Frank Sinatra owned Crystal Bay’s Cal Neva from 1960 to 1963. That time, while brief, has defined more than any other the image and the lore of the border-straddling hotel-casino towering over the waters of North Lake Tahoe’s dramatic granite shelf. As new ownership claims they’ll bring back the Sinatra “glory days,” starting on the night of the crooners 100th birthday (Dec. 12, 2015) DPB takes a look at what Sinatra’s legacy and the Cal Neva property really means to Tahoe.
May 2016 Update: In mid-March, Napa-based developer Criswell Radovan stopped making payments to the Texas bank that owns a $29 million note on the Cal Neva. The developer has also stopped making payments to its contractors. A partnership with Starwood Hotels & Resorts to operate the property appears in jeopardy. However, on its website, Starwood still lists the Cal Neva opening as slated for December 2016.
Evoking the Sinatra days at the Cal Neva as a sepia Rat Pack romp in the forest may sound good in the boardroom and look good on the brochure, but it’s an off-key attempt to frost over the uncooked parts of a rehab plan for the property and the region.
Not to mention, Frank Sinatra’s time in Tahoe was controversial, bloody and in all ways, costly.
While Sinatra did temporarily transform the North Shore into a hub for Hollywood and a seasonal Vegas North, his ownership of the property resulted in untimely deaths for those who crossed his path, broke the bonds of some of his long-term friendships, created some close calls for Camelot and melted his deepest mafia ties.
The lakefront property, shuttered after decades of fly-by-night absentee ownership, was boarded up, fenced up and given up in 2013. The starting bid to bring the 219-room lodge back to life on the Sacramento courthouse steps was $9 million, less than half of what many of the McManses on nearby Lakeshore Drive bring on the open market.
Yet there were no takers.
Redeveloping a monster property in need of a heart transplant in a region with no visible heartbeat a mighty task that scared away the likes of Starwood, Wynn, Accor, InterContinental, Hilton, Marriott and Wyndham.
Enter Napa-based developer Criswell Radovan LLC. Co-owners Bill Criswell and Robert Radovan have been snapping up and/or managing boutique properties among Northern California’s most crushable vines for more than two decades—yet the group’s total holdings as of 2008 were reported to be in the low seven-figure range.
The Criswell Radovan team took out a reported $29 million loan for structural improvements from Texas-based Hall Structured Finance, and borrowed $20 additional million against the property’s equity. The rehab bid went to Las Vegas-based Penta Building Group and Dallas-based interior designer Paul Duesing was brought on to conjure the best of the property’s storied past.
Duesing’s firm specializes in aesthetically blah-slash-mainstream-chic remodels to coax the Amex from the perma-press pockets of the Tommy Bahama and Chico’s pantsuit sect at passive properties like the One & Only Palmilla, Tucker’s Point Club and Taliskers Tuhaye Club. The designer says he’s aiming for a “modern American aesthetic with features evoking the Sinatra ‘Rat Pack’ era” at the Cal Neva. Likely, this translates to a haphazard mish-mash of Ikea’ized takes on Danish modern, soft lighting and plenty of glass and concrete with nary a nod to the actual era. No stray placement of ash trays (the casino floor will be nonsmoking) or gold-flecked countertops will be found after the unveiling.
The remodel will also include an upscale restaurant, a relocated “infinity” hotel pool (bad move, it was always a pleasure to swim across the state line like Marilyn used to) and a cafe-bakery that switches into a pizza oven/wine bar at night.
But if a shopworn Mad Men motif casino floor doesn’t raise your hackles, no doubt the most classic interior bulldozing will come to pass in the Celebrity Showroom. The Showroom (Sinatra spent more than a year and seven figures building to his exact acoustic specs) was in dire need of new flooring and refurbished booths but if they trashed the ’60s South Pacific-inspired tapestries, I’m going to well up with a big old Native-American-looking-at-litter tear. Hopefully, the almost-faded-beyond-recognition original Mr. Sinatra parking spot signs outside the east side of the Showroom will remain, but doubts can be cast there as well.
Perhaps the Circle Bar neath its stained-glass dome stands a better chance at preservation, minus the dirty dishtowel drunks and the movie floor stick of the carpet that grew long underfoot.
The refurbished 6,000-square-foot casino floor will feature table games and a slot bank. The Prohibition-era rum-running tunnels underneath the casino will reopen for tours. And the bungalows, once slated for a date with a bulldozer by a previous ownership group with visions of timeshares, will be spared the wrecking ball.
The Sins of Sinatra
The FBI knew from wiretapped conversations that Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana was a hidden owner of the Cal Neva and Frank Sinatra’s silent partner when the singer bought a minority share of the property in the spring of 1960.
Giancana called his shot early that he’d regret his silent partnership with Sinatra. Excerpted from a 1960 conversation: Giancana: I am going to get my money out of there and I’m going to wind up with half of the joint with no money. Not going to make any difference….That joint ain’t going to be no good because it’s a very short season.
