Legendary Rat Pack Comes Alive at Strathmore
It’s tough to get a vibe going on a conference call. You can’t see anybody. It’s usually strictly business, and people are always interrupting or waiting to say something.
Talking with Sandy Hackett and his wife Lisa Dawn Miller, however, you definitely get a vibe of show-business allure and legend, not to mention talk and memories of Las Vegas and L.A. days and nights, the time of the Rat Pack in Vegas—maybe true stories and the sound of the easy slick slide of cards on green tables.
Hackett and Miller are all about songs and dancing. They come with a glittering show-biz pedigree. Hackett’s father was the late Buddy Hackett, one of the country’s premier comics and comedic actors who was connected by long-standing friendship and work with the Frank Sinatra-led legendary Rat Pack. Miller is the daughter of another legend, world-class Motown songwriter Ron Miller, master of hit and classic songs, who wrote hits for Stevie Wonder, among others.
All of this funnels in like cocktail ingredients as to why we’re having this three-corner, pool-shot conversation. "Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show," which is at the Music Center at Strathmore tomorrow night, Friday, Sept. 27, at 8 pm.
Both Hackett and Miller hasten to say that the Rat Pack Show is not a tribute show. It is a kind of theater piece, a flamboyant recreation of a time in the 1960s, when the so-called Rat Pack centered around Frank Sinatra, featuring Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and others—and depending on the night and time—graced Las Vegas with its presence and put on memorable entertainments at the Sands Casino.
“There are a lot of tribute shows around, truth be told,” Hackett said. “But we’re doing something different.” Hackett said of the show which " . . . we’ve been doing about four years or so now. This is a theatrical production which lets folks get a sense of what it might have been like to see the Rat Pack live on stage in 1960.”
Miller and Hackett put together and wrote a show based on their own knowledge and experience. Hackett grew up around members of the pack, including Joey Bishop, who was the last surviving member. “To me, Bishop was Uncle Joey," Hackett said. "He was the one that wrote most of the material, the comedy material, that gave things some sense.”
Back in 1960, the Rat Pack—there was no official membership—was a kind of Hollywood designation of what was then a group of very cool persons, headed by the very cool Sinatra, whose song stylings sold millions of albums and who was a major and often talked-and-gossipped-about movie star as well as a friend of JFK by way of Peter Lawford. The Pack included the gifted Sammy Davis, Jr., the seemingly always-in-the sauce Dean Martin, Bishop, Lawford and, sometimes, Shirley MacLaine.
“People thought this was a long-standing, yearly thing as far as the Vegas thing goes,” Hackett said. “It wasn’t. It lasted a month in 1960 when they were in town filming 'Ocean’s 11' [a hit precursor of the current George Clooney-led series of films with Brad Pitt and Matt Damon]. They stayed a month. And at night, they would do this show in the Sands. That was it. But it was memorable, and they were memorable.”
“The show is not a recreation,” said Hackett, who plays Bishop, who was never in the show, but was in the movie. “We’ve added some Miller songs, and the presence of a woman, the one woman Sinatra never forgot."
By anybody’s guess, that would be the sultry movie star Ava Gardner, with whom Sinatra had a tempestuous, tumultuous, passionate affair in the 1950s which almost ruined him. “I play the woman that Sinatra never forgot," Miller said. "I get to sing one of my dad’s songs 'Wasn’t I a Good Time?' Mind you, we don’t call her Ava. Some people might think it was his wife Nancy or the children whom he loved so much. We let the audience decide.”
Not that the old Sinatra Rat Pack music is neglected. “I Did It My Way,” “Mack the Knife,” “For Once in My Life” and a host of others are heard, sung and remembered in uncanny renderings by the cast, headed by David DeCosta as Sinatra, Doug Starks as Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Basile as Dean Martin, Sandy Hackett as Joey Bishop and Miller as Frank’s one love. DeCosta, while he can’t be Sinatra, gives him his due and manages to resurrect more than hints of that great voice of experience and confidence, rue mixed with wry and rye.
“We’re all about respect for the music,” Miller said. “I couldn’t help but learn that from my dad. He knew his way around a song. Some of them are part of the show like 'For Once in My Life.' So, this is not a tribute show, but part of it is a tribute to the great songs.”
Hackett is working on a book and a show about his father, whose pre-recorded voice (as God, no less) is heard in the show. He would have been right at home in the banter and humor, Rat-Pack style that is audience-involving, brash and irreverent in that cocked-hat, boozy, don’t-give-a-damn but also personal style that characterized any gathering of that legendary group, be it movie, party or showtime, or after-hours bar-time.