Lounge captain extraordinaire
(Editor's note: Tommy Nine passed away on the morning of Friday, Oct. 6.)
Las Vegas was in its heyday in the second half of the 20th century, when flashing neon signs, bustling casinos, nightclubs presenting lavish entertainment and swimming pools shimmering in the sun beckoned movie stars, singers and other performers, athletes, astronauts and even a certain blue-eyed member of the Rat Pack.
In the middle of it was Tommy Nine, who spent his career working at the Flamingo, Desert Inn, Silver Slipper and Caesars Palace as a maître d' or lounge captain, greeting the rich and famous and making himself invaluable to some of them.
"I started as a busboy and room service waiter at the Flamingo," Nine said. "I met Betty Grable when I took her room service. Her husband Harry James and his orchestra were playing in the lounge. I took her breakfast, and when I knocked on the door, she called out, 'Come on in. I'll be there in a minute.'
"She was just like you and me. She was not stuck up. She said, 'What is your name? I'm going to ask for you from now on,' and she did. Why? She told me, 'I trust you.' One time she was at the pool with Louis Prima's wife Keely Smith and called me over to meet her daughters, who were about 7 and 10. She said, 'I want you to take the girls to the room and make sure it's locked and call security.'"Years later, "Keely Smith came up to me to reserve the back of lounge for Betty's birthday. I brought the cake out to Betty, and she was elated. I was singing 'Happy Birthday,' but I can't sing for sour apples. Frank Sinatra told me that once. Betty gave me a kiss! I got a kiss from my heartthrob!"
Nine's other big crush was Loretta Young, who performed in the lounge at the Flamingo. "I melted when I saw her," he said. "I always loved her. She came every day to listen to the act before her and would stand by me. My heart was always pounding."
Nine, who even named one of his daughters Loretta, continued, "She came over to say goodbye on her last day. I told her, 'Miss Young, you've always been my favorite movie star. You make my heart pound. I saw all your movies.' She leaned over and kissed me on my left cheek."
Nine also met basketball great Wilt Chamberlain and American Major League Baseball center fielder Joe DiMaggio. One of Nine's prized possessions is a photo of him and DiMaggio, which DiMaggio autographed with "To Tommy, Best wishes to a great friend and great personality."
At the Desert Inn, Howard Hughes was Nine's boss. "His personal waiter was my friend, and he had to live with his family in the suite next to Howard Hughes," Nine said.
In the June 1969 issue of "The Desert Innsider" newspaper, there is a photo of a dapper-looking Nine with the caption reading, "RIGHT NUMBER – HANDSOME TOMMY NINE, popular Captain in the Lady Luck Lounge, was promoted to Lounge Manager. Tommy is one big reason that the Lady's customers are always so well received. He has made many friends for the DJ since joining the hotel two years ago."
Also during his time there, Nine was in charge of the Sky Room, which was used for dancing. One time he seated Bob Hope at a table, and astronaut Alan Shephard came in.
"I walked over to Bob Hope and said, 'Mr. Hope, Alan Shephard just came in. Would you like to sit next to him?' We didn't usually ask for autographs, but I got Alan Shephard's autograph on a reserved table card and then introduced them.
"I pulled out the reserved card and said, 'Mr. Hope, Mr. Shephard signed this card. Would you sign it too?' Bob Hope signed it, and I found out later that he rarely gave autographs."
Nine doesn't have a lot of photos with the celebrities he brushed shoulders with, so one he treasures from his time at Caesars Palace is with boxer Joe Louis, known as the "Brown Bomber."
In the July 18, 1982 issue of the "Las Vegas Sun Magazine," an article about Nine described his job as maître d' at the 140-seat Galleria Lounge and Bar.
"When Sinatra comes here after his second show, we stay on duty for the balance of the night – sometimes we get home with the sun," said Nine, whose name badge read "Tommy IX." He added, "But it's a hit and miss chance, so we set up a table for him and bide our time."
He explained that his work day started about 5 p.m., when he made sure the room, which had five stations, each with seven tables, was set up properly and the "Caesars cocktail goddesses" were ready. The room was busy from 5 to 7 p.m. and then again starting at 10:30 p.m. until the second show at midnight.
Working all night in glitzy casinos was a long way from where Nine was born in Grand Island, Neb., on Sept. 25, 1930, one of four children. The family settled in Durant, Neb., with Nine noting that the census taken during that time listed the town's population at six residents.
Nine graduated from high school in Central City, Neb., in 1949, and moved to Dallas, Texas, where he worked for his brother-in-law's used car business doing body and upholstery work and selling cars "better than the boss."
Nine also was a boxer and became a Golden Gloves champ as a welter weight, winning all his fights.
Nine was going to head back to Nebraska when he encountered an Air Force recruiter and signed up in 1950, earning four stripes and serving a total of seven years, including time in the reserves. As for boxing, "I fought the Air Force middle-weight champ in a private gym fight," he added. "The coach asked me to join the Air Force boxing team, and I won the only fight I participated in."
After signing up for the Air Force, Nine got married and moved to San Francisco to work as a sheet metal worker but couldn't find a job so he started tending bar at the Purple Onion. He and his wife had a son and divorced, and he later married his second wife.
At the Purple Onion, Nine met Phyllis Diller "way before she was famous." During that time, Nine also met the Smothers Brothers and the Kingston Trio, who all performed there.
After he got a bad sore throat that didn't go away, his doctor suggested moving to a drier climate. "A friend said, 'Have you heard of a town in the desert called Las Vegas?' I had never really heard of it, but a bar customer from there had told me to look him up if I ever came.
"I drove there, and he put me up in his apartment, and I got a job at a golf course. Then I started at the Flamingo and got promoted. My wife didn't like it there and moved back to San Francisco, we got divorced, and my sore throat went away."
From the Flamingo, Nine first became maître d' of the Desert Inn lounge and then the Skyroom. When they closed, he went to work at the Silver Slipper and then Caesars Palace, starting in the kitchen again and working his way up to maître d' in the Galleria Lounge.
In Las Vegas, Nine married his third wife, a hat model in New York City originally from Sweden. They raised two daughters, and he lived in Las Vegas until 1993, ultimately divorcing his third wife.
Nine bought a little house near the north rim of the Grand Canyon and later purchased a trailer and lived in it in Utah, enjoying walking in the desert with his dog.
Fourteen years ago, Nine moved to Sherwood with one of his daughters and her family, and these days is a proud grandfather. His son has four children, one daughter has two girls, and the other one has three girls; Nine also has three great-grandsons and two great-granddaughters.
"A lot of good things in my life have happened to me by accident – and staying out of trouble," said Nine, who is a regular at lunch at the Marjorie Stewart Community/Senior Center.