in the spot now occupied by the Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino). In 1952, the night The Sands opened, my grandfather was the headlining act. He continued performing there for over a decade, often sharing the stage with members of the Rat Pack. It was his home away from home, his place in the spotlight. And that’s what I’d want to go back to see.
I can just imagine it. Crowds of elegantly dressed patrons lining up outside. A dapper maître d’hotel showing me to my seat as I pass by stars and socialites alike. Then, up on stage, my dear grandfather would glide out into the spotlight. Maybe he would start with a song. Maybe he’d just launch right into a hilarious diatribe about his latest pet peeve. Maybe he’d tell a long, suspenseful tale that would end with the crowd convulsing in laughter.
I can only imagine what a profound feeling of pride and awe I would experience seeing him in his element, on stage. One can dream, right?
Sadly, my family only has been able to recover voice recordings of my grandfather’s Vegas shows. While they are fun to hear, listening to these recordings is like listening to The Three Stooges with no picture. The experience is limited to what is audible. The closest I can get to imagining those days is by talking to people who were there. Recently, I spoke with my father about his experiences as a kid in Vegas. It was fascinating to hear these stories. I published my revealing interview with Dad (as well as some photos from Vegas in the 50s) on my blog, Travel with Kate. Until I do get a chance in that WABAC machine, these stories are all I have.