The 1950s were a decade marked by the post-World War II boom that placed the United States at the forefront of the global stage. Its growing economy meant that prosperity was now available to more people than was possible before, and, as a result, the emergence of new cars, suburban houses, television, and other consumer goods began to take hold in society. Likewise, music became influential during this time, and the most popular type was a mix of jazz, swing, and pop, characterized by the crooner voice that was usually sung in a soft, low rhythm. The group that embodied this genre of music is known as the Rat Pack, which consisted of talented singers, including Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy David Jr., and Joey Bishop. In today’s time, songs from the Rat Pack not only invoke a sense of nostalgia, but the group’s style has left an imprint on American culture and continues to influence many other musicians and genres.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Born into the entertainment industry, Sammy Davis Jr performed across the United States with his parents at the early age of three. He was trained as a flash tap dancer, could mimic the singing styles of famous individuals of the day, learned under the guidance of Frank Sinatra, was a self-taught musician playing various instruments, and eventually became a nightclub performer. He is most known for being the first black performer to stand before white audiences and a prominent activist in the civil rights movement. Though Davis’s reputation started plummeting in the 1970s as his need to stay relevant forced him to abuse drugs and, unfortunately, cultivate a poor representation of himself, his life began to turn around, and he was again back on top of his game. At this stage, he became a Grammy, Tony, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominee and was an Honoree at the Kennedy Centre Honors. When he passed away from throat cancer in 1990, many regarded him as an icon of the entertainment world, and he was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
Dean Martin, born Dino Paul Crocetti, got his start as an American singer and actor on the Jerry Lewis show, which became one of the most popular comedy teams on stage and television for ten years. During his younger years, Martin worked in steel mills, delivered bootleg liquor, was a prizefighter, and had a temporary job in a casino; however, after appearing in local nightspots as a singer, a bandleader soon acknowledged his talent and invited him on tour. His career grew even more after he ended the partnership with Lewis, eventually having his first show, The Dean Martin Show, with an eight-year run. For many years, Martin graced the screens of televisions across American households. His more popular work was The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, a series of celebrity “roasts,” in which Martin seemed intoxicated during his performances, but, as he insisted, was part of his act. In the 1990s, he retired from public life and died of acute respiratory failure on Christmas Day.
Peter Lawford’s life tells how self-destruction turned a charmed life upside down. Born in London, England, Lawford wasn’t much of a singer or dancer but got recognition through his acting by often playing the debonair Englishman. Though his inclusion into the Rat Pack was an odd occurrence, it is apparent that his social connections placed him in a position of prominence. Married to Patricia Kennedy, JFK's younger sister, Lawford became entangled with the most famous entertainers in the world and the most powerful family on the planet. Along with the Rat Pack, Lawford campaigned for JFK and the Democratic Party; however, Sinatra’s plans of using Peter's political connections to further his agenda ultimately let to Lawford's downfall. After JFK’s advisors instructed him to stop associating with the Rat Pack because of their well-publicized links to the mafia, Sinatra grew furious, blamed Lawford entirely, and cut him out of the group, refusing to ever talk to him again. Lawford’s public image further became tainted following the death of Marilyn Monroe, as he was the last person to speak to her. Soon cast out by the Kennedys and with a career in the dumpsters, Peter turned to drugs and women, eventually marrying for the fourth and final time and shortly dying of kidney and liver failure. Many remember Lawford as the one rat who started at the highest ranks and ended in the lowest of gutters.
Born in the Bronx, New York, to Jewish immigrants, Joey Bishop learned to tap dance, do imitations, and play the mandolin and banjo. After dropping out of high school at 18, Bishop began his career as part of a standup comedy act with his older brother and even guest-hosted various popular shows. His emerging career was interrupted while serving in the Army during WWII but quickly resumed following discharge. As his reputation increased, he became a constant presence on the talk show, sitcom, and game show circuits. He was also known as "Sinatra's comic" at one time for having opened for the star on multiple occasions. During filming, the Rat Pack performed together on stage in which Bishop did only a little singing and dancing and, instead, told jokes and wrote some of the act’s material. In addition, Bishop was the only member to work with the younger proteges of actors dubbed the Brat Pack. Once his late-night show ended, Joey returned to nightclubs for a time until withdrawing from the limelight. Long retired, and the last surviving "Rat Pack" member, Joey Bishop died of multiple organ failure.
