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Backstage with The Arcada’s Ron Onesti: Sinatra at 105…still “Ring-a-ding-dinging”

Ron Onesti:  Sinatra at 105…still “Ring-a-ding-dinging”

On December 12, Frank Sinatra will have turned 105.  In those hundred-plus years, few people in modern history have been as iconic, with as much influence on popular music as he had.  His 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”.

We recently enlisted 29 local superstar-celebrity vocalists in the Chicago area to film a musical salute to Frank.  It will be broadcast on his actual birthday, Saturday, December 12.  It includes an opening from Sinatra opening act for 14 years, comedian Tom Dreesen and duets and trio numbers culminated with a “We Are The World”-style group rendition of “My Way” with all on stage.  Incredible!

“Chairman of the Board”-to-be, Francis Albert Sinatra was born to Italian Immigrants in Hoboken, New Jersey.  The wirey, blue-eyed kid with a huge smile loved to sing, and at the tender age of eight, 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, and 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 forty -seven days of rough-and-tough schoolyard antics.  There is a famous mug-shot of twenty-three-year-old Frank with prisoner numbers on his chest after being picked up for…adultery!

His mother, Dolly, was a brash opportunist and entrepreneur who was the “politician” in the family.  She 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.  He moved on to big name, big bands of the time including 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 seventy six 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 twenty-second birthday), when I had the privilege of being a part of a fund raising 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 four 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 that 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 walk away with an immense sense of pride, feeling as if I had given him his microphone for the show and not some twenty-five 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 one hundred fifth birthday, I can only imagine of what it’s like up there in that swingin’ saloon in the sky.  I gotta think that since there are two heads to the dinner table and if God is at one of them, Frank is across passing him the bread, wine and water.