©2023 By Burt Kearns
(From the moment they blasted off in the Casbar Lounge in Las Vegas in December 1954, there was no stopping Louis Prima, Keely Smith and Sam Butera and the Witnesses from becoming the most popular act in show business. No one but themselves. In a pair of exclusive Legsville stories based on long-lost interviews with sax legend Butera and jazz and pop goddess Smith, Burt Kearns unearthed the beginnings of the legendary act, Now, a year later, he traces the beginning of the end — the personal dramas and betrayals that would end the rocket ride, not in a glorious splashdown, but in flames. We return to the Casbar Lounge. Four years after lift-off, it’s now the “Casbar Theatre” — and everybody wants in. Including Frank Sinatra…)
What a time for this to happen! What a time for things to fall apart. Onstage!
It’s March 5, 1959, and if Louis, Keely, and Sam were any hotter, they’d melt. Las Vegas is happening like never before, and they’re a big part of the why. The number of hotels on the Strip has doubled from the lucky seven standing when Sam first blew into that borrowed sax on the day after Christmas 1954. The Stardust is the newest hotel and casino, delayed a year after owner Tony Cornero dropped dead at a Desert Inn craps table during a long losing run. But the Sahara, Milton Prell’s “Jewel of the Desert,” where Louis Prima and Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses are doing five sets between midnight and five thirty a.m., is ground zero for entertainment, as atomic as the nuclear test site out in the desert.
The Sahara is the first big sign to come into view on the drive in from Fremont Street. Pull up past the giant plaster camels, leave the car with a valet dressed like an Arabian prince, get a “sim sala bim” from the turbaned doorman, and stumble into a sexy, exciting clash of sights, sounds, and smells in an African-themed adult playground. Clattering slot machines. East coast sharpies in shiny suits. Cheers and groans from the craps tables. Women dolled up, baring cleavage and wearing furs. Chips tossed in the air as the roulette wheel clicks down. Bow-legged cowboys in ten-gallon hats. Greenbacks floating over the blackjack tables. Wide-eyed insurance men from Toledo. The dice bounce. Punches fly. Big, Morocco-themed muscle moves in. And from deeper inside, there’s a sound that makes you want to gamble. Or worse.
Zooma zooma zooma… You notice the line snaking past the one-armed bandits; not leading to the cashier cages or buffet or the Congo Room, where Kay Starr’s show broke before midnight. You’re lured by the shuffle beat, and as you get closer you see it’s a line to the Casbar Theatre, where all the action is happening at two a.m. It’s like Mardi Gras in there.
Louis, Keely, Sam and the Witnesses are in full swing on the small stage behind the bar and the wood-panelled room is just about levitating with laughter, shouts and wild applause. No one has an act like this, the below-the-belt comedy, lowdown and corny, yet very hip — or music like this, jazz that jumps like Louis Jordan, then honks to the R&B of Big Jay McNeeley, shifts into the Dixieland of Louis Armstrong to, most insidiously, the same rock ’n’ roll that would have this middle-aged crowd sticking their fingers in their ears if it blasted from their kids’ record players.
With no stage lights, spotlight or curtain, Louis, Keely and Sam have turned what was once the Casbar Lounge into the hottest room in Vegas, maybe in all of show business. The room fits maybe a hundred and fifty with a shoehorn, and it’s no longer open to the casino. They’ve got drapes closing it off now, a makeshift mini-showroom with a maître d’, Pancho Aliati, out front taking reservations from a well-dressed and well-heeled crowd and leading vacationers, yiddisher and goombah fans from the east coast, midwestern tourists, oilmen, and goodfellas to the faux-leather red seats crammed around the pizza-sized tables. Off-duty casino dealers have a place at the bar. Lounge comic Don Rickles is squeezing his way through, gladhanding and spitting zingers along the way. Showgirls paper the place, and some of the showroom stars command booths along the opposite wall. Funnyman “Lonesome George” Gobel, headlining at the Riviera up the road, has a booth with his pals. So does Phyllis McGuire, singing with her sisters at the Desert Inn, who came in with mob boss and secret casino mogul Sam Giancana. Everybody’s grooving to the hilarious act behind the bar.
