Few eras — if any — in American culture are so durably popular as the Rat Pack’s heyday of the late 1950s and early ’60s. The timeless appeal of Rat Pack cool, spearheaded by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., can still be seen today in fashion, music and film. Just ask “The Rat Pack is Back” producer Dick Feeney.
“The show has really discovered a whole new audience,” Feeney said. “It amazes me. It used to be 95 percent older people, and now it’s people in the 30s, 40s and 50s. It’s a completely new demographic who’ve discovered it.”
“It” would be “The Rat Pack is Back,” which is running through July 1 at Sammy’s Showroom at Harrah’s Reno. The show is a painstakingly accurate look back at the 1960 Sands Casino Copa Room show of Sinatra, Martin and Davis, right down to the stage patter and jokes in some instances.
“It was a cool era, the way people dressed,” Feeney said. “We try and fine tune [the show] a little for the area, but it pretty much stands on its own. People want to see this show because it denotes a part of Las Vegas history. It’s like a time capsule of 1960 Las Vegas and what the entertainment was like, especially from these guys.”
The Rat Pack is Back has been running continuously since 2002 in Las Vegas; Laughlin, Nevada; all around the U.S.; and in Monte Carlo; the Dominican Republic and even Santiago, Chile. Its popularity just seems to continue to expand, Feeney said, as the era’s style, music and attitude keep on finding new fans.
The cast of “The Rat Pack is Back” — Chris Jason plays Frank Sinatra, Drew Anthony portrays Dean Martin and Kenny Jones is Sammy Davis — is trained in Las Vegas.
“I sent an A Team to up here to do the show,” Feeney said of the Harrah’s run. “You get the three best of each character anywhere on the planet.”
The show has the benefit of some truly rare archival source material. The journey began when Feeney’s previous show, “Viva Las Vegas,” was at Sands Hotel and Casino (which was demolished in 1996 to make way for the parcel’s current occupant, The Venetian) in Las Vegas, closing out its 18-year run. At Sands, he had access to a stash of vintage video-taped recordings of the Rat Pack’s four-week January 1960 engagement in the hotel-casino’s Copa Room. The Rat Pack was in town performing at the showroom by night, and Sinatra, Martin and Davis were filming the original version of the Las Vegas caper film, “Ocean’s 11” in the early morning hours by day.
“I’ve gone through hours and hours and hours of it, and I really sort of cherry picked what we liked,” he said.
Included in the vintage footage was Sinatra introducing then Senator John F. Kennedy, who was in the audience, as “the next President of the United States,” as well as actors Edward G. Robinson and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
A great deal of the show’s authentic stage banter, song selections, gags and bits were re-created from this archival footage. It’s nostalgic for sure, but there is a little room for tweaks and adjustments. Every night is about 80 percent “on script,” Feeney said. Topical humor is a double-edged sword, he added, as some audience members might laugh, but modern-day references can break the timeline. The writers sprinkle just enough current material, Feeney said, to keep it fresh.
The goal is step back into 1960 and revel in the politically incorrect, sometimes bawdy, boozy boys’ club talents of the show’s three legendary stars.
“We try to keep it really authentic that way,” Feeney said. “The audience wants to see that.”
While crowds continue to queue up for “The Rat Pack is Back,” the demographics are changing.
“It’s really shifted a little bit lately,” Feeney said. “When the show first started it was everybody from that era; Ninety-five percent of the audience was 60 or 65, and were from that time period. Now, it’s 15 years later.”
The shift in the show’s audience is perhaps not surprising when one considers the Rat Pack’s original fans were probably in their 30s in 1960. Some of the older Rat Pack fans have difficulty traveling, Feeney said. He’s solved this lack of mobility issue by touring “The Rat Pack is Back” to theaters in more than 250 markets in the U.S. since 2006.
“Frank would have been 101 now,” Feeney said. “The teenyboppers that saw him when he was in his 20s are 95 now. The people that discovered him in his Capitol years,” from 1953 to 1961, “they’re sort of too old to travel. They go to the local theaters in droves still, but they don’t go out to Vegas because it’s too much for them.”
Feeney has become somewhat of a Rat Pack expert over the years. He talks reverentially about the music, clothes and the era’s casinos and their more understated style. One of his goals has always been to mount the show in some of the increasingly rare period correct Las Vegas and Reno showrooms. “The Rat Pack is Back” could not have found a more apropos stage than Reno’s Sammy’s Showroom. Don Rickles, Tina Turner and of course, Sammy Davis Jr. have performed there over the years, as have countless others. Opening for the first time in Harrah’s relatively intimate, 350-seat showroom, built in 1966, is particularly gratifying.
“The cool part about this is it’s in the Sammy Davis Showroom,” he said. “I always wanted to play this room with the show since we started, and it finally came together. It’s a great showroom.”
“The Rat Pack is Back” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through July 1 at Sammy’s Showroom at Harrah’s Reno. Tickets are $29.50 and $40.50 and are available online at caesars.com, by phone at 855-CEI-SHOW, or at the box office.