Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Dean Martin: Legend
One of the most popular and enduring American entertainers of the mid-20th Century, Martin was nicknamed the "King of Cool" due to his seemingly effortless charisma and self-assuredness. A member of the "Rat Pack," Martin was a major star in four areas of show business: concert stage/nightclubs, recordings, motion pictures, and television. He was the host of the successful television variety program The Dean Martin Show (1965–1974), and subsequently The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts (1974–1985).
Martin's relaxed, warbling crooning voice earned him dozens of hit singles including his signature songs "Memories Are Made of This", "That's Amore", "Everybody Loves Somebody", "You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You", "Sway", "Volare" and "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?"
Martin was born in Steubenville, Ohio, to an Italian father, Gaetano, and an Italian-American mother, Angela Crocetti (née Barra). His father was from Montesilvano, Pescara, Abruzzo, Italy, and his mother was of Neapolitan and Sicilian ancestry. Martin had an older brother named Bill. Martin spoke only Italian until he started school. He attended Grant Elementary School in Steubenville, and took up the drums as a hobby as a teenager. He was the target of much ridicule for his broken English and ultimately dropped out of Steubenville High School in the 10th grade because he thought that he was smarter than his teachers. He delivered bootleg liquor, served as a speakeasy croupier, was a blackjack dealer, worked in a steel mill and boxed as a welterweight. He grew up a neighbor to Jimmy the Greek.
Eventually, Martin gave up boxing. He worked as a roulette stickman and croupier in an illegal casino behind a tobacco shop, where he had started as a stock boy. At the same time, he sang with local bands, calling himself "Dino Martini" (after the famous Metropolitan Opera tenor, Nino Martini). He got his first break working for the Ernie McKay Orchestra. He sang in a crooning style influenced by Harry Mills (of the Mills Brothers), among others. In the early 1940s, he started singing for bandleader Sammy Watkins, who suggested he change his name to Dean Martin.
In October 1941, Martin married Elizabeth Anne McDonald. During their marriage they had four children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1949. Martin worked for various bands throughout the early 1940s, mostly on looks and personality until he developed his own singing style. Martin famously flopped at the Riobamba, a high class nightclub in New York, when he followed Frank Sinatra in 1943, but it was the setting for their meeting.
Martin was drafted into the United States Army in 1944 during World War II, serving a year stationed in Akron, Ohio. He was then reclassified as 4-F and was discharged (possibly because of a double hernia; Jerry Lewis referred to the surgery Martin needed for this in his autobiography).
By 1946, Martin was doing relatively well, but was still little more than an East Coast nightclub singer with a common style, similar to that of Bing Crosby. He drew audiences to the clubs where he played, but he inspired none of the fanatical popularity enjoyed by Sinatra.
A biography of Martin titled Dean Martin: King of the Road, by Michael Freedland, alleged that he had links to the Mafia early in his career. According to this book, Martin received help with his singing career from members of the Chicago Outfit, who owned saloons in the city, and later performed in shows hosted by these bosses when he was a star. The mob bosses were Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana. Freedland suggests that Martin felt little sympathy for the Mafia and did small favors for them only if it was not inconvenient for him. Another book, The Animal in Hollywood by John L. Smith, depicted Martin's longtime friendship with Mafia mobsters John Roselli, Luca Cosentino, and Anthony Fiato. Smith suggested that Fiato did many favors for Martin, such as recovering money from two swindlers who had cheated his ex-wife Betty out of thousands of dollars of her alimony.
Martin and Lewis's official debut together occurred at Atlantic City's 500 Club on July 24th, 1946, and they were not well received. The owner, Skinny D'Amato, warned them that if they did not come up with a better act for their second show later that night, they would be fired. Huddling together in the alley behind the club, Lewis and Martin agreed to "go for broke", to throw out the pre-scripted gags and to improvise. Martin sang and Lewis came out dressed as a busboy, dropping plates and making a shambles of both Martin's performance and the club's sense of decorum until Lewis was chased from the room as Martin pelted him with breadrolls. They did slapstick, reeled off old vaudeville jokes, and did whatever else popped into their heads at the moment. This time, the audience doubled over in laughter. This success led to a series of well-paying engagements on the Eastern seaboard, culminating in a triumphant run at New York's Copacabana. Patrons were convulsed by the act, which consisted primarily of Lewis interrupting and heckling Martin while he was trying to sing, and ultimately the two of them chasing each other around the stage and having as much fun as possible. The secret, both said, is that they essentially ignored the audience and played to each other.
