Frank Sinatra, Jr at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek
The Sands was a real casino, my father explains. It was Sinatra’s favorite den. Of bloody reds and kingly golds, money greens and piano-gloss blacks. This place — the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, just outside Pompano in South Florida — isn’t that. I roll a critical eye around the space. Its Tuscan palette reminds me of a California Pizza Kitchen piped with ropes of rainbow lights. On walls, framed promotional posters seduce; “FIND THE FUN YOU!”
Another appletini slips by our hightop table; at the bottom of its glass, one merry cherry like a clown nose. I watch a Native American man in a sky-blue windbreaker quietly receive this, his second drink. Meanwhile, my father has pulled out and is scanning what he calls “the destructions.” Turn camera ON. Take little black thingy off. Avoid eye contact with daughter. Talk to Frank Sinatra, Jr... yourself! He reassures me, he’s only joking. But he does not look like he’s joking, and I worry a piece of arugula between my fingers, thinking, This was probably a bad idea. (The lettuce tears.)
Above us, in the casino restaurant, white speakers the size of dinner plates happen to be playing Frank Sinatra. Dad sings: Scooby dooby-doo... scooby dooby... scooby dooby-doo... “Strangers in the night...” (he’s packing up the camera)... “lovers at first sight...” (he’s lifting his glass of red toward the ceiling, toward Sinatra). Dad’s phone buzzes and he answers, “How are you, handsome?” His business call manners are something I remember always liking. Even when I was a kid — at first, mobile phones were the size of bricks — and we were in the car, and I would wait half hours to get a word in. I learned to prepare speeches in my head in the meantime, to audition subjects and rehearse lines of conversation. If I was going to say something, better make it good. But listening to my father’s voice (umpiring — conciliating — barking), I couldn’t imagine having views important enough to pronounce as loudly, with his same command. Like Frank Sinatra, my Italian American father was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1998, my father’s grandfather, my great-, had attempted to crash Sinatra’s funeral. He was determined to pay his respects to the man who had so much to do with making Italian an okay thing to be in America. “I’m just going to ask him,” says my father now. “‘So, Junior — what’s it like, baby?’” I try to give him a look learned from my mother. It means, “Just now? I am not amusable.” It means, “Don’t try.” My father swallows the last of his Cabernet with difficulty. “Hahaha, ha!”
Two weeks ago, I told my father I’d been assigned to report Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s concert, told him I had a second press pass for a photographer. My father heard me loud and clear. He went out and bought a telescopic Nikon. It is now July 12, 2012, a Thursday. An hour ago, I showed him how to hold the camera like a pro, by cradling the lens in his left hand. We were in the parking garage waiting for an elevator. The long window looked out on the complex where a water tower sprouted behind the honey-colored stucco. Behind it was a backdrop of perfect pool blue sky. “Try to shoot that,” I said, pointing. He tried. But the auto-setting didn’t like the light conditions. The shot wouldn’t take. “Well,” my father mumbled; his eyes danced over the machine. “How do you do it manually?” It was at that point that dread began to gnaw on his daughter.
Walking toward the venue, we pass banks of slot machines: $TINKIN’ RICH, KITTEN KABOODLE, WITCHES RICHES, SNEEKI TIKI... FRANTIC ANTICS. “Cory,” I whisper to myself. “Cory.” I might have to call my father by his first name. If so, I’ll need to keep a straight face. I make eye contact over my shoulder: “Corrado.” I can feel the twist of my mouth and tightness around my eyes. This expression is historically given to my father when I know I’ve done something bad, but also know that I know my patriarch; and he may remonstrate, he may do that, but his brown eyes are oily; on the inside, he’s cheering, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” Anyway... it was a ridiculous pretense. We two are olive; we have wavy dark hair, the same face, and are unfortunately dressed in bootcut jeans, crisp button downs, boat shoes/moccasins, and European-seeming frames, as if to match. Who, in their right, professional mind, would bring their father on a magazine assignment? But it’s too late.
I am supposed to write about the Sinatras. The tree, the apple... the grassy stage in between. The New Yorker once called Junior’s predicament an “Oedipus Hex.” Much has been made of the Sinatra redux, how Jr. doesn’t quite cut la figura of his father. Junior isn’t his father, is the problem. There is also a Frank Sinatra III. In 2010, he sent a fistful of pills down his gullet — and people said it was doing with that name of his. He cannot bear being the grandson of Sinatra. He lived, but the world will not hear from him because he doesn’t want any part of all that. Maybe his trouble had nothing to do with being a Sinatra, but from Sinatra it is hard to descend. Decades ago, one of my several “uncles,” distinguished men from my father’s circle, saw Junior play The Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. That was in 1976, early in the career of Frank Sinatra, Jr. “He was just bad,” Jim told me. They’d all fallen asleep. It had been a day, but still. They slept through the damn concert. Jim is one who’s spent an eccentric amount of time in Vegas over the years. I asked how many times he’d been. Say, fifty? More than that, came the reply. He’d seen Frank Sinatra at the inimitable Sands — its bloody reds, kingly golds; its money greens and piano-gloss blacks — twice. Sinatra was the Maker! Porkpie. He got one? Then you’d better, too. Silk mohair suit, got to have it; didn’t you see his latest movie?
