By Steve Vertlieb: On the evening of May 14, 1998, following the airing over NBC Television of the series finale of Seinfeld, the world and I received the terrible news of the passing of the most beloved entertainer of the twentieth century. It has been twenty-four years since he left this mortal realm, but the joy, the music, and the memories are as fresh and as vital today as when they were born.
As I grow sadly older, while a soft sense of melancholy creeps gently into my heart, I find myself thinking about my idol … perhaps, the single most profound, culturally significant influence upon my own life and career … Francis Albert Sinatra … and what he has meant to me over the past sixty or more years.
I couldn’t help recalling my own personal relationship with Old Blue Eyes. We’d shared a modest correspondence over the years. He’d written me several precious letters that I cherish to this day, as well as some personally signed autographed pictures and even an individually inscribed 45 rpm record that he’d sent to me.
Then came one of the greatest moments of my life. I’d won a contest sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer, asking readers to answer questions concerning Frank Sinatra’s life and career. The contest, spread out over three days in the Spring of 1976, asked a total of thirty questions and was tied in with Sinatra’s upcoming appearance at The Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I won first prize, and was awarded tickets and dinner for four to see Sinatra perform during his engagement.
I telephoned the newspaper and said that I wanted to meet Frank. They responded that this was not a part of the prize. I responded, rather brazenly at the time, that I understood that, but that I still wanted to meet Frank. They relented after a moment and decided that it might be good publicity, both for the newspaper and for the club. They envisioned the headline, I guess … “Prize Winner Meets His Idol.”
They had arranged for one of the Inquirer’s staff photographers to meet me back stage at The Latin Casino, and take the photographs for publication. I didn’t bring my own camera, as I assumed that the newspaper photograph would be superior. Needless to say, the Inquirer photographer never arrived. I was told later that he looked upon the evening as a fluff assignment, and had gone out to a bar instead.
I can vividly recall arriving at the back stage entrance to the night club, and walking through the outer door. Pacing nervously along a narrow corridor, I found myself standing at the wall opposite the door through which I’d entered. I turned to my right, facing a tiny set of stairs leading directly to the performer’s quarters. I was utterly frozen in fear for there, just beyond the stairs, stood Frank Sinatra, adjusting his bow tie while putting on his tuxedo. Reason and sanity eventually took hold of me as I realized that I was standing upon hallowed ground in a space that I hadn’t yet been invited to share or occupy. I slowly moved from the stairs, and awaited my time to be invited up to formally meet Frank.
The moment arrived, and I felt crushed that it might pass without an opportunity to capture it for posterity. A gentleman backstage who spoke little English was carrying an expensive camera, loaded with black and white film around his neck, and I begged him to take a picture of Frank and myself. I’ll never forget his response … “I no know how take picture.” He snapped two pictures as Frank Sinatra threw his arm around me, and said “Congratulations.”
It’s difficult to believe now that the moment ever happened. As I left the dressing room back stage at the club, I turned around like a school girl, and cried “I Love You, Frank.”
Weeks later I received a telephone call from the gentleman who took the pictures, letting me know that neither photograph had turned out. I was heartbroken. Magically, however, I received a small envelope from the gentleman several months later. This imperfect photograph of me with most of Frank Sinatra was enclosed. It’s far from perfect, and not what I had hoped for, but it’s all that I have to remember that special moment, frozen now in time and memory. It grows more precious, however, with the fragile passage of years.
[More photos and letters after the break.]
Frank Sinatra’s singing gifts speak to listeners now as much as they ever did. And his acting ability was nothing to sneer at, either.
My favorite Sinatra “story” comes from the movie “S.O.B.”
William Holden, Robert Preston, and Robert Webber are at a bar, mourning the death of their friend (Richard Mulligan). Holden comes back from the jukebox and is asked what he set it to play:
“Sinatra. Ten dollars worth of Sinatra.”
It sums up the feelings of more than one generation regarding Ole Blue Eyes.
As usual, you eloquently describe Frank Sinatra and what he meant to you. Your treasured mementos of your correspondence with him, as well as your meeting with him show the influence Frank Sinatra had on your life. The sincerity with which you write cannot be denied. You were most fortunate, indeed, to have had the relationship you did with the greatest singer who ever came down the pike. And, as you said, his acting was “nothing to sneer about, either”. Thank you for sharing your memories and feelings as you have done. Yours truly, John Primerano
I think John Primerano expressed my thoughts as well, better than I could. Steve, I’m grateful for all your memories of Frank, your adulation has enriched my thoughts and knowledge of him, you have shared the wonderful joyous feeling I have when listening to him sing and remember the great dramatic roles he had. Besides the Manchurian Candidate and just as horrific was The Man With The Golden Arm. Some Came Running, From Here To Eternity were astounding performances . A favorite film is High Society with romantic (You’re Sensational) and light hearted songs (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire with the delightful Celeste Holmes) is a show case of fun and music. But most outstanding to have Sinatra and Bing Crosby poking fun at each other and caring off a delightful, playful performance. I adore your love of Frank. I don’t feel self conscious expressing my own mirrored feeling. Thank you Steve!
I grew up with Sinatra records in the house (along with Nat Cole and my dad’s fave pianist, Erroll Garner) and my earliest memory is enjoying “Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!” and loving the singer and the band just having a grand old time with “When You’re Smiling.” When “My Way” came out, my father bought the album right away and every time he put it on it was always side 2 first as he loved the title cut that opened that side. As a record collector I have pretty much all the officially released vinyl albums on Columbia (I have a first pressing of the 10″ “The Voice,” the first pop LP on the label), Capitol and Reprise and treasure them all.
Very well said by all that responded. 25 years after the passing he is still deeply imbedded with all of us.