I couldn’t help but think of Frank Sinatra last week when I was at Cyd Charisse’s funeral and saw Esther Williams and many of Sinatra’s former MGM costars. Yesterday, when I was near the UCLA campus, I heard this verbatim exchange:
Student #1: Dude, I was listening to Frank Sinatra last night. He is so fuckin’ gangsta!
Student #2: Fuck yeah, man!
I had to turn around and get a good look at these guys. Are there really young people today who appreciate Sinatra and his music? For some reason, this filled me with hope for the future. I guess the recent deaths of celebrities from bygone eras combined with the blank stares accompanying these deaths from people under a certain age made me wonder whether all of the cultural icons from my past would disappear without a trace as soon as the last Baby Boomer finally kicked the bucket. It makes me breathe a sigh of relief when I realize that the appeal of certain stars passes from generation to generation.
On the other hand, I can’t really say that I was a fan of Frank’s when I was young. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I thought Frank Sinatra epitomized the Establishment we were all rebelling against. I got that he had an incredible voice, but he belonged to my parents’ generation, I thought his style of singing, his manner, and his dress were totally Squaresville. The burly silver-haired man I saw on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and on his own TV specials bore little resemblance to the scrawny young punk I had enjoyed in the old MGM musicals my mother would show me—I’m not even sure I realized it was the same person. Middle-aged Frank seemed like of a tough guy, a womanizing, boozing, tuxedoed player who was idolized and feared from a distance. I remember the day he married Mia Farrow, thirty years his junior, and how gross I thought that was. He looked old enough to be her grandfather. I heard all the rumors about his links to the mob which I believed wholeheartedly.
By contrast, the young Frank I saw in those early movies seemed like an approachable guy, awkward, funny, and…well…a bit of a geek! I could definitely relate to that. My mother told me stories of how she worshipped young Frankie when she was a kid. She was a bit young to be a true bobbysoxer but she followed his every move and she and her girlfriends went nuts whenever he came to Chicago for an appearance. Reading the news reports of the era, I marvel at the level of craziness that erupted wherever he appeared. It was the precursor for the hysteria that would overtake people like Elvis and the Beatles years later. And that wasn’t the only parallel between these superstars.
I wonder if those UCLA boys knew anything about the crazy period in Frank’s early career when adults railed against the negative influence he had on the youth of America. Here in L.A., just before Sinatra became a movie star, the music critic of the Los Angeles Times, Isabel Morse Jones, wrote a bitter editorial about an upcoming concert Sinatra was giving at the Hollywood Bowl. Thanks to the war, gasoline shortages, higher taxes, and a general apathy about the concerts the Bowl was putting on, the popular amphitheatre was in danger of having to close down. Frank Sinatra had agreed to give a benefit concert to aid the Bowl and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Instead of thanking the young singer, the Times critic wrote:
It is a disgrace to the nation that the symphony orchestra has to be supported by lending its name to entertainers of this type. Their hold on these children is mesmerism. It is a kind of musical drug they purvey, an opium of emotionalism that has nothing whatever to do with the “higher and best qualities” to which the Bowl was dedicated. The following quotation from Oscar Wilde was printed on the cover of the Hollywood Bowl’s first prospectus: “It is through art and through art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” The public must rally with spirit and self-sacrifice. If not, these ideals will disappear at best into commercialism, at worst, they will vanish completely.
Lighten up, Isabel! How ironic that she used a quotation from envelope-pushing Oscar Wilde to condemn Sinatra’s legitimacy at the snooty venue. I can only imagine what Jones would have thought of the concerts that would fill the Hollywood Bowl in years to come—from the Beatles and the Stones to Simon and Garfunkel, Monty Python, and Wilco!
At the time, Jones’s views were shared by many, including this music lover who penned the following letter to the Times a few days later:
I have just read your most excellent article in this Sunday’s Times. How I do agree with you! As long as this “swooner-crooner” is about the invade the ideals of the Hollywood Bowl, might I suggest to the committee that it go the whole way? Why not make the concert a wham-bang riotous good time with the ushers racing madly up and down the aisles passing out hot pennies to little children.
Huh? Of course people my age or older remember symphony orchestras all over the world fighting to get Sinatra to appear with them. It’s hard to imagine a time when he was considered a bad influence.
Despite the criticism, though, Sinatra did appear at the Bowl on August 14, 1943, and he was a sensation. Some prominent players in the world of classical music defended him.
Conductor Leopold Stokowski, refusing to take sides in the jazz-classical music war, today went on record as an admirer of boogie-woogie and Frank Sinatra.
He added that he believes popular music leads juveniles away from, not toward, delinquency.
Yesterday, Conductor Artur Rodzinski of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, bitterly denounced jazz, saying it led to “war degeneracy.” He said he considered devotees of Sinatra “pitiful cases.”
Sinatra promptly replied that he had heard “some pretty awful classical music in my time.”
Stokowski, who as a classical musician should be on the long-haired side of the battle, spoke up strongly for jazz in a press conference today.
“The fact that some foreign musicians cannot understand our popular music will not stop it from growing and developing.” He said that while he had never come face to face with an active Sinatra fan, “this concentration, this ecstasy, is a good thing. “I never saw a danger in enthusiasm—let’s have more enthusiasm!”
