A little later than normal, our 6th instalment takes a look at Dean Martin, one of the most popular and enduring American entertainers of the mid-20th century.

Dean Martin (born Dino Paul Crocetti; June 7, 1917 – December 25, 1995)

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 maternal grandparents were also from Abruzzo. 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 ridiculed for his broken English and did not speak any English until he was five. He only spoke an old Abruzzi/Italian dialect. Dean then dropped out of Steubenville High School in the 10th grade because he thought 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.

Martin gave up boxing to work 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 Metropolitan Opera tenor, Nino Martini). He got his 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 (“Betty”) Anne McDonald, they had four children, and the marriage ended in 1949. Martin worked for various bands throughout the early 1940s, mostly on looks and personality until he developed his own singing style. Martin flopped at the Riobamba, a 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 in Akron, Ohio. He was reclassified as 4-F and 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 well, but he was little more than an East Coast nightclub singer with a common style, similar to that of Bing Crosby. He drew audiences, but he inspired none of the popularity enjoyed by Sinatra or Crosby.

Martin attracted the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Columbia Pictures, but a Hollywood contract was not forthcoming. He met comic Jerry Lewisat the Glass Hat Club in New York, where both were performing. Martin and Lewis formed a fast friendship which led to their participation in each other’s acts and the formation of a music-comedy team.

Never comfortable in films, Martin wanted to be a real actor. Though offered a fraction of his former salary to co-star in a war drama, The Young Lions(1957), his part would be with 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 comeback.

Martin starred alongside Frank Sinatra for the first time in an acclaimed Vincente Minnelli drama, Some Came Running (1958). By the mid-1960s, Martin was a movie, recording, television, and nightclub star, while Lewis’ film career declined. Martin was acclaimed as Dude in Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawks and also starring John Wayne and singer Ricky Nelson. He would team again with Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), cast as brothers.

As Martin’s solo career grew, he and Frank Sinatra became friends. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin and Sinatra, along with friends Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr. formed the Rat Pack, so-called after an earlier group of social friends, the Holmby Hills Rat Pack centered on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, of which Sinatra had been a member.

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 popular imagination. The men made films together, formed part of the Hollywood social scene, and were politically influential (through Lawford’s marriage to Patricia Kennedy, sister of President John F. Kennedy).

Martin returned to films briefly with appearances in the two star-laden yet 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 21, 1987, Martin’s son, actor Dean Paul Martin (formerly Dino of the ’60s “teeny-bopper” rock group Dino, Desi & Billy), died when his F-4 Phantom II jet fighter crashed while flying with the California Air National Guard. Later, a tour with Davis and Sinatra in 1988 sputtered. Martin, who 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 8, 1989, he joined stars in Sammy Davis Jr’s 60th anniversary celebration, which aired 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 emphysemaat 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.

The Rat Pack were legendary for their Las Vegas Strip performances.

Did You Know:  Martin had alleged Mafia connections! Martin apparently 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. Martin allegedly did favors for the Mafia only if it was not inconvenient. However it has not been proven. Suspicious or what?! 

 

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