The team made its TV debut on the very first broadcast of CBS-TV network's Toast of the Town (later called The Ed Sullivan Show) with Ed Sullivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein appearing on this same inaugural telecast on June 20, 1948. A radio series commenced in 1949, the same year Martin and Lewis were signed by Paramount producer Hal B. Wallis as comedy relief for the movie My Friend Irma.
In Dean & Me, Lewis calls Martin one of the great comic geniuses of all time. But the harsh comments from the critics, as well as frustration with the formulaic similarity of Martin and Lewis movies, which producer Hal Wallis stubbornly refused to change, led to Martin's dissatisfaction. He put less enthusiasm into the work, leading to escalating arguments with Lewis. They finally could not work together, especially after Martin told his partner he was "nothing to me but a dollar sign". The act broke up in 1956, 10 years to the day from the first official teaming.
Martin's first solo film, Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957), was a box office failure. He was still popular as a singer, but with rock and roll surging to the fore, the era of the pop crooner was waning.
Never being totally comfortable in films, Martin wanted to be known as a real actor. Though offered a fraction of his former salary to co-star in a war drama, The Young Lions (1957), he was ecstatic to receive the part because it would be a dramatic showcase with the two most intriguing young actors of the period and he could learn from Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. Tony Randall already had the part, but talent agency MCA realized that with this movie, Martin would become a triple threat: they could make money from his work in night clubs, movies, and records. Martin replaced Randall and the film turned out to be the beginning of Martin's spectacular comeback. Success would continue as Martin starred alongside Frank Sinatra for the first time in a highly acclaimed Vincente Minnelli drama, Some Came Running (1958). By the mid '60s, Martin was a top movie, recording, television, and nightclub star, while Lewis' film career declined. Martin was acclaimed for his performance as Dude in Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks and also starring John Wayne and singer Ricky Nelson. He teamed up again with Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), somewhat unconvincingly cast as brothers.
As a singer, Martin copied the styles of Harry Mills (of the Mills Brothers), Bing Crosby, and Perry Como until he developed his own and could hold his own in duets with Sinatra and Crosby. Like Sinatra, he could not read music, but he recorded more than 100 albums and 600 songs. His signature tune, "Everybody Loves Somebody", knocked The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" out of the number-one spot in the United States in 1964. This was followed by the similarly styled "The Door is Still Open to My Heart", which reached number six later that year. Elvis Presley was said to have been influenced by Martin, and patterned "Love Me Tender" after his style. Martin, like Elvis, was influenced by country music. By 1965, some of Martin's albums, such as Dean "Tex" Martin, The Hit Sound of Dean Martin, Welcome to My World and Gentle On My Mind, were composed of country and western songs made famous by artists such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens. Martin hosted country performers on his TV show and was named "Man Of the Year" by the Country Music Association in 1966. "Ain't That a Kick in the Head?", a song Martin performed in Ocean's 11 that never became a hit at the time, has enjoyed a spectacular revival in the media and pop culture.
For three decades, Martin was among the most popular acts in Las Vegas. Martin sang and was one of the smoothest comics in the business, benefiting from the decade of raucous comedy with Lewis. Martin's daughter, Gail, also sang in Vegas and on his TV show, co-hosting his summer replacement series on NBC. Though often thought of as a ladies' man, Martin spent a lot of time with his family; as second wife Jeanne put it, prior to the couple's divorce, "He was home every night for dinner."
The Martin-Sinatra-Davis-Lawford-Bishop group referred to themselves as "The Summit" or "The Clan" and never as "The Rat Pack", although this has remained their identity in the popular imagination. The men made films together, formed an important part of the Hollywood social scene in those years, and were politically influential (through Lawford's marriage to Patricia Kennedy, sister of President John F. Kennedy).
