HAPPY BIRTHDAY OLE BLUE EYES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s Frank Sinatra’s 104th birthday. 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.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: SINATRA, FRANK, 1953

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: FRANK SINATRA, 1953

It was the year a bumbling team, the New York Mets, made their début as National League baseball returned to Gotham led by ringmaster, 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, a 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!

FrankSinatra9

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.

sinatra at mic

“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 were 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.

Pictured: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in a scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 1953.

Pictured: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in a scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 1953.

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.

dean-martin-say-daiv-jr-frank-sinatra-456-021411

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.



Categories: Anecdote, Celebrities, Entertainment, Garry Armstrong, Movies

Tags: , , , ,

53 replies

  1. Sue: One more thought. YOU must’ve “made the day” for many folks with your friendly, caring attitude. I know Marilyn and I appreciate that ‘personal touch” , not always available during medical visits today when we most need them.

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  2. Awesome sauce! 🙂 Thanks for the inside scoop with Ole Blue Eyes, Garry. Sinatra was always one of my favorite performers in the 1960s. My sister (A then Beetles fan forever) never understood why until she saw him perform in Atlanta City a couple decades later. ♫ HAPPY BIRTHDAY, OLE BLUE EYES–you still rock my boat! ♫

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very cool, Garry! Thanks for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love hearing your celebrity stories, Garry. I’m sure that they liked you because you did listen and they felt that they could have a normal conversation with you. I am sure that they appreciated that you didn’t use these private chats to further your own career and that you didn’t pester them for the equivalent of a selfie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tas, thank you. Back then, it never occurred to me to use these private chats to further my career. I privately enjoyed them, chuckling at the improbability of me “hanging” with those people. Seemed very
      surreal.

      Decades later, in retirement, it feels right and “good” to share the stories. I’m really sharing my good fortune in the time spent with these folks. That’s always the common thread. I like your “selfie” comparison. In this social media age, there’s no privacy. It’s probably very difficult to have a private encounter with a person of note without being surrounded by people taking pics with their phones, etc.

      Marilyn and I just finished an audio book, “Hank & Jim”. It’s about the life long friendship and careers of Henry Fonda & Jimmy Stewart. It’s really terrific. It gives insight into how the two laconic icons valued their privacy, their frendship. I almost immediately understood how difficult it was for these two American legends to navigate between their public and private lives. It’s that comprehension that allowed me to have these celebrity stories to share.

      Part of the Robert Mitchum story I’ve told includes his “checking out” the bar we entered for lunch. He was very wary of people with cameras, wads of paper awaiting autographs, or tough guy wannabees waiting to test him.

      Fortunately, my bar passed all Mitch’s tests. Just a quiet, seedy joint with muted music and folks sipping their drinks who also wanted privacy. Mitchum approved of my taste in drinking joints.

      I don’t think we would’ve had the same vibes at a “Friendlys” or “Mickey Dees”. Not my preferences for “lunch” anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it must be so much harder for celebrities now that they have to dodge not just the paperazzi but every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a mobile phone and a social media account. I can’t really blame them for choosing to go to exclusive places where only other celebs go just to get some peace.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ll have to see if I can get hold of “Hank & Jim”. I’m sure my sister, Naomi would enjoy it as she loves the old movies and stars of that era. She’s not as much of a reader as I am but a large proportion of her books are movie star biographies.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Tas, I’m sure you and your Sister will absolutely LOVE, “Hank & Jim”. There are some wonderful surprises about these two gentlemen that even I, the self-proclaimed movie maven, did NOT know. It’s no wonder these two fellas were BELOVED by generations of movie goers. It’s the kind of affection not usually generated by contemporary celebrities.
          Please let us know your reactions after you’ve listened to the book. The narrator does a nifty job. I betcha you and Sis will be smiling a lot.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. OMG you’ve lived an exciting life. You’ve been humble and as a result rubbed shoulders with many who also appreciated you and your take on life. They saw your honesty and integrity and I’m sure there were many they gladly avoided. What a delightful moment! Thank you for sharing, truly! It’s awesome to see headliners as they were, and he obviously was a very decent man! Love this so much! YOu fit right in!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Covert, thanks so much. When Marilyn said she posted something involving me, I was curious. I looked and blinked twice because I had forgotten about the piece, a “golden oldie” and the encounters mentioned in the piece. It’s funny becuse I just watched “Never So Few” again the other night without any recall of my Sinatra encounters.
      The Frank Sinatra encounters were surreal because I was a typical fan and used to play his music a lot on our college radio station. I also fantasize a lot, then and now. When fantasy becomes reality, it’s bizarre. It happned to me a number of times when I was younger but I never got used to it — or I just accepted it “in the moment”. I have a friend (A prominent Boston radio personality) who has done a number of these celebrity things and he gets what I am talking about. You chat about these people a lot — and then, suddenly, you’re meeting them — in the flesh — so to speak. I met Sinatra when he was in a good mood which was an asset. He was sometimes mercurial in mood shifts so, again, I was lucky to meet him when all was okay. I usually did well with the “in the moment” scenarios because you’re just being yourself. The conversation about diction-hearing impairment was natural. I needed my subjects to know I was hard of hearing so they would speak up. The diction was a continuation of hearing impairment as a subject. A number of celebs wrestled with diction in their careers so they “bonded” with me. Who knew my hearing loss could be an asset? Sinatra asked if I ever misprounced his songs on the air. He grinned as he asked the question. My responding smile was a bit obscene and Sinatra laughed without me saying anything.
      It was a grand experience. I recalled it often when people bad mouthed Frank Sinatra.

