All Mobbed Up: Frank, Dino, Sammy and the Pete Epsteen Pontiac Story
So, why was Ol’ Blue Eyes doing a radio commercial for a Skokie, Illinois car dealership?
Why do you think? Three little letters. M.O.B.
Some claim that Sinatra did the gig for Sam Giancana, boss of bosses in Chicago from the late `50s to the mid-60s, a friend — if friend is the right word — of Sinatra’s since 1958, and the person who Sinatra acted as the front man for in Giancana’s buy into a piece of the action of the Cal/Neva Casino in Lake Tahoe.
However, it’s more likely that the favor was asked by one of the Fischetti brothers. Charlie Fischetti was the Mob’s political fixer in Chicago, and a friend of Sinatra’s since the early `40s. Sinatra, nice guy that he was, used to go along with Charlie when he visited his mother in Brooklyn. Charlie died in 1951, but Sinatra and Joe Fischetti were also close friends. He took a trip to Cuba with the brothers in 1946, the so-called “Havana Summit” held by Lucky Luciano, a trip that would haunt Sinatra for the rest of his career.
Frank did a lot of favors for the Fischetti brothers. He once rode along on a plane ride from Palm Springs to Vegas so the Fischettis could impress a star-struck automobile tycoon from Detroit who they were romancing for an agency franchise. Sinatra helped the Fischettis set up a string of auto dealerships — including Peter Epsteen Pontiac — by lending his name to the enterprise and doing commercials free of charge, at least from a cash aspect. Sinatra reportedly received at least two Thunderbirds that became the property of Sinatra Enterprises.
A helpful guy to his friends, Sinatra was. And hey, your other friends should help out your friends too, right? So Sinatra wasn’t the only crooner to warble for Ol’ Pete. He called in the Rat Pack.
When the Chairman called for a favor, Sammy Davis Jr. was always there, recording not one, not two, but three separate commercials for Pete Epsteen Pontiac.
Like his explanation for freebie gigs at the Villa Venice Supper Club — which indeed were done as favors for Sam Giancana, Sammy probably would have responded if asked, “I have to say it’s for my man Francis.” And if pressed might have answered, “Baby, let me say this. I got one eye, and that one eye sees a lot of things that my brain tells me I shouldn’t talk about. Because my brain says that, if I do, my one eye might not be seeing anything after a while.”
Like Sammy, Dean Martin probably did the shtick as a favor for Frank without a second thought. Unlike Sammy, Martin probably gave less than a flying chiavare about whether the boys were involved. While Martin knew mobsters — as Jerry Lewis says in his memoir about Dean, “Dean and Me,” it was impossible to work the nightclub circuit from the `40s to the `60s without becoming involved with the mob — he mostly ignored them, and in turn they mostly left him alone.
Unlike Frank, who had this thing about impressing mobsters and liked hanging out with them, and unlike Sammy, who was a black guy in a white guy’s world and trying to keep his remaining eye, Dino was known as an “okay guy” who the arm wasn’t to be put on… at least not often.
And Pete Epsteen, what do we know about him?
Although Epsteen himself vigorously denied any mob connection, Epsteen’s namesake dealership was a well-known Mafia hangout, featured in FBI reports and the Congressional Record, and once was the target of a dynamite bombing, which, Epsteen strangely claimed, was likely due to his sponsorship of a closed circuit telecast starring — wait for it — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. — that had aired the night before. When pressed about the connection, Epsteen had nothing more to say. Skokie police concluded that the bombing — and several other bombings of car dealerships — were the handiwork of a union organizer, “with known Mob connections.”
When Pete Epsteen was referred to in a photo caption as “an automobile dealer financed by the Mafia” by The Sacramento Bee newspaper, he filed a $6 million libel suit, and retained — wait for it — Frank Sinatra’s attorney, Mickey Rudin. Epsteen denied any affiliation with the Mafia and demanded a retraction. The Sacramento Bee did publish a story reporting Epsteen’s denial, but did not retract the charge.
Lawyers representing the newspaper hired a former FBI agent to find a defense against the libel charge. The P.I. later told Kitty Kelly, author of “His Way,” that he, “flew to Chicago and met with a lower-level Mob boss and told him we were going to subpoena all the top Chicago Mafia chieftains as hostile witnesses to prove their connections with Epsteen. He told me he’d pass the word up and a few weeks later Epsteen dropped his lawsuit.”
Peter Epsteen Pontiac was at one point the largest volume Pontiac dealership in the U.S. and “not your run-of-the-mill Pontiac store” either, as one writer put it. In September 1964 the dealership put on an invitation-only extravaganza to unveil the 1965 Pontiac line that included uniformed ushers, a 10-piece orchestra in the Service department, and a spotlit 1965 Bonneville two-door hardtop.
Epsteen sold his interest in Peter Epsteen Pontiac in the late ‘60s, divorced his wife in the `70s, moved to California, and opened a Honda as well as a Pontiac-Buick-Rolls-Royce dealership in Beverly Hills. In 1995 he was prosecuted for his role in a kickback scheme in which dealers in 30 states gave executives of American Honda up to $15 million in cash and gifts in exchange for hot-selling cars and franchises. He was also convicted of perjury in the case, fined $200,000, and sentenced to six months in prison. He died in 1997 in Palm Springs, California.
They’re all gone. Sam Giancana. The Fischettis. Sammy took his bows in 1990. Dino would follow in 1995. And Sinatra walked off stage in 1998.
All that’s left is the music… and the stories.
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