“He has his own way of phrasing,” Stokowski declared about Sinatra. “I like it. He doesn’t copy others. Art never imitates, you know.”
Sinatra was so popular that his appearances became dangerous affairs, full of of out-of-control screaming teenagers. In 1944 he was nearly trampled at a New York theatre.
Squealing, shoving, even fainting, 25,000 youngsters, mostly of the bobby socks persuasion threw a human wall around a Times Square movie palace today and penned in Frank Sinatra.
The Paramount Theater’s box office window caved in, policemen’s uniforms were ripped, the block was closed to pedestrians. When the doors opened, more than 4000 of the teenagers surged in, at least 1000 of them to stay all day.
“The crowd is swell,” Sinatra said, “but I’m always afraid of somebody getting hurt.”
Here is a clip of Sinatra from the time period when concerned music critics all over the country were saying that Frank’s music was causing a rash of juvenile delinquency. What?!
Seeing the kind of built-in audience Sinatra had, no wonder he was snapped up by the studio system and put in the movies. If that system existed today, people like Amy Winehouse and Kanye West would have already been approached by every studio in town to star in their latest musicals.
At the beginning, Sinatra’s movies were pretty awful, but that didn’t stop his young fans from storming the theatres.
A generous quota of young girls attended the first showings and their ecstatic whinnyings recorded each and every appearance of their hero. In one movie house, at least, these childish squeals caused annoyance at first and gales of laughter as they continued.
MGM appreciated Frank’s appeal and put the young performer under contract for a series of musicals such as “Anchors Aweigh,” “Till the Clouds Roll By,” and the Esther Williams vehicle, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” In that film and its follow-up, Sinatra joined Gene Kelly and was romantically paired up with our friend, the talented Betty Garrett, who is still going strong and performing at 89 years old. Take a look at Frank and Betty in one of my all-time favorites, “On the Town,” singing the great number, “Come Up to My Place.”
I love it. Betty’s screen kisses with Frank (which she said she liked a lot!) probably made her both the envy and the sworn enemy of bobbysoxers all over the country. On top of that, Betty was married to another heartthrob of the day, actor Larry Parks. I’m surprised she wasn’t ripped apart by bands of Lord of the Flies-like teenaged girls!
Like the Beatles twenty years later, Sinatra grew weary of the bedlam at his concerts. As he got older, he hoped the bobbysoxers would grow up, too. Some claimed that they were maturing along with their hero:
Frank Sinatra’s fans are growing up, his No. 1 fan said today. It isn’t fashionable to squeal at him or tear his clothes apart anymore.
Betsy Weer, 16, president of the National Association of Frank Sinatra Fans, said she and The Voice’s thousands of other bobbysoxed admirers have outgrown “such childish pastimes.”
Instead, they are donning “FS” uniforms and “FS” pins and are giving up their boyfriends, she said.
They have dedicated themselves to waging a war against Sinatra’s movie and radio rivals. Their mail campaigns make congressional lobbyists look silly, Betsy said.
Yep, that’s right, more mature. For his part, Frank tried to use his power for the good by engaging in a series of short films and statements in which he tried to promote racial tolerance among young people in this country. Go, Frank! He said he knew the dangers of intolerance since the age of 12 when the kids in his Hoboken neighborhood called him “Dago.” But while he was promoting equality, Frank also started getting into trouble with the law. When a reporter or columnist wrote something about him that he didn’t like, Sinatra would often get into a scuffle with that person, if given half the chance.
Frank Sinatra, bobby-sox idol, last night was involved in another of those Hollywood fisticuffings with Lee Mortimer, newspaper columnist, as the latter left Ciro’s on Sunset Strip. Mortimer appeared at the West Hollywood police station shortly before midnight detailing the battery the wiry crooner of love ballads reportedly heaped upon his surprised graying head.
“I was leaving Ciro’s with Miss Kay Kino, a band singer, when Sinatra jumped me,” the 42-year-old New Yorker said.
“The first thing I knew I was on the floor and the next thing I knew was when I saw a face above me that looked like Sinatra’s.” He quoted the crooner as warning, “The next time I’m going to kill you, you ______.”
Mortimer admitted that in columns past he has appraised the film and radio actor-singer with somewhat less than lavish compliments. Pulled upright from his first knockdown, he was felled for a second time and then had memories of two other head blows before a photographer came to his rescue.
Yikes, Francis, cool out! Puts Amy Winehouse’s brawl with an unruly fan yesterday during a concert in England in a new light, no? Amazing that Sinatra didn’t get into more trouble than he did for his violent streak. Mia Farrow claimed in her autobiography that Frank offered to have Woody Allen’s legs broken after Farrow learned that Allen had been having an affair with her adopted daughter. Another friend of ours, who co-starred with Frank in two films in the 1960s, told us that Frank once told her that if she ever wanted someone knocked off, to let him know. She thought he was kidding…sort of.
Come to think of it, maybe that was the side of Frank the UCLA students were talking about. But "gangsta" or not, one thing is certain: Frank Sinatra sure as fuck could sing.