Clark Gable Las Vegas



Ocean’s 11 is one of those pictures, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that’s a time capsule of a bygone era. In fact, Audrey was making the latter while the former continued a long and successful run as the hip and swingin’ hit of 1960. Ocean’s 11 was what Frank Sinatra considered to be “a gas.”

First of all, let’s get this straight: The remake with Clooney doesn’t exist to me; it never has, it never will. I’m sure they one-upped the smugness and self-satisfaction of the original; hell, I’m sure they boosted it to modern-day excess, but it really doesn’t matter because I won’t ever see that particular version or its sequels.

Ocean’s 11, directed by already-a-legend Lewis Milestone and starring Sinatra and his cronies, is a personal picture for me because of my own connection to Las Vegas. As explored in Fireball, Vegas is where Carole Lombard and her 21 companions last walked the earth, departure point of TWA Flight 3, launch point of the rescue, nexus of Gable’s imploding world during his lost weekend of January 1942. As Ocean’s 11 was being shot at the beginning of 1960, the El Rancho Las Vegas still operated. This first attraction in Clark County, the trailblazer, sprawled at the intersection of Rt. 91 (now Las Vegas Boulevard) and Sahara Road, and it was here in the motor court where Gable holed up with his MGM handlers and stared out at Mt. Potosi across the vast brown desert plain. Ma’s up there. Ma can’t be dead. Ma’s gonna walk through that door and yell “Surprise!” and laugh her fool head off because this is her greatest prank ever.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

El Rancho Vegas as seen from the air in the 1940s. The casino building at center would burn in June of 1960, but the motor court would continue to operate without a casino through the 1960s. Oh, to be assigned to Gable’s bungalow and feel the ghosts.

That’s my Las Vegas, which still largely existed in 1960. Hell, Gable himself still existed in 1960 as Ocean’s 11 completed production. In 1960 he was baking in the sun farther up north in Nevada making The Misfits, hands serving as sifters for a crumbling Marilyn Monroe. There are other ties between Carole Lombard and Ocean’s 11, namely Cesar Romero. How is it possible that nobody’s done a book on Butch Romero, for God’s sake? Butch escorted Carole to the White Mayfair Ball in January 1936—where on that very night she and Gable began their tempestuous, sex-filled, hijinx-laced relationship that burned like a torch until the moment plane met mountain six years later. Romero was known to starlets of the 1930s as the king of escorts, which you’d think meant he was a playboy, but word had it he was gay and therefore deemed safe for the female population of a Hollywood where every straight man was an octopus and most had the power to make or break a girl’s career. Lombard loved Butch like a brother, and when she deserted him for Gable at the ball, no problem—he knew everybody in the room and the party went on. Romero would blaze a Hollywood picture career that ran all the way from the early 1930s to 1990 when he wrapped up with some Disney live-action programmers before passing on at 86. Playing New York mobster Duke Santos, an observer as five Vegas casinos are hit by Danny Ocean and his gang of ex-paratroopers, Romero was exactly at mid-career. Ahead he couldn’t even imagine three years of steady work as the most visible and garish villain on television—Batman’s arch-enemy, the Joker.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Still a force at age 53, Cesar Romero pauses from a shave to steal Ocean’s 11.

Cesar Romero was an actor’s actor, six-foot-three of pure sophistication. Am I the only one who thinks Romero stole Ocean’s 11 out from under the noses of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop? Back when Warner Bros. made Ocean’s 11, the big news, the coup, was signing veteran character actor Akim Tamiroff as the comic relief. Only problem is Tamiroff has stood the test of time about as well as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with the unfortunate complication that Tamiroff has a lot more screen time. That’s one huge problem because Tamiroff’s performance makes me want to transport back in time just so I can strangle him and save my own viewing experience 60 years in the future.

Another big drawback of Ocean’s 11 for me is that smugness of the Rat Pack and what appears to be ad-libbing in several scenes, each one dragging the narrative to a dead stop. There is so much ad-libbing, in fact, that you go, “What the hell are they talking about?” They’re having too good a time, their egos always nearing the big POP that comes with overinflation. At points like this in Ocean’s 11, or in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Holly Golightly jumps out of character to sing Moon River on a fire escape, I have to remind myself to relax and just go with the flow.

There’s a third debit with Danny Ocean’s picture, and that’s a representation of four types of women, and four only, populating his world:

1) Superbitch—represented by Patrice Wymore.

2) Pushover—Angie Dickenson as Danny’s estranged but loyal wife.

3) Ditz—Ilka Chase as Peter Lawford’s rich and addled mother.

4) Stripper/harem girl—all the babes who are massaging or ogling the Rat Packers or being ogled by them or merely sashaying through a scene in a tight skirt.

Women are to be seen and condescended to in Danny Ocean’s world, which was fine in the white WASP U.S. society of 1960 and still plays in Donald Trump’s America, but, boy, it’s not a world that any woman I know today in the professional world would sign up to populate.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Directly above the cab of the dump truck, there looms Potosi, the tallest peak in the Vegas area. Where that high stretch forms a  little saddle or V, roughly in its center, Flight 3 hit. In this shot from Ocean’s 11, Sammy Davis Jr., the dark blur at left, lugs duffel bags of cash pilfered from Vegas casinos.

