It seems like everyone on the planet is celebrating the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. Somewhere, Sinatra and his pals are smiling and ordering another round of the good stuff.
I recall another Sinatra birthday celebration. 1962. It was a very good year. ’62 was the year JFK met with a group of young reporters and told us we were making history. I’m not sure we understood.
It was the year a bumbling team, the New York Mets, made their début as National League baseball returned to Gotham led by ring master, Casey Stengel.
It was the same year in which my Mom received a phone call from someone named Jilly. She was perplexed. That didn’t happen often.
“Garry”, Mom yelled, “Some strange man named Jilly is on the phone for you. Is he one of those drinking people I told you to stay away from”? I gave Mom an insolent look and curtly told her Jilly Rizzo was a confidante of Frank Sinatra. Mom gave me a look that indicated disbelief and anger. Payback later, I quietly concluded.
“Kid, is that you?”, Jilly croaked as I picked up the phone. “Geez, Your mom’s a pistol! No disrespect, Kid.” Jilly Rizzo, nightclub confidante to Frank Sinatra and an “A” roster of celebrities, was apologizing to me about my Mom. I beamed inwardly.
Rizzo went on to explain “Frank” wanted me to join him and a few friends for a small party. I blurted out a thank you and got details.
For those who didn’t read an earlier story, I had met Frank Sinatra a few weeks earlier. It was a chance encounter during an interview I had done with Jilly Rizzo for our college radio station. For some reason, Sinatra liked what he heard and saw and we had a long conversation over drinks after the Rizzo interview. Sinatra even asked pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr and Hank Henry to give us the table. Go figure!
We had chatted about personal stuff. I shared the difficulties of my hearing loss and ensuing diction problems. That apparently opened the door for Sinatra to talk about his own diction problems and his concentration on crisp phrasing of lyrics.
After the conversation was interrupted, Sinatra promised we’d get together again. I thought he was just being polite to an aspiring reporter. I was wrong!
Back at Jilly’s Nightclub again, I was greeted by Sinatra pal, Hank Henry who, without hesitation, handed me a double scotch neat and led me into a backroom. There were about a dozen people gathered around a large table. I blinked twice because I recognized almost everyone.
Dino, Sammy, Joey, Richard Conte, Joey Heatherton and radio icons like William B. Williams among others. There was a big birthday cake in the middle of food and booze on the table. The cake frosting was topped by a Sinatra figurine. The classic Frank Sinatra with raincoat slung over his shoulder. I just stared.
“Something wrong with the booze, kid?”, Sinatra asked, grinning as we shook hands. I nodded no and took a long slug of the scotch. Good stuff!! Sinatra beamed and led me over to the table introducing me as a friend. There was nods and smiles all around.
Across the room, the music began. Big band stuff. Instrumentals no vocals. It sounded like Tommy Dorsey. There were lots of jokes about Sinatra, his hair (it was very thin and receding), his affection for “renegade” talent and taunts that Eli Wallach was looking for him. By then, it was well-known that Sinatra had gotten his legendary “Maggio” role in “From Here To Eternity” with a little “help” even though Columbia Pictures had originally wanted Wallach for the role that earned Sinatra an Oscar and kick started his comeback.
At some point, Sinatra pulled me aside and said he wanted me at his party because he liked my style. I was confused. Sinatra smiled and explained he wanted a young person around to remind him of his own youth and personal struggles. He said he’d appreciated that I didn’t try to get a scoop in our first meeting.
There was more chat about dealing with adversity, about how media was changing and the challenges he faced to stay relevant. I just nodded. He asked how things were going for me. I told him about my meeting with JFK and he grinned.
We talked about movies a bit. I mentioned I hadn’t seen “The Kissing Bandit”, a well-known Sinatra clunker. We shared our love of westerns. I started doing lines from “The Magnificent Seven” and he laughed. He told me about working with Steve McQueen in “Never So Few”. I did little bits of scene stealing shtick as he discussed McQueen. Laughter all around as others listened in.
Sinatra finally was serenaded by Dino, Sammy and the others with a raucous version of “Happy Birthday” laced with profanities.
I just sat smiling, sipping my scotch and not believing I was in the middle of all this. Later, as I got ready to leave, Sinatra approached with two more drinks and smiled, “Cheers, Kid!”.
They were still laughing and singing as I walked out.