For six minutes the lights in Caesar's Palace were dimmed and there, in all his glory, at the height of his power, Joe Louis danced onto the screen in the final seconds of that historic heavyweight championship bout with Max Schmeling. As Schmeling went down, the star-studded audience at Caesar's Palace Thursday night cheered the way those millions who were glued to their radios cheered that June evening in 1938.
The lights went up and they played the theme of that celluloid contender - Rocky.
Then Frank Sinatra wheeled Joe Louis, 64, onto the stage in front of those 2,000 people.
A sportswriter once said that one thing you would never want to see is Joe Louis, hero to two generations of Americans, in a wheelchair.
The crowd seemed to feel that, too. The applause was slow and steady as if in recognition of man's vulnerability.
The photographers crowded up to the stage; Sinatra wiped Louis' mouth and gave him a gentle pinch on the cheek. Throughout the evening Sinatra would whisper into Louis' ear - repeating jokes, remarks - and Louis, who had heart surgery earlier this year, would occasionally respond. But when Sinatra raised Louis' arm in victorious style, the champion gave a small smile and this time the cheer from the crowd was one of triumph.
Joe Louis has been honored before. But not this way. Sinatra, a friend of 35 years and a benefactor, had sent out the word: "Let's do it for Joe now." What resulted was one of the largest gatherings ever of sports, movie and media personalities for a private affair.
The names: Muhammad Ali, Ernie Banks, Tony Bennett, Milton Berle, Rod Carew, Billy Conn, Alice Cooper, Howard Cosell, Mike Douglas, Lee Elder, Cary Grant, Roosevelt Grier, Valerie Harper, Jesse Jackson, Deacon Jones, Gene Kelly. Jack Klugman, Roger Maris, Dean Martin, Joe Namath, Ryan O'Neal, Gregory Peck, Robert Redford, Jim Rice, Sugar Ray Robinson, Telly Savalas, Leon Spinks, Connie Stevens, John Voight, etc.
And Max Schmeling.
Ben Rogers, a Beaumont, Tex., investment banker and longtime Joe Louis friend, had first dreamed up the idea. "Joe had been sick; how long he would live no one knows. We wanted to do this soon." Roger said. (Rogers and his family had, earlier this year, set up a nonprofit foundation in Louis' name to help young athletes, with Martha Malone Louis, the fighter's wife, as the foundation's only paid member.)
Rogers approached Sinatra about something for Louis and the singer did the rest. The drinks and dinner, said Rogers, were on Caesar's Palace where Louis had been chief greeter since 1970.
A Beverly Hills decorating firm covered the ballroom with brown silk-screens and overhead banners, blow-ups of Louis during his 12 years as world heavyweight champion, and mammoth bronze-colored boxing gloves.
Said Red Buttons: "Sinatra has a heart as soft as jello. This is his idea."
But of course that was in private. Later, during his part of the show, Buttons would quip: "Sinatra, he's got a heart - he once took Ray Charles to a Marcel Marceau concert."
Other luminaries had their own memories of "the Brown Bomber." Joe DiMaggio, the "Yankee Clipper," stood in the midst of an admiring mob at Caesar's Palace and recalled old visits in San Franciso with Louis: All I can say is that he was a great man to me in my youth and now."
Footballes Deacon Jones, who grew up in a small town in Florida, said: "My mother has three heroes, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and then me." Twelve years ago Jones met his idol, Louis, and they played golf together says Jones: "I learned from him that I could work in a violent field and not have that affect my personality."
Cary Grant never met Louis before Thursday night but had been inspired by him: "He did everything with grace and ease, he made you think you could do it."
Rock Star and sometime wild man Alice Cooper was there because Louis is a legend. "I'm probably the most nationalistic person in my group. I go to Europe and I talk about pizza until the middle of the night and I talk about legends," "The legends are here, Louis, Berle and Sinatra, said Cooper, looking around a ballroom brimming with personalities." When I am at the age, I want to be a legend."
Around the celebrities, the cameras swirled. Muhammad Ali was saying: "In a room like this, I am not the greatest. Louis is." Sugar Ray Robinson, who had carried Louis' bags to the gym as a kid, was talking about Louis' "fast hands."
Before his latest illness, Louis had been out on the promotion circuit, making appearances with boxing promoter, Don King.
He also made an episode of the television show "Quincy," with Jack Klugman, who said Thursday night: "This guy has been through it all, poverty, riches, the loss of it, honor. When he did the show, he had to wait three and a half hours for his walk-on. I apologized and he said 'Never mind. It's okay." There are some twerps out here, lesser men, who scream if they wait 15 minutes."
Klugman looked around the banquet room at his show biz colleagues. "Why are we here?" he mused. "It's an era, my era. And a lot of it is going away. Louis to me represented a lot of my friendships. When we were finished listening to his fight in South Philly, we would go on and talk for hours. I guess I'm holding on."
Having the Louis tribute the night before the Larry Holmes heavyweight championship bout here and the night before Sinatra's opening as well, guartanteed the stellar crowd.
Among the first celebrities to arrive at the casino were the boxers, including some who had been demolished in the ring by the Louis kayo. Billy Conn, of whom Louis once said, "He can run, but he can't hide." Also "Two-Ton" Tony Galento - on crutches, but moving fast.
Schmeling, whose famous fights with Louis left a warm friendship in their wake, said he had flown from Germany for a Louis birthday party some seven years ago and had managed to see the champ about once a year. "And what we talk about," said Schemling, "is everything including how good a fighter Joe was and how wonderful a man he still is."
Dick Young, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, was interviewing people on their most exciting sports events. He thrust his microphone at Cary Grant. "Oh, the Yankee games, yes, including the one where I was showered with champagne in the locker room," said Grant politely. "But all the Sugar Ray Robinson fights, too. He had it all." Just then Milton Berle screamed, "Archie, Archie," and grabbed for Grant's elbow. Grant turned around and said, "Please, Milton, I'm going deaf as it is."
The formalities went on at length - in no small part because Howard Cosell, assigned the task of introducing the scores of athletes in the audience did so with prolonged anecdotes about each one.
Louis, who sat between his wife and Sinatra, occassionally folded his hands in his lap, but his motions were slow and his expression neutral.
But the performances - skits from Berle, Buttons and Redd Foxx; songs from Tom Jones and Wayne Newton - were enthusiasuically received by the audience.
At the show's opening Jesse Jackson spoke about authentic heroes and a "second-class citizen who is a first-class man." Robert Merrill sang "America the Beautiful" and was robustly joined by Leon Spinks, Cosell, Sinatra ad Clifford Alexander, Secretary of the Army.
After the formal presentations there followed some 90 minutes of vigorous "tablehopping." You could start at Walter Matthau, then go do Angle Dickinson, then to Jerry Vale to Mike Connors to Doug Sanders (the golf pro whose luggage - and tuxedo - didn't make the party until 11).
Circling the crowd was a close friend of Louis' for the last 40 years, Billy Rowe. "When I first met Joe years ago he said 'I was the only man in New York City that didn't ask him for something,'" said Rowe, a newspaper columnist who once had a public relations firm with Louis.
"My best memory of Joe? The greatest thing he ever did was when I returned from the South Pacific. I had been covering the war for the Pittsburgh Courier. And when we got into San Francisco, Joe was standing there waiting. I don't know how he knew the schedule but he was there."