No one in the room notices that Louis isn’t looking right. No one realizes something monumental is about to go down.
Naked as a jaybird
Louis and Sam and the Witnesses, finetuned now to a precision sextet, have everybody tapping their feet or moving involuntarily to The Sheik of Araby, that 4/4 zooma zooma shuffle rhythm laid down on the snare by Paul Ferrara. The drum kit, upright piano, and bassman Rolly Dee are lined up centerstage behind the action. Like Sam and the other Witnesses, Ferarra looks fine in a dark suit, bouncing along with Louis, who’s at the mic, middle-aged but spritely, a star decked in a bright grey jet age tuxedo, with a continental bowtie and passable toupee. Louis is doing his funny little dance, kicking, twisting, leaping from two feet — not so high that his rug brushes against the low, tiled ceiling.
Louis sings: “Cause I’m the Sheik of Araby –”
The others respond: “Puttin no pants on!”
The crowd hoots!
“Oooh… your love belongs to me –”
“Puttin no pants on!”
Keely stands, seemingly uninterested, in front of the felt Sahara banner that covers the back of the piano, where John Nagy pounds the keys. She’s even more womanly now, oozing pure sex. With her pageboy haircut, tight blouse, torpedo bra and taffeta dress, she’s doing the now-trademark deadpan routine, only after six years of marriage it’s more than a cute act. She and Louis are living out their marital Cold War in front of everyone in the room.
Louis: “And the stars that shine above…”
Keely and the boys: “Naked as a jaybird!”
“We’ll light our way to love!”
“Naked as a jaybird!
Sam is crowded to the left of Louis, a swarthy, stocky Sicilian with a grin as wide as his head, cradling his sax and grooving. Lou Sino, who looks like a square but is a wild N’Awlins trombone-man, and Bobby Roberts, the latest addition on guitar, groove along with him.
All eyes are on Louis as he looks at Keely, does a comic step and tugs at the taffeta. She just stares. Everyone in the room howls and applauds with every double-and triple-entendre they dish up.
“At night when you’re asleep…”
Everyone, including Keely, responds: “Puttin no pants on!”
“Baby into your tent I’ll creep!”
“Puttin no pants on!”
“And you’ll rule this crazy land with me… I’m the sheiky man, that’s who I be!”
Louis steps back and turns to Sam. “Sam Butera!”
And Sam leaps forward and blasts into such a rocking, paint-curling solo that the smoke-filled Vegas lounge could be a club on Central Avenue in Black L.A. While he blows and honks, Sam swings up and down, bringing that sax floorward between his legs and up toward that low ceiling, swinging like one of those dipping “drinking bird” toys at the bar. Sam drops to his knees as he plays, that smile still on his face. He falls – and now he’s playing on his back, blowing and kicking his legs up as he does. Louis waves a handkerchief over him as if to cool him off. Keely looks the other way.
“Go! Go! Go!” Louis and the Witnesses lead the chant and clap their hands in rhythm. Ferrara is standing, pounding the drums, urging Sam higher and higher. The man is about to blow a gasket when a trombone slide pokes toward his head as Lou Sino joins in. Louis picks up the trumpet, and somehow they segue into Dixieland and everyone is on Bourbon Street. (“It was never rehearsed,” Sam insisted. “Everything came about by accident!”)
As is his habit, from a table up front, Harold Smith Jr., whose family owns the Harold’s Club casino in Reno, stands and flips a hundred-dollar casino chip toward Louis, who palms it.
By now, the crowd is ready for the fever to break and Keely to step in with something sultry like The Man I Love, but Louis crooks a finger, the band stops on a dime and segues into Jump, Jive, An’ Wail. Cheers! Whistles! Louis dances, twists and steps like a middle-aged Elvis. He jumps, he jives, he bounces and sings, “Baby, baby, it looks like it’s gonna hail!” Clowning through the verse, he turns to Keely but her look waves him off. Sam might be the only one who notices the look they share isn’t like the old days. That Old Black Magic might be their latest hit record, but it ain’t playing tonight.
Keely sings, deadpan, with Sam and the Witnesses: “You gotta jump, jive, and then you wail…”
Louis is slightly off the beat when leans in for the second verse. He glances at Keely and rubs his temples. “A woman is a woman and a male ain’t nothin’… but a male –”
When he doesn’t sing the line that follows, Sam picks up immediately and plays it on his sax. He’s ready for anything — but not what happens next.