Because Tahoe had an actual winter then, the Cal Neva was only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Sinatra and Giancana both wanted to build the business into a year-round resort and Giancana tried to borrow $3 million from the Teamsters Central States pension for it. Jimmy Hoffa said no, then later ended up searching eternally for daylight in the Meadowlands.
Sinatra, meanwhile, did his best to stock his Celebrity Showroom with notable performers of the day: Eddie Fisher, Vic Damone, Red Skelton, Victor Borge, Lena Horne, Dean Martin, Joe E. Lewis, Juliet Prowse—all names you wanted lighting up the marquee—performed there that first summer.
There was new buzz around the lodge that had carried a checkered reputation since its inception. The Cal Neva was built in 1926 by San Francisco financier Robert P. Sherman who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and killed himself just weeks later. Silent film star Clara Bow made headlines losing $14k there gambling one night in 1930, the early height of The Depression. Judy Garland was discovered there in 1935. The lodge mysteriously burned down in 1937 and was built back to be the biggest casino in the US in less than 100 days.
But nobody and nothing came close to the tsunami splash Sinatra made at the property. Driven to create a gaming empire in Nevada and already part owner of The Sands, the singer’s initial 36-percent stake became a 50-percent majority share by the end of his second year as investor. Long-time manager, friend and business associate Hank Sanicola owned 33 percent and casino executive Sanford Waterman owned the other 16 percent.
With a packed house every weekend, the Lake Tahoe casino business was as sure a thing as aces over eights. It seemed there was only one man who could get in Sinatra’s way…and that man was the one who looked back at him in the dressing room mirror each night adjusting the bow tie before taking the stage.
“Frank was a most convivial host,” wrote San Francisco columnist and 20th Century gadfly Herb Caen. “He was great fun and sort of nice to people—except every now and then when he’d flip out.”
But in the summer of ‘62, The Chairman had other problems besides keeping his Showroom stocked with celebs du jour and being occasionally off-putting to admiring guests.
By June, the FBI was circling in on Giancana. Any ties between a casino business and Giancana were illegal in Nevada because the mobster’s name occupied the first line of the gaming control board’s black book (yes, it actually does exist). The Chicago mobster was the bin Laden of the gaming world and he had no business in Vegas…or Tahoe. And Sinatra knew it.
Though Sinatra tried to keep Giancana’s looming presence under wraps, that didn’t stop Sam The Cigar from making mobster-type moves on the property during Sinatra’s tenure as innkeeper. Giancana brought guys up to hit on the property (and presumably sink into the nearby deep), had a prostitution ring running from the registration desk and in one case, tried to off a disillusioned employee…having him shot after his shift right on the lodge’s front steps.
While business remained good in light of the bad dealings, the summer continued to simmer with an almost daily drama ripped straight from the pages of a pulp paperback.
One night in late-July, deputy sheriff Richard Anderson came by to pick up his wife Toni, a cocktail waitress. Toni was one of Sinatra’s girlfriends before her marriage, but her new husband still didn’t trust Sinatra around her.
It was just after his shift and Anderson was in the back of the Cal Neva talking to the staff waiting for Toni to get off work. Sinatra caught wind and stormed into the kitchen, confronting the off-duty sheriff. The pair exchanged words and Sinatra tried to kick Anderson out, resulting in an altercation. Anderson punched Sinatra in the face, sidelining the crooner from performing for a week.
Less than a week after that, the Andersons were driving on Highway 28 eastbound en route to the Crystal Bay Club for dinner. A late model convertible with California plates veered over to their side of the road and the Andersons’ car went off the road and smashed into a tree. Dick Anderson was killed instantly and Toni was thrown from the car but survived.
The sheriff’s department never determined the cause of the accident though the roads were dry and there were no other cars involved–and no eyewitnesses.
But Sinatra’s summer of ‘62 troubles had just begun. A few days after Anderson was killed, Marilyn Monroe flew to the Cal Neva with Peter Lawford and his wife Pat Kennedy Lawford in hopes of a rendezvous with Bobby Kennedy.
A boozy, criminal weekend ensued.
During the dinner, Monroe got too tipsy and was taken to her cabin where she passed out. Enter several of the resort’s prostitutes who violated Monroe, taking pictures of the starlet in compromising positions while Sinatra and Giancana both looked on and engaged in lascivious acts.
The next day, Peter Lawford told Monroe that Bobby was in Los Angeles and didn’t want to see her, speak to her or have any contact with her—ever. To add insult, Lawford also informed her of the photographs and the events from the night before.
That afternoon, Monroe attempted suicide in her Cal Neva cabin overdosing on pills. After ingesting, she was able to phone the front desk for help and was rushed to Reno in time to have her stomach pumped. She was flown home after recovering. The following Sunday, August 5, 1962, she was found dead in her Los Angeles bungalow of a drug overdose.
As the Cal Neva was readying to open in the summer of 1963, hopes were high. The day’s biggest act, the McGuire Sisters, were scheduled to perform opening weekend. Phyllis McGuire was dating Giancana and the mobster couldn’t help himself but to join in the fun.
