by Con Chapman
RENO, Nevada. Popular culture studies are often the subject of criticism by legislators concerned that higher education dollars are wasted on trivia, and this state is no exception. “You’re just paying some high-priced professor to indulge his low-brow tastes,” says Senator Lowell Furlin, who represents Esmerelda County in the state legislature. “The hard-working citizens of this state like to kick back with TV trash at the end of the day but they don’t ask the state to support their habit.”
But political pressure isn’t stopping Brian Cawelti, a professor at the State College of Nevada’s Reno campus who has made it his life’s work to study the works of “The Rat Pack,” a group of five entertainers who ruled the Las Vegas Strip like royalty during the early 60’s. “I can’t think of a greater assemblage of minds since Aristotle’s Peripatetic school,” Cawelti says as he decorates the school’s gymnasium for a Las Vegas Night to persuade students to major in his department. “And those Greek guys never partied as hard as The Rat Pack.”
The leading thinkers of The Rat Pack were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., with Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop playing subsidiary roles. “It was Sinatra who laid down the group’s first principles,” says Les Monufo, a blackjack dealer who moonlights as an adjunct professor here. “Frankie sang ‘That’s Life’—a fatalistic philosophy perhaps–and he was the first existentialist with his seminal work ‘My Way.’”
Davis expanded upon Sinatra’s principle that everyone creates their own destiny with “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” the only work of philosophy ever to reach #1 on Billboard Magazine’s “Easy Listening” chart. “People say Wittgenstein was the pre-eminent 20th century philosopher,” notes Associate Professor of Pop Culture Nigel Diamond, “but his biggest hit—Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—never made it higher than #14 on the Dance/Club Play Song list.”
Martin, who cultivated the image of a heavy drinker he modeled on Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, examined the innate human need for companionship with his monster hit “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You.” “Dino realized that we are alone in this universe,” says Cawelti as he adjusts crepe-paper streamers, “and that nothing can heal that wound like a one-night stand with a Vegas show girl.”
And what of Lawford and Bishop? Where do they fit in?
“Well, Lawford married a Kennedy,” he says as he steps back to admire his decorations, “and Joey Bishop was guest host on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson more than any man in history.”