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The Ultimate Event

When I moved to New York I put everything I could fit in a blue trunk.  Naturally that meant my car, an old Oldsmobile beater, couldn’t go; I left it with my mom back in Miami Beach.  This is why, during my one month break from college (Pratt Institute puckishly called it ‘Winterim’) a year and half later mom offered to drop me off in front of the Miami Arena for a show.

My last 18 months in college, being in art school, and in New York; I strove to carve out an identity.  This path led me through the “good old days,” the Fifties and early Sixties and a stack of cassette tapes featuring Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra (I, like most discerning listeners, favored the Capitol Years).  I played them in my dorm as an ironic counterpart to the whining sounds of The Smiths emanating from my roomie’s boombox.  It was “Louder than Bombs” vs. “A Swingin’ Affair.”  But my interest wasn’t ironic, I was really into this.

The music sounded great, had a very lively beat, and Frank’s voice was amazing, full of the confidence I felt I lacked; being all alone up in New York.  I couldn’t exactly pull off going around town in a fedora, but I liked to think that Frank helped me, at least in some small way, to court my girlfriend Isabelle, who would later become my wife.

Maybe Frank helped with the whole 'come hither' thing, I mean, who knows?

Maybe Frank helped with the whole ‘come hither’ thing, I mean, who knows?

I’m proud now to claim that my interest in Fifties Swing (during the late-Eighties) and all that cocktail lounge “coo-cooness” predated the mid-Nineties Rat Pack revival as evidenced by the popularity of movies like “Swingers.”  In a way I was both behind yet somehow ahead of the times.  Anachronistically perfect for Art School.

Mom dropped me off in front of the Miami Arena that night for this show.  I was by myself because nobody would go with me, not even her.  In fact she sped off as soon as I was out of the car, headed for the on-ramp to MacArthur Causeway.  It was January 20th, 1989.

The Miami Arena was only a couple of years old.  Miamians liked to call it the “Pink Elephant” because it was as big as an elephant, and was, well, pink.  To me it looked like a giant sleeping pill lying on its side; a giant sedative dropped on a Miami, that, by 1989, was getting a little too exciting for its own good.  It housed an awful new expansion NBA team called the Miami Heat.  The games were, as I recall, sparsely attended; the prevailing opinion was that they’d be moving on to another city (like Vancouver) in a few years.

Miami Arena 1988-2008

Miami Arena 1988-2008

I walked up to the gate (Gate C, let’s say) eagerly clutching my ticket.  I wasn’t there to see a band like “The Alarm,” “Simple Minds,” or even “Scritti Politti.”  I was there for what was immodestly called “The Ultimate Event.”

It was none other than Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and, um, ok, Liza Minnelli!  All in one place for one night only (actually a national tour and this was the first of two nights at the Arena)!  But the first thing sounded better to me, and matched the bombast of the title billing.  And I probably had something to do the next night…. This was, for me, one night only!

I was thrilled to be there and couldn’t believe nobody would go with me.  As family went, my brother was in New York, my sister was in California, my other sister, though in Miami was too lame to “get it,” and my mom darkly suspected Sinatra had had something to do with Sam Giancana and the Kennedy Assassination, or something like that.  I rarely listened to anybody’s anti-Frank rants.

My only reservation, and the only thing that held me back from buying a t-shirt once I entered the place, was the fact that Liza Minnelli was part of it.  You see, all the T’s had a picture of the three together.  Liza had replaced Dean Martin after a few shows when the tour started the previous year, he had taken ill and had started his long last decline (in fact by 1997, only 8 years later, they’d all be gone, Sammy, Dean and Frank, all except for Liza).  To me she wasn’t cool, couldn’t possibly be considered pre or post-ironic hip or hipster-y by any definition.  But really it had to do with the fact that my California sister was really into her and had been for years.  Years before she would wait for one inattentive moment from me to pull Journey’s “Captured” album off our portable record player so she could pop on “Liza with a Z.”  So I grew up having to hear it a lot.

Plus, at Pratt, I was already into Marilyn Monroe, if I’d added Liza (not that that could have ever happened) everybody there would have been convinced that I was gay and perhaps I would have never met up with Isabelle.  Frank was my counterbalance, the “Haha, look, he’s into Marilyn, but wait, what’s that with Sinatra?  Maybe he’s a little more complicated than we all supposed….”  I imagined all this anyway.

A few months before I had a temp job with some jewelry company in midtown (let’s call it “Tiffany’s”).  I was tasked with addressing holiday invitation addresses on envelopes sent out all over the country.  My handwriting had to be really neat, and it was.  “Whoa, cool, Elizabeth Taylor, she lives in Bel Air!”  I was careful with that one.  I wondered how many of these holiday invites were sent out to celebrities by companies that perhaps they’d only shown a cursory interest in.  No wonder they had “people” to take care of such things.

Then I struck gold.  “Frank Sinatra – 70588 Frank Sinatra Dr. – Rancho Mirage, CA 92270.”  Cool, he had his own street!  But why wouldn’t he?!   He was Frank Sinatra!   I took special care with this one and sealed it up.  That night I put Frank’s address in my address book next to other “S’s” like Streicher and Shelton (2 of my roommates at the Willoughby dorm).  It was as if Frank had given me his address and I had just nonchalantly added it with the other “S” names.  Nothin’ special, just my buddy Frank.

