COHOES — Just as Frank Sinatra opened the then-Knickerbocker Arena, Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show is set to help reopen the city’s storied music hall.
“I’m actually surprised we’re coming to Cohoes,” said Hackett, calling in from his hotel room in Washington D.C. last week. “Because, last time when we were in the Palace Theatre in Albany… the mayor was involved. I forget his name, but he was very tanned in the wintertime. And, I made fun of him.” Hackett said Mayor Jerry Jennings took the ribbing in stride, and everyone had a good time. But, “I said, ‘Boy, we’d love to come back,’ and he said, ‘It will be a cold day.’”
Well, it’s still too early to say whether or not Saturday, Oct. 1 will be a cold day when Hackett and his crew play two shows (2:30 and 7:30 p.m.) at the Cohoes Music Hall, but the Pack is certainly back in the Capital District.
Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show features performances by Hackett (Joey Bishop), Angelo Babbaro (Frank Sinatra), Louie Velez (Sammy Davis, Jr.) and Tom Wallek (Dean Martin).
As producer and director, Hackett is the natural anchor to today’s production. As one of the stage players, he reintroduces audiences to “Uncle Joey.” In the Rat Pack, compared to the larger-than-life talents that surrounded him, Bishop considered himself a mouse. As was the title of his biography, “Mouse in the Rat Pack: The Joey Bishop Story” by Michael Seth Starr. Dead panned and sometimes self-effacing on stage, Hackett said it was Bishop who wrote the jokes for Martin, Davis and Sinatra. And, whatever he may have ad libbed on one night, one of the other three would steal and use for the next evening’s act. During Sinatra’s Rat Pack days he had already received unprecedented accolades for achievements in music, television and movies. Yet, Starr wrote, it was Sinatra who called Bishop “The hub of the big wheel” for anchoring the group.
“He was very bright, very quick on his feet,” said Hackett. “I think he deferred to those guys overtly, in that he respected Frank and Dean and Sammy. He really was unbelievably funny, very quick-witted and held his own with them. Which is why Frank kept him around.”
Hackett said Bishop may have been a questionable choice at the onset of the Rat Pack. Members of the Rat Pack were known to drink. Except for Bishop. Martin, Davis and Sinatra were established stars, their names on top of the marquee at each show. His would be on the bottom. “Only tall dogs knew I was working there,” he joked on the Dinah Shore show in 1960. Sinatra was the head of the pack. He’s credited with putting the group together, though there are many accounts that date the Rat Pack back to Humphrey Bogart. Urban legend has it that Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall, labeled Bogart, Sinatra, and their band of friends “a pack of rats,” once they returned from a night of drinking. The name stuck around even after Bogart’s death in 1957. In his stead, Sinatra became the head of the pack, and Hackett said, he knew talent.
“I think it’s the quality of the music and the performances. I mean, you have in 1960 a perfect storm of entertainment. You had Frank Sinatra, at the time he was the No. 1 box office attraction, the No. 1 recording artist and a live gate attraction. No other entertainer in the history of show business has held all three monikers at the same time. Then you add Dean Martin. Off his successful role with Jerry Lewis, going out on his own. Sammy Davis, who Sinatra thought was the most talented performer he’d ever seen. And, Joey Bishop, a wild card. You didn’t know what to expect, but turned out to be the catalyst to everything. You just had a perfect storm of incredible entertainment.”
Hackett’s father was great friends with Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Bishop. Sandy was Bishop’s choice to portray him in any production involving the Rat Pack. Producer, Lisa Dawn Miller, has her own personal connection to the Rat Pack. Her father, legendary songwriter Ron Miller, wrote “For Once In My Life” (recorded by every member of the Rat Pack) and many other huge hits. Together, Hackett and Miller have created an authentic theatrical production based on the musical and comedic legacy of the Rat Pack, capturing the relationship, respect, love and laughter of that once-in-a-lifetime moment in history.
This upcoming production will also serve as a homecoming for one of its stars.
Velez, a native of Amsterdam, has been portraying Davis for several years. He has appeared in every major hotel on the strip in Las Vegas. And, in 1992, the City of Las Vegas invited him to pay tribute to Davis at the Dedication Ceremony of the Sammy Davis Jr. Plaza, with Davis’ entire family in attendance.
Velez plays Davis at a time when the gifted entertainer received a relentless barrage of prejudice. On stage, however, he was protected. Sinatra is said to have called Davis the best entertainer he ever seen.
The 1960s were defined by civil rights marches and war protests, but it was also defined by four cats dressed like executives, standing in front of big bands, equipped with catchy song tunes, fancy footwork and witty banter. The jokes of yesterday probably wouldn’t fly with today’s audiences who would view some jabs as insensitive.
“Then, in 1960, when Joey ad libbed and picked up Sammy and said, ‘I’d like to thank the NAACP for this award,’ it got a big laugh,” said Hackett. “Then, the next night, Dean picked Sammy up did the joke. And, then everybody picked up Sammy and did the joke. … Nowadays, is that a funny joke. I still think it’s a funny joke, but a lot of people have heard it and some people would be offended.” (Never mind we’re talking about a group of friends who worked in part with one another for the better part of five decades.) But, that’s not how Hackett looks at jokes. Much like his father Buddy, Hackett’s litmus paper is simple: “If it’s funny, it’s funny.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.