Francis Albert “Frank” Sinatra was the only child of Sicilian immigrants. As a teen, he was a member of the glee club in his high school and performed at nightclubs, eventually deciding to pursue his dream of singing after watching Bing Crosby. Sinatra’s solo career began flourishing as the singer charted numerous hit singles and even won an Oscar for supporting actor. At one point, however, an unauthorized biography of Sinatra sought to diminish his widespread popularity by accusing the singer of relying on mob ties to further his career. Still, this effort was met in vain and failed to accomplish its mission. Though he enjoyed continued success in Hollywood, his personal life was the opposite. Unfit for military service because of a punctured eardrum, Sinatra remembered a life of great loneliness during the war years. He also went through four different marriages, including one to actress Ava Gardner. Sinatra ended up dying of a heart attack, but his continued mass appeal still influences today’s society.
Ocean's 11 (1960)
Oceans 11, made and produced in 1960, was the first film all five rat pack members appeared together. Most of the dialogue between characters was ad-libbed because of the tight-knit nature of their friendship. Made for only 2.8 million dollars, the 127-minute color film made more than 12.3 million in the United States alone. The story is about Danny Ocean, played by Frank Sinatra, who gathers his World War II friends to pull off the ultimate Las Vegas heist. Together the eleven friends plan to rob five Las Vegas casinos in one night. Dripping with cool, this film is truly a classic and was remade in 2001 with a cast of A-List stars, including George Clooney, Brad Pit, and Julia Roberts. The more recent Oceans 8 film was a tribute to the original with one twist, an all-female cast including stars Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway.
Johnny Cool (1963)
Peter Lawford produced the movie Johnny Cool, which stars Henry Silva, known for his role in Ocean's 11. The film also features Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. The plot revolves around an American gangster in exile who trains a Sicilian hitman named "Johnny Cool" to take revenge on his behalf in America. Johnny carries out the task violently and gets involved with a rich divorced woman portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery, who later became famous for her role in "Bewitched."
The name "Rat Pack" was not actually a positive term. The phrase's origin comes from a moment when movie star Humphrey Bogart came home from Las Vegas with his hard-partying group of friends. Bogart's wife, actress Lauren Bacall, allegedly came downstairs and scolded the group, claiming they looked "like a goddamn rat pack." The catchphrase quickly caught on.
There were actually two different Rat Packs, one popular in the '50s and another (the most famous and notable) in the '60s. The first consisted of Humphrey Bogart, Mickey Rooney, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Cesar Romero and Jerry Lewis.
The Rat Pack never referred to itself as such after Humphrey Bogart's death in 1957. The media and public used the term. The members actually preferred to call themselves the Clan or the Summit.
Among the Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr.’s nickname was “Smokey.” While not commonly known, he was an accomplished quick-draw artist. When Davis wasn’t allowed to stay in the Las Vegas hotel where he was performing, Sinatra helped Davis sidestep the racist practices at the time.
The Rat Pack had several “associate” members, called “Rat Pack Mascots,” including Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Shirley MacLaine, Lauren Bacall, Juliet Prowse, and Judy Garland. The leading ladies made many appearances in the Rat Pack films. Frank Sinatra even had romantic relationships with Prowse and Dickinson
The name of the Great Dane cartoon character Scooby-Doo has Frank Sinatra to thank for his namesake. The famous mutt's creator listened to Sinatra's hit song "Strangers in the Night" and noticed his scatting (which sounded like "dooby dooby doo.") This ultimately led to the character's name.
Scandal alert! Sinatra spent a good portion utilizing his fame and organized sex parties for his fellow members. These parties were often held in the steam rooms of a casino's health club, with both groupies and prostitutes being invited along.
Sammy Davis Jr. actually had a fake left eye after injuring himself in a car crash. Davis Jr. sustained such a serious injury that he had to lose his left eye and replace it with a glass eye.
During a time of racial prejudice, The Sands Hotel and Casino attempted to refuse service to Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra would constantly go to bat for him.
Sinatra did, in fact, have connections to the mob. He would perform favors for mobsters, and they would, in turn, provide him with thousands of dollars worth of chips to play in the casino.