The next day I carefully crafted a fan letter to Frank, gushing on about the “Tin Pan Alley Tradition” and how I liked Billy May as an arranger.  I wanted him to know I wasn’t just another vapid 21-year-old.  And off it went from Bed-Stuy Brooklyn to Rancho Mirage.

When I saw a bunch of these on Google I finally knew it was stamped on. But this one is mine.

About a month later I received a manila envelope from California that had been forwarded from its original destination in Brooklyn all the way back to Glendale, California where I was spending the summer.  It was a picture of Frank signed “All the best, Frank Sinatra.”  Looking at it in the light, and from an angle, I could tell it was really stamped on.  But I didn’t care; I still thought it was really cool.

So to paint a picture here, the guy that strolled in the Miami Arena that night was a fan.  That guy was also younger by far than any other person who was in attendance.  There were groups, some small, some large, of senior citizens, war veterans (both I and II) and ex bobby-soxers long past their prime.  If this didn’t prove my “carving my own identity” credentials then nothing would.  I was definitely in some cultural frontier town.

As I took my seat (let’s say Section E, Seat 17) I sat down reverently with my bag of freshly popped popcorn.  No beer at this concert, for this was not going to be a rowdy crowd.  Occasionally someone would look over at me, like “Why is this guy here?!,” perhaps imagining I would suddenly realize where I was and run out laughing.

"The Ultimate Event," this one in London

“The Ultimate Event,” this one in London

The lights dimmed, they had it set up in a square, like a boxing ring.  “Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to the Ultimate Event!”  “All right, all right;” I thought, let’s start the show.  I never went in for that hyperbolic title, you know.  Liza came on first, and though I tried to ignore her, she was really good, a naturally charismatic entertainer with a great strong voice.  A little hyper though, like the kid in school who really wants you to be her friend.  Then Sammy came on.  I knew a little about him but was really impressed by his stage presence; he had a lot of energy and broadcast it out to the arena.  He even did an imitation of Michael Jackson and did a moonwalk.  His songs were great.  Then he nimbly ducked down and was gone.

There was a delay, it went on for a bit; and then Frank Sinatra came out wearing a tux and holding a martini glass.  He may have been old and his voice largely gone, but this was Frank Sinatra!  He had a few words with the audience, by way of introduction; and then started with “I’ve Got the World on a String.”  I couldn’t believe I was listening to the same guy singing the same song from back in the mid-Fifties; first reproduced on my tape player at Pratt and now at the Miami Arena all these years later.

I looked around me and saw genuine appreciation and respect from these fans.  It was quiet in the Arena but for Frank’s singing, which by 1989 was really speak-singing.  But still.  I wondered what the world was like when they were all young.  Yet here they still were, in this world of “Milli Vanilli” and MetroRail, crack cocaine and terrorism; forgetting it all for one night with their pal Frank.

Frank did a set of about 13 songs, including one of my favorites, “Luck Be a Lady.”  Then Sammy and Liza joined in for a medley of songs interspersed with personal reminiscences and jokes that reminded me of the Rat Pack’s heyday at the Sands Hotel in Vegas.  Frank and Sammy called Liza a youngster and told stories about her mom, Judy Garland, and Liza went on about how she’d been listening to these guys since she was a little girl. They liked each other, and that’s important, because an audience can always tell.  When they know it’s real they have a better time, Frank used to say that in interviews.

During the show I kept thinking. “I get to hear Frank Sinatra live, how many people my age could say that?”

As we all filed out of the arena I got on a payphone and called mom for a pickup.  While I waited there I wanted to talk to the other people filing out, I could have heard stories about old cars, Wurlitzers, the Nazis, maybe even Rudy Vallee.  But these were not clichéd old people; they left with purpose, like they had someplace to be.  They weren’t waiting around for the validation of a young person pumping them for info from their glory years.  I liked that, and I was too abashed anyway to approach anyone; I still felt really out of place.

Mom pulled up with a big grin on her face, though she may have been a Frank-basher, she wanted to hear all about it.  And unlike the other people who seemed to have left in such a hurry, I was only too happy to oblige.

6 replies
  1. Laura
    Laura says:

    Bill, what a great night you had, thanks for sharing this. I got goosebumps when you relived how Frank came out on stage (you thought I was going to say Liza!). It truly is great that you got to see that event.

    Reply
  2. joe seely
    joe seely says:

    reminds me of the time my mom and aunt took me and my bros to see Barry Manilow for our first big concert! except, well, you got to see Frank, Sammy, and Liza…and i got to see Barry Manilow. there is no Nesting Doll of Irony and/or Nostalgia that will make my story cooler than a wet turd. your story is priceless! and hey, Liza, how ’bout dem gams?!

    Reply
  3. Olga
    Olga says:

    Hello! It was very nice to read your memories! I myself am a big fan of Frank Sinatra and collect his records. You were recording a concert of January 20, 1989?

    Reply

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