Prior to opening day, the FBI photographed Giancana with Sinatra playing golf at Old Brockway, a nearby course, and having drinks together at the Cal Neva. The weekend came to a head Friday night when the McGuire Sisters’ manager Victor LaCroix Collins and Giancana got in an altercation in one of the property’s cabins.
The FBI caught wind of the kerfuffle and using the photos of Sinatra and Giancana on the property together, made their case with the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
Saturday morning, Sinatra made haste to the Sands in Vegas, hoping to create an alibi. Gaming Control Board commissioner Ed Olson phoned up Sinatra in Vegas pressing him on the alleged fight the night before and his recent interactions with Giancana in Tahoe. Sinatra said he’d only seen a man who resembled Giancana around the property but nothing more.
Olson didn’t want to press Sinatra, who was a hero of sorts with the Gaming Control Board. He’d saved Vegas from irrelevance when the post-war boom ebbed and the town was overbuilt. He was presently bringing a similar high-end/high-rolling clientele to Lake Tahoe. The northern and southern ends of the state both benefited from Sinatra’s presence and investment.
But the Giancana story grew legs and the press coaxed a quote from Olson that “certain discrepancies in the information provided by various people at Cal Neva (should) be resolved.”
Sinatra, infuriated, called for a dinner with Olson at the Cal Neva.
Olson denied the request.
“The more I refused the madder he got until he seemed almost hysterical. He used the foulest language I ever heard in my life,” Olson said.
Olson regrouped and invited Sinatra to meet at his office, but Sinatra didn’t show. Instead, Olson said Sinatra called him up to yell at him, “…You’re acting like a fucking cop. I just want to talk to you off the record.”
The conversation escalated and Olson said if Sinatra didn’t fess up to the Giancana sightings, he’d be subpoenaed.
The next day, two representatives from the Gaming Control Board office showed up at the Cal Neva to supervise the count. Skinny D’Amato, one of Giancana’s goons and Sinatra’s right hand at Cal Neva, followed his boss’s order to, “throw the dirty sons of bitches out of the house.”
The agents left but returned the next day only to be bribed by D’Amato to leave. Olson caught wind of the bribe and started paperwork to revoke Sinatra’s license.
When the news broke Sinatra was under investigation and would probably lose the license, Nevada’s casino operators and members of the control board did not come to his aid. The good old boys especially felt the singer had used his celebrity and mob ties to rush through the permitting process; he should’ve never been given a license in the first place.
Olson notified Sinatra he was to surrender his Nevada holdings by January 5, 1964, forcing him to fire-sell not only his majority stake in the Cal Neva but his 10 percent interest in the Sands—about $4 million worth of real estate in that day, with inflation about a quarter-billion-dollars in 2015.
Though it was Giancana’s inability to stay away from Nevada that resulted in his own black-balling, the mobster still blamed Sinatra and his temper for the falling out with the gaming commission, later telling a CIA informant Sinatra cost him half a million dollars.
“That bastard and his big mouth,” Giancana said on a wire tap. “All he had to do was to keep quiet, let the attorneys handle it, apologize and get a thirty to sixty day suspension. But no, Frank has to get on the phone with that damn big mouth of his and now we’ve lost the whole damn place.”
Nevada’s Governor Grant Sawyer supported the Gaming Control Board’s decision even after JFK, on a visit to Vegas, urged Sawyer to take it easy on Sinatra. But that’s all the Kennedy’s would do for the crooner. Lawford later said in light of the Giancana debacle and Monroe’s death that the family was done with Sinatra for good.
Hank Sanicola and Sinatra also watched their friendship of 30 years dissolve in time to their partnership in the Cal Neva. The pair never spoke again. Sinatra drove to Sanicola’s funeral a decade-and-a-half later, but never walked into the church.
It’s not that a restored Cal Neva won’t bring some much-needed life back to the shores of Crystal Bay in December. The Boulder Bay project, a mid-aughts aspirational revival of the Tahoe Biltmore, ran into financial troubles and was nearly auctioned off to pay the owners’ back taxes earlier this year before additional funding was secured. The Cal Neva’s across-the-way neighbor’s long-term revival remains in doubt.
Adjacent to the Cal Neva property, the Crystal Bay Club remains viable as a tourist-driven casino and nightclub and sometimes concert destination, but has no overnight accommodations.
The Cal Neva has always been the spot with the most history, relevance and beds at the California/Nevada border of Lake Tahoe north. A refreshed property with an invigorated local(ish) ownership could, after 50 years of darkness, turn a spotlight on the state line once more.
Like the Cal Neva itself, the old Lake Tahoe—with all its black-and-white charm—lives only in memory. Currently, a gray ankle monitor of highway encircles the dying lake like a buzzard. The region’s slow fade is best reflected by Mother Nature’s current revolt.
In this way, recalling a seminal property’s storied but controversial past isn’t looking for answers; isn’t seeking to update norms to current cultural or environmental standards; isn’t a dramatic shift to match the change in setting.
What a restored Cal Neva really means is history will repeat itself…maybe for the last time.