Frank Sinatra & the Cal Neva Lodge - April 2012
By Mark McLaughlin
When Frank Sinatra wanted something, he usually got it. The scrawny Italian kid from New Jersey had grown up to be one of most recognized celebrities in the world. Sinatra got his first glimpse of Lake Tahoe in August 1951 when the entertainer arrived in Reno to establish residency in order to divorce his first wife Nancy. The beautiful actress Ava Gardner, who was Sinatra’s lover at the time, joined him at Reno’s Riverside Hotel.
During their extended stay, Sinatra and Gardner spent the Labor Day weekend at Lake Tahoe, drinking, gambling and cavorting at the Cal Neva Lodge. They appeared to have a good time, despite a fight between the couple that was so intense it caused Sinatra’s road manager, Hank Sanicola, to crash and sink the brand new 24’ boat they were cruising in.
The famous and historic Cal Neva property is a Tahoe landmark. Perched on a long spit of extruded lava, it sits smack-dab on the California and Nevada state line. Sinatra got his first taste of the financial benefits peculiar to Nevada-style entertainment in 1953, when he purchased a stake in the Sands Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. In 1960, Sinatra was booked to perform some gigs at the Cal Neva Lodge when he found out that a major shareholder of the casino had recently died. Sensing an attractive business opportunity, Sinatra promptly bought a 25% interest in the Cal Neva operation. For the next three years he entertained the rich and famous, including John and Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and the Rat Pack.
Sinatra decided to re-vamp the quaint lodge into a modern, world-class casino. The Cal Neva had a history of booking popular performers, but Sinatra wanted more. He constructed the Sinatra Celebrity Showroom as a venue to attract big name entertainment and to handle the expected throngs of paying customers. A tunnel system was excavated under the property, and stories persist of performers and celebrities scurrying unseen through the tunnels to the cluster of small bungalows behind the hotel.
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