Whenever Ocean’s 11 plays on television, I drop what I’m doing and wait for the panoramic exteriors of Vegas where in the distant background you can see the encircling mountains. I always look for Potosi, the mighty giant that swatted a plane out of the sky. Potosi features a distinctive knob on one end and its best cameo comes toward the climax when Sammy Davis Jr. is rescuing the duffels of looted cash from the dump. There beyond the vast, empty desert basin of old-days Vegas looms Mt. Potosi, bigger than life. I think of the wreckage up there as it must have looked in 1960 before the internet began luring souvenir hunters to the spot. I think of ethereal Carole gazing off in the distance and exclaiming, “Hey, they’re making a picture down there! Look, I can see the trucks and the reflectors and cameras!” I think of the El Rancho Vegas, soon to go up in a Viking pyre. I think of the funeral parlor on nearby Fremont Street where Gable picked out caskets for his wife, mother-in-law, and press agent. For me, Ocean’s 11 is much more than a heist picture; it’s a a set of nesting dolls, an onion of unfolding Vegas chronology, the history of a town and of Lombard, Gable, the Rat Pack, and an author who lived and re-lived a particular weekend in hell.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

At the picture’s melancholy conclusion, the men of the heist take a walk in front of the Sands.

Fireball in Las Vegas

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Las Vegas features a giant that dwarfs even the mightiest casino. That giant is Mt. Potosi, which looms high in the southwestern sky and can be seen from nearly every vantage point in town. You can’t see it if you’re standing behind the Luxor, or Caesar’s, or the other casinos, but if you’re out and about, Potosi can’t be missed. Potosi is where life ended for Carole Lombard and where life began for Fireball. Each year when I’d visit Las Vegas on business, there would be Potosi, never an inviting sight, but always a compelling sight. I knew the wreckage of Flight 3 was up there, and I knew that one day I would go see it. This is not new information to anyone who has read the book, but I bring up the subject of Potosi again because I just returned from my most important visit yet to Las Vegas after four TV interviews and two on radio, and a Saturday lecture at the impressive Sahara West Library on Sahara Avenue.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

On Las Vegas NBC affiliate Channel 3 with Tom Hawley talking about the 1942 plane crash near their town. [Clicking on the image takes you to the TV segment.]

Sahara is a street that’s important to the narrative of Fireball, because at the intersection of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, Clark Gable spent the longest weekend of his life, waiting in a bungalow under heavy guard at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel for word on the fate of his wife. Back then the El Rancho stood alone in desert as the southernmost point in town and the first of the modern casinos. Now the site of the El Rancho is one of the last remaining empty lots in that stretch of the Vegas Strip. Nothing’s been there since the main building, the Opera House theater and casino, burned to the ground in 1960 during a Betty Grable appearance (Betty reportedly lost $10,000 in costumes that night). The owner tried to keep going on just the cluster of bungalows around the casino-in-cinders, but it didn’t work.

One of those bungalows had been Gable’s, and I have stood at the spot and pondered what he went through that weekend as he stared at Potosi, what his MGM handlers went through, and Gable’s friends, who rushed to his side by the carload when they heard that Carole’s plane was down. My appearance on that street, in that city, with Potosi visible just to the southwest, was what I can only describe as meant to be.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The first modern Las Vegas casino complex, the El Rancho Vegas, along Highway 91 just south of town. Here Clark Gable endured the longest weekend of his life.

On Saturday the story poured out of me to the assembled crowd of locals; I showed two videos and then came the Q&A. It was fantastic to get the perspective of people who have lived with the story all their lives. One woman remembered as a little girl looking at Potosi and seeing the polished aluminum of the wreck gleaming in the sun. TWA had tried to dynamite the mountainside to cover over the site, but their plan failed and locals for years afterward remembered the eerie, reflective glow of the right wing against the cliff wall.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Attendees of the Sahara West event watch one of the GoodKnight Books videos.

Attending on Saturday was well-known Southern California poet Lee Mallory, whose father and stepfather were pilots. Lee’s Uncle Harry grew up in Goodsprings and learned about the crash and aftermath from people who lived it. In fact, those eyewitnesses passed on relics from the crash to Harry, who had them built into a shadow box with brass name plates, and this incredible history display is now in Lee’s possession. Lee hadn’t yet read the book but was able to pepper me with questions that hit on many key facts and myths related to the event. Another attendee firing impressive questions was named Dennis. He had visited local spots connected to Flight 3, like the site of the El Rancho and the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, where Gable supposedly drank his way through the weekend. No doubt the Pioneer was a player in the tragedy, if not Gable’s home base, because it was here that reporters congregated during days of rescue and recovery. It was a practical matter: in an area so remote, the Pioneer featured the closest telephone and the best way for reporters to get their stories out.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Signing books after the lecture and Q&A.

The Sahara West Library is a state-of-the-art facility. I haven’t seen better audio and video capabilities anywhere, and I want to thank Marci Chiarandini for fantastic support throughout the planning and execution of the event.

We also snuck down to L.A. for a couple of days. I paid my usual respects to Carole, Clark, and Petey at Forest Lawn, and we stopped in at Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Encino, which is currently featuring a Fireball tie-in. Patrons bringing a copy of the book into the store receive a discounted meal. The crazy thing is that Maria’s is located near the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Petit Avenue, and Petit Avenue was the address of the Gable ranch. George Healy of Maria’s, who read Fireball and has become one of its leading proponents, wasn’t aware that one of the key locations in the book was less than a quarter mile away! It’s just the latest in a thousand weird little coincidences and ironies around Fireball, which is a very special book to me and, as I’m finding, to a growing number of people around the country.