Dec. 12 this year, Frank Sinatra would have turned 100. In those 100 years, few people in modern history have been as iconic, with as much influence on popular music, as he. His songs are timeless and his persona was legendary.
And tomorrow night, 100 years to the day, the Arcada Theatre will celebrate the man and his music with a grand production of “A Century of Sinatra.”
“Chairman of the Board”-to-be, Francis Albert Sinatra was born to Italian immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey. The wiry, blue-eyed kid with a huge smile loved to sing, and at the tender age of 8, sang publicly for the first time. His father, Antonio, a lightweight boxer and Hoboken Fire Department captain, propped him up on the bar in the local saloon operated by Frank’s mother, Dolly, to entertain his fellow firemen — and “The Voice” was born.
Music was his passion, and school wasn’t. Sinatra barely made it to high school before he decided to pack up his blue eyes to sing professionally. He was actually thought to be dead at birth as the doctor just laid him on a table while attending to his mother. Frank’s grandmother put the “stillborn” under cold water and Sinatra wailed his first song.
A real-life “Dead-End Kid,” Sinatra dropped out of high school after 47 days of rough-and-tough schoolyard antics. There is a famous mug-shot of a 23-year-old Sinatra with jailhouse arrest numbers on his chest after being picked up for … adultery!
His mother, Dolly, was a brash opportunist and entrepreneur who was the “politician” in the family. She convinced a local vocal group to give her son a chance and so became the Hoboken Four. Not long after, Sinatra became a popular feature of the group. So much so, the group won a sixth-month contract on a popular radio show, and his star began to rise.
Sinatra moved on to big name, big bands of the time, including those belonging to Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.
Ironically for us Chicago-area fans (and probably why Chicago was so near and dear to Frank’s heart), a meeting with Tommy Dorsey that catapulted his career happened in Chicago’s famed Empire Room at The Palmer House. And his first concert with Tommy Dorsey was at The Coronado Theatre in Rockford. Both events occurred between December and January, exactly 76 years ago. The rest is “do-be-do-be-do” history.
Growing up in an Italian American household myself, I experienced two trinities … the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett. Both referenced God in different ways in MY neighborhood. So when I had the chance to not only meet him, but also to be a part of one of his concerts, I was in a sense “ordained” into a very exclusive club, much like that one at the Vatican.
It was on May 8, 1984 (my 22nd birthday), when I had the privilege of being a part of a fundraising event with Frank. It was the first of five concerts he was to perform at the Arie Crown Theatre on Chicago’s lakefront. Francis Albert generously donated the proceeds from this first show to the Villa Scalabrini Home for the Aged in Northlake, a charity with which I was very much personally involved.
I was in charge of distributing the commemorative key chains and paperweights to the various levels of sponsors and ticket buyers. Yep, without me that night, Frank would have been nuthin’!
It was then I first experienced the way his personality and mere presence filled a room. As he and his entourage made their way through the backstage area, it seemed as if one tightly packed entity gelled its way to the stage, much like the way a ball of mercury comes together after being dropped on a table.
I was standing right near the curtains and he stopped and stood there about 4 feet from me! He repeatedly looked at his watch as his people all gazed at him just waiting for the order to go on stage. The order came from him, mind you … always. The last time he looked at his watch, his baby blues made their way beyond the watch and met mine. Probably one of the scariest things that ever happened to me! I’m telling ya, this guy was intense!
It was at this moment that my body was taken over by some spirit as my hand uncontrollably raised and I handed him a keychain with his own picture on it. A poignant moment in his life, I am sure. He smiled and said: “Thanks kid.” I walk away with an immense sense of pride, feeling as if I had given him his microphone for the show and not some 25-cent souvenir. Again, without me, there would not have been a show!
Tomorrow, Dec. 12, 2015, will mark Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. There will be concerts and other presentations all over the world commemorating this historic occasion. We here at The Arcada will present a 100th birthday celebration featuring EIGHT vocalists, a swingin’ band with actual Sinatra song charts and a looping onstage photographic exhibit of more than 300 never-before-seen photographs from the personal collection of Frank Sinatra.
Another little known fact about Frank is he had a passion for photography. He was the “official” photographer of the first Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier fight (boxing was another of his passions). The photos being shown at The Arcada will be those of his personal family life, as well as those from his professional escapades … very rare and shown publicly for the first time!
Sinatra, Elvis, James Dean, Michael Jackson … these guys defined musical generations. But arguably, Sinatra was the first. And as we approach his 100th birthday, I can only imagine of what it’s like up there in that swingin’ saloon in the sky. I gotta think, because there are two heads to the dinner table, if God is at one of them, Frank is across passing him the pasta.