Ron Onesti: A century-plus of Sinatra
On Dec. 12, Frank Sinatra would have been 104. In those 100-plus years, few people in modern history have been as iconic, with as much influence on popular music as he had.
Sinatra's songs are timeless and his persona was legendary. I recently came across some vintage pix of "Ol' Blue Eyes" and it reminded me just how much he was a part of my "inner culture."
Francis Albert Sinatra, the "Chairman of the Board"-to-be, 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 -- school wasn't. He 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 Frank wailed his first song.
A real-life "dead end kid," Frank dropped out of high school after 47 days of rough-and-tough schoolyard antics. There is a famous mug-shot of 23-year-old Frank with prisoner numbers on his chest after being picked up for … adultery!
His mother was a brash opportunist and entrepreneur who was the "politician" in the family. Dolly convinced a local vocal group to give her son a chance and so became the Hoboken Four. Not long after, Frank became a popular feature in the group. So much so that 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 such as 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), the 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 that 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 that moment 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 walked away with an immense sense of pride, feeling as if I had just given him his microphone for the show and not some 25-cent souvenir. Again, without me, there would not have been a show!
Sinatra, Elvis, James Dean, Michael Jackson, Prince … these guys defined musical generations. But arguably, Frank was the first. And as we approach his 104th birthday, I can only imagine of what it's like up there in that swingin' saloon in the sky. I gotta think that with two heads to the dinner table, and God sitting at one of them, Frank is across passing him the pasta, wine and water.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.