The Rat Pack were legendary for their Las Vegas Strip performances. For example, the marquee at the Sands Hotel might read DEAN MARTIN---MAYBE FRANK---MAYBE SAMMY. Las Vegas rooms were at a premium when the Rat Pack would appear, with many visitors sleeping in hotel lobbies or cars to get a chance to see the three men together. Their appearances were unprecedentedly valuable because the city would always become flooded with high rollers, wealthy gamblers who would routinely leave substantial fortunes in the casinos' coffers. Their act (always in tuxedo) consisted of each singing individual numbers, duets and trios, along with much seemingly improvised slapstick and chatter. In the socially charged 1960s, their jokes revolved around adult themes, such as Sinatra's infamous womanizing and Martin's legendary drinking, as well as many at the expense of Davis's race and religion. The Rat Pack was largely responsible for the integration of Las Vegas. Sinatra and Martin were active supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and refused to perform in clubs that would not allow African-American or Jewish performers.
Posthumously, the Rat Pack has experienced a popular revival, inspiring the George Clooney/Brad Pitt "Ocean's" trilogy.
Martin's second wife was Jeanne Biegger. A stunning blonde, Jeanne could sometimes be spotted in Martin's audience while he was still married to Betty. Their marriage lasted 24 years (1949–1973) and produced three children. Their children were Dean Paul (November 17th, 1951 – March 21st, 1987; plane crash), Ricci James (born 1953) and Gina Caroline (born 1956), whose marriage made Martin the father-in-law of The Beach Boys' Carl Wilson.
Martin's third marriage, to Catherine Hawn, lasted three years; Martin would initiate divorce proceedings. One of Martin's managers spotted her at the reception desk of a hair salon on Rodeo Drive, then arranged a meeting. Martin adopted Hawn's daughter Sasha. Martin's uncle was Leonard Barr, who appeared in several of his shows.
Martin returned to films briefly with appearances in the two star-laden, yet critically panned, The Cannonball Run movies. He also had a minor hit single with "Since I Met You Baby" and made his first music video, which appeared on MTV. The video was created by Martin's youngest son, Ricci.
On March 21st, 1987, Martin's son, Dean Paul (formerly Dino of the '60s "teeny-bopper" rock group Dino, Desi & Billy), was killed when his F-4 Phantom II jet fighter crashed while flying with the California Air National Guard. A much-touted tour with Davis and Sinatra in 1988 sputtered. On one occasion, he infuriated Sinatra when he turned to him and muttered, "Frank, what the hell are we doing up here?" Martin, who always responded best to a club audience, felt lost in the huge stadiums they were performing in (at Sinatra's insistence), and he was not interested in drinking until dawn after performances. His final Vegas shows were at Bally's Hotel in 1990. There he had his final reunion with Jerry Lewis on his 72nd birthday. Martin's last two TV appearances involved tributes to his former Rat Pack members. On December 8th, 1989, he joined many stars of the entertainment industry in Sammy Davis, Jr's 60th anniversary celebration, which aired only a few weeks before Davis died from throat cancer. In December 1990, he congratulated Frank Sinatra on his 75th birthday special.
Martin was diagnosed with lung cancer at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in September 1993, and in early 1995 retired from public life. He died of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema at his Beverly Hills home on Christmas morning 1995, at age 78. The lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honor. His tombstone features the epitaph "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime", the name of his signature song.
Martin is buried at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles.
In 1996, Ohio Rte. 7, through Steubenville, was rededicated as Dean Martin Boulevard. Road signs bearing an Al Hirschfeld caricature of Martin's likeness officially designate the stretch, along with a state historical marker bearing a small picture and brief biography of Martin, in the Gazebo Park at Route 7 and North Fourth Street.
An annual Dean Martin Festival celebration is held in Steubenville. Impersonators, friends and family of Martin, and various entertainers, many of Italian ancestry, appear.
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