Louis staggers, and then he tumbles backwards. Keely steps out of his away, ladylike, casually, as if it’s part of the act, and maybe she thinks it is, until Louis slams against the piano and slides to the stage floor, taking the Sahara banner with him.
The band keeps playing for a moment. There are laughs in the room — until Keely makes it clear something’s wrong. She crouches near Louis, who’s conscious but groggy. Sam cuts the music. The bartender hastily fills and hands up a pitcher of water. Louis blinks, shakes his head and signals to Sam.
“Jack and Jill went up the hill to get a pail!” Sam sings the line from Jump, Jive An’ Wail, then begins to play a solo Night Train. Nagy and Rolly help Louis stand and make his way down the steps that lead from the stage into the audience. Louis, Sam, and Lou Sino usually close each set by marching through the crowd during When the Saints Go Marching In. Standard practice in New Orleans, but a revelation in the desert. This time, Louis gets a standing ovation as he’s marched unsteadily out of the Casbar Theatre.
The mad ad
Louis canceled the following night’s shows, claiming illness, and then he canceled all the shows for the rest of March. Mel Tormé filled in at the Casbar. Louis went one way. Keely went the other – all the way to New York City.
Of course, the story spread across town —Louis Prima fainted onstage. Louis Prima collapsed — and word of what went down in the Casbar eventually made it east, as well. It travelled across the country to a bedroom on East 68th Street, where Dorothy Kilgallen, the syndicated show business columnist with spies in every corner of show business, was propped up on pillows, tapping out her latest item.
… Louis Prima’s chums are worried about his health.
He’s been suffering from headaches and dizzy spells…
Was he pushing too hard? Sure, he was. With records, club dates, television and a movie opening, he’d overpacked the schedule. The real story, though, was between the lines, but Louis couldn’t let the fans, let alone the executives, think he was over the hill. He may have been forty-eight, but he had a thirty-year-old wife and the stamina of a teenager. Louis decided to respond in the only way he knew how. He took out ads in all the Vegas dailies. Full-page ads on Friday, March 27. Oy.
Dear Folks, due to all the rumors and misconceptions that have
been going around, I am taking this opportunity to let everyone
know the true facts…
In a long open letter that Variety would label a “mad ad,” Louis explained that he walked off stage on March 5 after he suddenly “began to feel dizzy and faint… accompanied with a pounding headache.” On the advice of his physician, he’d checked into the Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, California, where doctors determined he was victim of an “allergic reaction… due to a concentration of tobacco smoke, dust, dirt, and foul air, which is the usual condition that exists in any night club where the ceiling is low and proper ventilation has not been provided… Anyone who was exposed to this condition and is playing a wind instrument or singing is constantly inhaling this foul and unhealthy air.” (Of course, Louis added: “Dr. McNiece’s words were, ‘You have a 100% health rating, and your blood pressure, heart, and lungs are those of a 16-year-old.’ I actually cried with joy when he said, ‘They’ll probably have to shoot you on judgment day!’”)
Louis said he was undergoing two nasal operations to correct the condition, and that the show would be returning to the lounge at the Sahara on March 31 — contrary to “nasty rumors… started by some ignorant goof.”
All that was fine. Worries addressed. After the Casbar gig, it was on to Chicago for a triumphant return to play for the Mob at the Chez Paree and the drive to New York City for the group’s debut at the Copacabana – and The Ed Sullivan Show. But Louis couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to go and mention the story between the lines, the story about what was really giving him headaches, It was a story everybody in Vegas seemed to be whispering and was going to come out sooner or later.
Also… rumors were started that Keely and I were breaking up.
This is a preposterous lie stated started by some imbecile. We
have a wonderful family life… We have two beautiful children,
and Keely and I love each other very much.
Who said anything about breaking up? Well, even Louella Parsons had an inkling, and she was a columnist who knew how to write between the lines. On the same day Louis’s screed was published, she reported that, “recovered from his recent nose surgery, Louis Prima hosted a ‘Return Home’ party for Keely Smith, who returned via jet from New York. He presented her with a sable stole.” Throwing a “Return Home” party and offering up a very expensive fur didn’t sound like the actions of a man just back from the clinic and recovering from an operation.