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      • It’s a delightful incite into someone whose music I enjoyed very much. You read and hear so much about celebrities and it’s never 100% whether it’s truth or fiction. Sometimes it’s said for ratings so it’s always special when it comes from a trusted source.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Covert, I think you always take it “with a grain of salt” That’s just being sensible.

          I’m waiting for someone to give me the inside, “honest” take on the current occupant of the Oval Office. Everything, thus far, seems very surreal. Come to think of it, I haven’t talked with any reporter friends who’ve had any “inside time” with 45.

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          • wow! I get that, grain of salt because it’s damn difficult these days without hours of back checking and even then a lot of what I see is promo on someone’s behalf to get to the truth and with so much yes vs no on EVERY subject it gets tedious

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  6. Garry, I’m glad you have a positive spin on Sinatra. Mine is a little different. When he was going through his “down” period, not working, at odds with Hearst, my father made a private appointment with Hearst at the Castle and took Sinatra up there for a conversation, at which time, they reconciled and Sinatra was back in good graces. He told my father, “From now on, I owe my career to you.” Years later, my father worked for Sinatra as a publicist and was betrayed by him. Even Hedda Hopper was upset because she was fond of my dad. When my father died, Sinatra called my mother, who was distant and not too happy to hear from him. Too little, too late.He could be incredibly rude to waiters and the “little people” when he felt like it. One time, when he and my parents were having dinner together in a restaurant, he insulted the waiter. When they were ordering drinks, my mother said, pointing at Sinatra, “And he’ll have a high colonic.” Granted, he could be charming if he felt he needed to be, but a lot of the time he was too engrossed with himself. When I compare him with celebrities I have know who were kind and respectful and generous, he comes way short.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I knew that about him. I read a couple of biographies in which he turned up — not as the main subject, but as an important person in the group. I think he also had a lot of New Jersey “attitude” issues which to me translate to serious insecurity. Insecure people are forever trying to be superior by being mean to those on a lower rung. Maybe that’s how they were brought up. But there are also a lot of people brought up in similar conditions who are intentionally NICE to less “important” people too. It’s like kids who grow up in dysfunctional families. Some turn into sociopaths and the others become artists and scientists. Why? If we can figure that out, maybe we can solve a few problems.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marilyn, I think you are right about the “New Jersey” thing (No disrespect to NJ here). He / Sinatra was big on getting respect. He was also sensitive about his height or lack of it. Sinatra was a couple of inches taller than me. Just recalling how he used to stand on his toes as he began conversations, an old short guy trick. As he relaxed, IF he relaxed, he would stand evenly balanced on his feet. This is something just recalled as I reread Mar’s comment. More and more filters back with your comments. Thank you.

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    • Patricia, I understand what you’re saying about Sinatra. I, again, was verty fortunate to encounter him when he was in a good mood. His emotional “wind” was blowing fair for me. You’ve had so many up close encounters with these folks, I am sure you understand.
      I still recall encounters with Milton Berle and Sid Ceasar when they were NOT in good moods. Not very funny or enjoyable. I just gritted my teeth and ground out interviews that were not memorable. As an old pal used to say, “It’s the nature of the business”. So very true.

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  7. Wow, what an awesome experience, Garry!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Becky, Despite’s Sinatra’s sometimes petulant manner, he was very nice to this young fella during the time I spent with him. Yes, it was awesome, but “in the moment”, I was chatting with a nice guy who was easy to converse with on many things including speech, lyrics, writing, baseball and, yes, classic movies. We shared a fondness for “High Sierra” a sometimes underrated Bogie film. Sinatra and Bogie were friends. I asked Sinatra if it was true that George Raft turned down the role because of the script and lead character., “Frank” grinned — a “what a jerk” smile regards Raft.
      I segued to “Suddenly”, Frank’s film about a would be presidential assassin. It was obviously BEFORE JFK’s assassination, so I didn’t ask a STUPID question. Sinatra was happy to talk about the role and his approach to the character. He said it was his best role since Maggio in “From Here To Eternity”.. I told him he’d grown a bit. He winked at me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Happy Birthday, Frank. You made a lot of us very happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great story and memory, Garry. Happy birthday, Frank.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a great memory! Sinatra will all be the Chairman of the Board.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rich, thanks. Once again, kudos to luck and timng. Jilly was the key. He was happy I sought him out as an interview and kept my sitdown on HIM and his career. Jilly brought up Sinatra and the Pack and I just let him roll. f I had done that, I think the Sinatra thing would’ve never happened.
      Sinatra was pleased to see Jilly get the spotlight from a young newsie. I just let the rest play out.
      Finally, Sinatra was in a good mood. I, unkowningly, had all the aces.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh Garry, this is priceless…what an experience!
    Leslie

