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Ol' blue eyes hotel set for revamp

A hotel and casino once owned by Frank Sinatra and frequented by his Rat Pack buddies is about to undergo a major makeover.

The Cal Neva on the shores of Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border, will close for more than a year for the multimillion-dollar project.

The 219-room, 10-storey hotel and 6,000-square-foot casino will be upgraded in an effort to revive the struggling property, said Robert Radovan, co-owner of Criswell-Radovan. His California development company bought the Cal Neva in April.

"Our goal is to bring it back to its former glory and to make it what it was like in Sinatra's day," he said. "It has such great soul and character, and it's needed this redo for many decades."

The property has fallen on hard times because of the double-whammy of the recession and competition from Las Vegas and Indian casinos. Its casino was forced to shut down in 2010 due to declining business.

During its heyday from 1960 to 1963, the Cal Neva was owned by Sinatra and became one of the most famous resorts in the country. It drew fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford, and stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Monroe spent her final weekend at the Cal Neva before she died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles in August 1962. Five small cabins, including the one where she stayed that year, will also be renovated, Mr Radovan said. The other cabins were used by Sinatra and friends.

Sinatra himself renovated the Cal Neva, adding the celebrity showroom and a helicopter pad on the roof. He used tunnels to shuffle mobsters and celebrities beneath the resort so they would not be seen by the public. The tunnels were built in the late 1920s so alcohol could be smuggled in during Prohibition, and will be preserved.

Public tours of the cabins and tunnels will resume after the project is completed. Bigger plans are in store for the showroom. "The acoustics in that place are amazing. The modernised equipment will allow for high-end concerts," Mr Radovan said, adding the room where Sinatra, Martin and Davis once performed will continue to be named after Sinatra. The owners will upgrade rooms with modern amenities, larger bathrooms and bigger windows offering Lake Tahoe views. Plans show the redesigned casino reopening with blackjack and other table games.

Mr Radovan declined to provide a cost estimate for the project, but acknowledged it will cost a "pretty penny". He said: "There will be an elegant, clean, post-modern feel to it after we're done. You don't want to lose the history of the Frank Sinatra era and eras before it. But you have to ... bring it back to where it's a modernised version of what it was in the heyday."

He hopes to reopen the Cal Neva on December 12 next year, which would have been Sinatra's 99th birthday. He died in 1999. Sinatra's gambling licence was stripped in 1963 by Nevada gambling regulators after Chicago mobster Sam Giancana was spotted on the premises. The Cal Neva is one of Nevada's first legal casinos. The present resort was built in 1937, when a fire destroyed the original lodge that had opened in 1926.

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