|Story by Shannon Wianecki
All photos courtesy MKT Enterprise
In 1951 Las Vegas was set to take off. Old cowpoke-themed resorts along dusty Highway 91 were giving way to glitzy new gambling halls bankrolled by gangsters. Showgirls in feathers and skimpy bikinis strutted across casino stages, where outrageous salaries lured the biggest names in entertainment: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Liberace. But it wasn’t until a knockout Hawaiian singer and guitarist named Mary Kaye suggested the creation of an all-night lounge that Sin City hit its twenty-four-hour stride.
|The Mary Kaye Trio featured Mary's brother Norman on bass and Frank Ross on accordion; the three created the Vegas lounge act, inaugurated the city's dusk-'til-dawn era and built a huge following. "You couldn't get in to see the Mary Kaye Trio with a $100 bill," remembers Vegas producer Pierre Cossette. The trio recorded fifteen albums and twenty-one singles in its heyday.|
Mary might be relatively unknown today, but in her prime she was a huge star. A woman who was reputedly descended from Hawaiian royalty, she helped transform Vegas into a round-the-clock party town. Her eponymous band, the Mary Kaye Trio, epitomized the lounge era: stylish, coy and impossibly energetic.
During its twenty-year run the trio— with Mary singing, her brother Norman Kaye on bass and accordionist Frank Ross supplying a steady stream of humor— played the hippest hotspots around the globe: New York’s La Vie en Rose, London’s Talk of the Town and the Sydney Opera House. It recorded fifteen albums and twenty-one singles and appeared in film and on television: 77 Sunset Strip, The Dinah Shore Show, The Perry Como Show. But it was that Vegas shift in the wee hours, the one that attracted everyone from Judy Garland to Elvis, that gave the group the most notoriety.
The whole thing could have been a flop. The trio was touring the United States when its manager, Billy Burton, landed the band a four-week gig at a Vegas hotel called the Last Frontier. The musicians arrived to discover a hitch: The showroom was already occupied by a bigger name star who wouldn’t budge.
Mary—with plenty of pluck and nowhere else to go—asked the management to make room for the trio. In 2003 she described what happened next to Vintage Guitar magazine: “I suggested a stage be built in the bar area, and it could be called a ‘lounge.’ Jack Kozloff, the owner, and Eddie Fox, the general manager, had it constructed immediately.” The buxom brunette and her band agreed to play from 1 to 6 a.m. on the new stage. They were the first all-night act in town.
“Up until that time there was no such thing as a ‘lounge act’ in Las Vegas. Not even a lone piano player,” writes influential producer Pierre Cossette in his memoir. He claims he concocted the idea of the lounge act to get out of hot water, since he was the one who’d double-booked the showroom. “The concept was new and scary to everyone,” he says. “The casino bosses didn’t want to see audiences leaving the big show and walking right through the casino to catch a smaller show in the lounge. I was extremely nervous. The one thing you did not want to do in those days was cross the casino bosses.”
The gamble paid off. During the trio’s first week, Frank Sinatra and the infamous Rat Pack stopped in, leaving behind $120,000 on the tables. Instead of dwindling off after dinner, the high-rolling crowd came to hear the Hawaiian crooner and kept the casino cranking through the night. Within weeks, every casino boss in town was building a lounge. The dusk-’til-dawn era was born.
For the next fifteen years the Mary Kaye Trio was a Vegas fixture, advertised on nearly every marquee on the Strip. Celebrities flocked to their late-night shows. According to Cossette, “You couldn’t get in to see the Mary Kaye Trio with a $100 bill.” Sinatra and friends, dressed in sharkskin suits and fedoras, became regular lounge cats. Sammy Davis, Jr., jokingly called the trio’s fourth member, tapped congas in the corner. Marlene Dietrich and Lenny Bruce sat ringside, sipping martinis.
“The [Mary Kaye Trio] changed the history of Las Vegas,” producer George Schlatter told the Las Vegas Review- Journal in February 2007. Schlatter, who went on to become the producer of Laugh In, was a booking agent in the 1950s and saw the trio take Vegas by storm. “They were all over the room, and they were hysterical. Anybody who saw the act realized this was the most sound you ever got out of three pieces.”