    Liked by 2 people

    • Leslie, it was a very good year! Again, I had forgotten this even though I just watched Sinatra again the other night in “Never So Few”.
      One of he things I now remember — Sinatra LISTENED and LOOKED as he spoke. If he said something flip, he wanted to see how you reacted. If you OVER reacted, he wasn’t impresssed. If you just shrugged (as HE often did), he would smile, knowing you weren’t a syncophant type. Hey, I was just looking and listening to him. Partial credit goes to my habit and style given my hearing difficulty.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Lucky you! But, it wasn’t luck, was it? You impressed Frank Sinatra. That was no small feat. And you got invited to celebrate his birthday, which was a personal party of his friends, and he counted you among them. Very cool!!!

    Growing up, every Sunday was Frank Sinatra all day long at my house. The first song I learned to play on the piano was a simplified version of Strangers in the Night.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just wish I’d BEEN there. But I was too young to even enter a bar … like 15 maybe?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Robin, thanks for the kind words. I’m not being unduly modest. Part of me was awed that I was meeting FRANK SINATRA. Jilly Rizzo was a cunning and nice guy to young Garry. Jilly apparently had Frank in his office and told him he was being interviewed by a young college reporter/DJ who did a “nice standards” show on his collge radio station. I always used to mention the lyricist, composer and back story/ies to songs before and after I played them. I believe I’d once talked (on the air) about the difference between Sinatra’s singing diction and his “regular diction. I had jabbered a bit about the importance of diction, regardless of WHO you were. So, Sinatra knew this about me and apparently had moved to the back of the restsurant as I did the interview with Jilly. I neve knew he was there.

      Robin, I love your Sinatra Sundays. So nice. What song was played/performed most often beyond “Strangers In The Night”?

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s a great background story, Garry.

        I didn’t stick with piano for very long, and I don’t remember what, if any, other Sinatra songs I might have learned. Stangers In the Night was one of the first, so it sticks in my memory.

        I switched to the oboe and stuck with that for quite a while. I never played any jazz standards on it.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. That’s a pretty amazing story. Dang. Sinatra.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What wonderful memories, Garry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course, I wasn’t there because I was still in High School! I missed a lot of “good stuff” 🙂

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    • I got to meet a few of them — Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, and some producers — and a lot of local and not-so-local TV people. But the really fun stuff, I was just too young. We hadn’t met yet. Hard to remember that there was a time before we met. We’ve known each other since I was 16 and Garry was 21. Lotta years!

      Liked by 2 people

      • A lot of years and still in love… that’s not bad going 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Marilyn, you also met Burgess Meredith at that “Midway” luncheon plus some other people like Kevin Dobson who played “Crocker” in the “Kojak” series. (Henry Fonda SMILED at Marilyn. Something he RARELY did to media folks. He must’ve liked you “jib”)
        Then, there were your sightings with Sidney Poitier near the Russian Tea Room in NY. You claim it was “nothing” but I have my suspicons. Sidney with that broad “island” smile..just like my Dad. Those fellas were taken with you.
        You also had that famous “tussle” with Carly Simon (?) on the Vineyard about a hat or dress. So many celeb cluster things. I still love “Bubba” staring at your BOOBS. Now, we HAVE a pic of that.

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    • Sue, thanks. It’s always good to “know” an acquaintance or friend of the celeb. Jilly Rizzo was really “tight” with Sinatra and his pals in those days. They were regular fodder in the gossip columns of New York’s papers and radio gossip shows. I felt I “knew” Jilly Rizzo before I called, requesting an interview. I mentioned one of his clelebrated menu items during the phone chat and that may have cemented the interview. Always good to know the little things.
      One side bar thought as I write: Lainie Kazan (Schwartz), a Hofstra alum, was working in a Sinatra film during that period. Maybe that helped a little. Don’t know. She was never mentioned.

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      • It is a whole different world that you moved in, Garry… but even in mine, it was always the small details that made the difference.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sue, the small details ALWAYS count. Whether with a celeb or supermarket acqaintance. It means you’re taking time to notice them – not just thoughtless or idle jabber.
          The celebs I’ve met always appreciated the attention to detail — to the point where you lose track of what you’re talking about.
          Katherine Hepburn was “schooling me” on clothing. I mentioned Brooks Brothers and my fondness for their cut. Hepburn thought I was being elitist and I told her BB accommodated people like me, short and squat — who needed to look good in public and on the (Small) screen..I cut her off ( a flagrant No-No) and bragged about my 3 pc gray, pin-stripped suit. I told her some people often mistook me as a lawyer. Hepburn shot back, “Well, isn’t That SPECIAL. Y’know, you men! Spencer had the same problem and I set him straight…”

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