Yeah, everyone knew, and every newspaper editor worth his salt ignored the first 562 words of Louis’s open letter and got right to the nut graph: “Louis Prima took full-page ads in the Vegas dailies to scuttle the rumors he and Keely are breaking up.”
Sam Butera knew. Looking back all those years later, he laughed out loud at the “foul air” excuse. “We were working the Sahara for what? Five years prior to that? And all of a sudden the ventilation got that bad? Bullshit. I figure it stemmed from, you know, (the situation) with Keely. It must have been, because it was fifty-nine. That was when the shit started to fly.
“I guess he was just pissed. He said, ‘Fuck it. I’m going home.’ Then he might have told people, ‘I had a dizzy spell.’ To cop out. He didn’t faint on stage. Never. Louis could pull some shit, man.”
Truth was, Sam knew it, everybody knew, that Louis and Keely’s marriage was in trouble. It was a given that Louis had been fooling around for years. It was a surprise, and never acknowledged publicly, that Keely, portrayed in Life magazine as the devoted wife and doting mother of baby daughters, was stepping out on Louis.
“Yeah, yeah. I knew they weren’t — everybody knew they weren’t getting along,” Sam said. “We all said, ‘How can Louis put up with this, her fucking around like this? How can he put up with it? Then you think back, ‘Well, how can she put up with it? And we’d all shake our heads. “I don’t know, man. There’s a wild situation here.’
“The way I surmised it, Louis was a swinger all his life, man. He had five wives, you know, and he liked, liked, liked ladies. He loved ladies, man, and I guess Keely must’ve not been blind. Louis, man, I think right from the get-go, was seeing other broads. That wasn’t no new thing for him. But he was at least a little discreet. She wasn’t.”
Louis had to hold things together, ward off the rumors and keep the act moving forward. This was a crucial time, because plans were in place for the big deal: moving from the lounge to the showroom. With columnists picking up on the story that “Louis Prima denies any stories of marital rift,” he was lucky that no one in 1959 put the pieces together, connecting Louella Parsons’ fur stole story with an item in George Bourke’s Miami Herald nightlife column a few days before Louis’s ad.
Keely Smith in Quickie Visit
“Quickie” was the proper — and accurate — term in Bourke’s report that “Mrs. Louis Prima” had made a side trip to Miami Beach before returning to Las Vegas. It just happened that was exactly the time when Frank Sinatra had opened an engagement at the new La Ronde showroom at the Fontainebleau Hotel at 4441 Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Keely’s affair with Sinatra had begun a year earlier, after her and Louis’s stand next door to the Fontainebleau at the Eden Roc. It was something she wouldn’t fess up to, at least not publicly, but if she did, she could always blame Louis.
“He allowed me to go on a train with Frank Sinatra from Florida to Chicago, with my manager Barbara Bell, and another man, Murray Wolf, who was with Frank,” Keely recalled. “The four of us went on the train, Frank and I in one cabin and Murray and Barbara in the other, and we went to Chicago. And Louis’s the one that pushed me to do it. My God, if you’re with Frank Sinatra, you know damn well you’re going to wind up going to bed!
“And that’s the occasion I woke up in the middle of the night, and Frank was sitting, looking out the window like the saddest little boy I’d ever seen, with tears coming down his face. It was pitiful. He’s a very lonely man, and he loved trains. He still loves trains today. He has all kinds of trains at home. When you think about it, and I tell people, gee, I went from Florida to Chicago with Frank on a train, they look at you like, ‘How could you have done that? You were married.’ But at the time, I didn’t question it. Maybe because I was so thrilled at being able to do it, I didn’t question if it was right or wrong.
“I was never a promiscuous person, but it was okay at the time when I did it,” she’d admit. “Looking back on it, it wasn’t okay. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t do it to a husband since then or a husband in the future, but for some reason with Louis, it was okay to do it.”
Did she and Louis have an “understanding?” “No,” she replied. “I probably did what I did in retaliation, but I didn’t know it at the time.”
