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I Could Have Danced All Night

[whitespace] Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy cut a striking figure against the whitewashed backdrop of American entertainment. Here was a black man with a flashy sense of style, standing up there cracking wise with the coolest crowd in showbiz. Ordinary rules didn't apply.

I'm wild again beguiled again
A whimpering, simpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
Am I
"Bewitched" (Rodgers/Hart)

By Traci Hukill

SAMMY SHOULD HAVE SUED. For always being billed last, for having to stay in a different hotel from the one where he was entertaining, for enduring Frank and Dean's stupid black jokes, for generally being underrated in spite of his enormous talent in all areas of showmanship--for these insults, Sammy Davis Jr. should have taken his agents and colleagues and producers to the cleaners, even if he had to wait until the enlightened '80s and the miserable Cannonball Run days to do it.

But to catalog those slights would be to complain, and to complain would be dour, and dourness was not in Sammy's repertoire. He had an image to maintain that included style, panache and magnanimity, not chintziness or bad behavior. So instead he laughed, revealing an open smile of magnificent proportions and contagious mirth. And he sang, and he danced, and he wisecracked--and he did those things better than just about everyone, even when he was only 3 years old.

That's how old he was when his career as an entertainer began. First featured as "The Dancing Midget" in a vaudeville act, Sammy soon took a place in the Will Mastin Trio and spent the next two decades honing his skills as dancer, vocalist and comedian. In 1952, the threesome achieved top billing in Hollywood at the swank Ciro's nightclub, marking the start of Sammy's stint in the big leagues. Shortly thereafter he embarked on a lifelong hobby of shocking the hell out of people.

First, he had the audacity to impersonate white performers onstage, adopting their technique of talking directly to the audience and also making fun of them. En route to LA from Vegas in 1954, he lost his left eye in a car wreck and managed to turn his eye patch into a swashbuckling signature look. Conversion to Judaism followed hard after. Then, in '59, he joined the rest of the Rats in a history-making run at the Sands.

To put it mildly, Sammy cut a striking figure against the whitewashed backdrop of American entertainment the moment he set his polished heels on the Sands' stage. Here was a black man--a short Jewish black man--with a flashy sense of style, standing up there cracking wise with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, indisputably the coolest crowd in show biz. Sammy's very presence among them contradicted the prevailing entertainment paradigm.

As an equation he just didn't balance out--ordinary rules didn't apply to him. And he collected odd characteristics like a bizarre bird gathering strips of cloth and strange feathers for its nest. For example, the following year he became the short black Jew who married a white girl--Swedish actress May Britt.

The year 1972, like 1954, was also a milestone for Sammy. Adding to his long list of surprising decisions, he left the Democratic Party and took up the cudgels for the GOP, and specifically for Richard Nixon. Naturally, he did this in turtleneck, bellbottoms and glinting medallions between verses of "The Candy Man," a bubble-gum hit so at odds with his previous hepcat work that it prompted the dismayed entertainer to wonder in print some years later, "Can you imagine me, a swinger, a cat that's done everything 92 times, and I'm gonna sing to kids? Like I'm Julie Andrews?"

But slings and arrows aside, Sammy's talent always earned him high marks among his peers. In 1955, after watching one of Sammy's performances, Marlon Brando sent him a telegram. "NEVER DUG YOU BEFORE," it read. "DUG YOU LAST NIGHT. YOU THE MAN. MARLON." Unlike the other Rats in the Pack, who could generally sing and maybe act on a good day, Sammy could do it all. He was "Mr. Entertainment," a variety showman, even when he was too predictably cast as the garbage man, like in Ocean's 11.

A hilariously bad movie spattered with dialogic disasters like "Give it to me straight, Doc. How long have I got?" Ocean's 11 functioned as little more than a Spice World-variety showcase for a clutch of stars. Through the midst of this silliness, Sammy danced with his usual elastic grace and elegance, singing in that great big voice, livening his portion of a catatonic script with an easy, natural spark and generally bringing the entire production up a notch. In a garbage man's jumpsuit to boot.

So given the contradictions and peculiarities that defined Sammy Davis Jr., is there such a thing as a Sammy kind of place? Not really. There aren't a whole lot of bars catering to black Jews with an interest in Satanism such as Sammy briefly professed in the latter days of his career. Luckily for us, Sammy Davis Jr. was a versatile man with enough grace to mix with many crowds. Were he alive today, he'd probably be likely to turn up in hip-hop clubs--he was unfailingly hip, after all--and any other place where dancing was the focus. Being a showman, he'd have to take a spin through any joint where live entertainment was the rule. And those bars in out-of-the-way places, those quiet lounges that don't quite get the recognition they deserve even though they have the best ambiance or coolest bartender or most comfy couches--well, those well-kept secrets would be Sammy bars, too.

And come to think of it, the bars where lawyers hang out just might see the specter of old Sammy Davis Jr., too, these being the sue-happy '90s and Sammy being a guy who might have some gripes. It would mean marring that groovy image, but like the ads say, image is nothing and thirst is everything.

A Sammy Davis Jr. Kind of Place

Agenda Lounge
399 S. First St., San Jose (408/287-4087)

736 W. Dana St., Mountain View (650/968-3007)

BackBeat Nightclub
777 Lawrence Expwy, Santa Clara (408/241-0777)

The Beat Nightclub
37323 Fremont Blvd., Fremont (510/739-6822)

Club Caribe
1001 S. First St., San Jose (408/297-7272)

Club Ibex
55 S. Market St., San Jose (408/971-4239)

Club Miami
177 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose (408/279-3670)

685 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale (408/749-1288)

Copa Cabana
2618 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose (408/272-3481)

15043 Los Gatos Blvd., Los Gatos (408/358-7852)

44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose (408/295-7374)

Gaslighter Theater
400 E. Campbell Ave., Campbell (408/866-1408)

Jose's Caribbean Nightclub
2275 El Camino Real, Palo Alto (650/326-6522)

Menara Moroccan Restaurant
41 E. Gish Road, San Jose (408/453-1983)

Peacock Lounge
19980 Homestead Road, Cupertino (408/777-0812)

#1 Broadway
102 S. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos (408/354-4303)

Q Cafe Billiards
529 Alma St., Palo Alto (650/322-3311)

1811 Barber Lane, Milpitas (408/943-1414)

Sam Wong
1655 S. De Anza Blvd, Cupertino (408/257-1120)

Shoreline Billiards
1400 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View (650/964-0780)

The Vibe
47 Notre Dame, San Jose (408/279-3387)

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From the June 11-17, 1998 issue of Metro.

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