Jack Entratter and the Copa Girls

Copa Girls performing in Mambo

Jack Entratter was no prude, although he didn’t gamble, drink, smoke, or ever let his girls go onstage nude. Entratter was Las Vegas’ resident showman and producer par excellence, who established his Sands Hotel—"A Place in the Sun"—as one of the hottest entertainment spots in the country.

According to journalist John Gunther writing of Las Vegas in his Inside USA, “Jack Entratter is responsible for the transformation of Las Vegas from a little desert village to a town boiling over with glamour.” Entratter was a nightclub guy—starting as a reservation clerk at the French Casino in Miami. In 1936 he followed the seasonal migration back to New York to become a floorman (a.k.a. bouncer) at the French Casino there. In 1938 while still in his early twenties Sherman Billingsley made him a host at the Stork Club, New York’s most illustrious and exclusive restaurant. In 1940 he moved to the Copacabana Club, one of Manhattan’s new hotspots, as a “floorman,” eventually becoming show producer and co-owner. He excelled at finding and booking new talent such as Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Peter Lind Hayes, Johnnie Ray, and Frankie Laine. And he had a sharp eye for women. As show producer Entratter established a chorus line, the Copa Girls, which he personally selected.

In 1952 his business associates invested in a new hotel in Las Vegas, the Sands. Jake Freeman, an avuncular gambler from Texas, fronted the operation as president, but it was Jack Entratter, the entertainment director, who made the Sands the success it was. Using his show business connections built up over the 12 years he was booking talent at the Copacabana, Entratter was able to single-handedly make Las Vegas a major venue on the nightclub circuit. And he brought with him from New York his Copa Girl theme, which outdid the chorus lines at the other hotels. According to his own publicist Al Freeman, before Entratter arrival with his Copa Girls, the six hotels then in operation had used their showgirls “in meaningless and unimpressive stage waits just to break up the appearances of various sets on each bill.” Entratter, according to his own bios, was the one who brought the real revue to the Las Vegas stage show.

“Entratter shocked the rest of the producers in the ‘entertainment capitol of the world’ when he opened his first show at the Sands with 15 of the most beautiful girls in the West, wearing costumes that cost a total of $12,000—which was more than the headliner, Danny Thomas, was getting in salary! Since then, the rest of the Las Vegas show producers have been on a merry-go-round trying to outdo each other with huge production numbers, involving 20 and 30 people in $20,000 production numbers which only run about six minutes.”

Whether or not it could be argued that Donn Arden was already doing that at the Desert Inn, it was clear the showgirl revue was to become the centerpiece of the class shows, and that the competition for the best showgirls was to become part of the marketing of Las Vegas.

Entratter, unlike Lou Walter, who came from the same New York nightclub tradition but continued to operate out of New York, was a resident in Las Vegas, and produced original Las Vegas shows, still centered on the same nightclub acts. Entratter's ideal of his chorus line was still very New York. The “Sagebrush Showman” as he was styled was also the “New Ziegfeld”, and his Copa Girls were self-styled New Ziegfeld girls. Visually, the New York chorus line owed its extravagant stage effect to Florenz Ziegfeld. The feathers, the clothes modeling, the stairs, the statuesque beauties, parading and posing, only occasionally singing and dancing, or floating down staircases and ramps, or swinging from swings. Replicated by Ziegfeld apprentice Busby Berkeley in endless movie musicals. Fashion and beauty were the persistent trademarks of the Ziegfeld girl: She stepped from the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, an extravagant yet nostalgic fashion for the vamps and flappers of the Roaring ‘20s. Ziegfeld froze the Parisian fashions of the music halls onto a timeless stairway. Entratter was Ziegfeld’s theatrical heir in more ways than one. In 1953, famous New York theater owner Lee Shubert gave to Entratter exclusive rights to produce The Original Ziegfeld Follies, saying that he had been looking for over 20 years for an American producer worthy of carrying on the name of Ziegfeld, and at last he had found that man in Entratter. The Sands Hotel presented the new Ziegfeld Follies on June 9, 1954, starring Frank Sinatra and 20 Copa Girls. Six original Ziegfeld girls attended a reunion party with their new counterparts. The original music was written by Sid Kuller and Lyn Murray, and featured George Tapps and his dancers, the Martin brothers in special numbers, with Chuck Nelson as M.C., singing and narrating. Ray Sinatra conducted the orchestra, and Bob Gilbert and Renee Stewart were the choreographers “with dazzling gowns” created by Billy Livingston and Madame Berthe.