A pounding on the door
Weeks later and Sinatra was back in Vegas, on his home turf, in his own digs. The Sands was the place Sinatra stayed, played, and gambled when he wasn’t making movies or playing the top nightclubs. Sinatra first sang at the Sands in 1953 and had recently bought shares in the place, sharing ownership along with hidden owners like Jewish mobsters Meyer Lansky and Doc Stacher. Sinatra’s latest engagement at the Sands’ Copa Room was a real party. A year before they came up with the idea to create a “Rat Pack,” he was the King Rat, and his suite at the Sands was one swinging rat’s nest.
Louis knew Sinatra was in town with a lot of time on his hands Even so, he drove solo to Los Angeles on business, and left Keely on her own, with a ticket waiting at the Copa Room box office.
“He knew I was going to go see Frank, who was appearing at the Sands that night,” Keely said. “And he went on the road. So I go to see the show and I wind up in Frank’s suite.”
The scene in Sinatra’s suite was among those that led to the legends, an endless bash like the one captured in Life magazine, when he tried the old tablecloth trick – and almost succeeded in yanking out the linen without making a mess with the dishes. There was alcohol and food. There were women – many women — and men who were quick to laugh and say “That’s a good one, Frank,” when Sinatra cracked a joke. The goodfellas who usually stayed behind the scenes could relax in Sinatra’s suite. Top boss Sam Giancana was there, as was Al Capone’s cousin Joe Fischetti. And so was Keely.
“All kinds of people, all kinds of girls. It was a nice party,” she recalled. “Never an orgy of any kind have I ever been to, with Frank, Sammy, nobody. But that night, I spent the night with Frank.”
After everyone cleared out and the blackout blinds were drawn, Keely and Frank went to bed, and exhausted, finally fell asleep in each other’s arms. There would not be a repeat performance in daylight. In the early morning hours, they were awakened with a start.
“There was a pounding on the door like you can’t believe!” Keely said.
Then, suddenly, the bedroom door burst open. Scrawny Sinatra rolled toward the nightstand, one hand on his toupee and the other reaching for a revolver. It was Joe Fischetti, on the run from the front room, frantic.
“Frank, it’s Louis! It’s Louis fuckin’ Prima!”
Louis Prima was not in Los Angeles, after all. He was in the hallway outside the suite, and he was looking for his wife. The banging on the door continued. It sounded as if the big ape would pound his hairy fist right through the wood. “They didn’t open the door to him,” Keely said. “In some kind of way, I got dressed and went out through a side door to my car.”
Keely was outside the Sands, fumbling for the keys to the Corvette Louis had gifted her on her birthday, when Louis’ Cadillac sped toward her.
“Get in!” he demanded.
Keely sighed and got into the passenger seat. When the door slammed, Louis hit the gas and skidded out onto Las Vegas Boulevard in the direction of home. Keely tried to project nonchalance. She was deciding that Louis probably wouldn’t mention the incident again, when suddenly he slammed on the brakes and pulled over.
“And he slapped me,” Keely recalled ruefully. “He was furious. When Lou would get angry, he’d kind of get very emotional and he cried. He cried very easily. And he just didn’t yell. He wasn’t a yeller. He was not a physical man when it came to anger.
“That’s the only time he ever, ever touched me in physical anger in his life. So I wouldn’t say that anything I did, Louis really condoned. I don’t know how to explain this.”
As Louis drove on, tears falling down his cheeks, Keely couldn’t quite figure out what he was feeling. Was it shame? Embarrassment? Frustration, now that the act was so close to achieving that longheld dream?
“I don’t know, because there were so many other times — for instance, the train trip,” Keely said. “He used to put me on a plane to come to L.A. each Monday to be with Frank, to be in his company — not that I went to bed with him every time I came in. But I was always at his house with Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, all kinds of writers. Sammy was there a lot. Peter and Pat Lawford. And all we did was have dinner and watch a movie. And then all of a sudden one time I wound up going to bed with Frank.
“And then he just kind of was wherever I was in the country, and Louis accepted it. I don’t think it’s because it was Frank Sinatra, but I really don’t know why.”
Burt Kearns is the author of three books, including Lawrence Tierney: Hollywood’s Real-Life Tough Guy. He also writes and produces nonfiction television and documentary films.