For a few days in late 1954, a small hospital in San Bernardino was the center of attention for Hollywood’s elite, as well as for entertainment fans across America.
On Friday, Nov. 19, a rising star named Sammy Davis Jr. was rushed to San Bernardino County Hospital following a horrific car accident near the intersection of Cajon Boulevard (old Route 66) and Kendall Drive.
That cold November morning, Sammy and his valet Charlie Head were returning to Los Angeles after performing at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. The two had left Las Vegas after Sammy’s show the previous evening and Charlie drove the first leg to Victorville where they stopped for gas.
Already road-weary, Sammy took over driving his shiny new black Cadillac down through the Cajon Pass and on toward San Bernardino. Charlie was laid out in the back seat trying to catch a couple of hours sleep before the pair’s arrival in Los Angeles.
It was just after 7 a.m. when Sammy encountered the fork where Kendall Drive split off to the left and Cajon Boulevard continued to the right. At the split, an elderly lady driving a Chrysler had missed her turn onto Kendall and was backing into Sammy’s lane to get herself back on course.
Sammy slammed into the rear of the Chrysler. The Cadillac careened off the Chrysler, miraculously missing oncoming traffic, and came to a stop after slamming into a stone column at the entrance to a driveway.
Arthur Silber Jr., Sammy’s close friend, lighting director, and production manager, said, “Sam’s car hit that rock pylon head on, and the force actually pushed the engine back into the front seat. A lot of people said if it weren’t for Sammy’s slight build, he would have been crushed by the engine.”
The impact of the crash had driven Sammy’s face into the steering wheel, and his left eye was forced out of its socket by the bullet-shaped cone at the center of the wheel. “Sammy broke his nose on the sun visor, and he broke his knee cap on the emergency brake handle,” Silber said.
Charlie also was badly injured in the collision. He was thrown face-first into the back of the steel-framed front seat. The blow fractured his jaw and broke out all of his teeth, but Charlie remained conscious.
The driver of the Chrysler and her passenger were both injured, too. The two ladies were thrown into the back seat of their car by the impact. The driver, 72-year-old Helen Boss, suffered a back injury, and her passenger, 69-year-old Bessie Ross, suffered a broken leg.
Sammy and Charlie were rushed by ambulance to San Bernardino County Hospital and were transferred to San Bernardino Community Hospital later that day.
Sammy spent six agonizing hours in the hospital hallway waiting for an operating room in the cramped and outdated building at the corner of Fourth Street and Arrowhead Avenue. That evening, well-known San Bernardino eye surgeon Frederick H. Hull operated on Sammy’s eye.
Family and friends were gathered at the hospital, nervously awaiting news of Sammy’s condition. Hull came out after the surgery and told the anxious group that he had to remove Sammy’s left eye, and it was still touch-and-go for his right eye. The good news was that Sammy’s other injuries would heal in time. He also reported that Charlie would recover from his injuries.
During the surgery on Sammy, Hull had attached a prosthetic socket onto Sammy’s left eye muscles that would be used to hold and direct a “glass eye” that would be implanted after he healed further.
Soon after hearing the news, Hollywood’s biggest stars rallied to support Sammy’s recovery and many made the trip to be at his bedside in San Bernardino. Jeff Chandler, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were among the first to visit. Eddie Cantor and Frank Sinatra also came to visit.
The hospital stay had a profound impact on Sammy’s life in more than one way. It was in San Bernardino that he began his conversion to Judaism after a visit from a rabbi chaplain. Sammy said, “Yeah, and we had a long talk. Some of the things he said helped me; and for the first time in my life, a religion started to make sense to me.”
Sammy was released from the hospital on Sunday, Nov. 28. He was so grateful to Hull and the hospital staff for the care he received that he promised to come back to San Bernardino and do a benefit show when the new community hospital was completed.
“Frank (Sinatra) insisted that Sammy stay at his house in Palm Springs while he was recovering, and you just don’t say no to Frank,” said Silber. “So he went and spent a couple of weeks out there just taking it easy.”
After the accident, Sammy regained and even refined his famous dance moves. He went on to become a superstar, breaking down color barriers in virtually every entertainment venue from nightclubs to Broadway to TV and movies and records.
On Nov. 15, 1958, Sammy came back to San Bernardino and made good on his promise to do a benefit for the new community hospital. The star-studded show sold out all 7,500 seats in the Swing Auditorium at the National Orange Show Events Center and raised $20,000 for the new hospital.
Sammy himself opened the extravaganza with “Let Me Sing.” He then introduced Judy Garland who graced the packed house with eight songs including her trademark “Over the Rainbow.” Other stars included James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Danny Thomas and Shirley MacLaine.
“Sammy helped so many people over the years,” said Silber. “One of the things a lot of people don’t realize is how many doors Sammy Davis Jr. opened up in his lifetime. It’s hard to believe these days, but Sammy was the first black man to walk through a Las Vegas casino.”
Sammy passed away from throat cancer on May 16, 1990, at the age of 64. The lights of the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed to honor the passing of one of the town’s favorite superstars.
Arthur Silber Jr. provides a fascinating personal account of his years with Sammy in his book “Sammy Davis Jr. – Me and My Shadow.” For more information, visit online at arthursilberjr.com.