Cal Neva Resort and “Bad Times at the El Royale”

Cal Neva’s famous swimming pool.

Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction, the Cal Neva Resort Hotel Spa & Casino in Crystal Bay, Nev., will be reopening its doors in its original capacity as a lodging casino, according to project managers.

In January 2018, billionaire Larry Ellison, CEO of data services company Oracle, purchased the partially renovated complex for nearly $36 million. The property has been closed since 2013 when a California development company went bankrupt while pursuing an ambitious remodeling of the resort. It’s estimated that it will take another $23.8 million to finish the renovation and no timeline for completion has been announced.

First opened as a casino in the early 1930s, the Cal Neva reached its apex as a tour-de-force of music and celebrity in the early 1960s when legendary singer/actor Frank Sinatra became managing partner at the hotel-casino. The resort had hosted some of the most famous entertainers in the movie industry and performing arts including Hollywood luminaries such as actress Clara Bow, who refused to pay her $13,000 gambling debt.

In 1935, an agent for MGM discovered 13-year-old vaudevillian Frances Ethel Gumm while she was singing at the Cal Neva. The talented teenager took the stage name Judy Garland and went on to perform in many films, including as a star in the 1939 movie classic, “The Wizard of Oz.” Crooner Bing Crosby also performed regularly at the Cal Neva, and in 1934 and 1935 he hosted his first Crosby Tournaments at the Old Brockway Golf Course.

Hollywood is still in love with the Cal Neva, even though its doors are closed at the moment. A new motion picture, “Bad Times at the El Royale,” in theaters now, is a film noir loosely based on some of the sordid history associated with the Cal Neva and its location straddling the state line of California and Nevada.

Here’s the official synopsis: “Seven strangers, each with a secret to bury, meet at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one fateful night, everyone will have a last shot at redemption … before everything goes to hell.”

After World War II, the Cal Neva surged as a popular entertainment venue, but when Frank Sinatra was managing partner in the early 1960s is when it really soared. Sinatra’s roots in Nevada go back to August 1951 when the entertainer arrived in Reno to divorce his first wife, Nancy. “Old Blue Eyes” was joined at the Riverside Hotel by actress Ava Gardner, his lover at the time. During his stay, Sinatra and Gardner spent the Labor Day weekend at Lake Tahoe, drinking and gambling at the Cal Neva Lodge.

Sinatra established his first financial interest in Nevada gaming when he purchased a partnership in the Sands Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. Business was so good that that in 1960 he bought a 25 percent stake in the Cal Neva Lodge at his old stomping grounds on Tahoe’s North Shore. For the next three years, he entertained the rich and famous, including John and Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and the famous Rat Pack of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, as well as some of his friends in the Mafia. But his Sierra Shangri-La was not to last.

Sinatra re-vamped the overly rustic Cal Neva Lodge into a world-class casino. The Sinatra Celebrity Showroom was constructed as a venue for big-name entertainment and tunnels were excavated so performers and celebrities could travel between the showroom and the bungalows behind the hotel unseen.

Sinatra’s reputation and friendships in the music and entertainment industry drew movie stars to Lake Tahoe like a Hollywood casting call. During the summer of 1961, classic acts such as Mickey Rooney, the Andrews Sisters and Vic Damone performed there. Sinatra and Dean Martin sang duets, crooning to an audience that included actress Marilyn Monroe, a frequent guest.

In August 1963, Nevada’s Gaming Control Board accused Sinatra of allowing known mobster Sam Giancana to stay at one of the resort’s cottages. Nevada’s governor, Grant Sawyer, had empowered the Board to clean up the industry’s shady reputation in the Silver State. They established a List of Excluded Persons, known to the press and general public as the Black Book.

Giancana, a hoodlum of national repute, figured prominently in that black book. Giancana was Chicago’s top mafia boss, the successor to Al Capone. As a top member in La Cosa Nostra, Giancana controlled most of the organized crime in the Chicago area. He had served time in prison and been arrested more than 70 times. It was estimated that by 1960 Giancana had ordered the murders of more than 200 men.

In the summer of 1963, Giancana fled Chicago to avoid a subpoena by a federal grand jury. He later showed up at the Cal Neva. His presence was a serious infraction of Nevada gaming rules. Gov. Sawyer had figured that Sinatra might be trouble and he told the board: “Because he is Sinatra, it is obvious that we will have a problem enforcing regulations against him. Do not be intimidated by him.”

Sawyer later said, “My experience with Sinatra has been that he sets his own rules; he does his own thing, regardless, and he has violated laws with impunity and bought his way out of most problems if he could.”

Nevada gaming commission chairman Edward A. Olsen did what few people have ever done; he stood up to Sinatra. In August 1963, Olsen issued subpoenas against the famous entertainer when he learned Giancana had stayed at the Cal Neva Lodge with his girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire.

Sinatra called Olsen and threatened the commission chairman. Olsen realized that he was experiencing firsthand Sinatra’s street-tough business methodology. The battle between Sinatra and the gaming commission made national headlines and on Oct. 22, 1963, the Gaming Board revoked Sinatra’s license, stating that he had brought discredit on the state’s gambling industry. It was an economic setback for the North Lake Tahoe gambling scene, which is still waiting to see so much talent and entertainment in one location.