Frank Sinatra’s son Kidnapped in 1963

Photo from LA Times/UCLA (Frank with mom Nancy and sister Tina)

Did you know that while Frank Sinatra was enjoying immense success as a singer, actor, and casino owner (he owned the Cal-Neva Lodge with Chicago Outfit Boss Sam Giancana), someone had the audacity to kidnap his son, Frank Jr., who was making his way in the entertainment field at age 19? Crazy, right?

And who would do such a thing? Why Barry Keenan, a UCLA classmate of Nancy Sinatra’s. Nancy, like Barry, dropped out of college before getting a degree. Nancy went on to a nifty career as a singer with three top ten hits including These Boots are Made for Walking, Sugar Town, and How Does that Grab You, Darlin? Plus, a duet with her dad, Somethin’ Stupid – her second #1 hit.

Barry, on the other hand, went to jail for kidnapping her brother, the third singing member of the family. He swears it was because he had an auto accident and got hooked on Percodan and just wanted to help his family financially. Who am I to disagree? It could have happened that way. – Watch our YouTube video for more on the kidnapping!

Frank Sinatra, Jr. Stage Career

Frank Sinatra was the crooner of a generation, and when Frank Junior wanted to join the family singing troops, he was happy to help in any way he could. With a casino of his own at the North Shore of Lake Tahoe and a presence that brought crowds, it was easy for dad to convince Bill Harrah to put son Frank on the stage. Who knows, perhaps in the future dad might grace the stage at Harrah’s! And that finally happened in 1975, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, Frank Junior had some talent and a few gigs under his belt when he took the stage in December of 1963. The country was in mourning for our president – JFK – a friend of Sinatra’s, and a regular guest at the Cal-Neva Lodge, but he was gone and as they say, the show must go on. And so, it did. So did the kidnapping.

Barry Keenan convinced two friends, Joe Amsler and John Irwin to help. They took Frank Jr. from Harrah’s lodge, bound his friend with tape, and drove off with a blindfolded singer. Then, the trio put the nation on edge and dad on a phone-hopping journey dropping dimes in pay phones all over town (Tahoe, Reno) while arranging the drop of $240,000 in cash.

Unlike other FBI stories, this one has a happy ending and I commend their expertise in nailing down the fingerprints and other evidence.

On the other hand, John Irwin’s brother turned him in, and he surrendered to the FBI in San Diego. How tough a case was it? The three perpetrators got jail time that started at 75-years and quickly shrank closer to four years each, and then they were free.

Frank Senior had continued fame, some of it for turning down the part of Harry Callahan (thank you!) in the movie Dirty Harry, which in my mind defines clint Eastwood, so I’ll always have a soft spot for Frank Sinatra.

As for his son, Frank Junior turned out to have a unique style and interpretation of great music (even dad’s old stuff) and a nice career.

As for the Cal-Neva Lodge, Frank had to unload the property after running afoul of the Nevada Gaming Control Board for harboring Sam Giancana, and the club was never the same afterward. It closed in 2013 and I’m still bummed that I didn’t take pictures during an underground passageway tour that showed how Sinatra could go from his own cabin to others, including Giancana’s. Guess I’m not so smart either.

I am smart enough to know you might like more detailed information on the casinos of Lake Tahoe – and if you love Audible, here’s a link to the book Vegas and the Mob that offers some behind the scenes Tahoe stuff!


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