Sinatra at the Sands

Frank Sinatra first performed in Las Vegas in September 1951 at the Desert Inn. The Sands Hotel opened in 1952 but Sinatra did not open at the Sands until October 1953. Sinatra had been performing on the nightclub circuit most of his career and was well known to the producers in Las Vegas. He had particular ties to Jack Entratter dating back to Entratter’s days at the Copacabana in New York. It was no surprise when Sinatra appeared as a headliner at Entratter’s new showroom the Copa Room. Sinatra’s career had been spiraling down since his days as a teen idol before and during the war. But in 1951 he managed to land a role in the movie From Here to Eternity, with Montgomery Cliff, Burt Lancaster, and Deborah Kerr. (The story, or rumor, of how Sinatra got that role was the basis of Mario Puzo’s famous horse’s head episode in The Godfather.)The movie became a box office blockbuster and Sinatra, who portrayed a character not unlike himself, won the Academy Award for best supporting actor. Sinatra was once again hot property. From Here to Eternity premiered in August 1953, just few months before Sinatra opened at the Sands. Entratter, like his colleagues at the Desert Inn, had booked a Sinatra well down on his luck. But by the time Sinatra was appearing at the Sands he was a big star and a big draw, both in the showroom and the casino.

Ziegfeld Follies at the Sands

 

Copa Girls in Ziegfeld Follies show at Sands HotelView all Ziegfeld Follies images.

Entratter’s new Ziegfeld show opened in June of 1954. Sinatra had garnered his Oscar the previous March. It was the kind of showbiz coup that made Entratter and his Sands Hotel the entertainment venue. The series of photographs taken during the rehearsals of the show represent Sinatra the showman, Sinatra the professional, the crooner who worked hard at his trade and his art, of which he was the undisputed master. It was the showgirl-as-model that Entratter chose, not modern dancers of Donn Arden. Again, in the words of Al Freeman:

“Amid the frenzied rush towards bigger and more expensive production numbers, Entratter has kept his lead by steadily presenting his famous Copa Girl beauties in colorful numbers that are just 'pretty and pleasing.' His policy is to let the nightclub customers see, appreciate, and enjoy beautiful chorus girls in pleasant and smooth settings. Entratter’s success with his entertainment productions has upset the old theory that the American chorus girl has to dash madly around the stage in intricate dance routines that make her too tired to even smile onstage, or that the American chorus girl has to be a strip teaser on stage to make the audience appreciate her.”

Entratter had a formula for his girls: 5’4” in height; 116 lbs. Bust 32-34, waist 24, hips 34. Face—small features, the American girl look, oval rather than round face. Hair—usually black. Unlike Donn Arden, Entratter was not terribly interested in dancing. His trade magazine ads for Copa Girls read simply, “all you need be is beautiful.” A 1953 Pageant Magazine story recounted Entratter auditioning girls. He flew into Los Angeles one recent afternoon, arranged with agents to model a dozen girls and blithely said: “I’ll take the first, third and ninth girls.” “But Mr. Entratter,” the bookers protested, “the ones you picked can’t dance so good.” Jack laughed. “I don’t care if they never dance. They’re beautiful and I want beauty.” Donn Arden’s auditions, on the other hand, became legendary for terrorizing young hopefuls, demanding not only a tall, long-legged balletic beauty (minimum height of 5’8”) but also expert dance technique. Jack Entratter would never have been heard yelling from his seat, “Get off my stage, you fat cow!” as Arden was known to do.