Outside the venue, Cory is given a lanyard and dispatched to the press pit. I am handed a civilian ticket. I find my seat in Row J; it is behind a soundboard that looks as if a penny slot machine has snuck into the concert. I wonder. Was I just upstaged by my father? I cross my legs. Well that’s just... hilarious, actually. I scribble “THE IRONY” in my notebook, then text my dad, “Just monkey-see, monkey-do it. Good luck!” I’d noticed the other photographers’ lenses were bigger, and Dad would’ve noticed, too. I can overhear the people sitting behind me in Row H. A woman says to another woman, “So then why’d you guys come again?” “I don’t knooow,” the woman clucks. “Because we had tickets.”
Junior opens with “That Face.” His own face is ovoid and doughy. I’m aware his eyes are hazel, not blue. He wears a light gray blazer over a white dress shirt with an oblique-striped white and navy tie, and charcoal pants. He sounds — My God. — like velvet. He sounds a hell of a lot like his dad, a fact for which, somehow, I wasn’t prepared except notionally. So taken aback am I, tears spring. I can’t believe it. The Pavilion seats an audience of 1,200, mostly white hair. The venue is nearly sold out. Junior travels with a sight: a full orchestra of 21 jazz musicians. The brass are brassy, the strings are strung out, and the singing is Frankly, for sure. The audience erupts now and again in plaudit. “Do you hear that band?” Junior asks. “‘bones?” The trombonists stand up and blow, their brass instruments flashing like Rolexes. The lights throw paisley shapes on the brown curtain. “Thank you so much,” he says gently. “O!” And the lights scatter like surprised mice. He is singing one of Senior’s bills now. “Here’s to the losers. / Here’s to those who still believe. / The losers.” I look around. Ladies’ earrings are swinging like chandeliers. People are nodding; they’re putting their whole bodies into it. “You like the standards — so do I,” Junior says. He’s fisting the microphone. “Venus de Milo / Is noted for her charms . . .” He delineates an hourglass figure with his free hand.
At 8:26 p.m., a text message appears from my father. “I made a deal with the real photographers.” I reply with an emoticon: “:-).” There is no time to process what a deal could mean. Junior is warning the crowd, “Don’t be fooled by reasonable facsimiles.” “The great days of these shows are in another era.” So he’s gonna do something for them he’s started doing, which is to “resurrect” the past, “the classic night club acts.” “Enough,” he says.” He asks the drummer, “May I have a rolling timpani, please?” Junior must be sharper than his namesake. He has outsmarted us all. He has beaten everyone to the punchline by tuning his voice. He pantomimes tossing back a stiff drink. Eh. He takes another swig of thin air, sings, “When you’re drinking / Sure looks good to you!” It is Dean Martin up there! Junior is doing Dino. “I love it in Florida/ So carefree and gay / I’d even work here / Without any pay . . . / My clever agent / Worked out this deal . . . “ They know what’s next, but when he turns on dad with “Without A Song,” the distance between a Jr. and a Sr. collapses. Some fatness in the peaks, that is what’s added; that is what makes the son sound like the father. In purple light, the stage is dyed the color of a Roman emperor’s robe. Under it the harp looks like a wishbone. When the lights turn to gold, all the white and gray hair in the crowd becomes blond.
An hour into the show we get “Strangers in the Night.” I brighten. Dad must be loving this. I’m shaking with laughter, remembering him singing it two hours ago in the restaurant. “Wond'ring in the night! / What were the chances...” After the song, Junior relates a time in the ‘90s, when he was working at the end of his father’s career — at the end of father’s life — conducting the band. By this time, Senior could not always remember the lyrics, let alone the lineup. This one time, Junior was onstage “makin’ pizza” in front of the orchestra, and Sinatra leaned over: “What’s next?” So Junior told him. “Oh, that,” Sinatra sneered. Later that night in Senior’s hotel room, Junior had to get it right. Did his dad not like that song? “I hate that song,” sniffed Senior. Nine... million... records. Nine million! And he... hates this song? Well, that’s what Junior was thinking. “I’ll take a hand-me-down!” he told his audience now. “I’m not proud at all!” Junior’s reviews were in places like Guns & Ammo. He could never enthuse the way his father did. From the beginning, Junior was encouraged to chart different territory. In the '60s, when country music was really happening, managers thought he should try that. But Junior wouldn’t have it. (In his opinion, if the music wasn’t in the Great American Songbook, it wasn’t worth anyone’s time of day.) There was one he damn-near recorded, because the title was so good. It was called “You’re the Reason Our Children Are So Ugly.”
For his second-to-last tune, Junior gets the house to sing “New York, New York” as if we’re not in Florida. The stage displays sunset-red. The crowd shimmies in their seats; they kick their legs side-to-side like showgirls. Then Junior tells us “Put Your Dreams Away.” He smiles. That’s a “family heirloom,” he says. “Thank you for remembering the music of Sinatra,” he says, and let’s fly a refrain I hear as a sad fact of Junior’s life: “YES . . . / It was mmmy wayyy...” “Goodnight, everybody.”
Soon after, powerless, I watch the harpist encase the wishbone and cart it offstage. It’s clear there will be no interview. There is no backstage access at this concert, though PR did not inform my editor it would be the case. I meet Dad on the shoulder of the casino floor fifteen minutes later. “Dad, there is no backstage.” The little girl in me steels. “—I tried.” (I better have, for my father is marked by an ability to finesse “NO” into “YES.” Getting backstage is a game, not of luck, but skill. “Guess what? We’re...,” my mother frequently reports. To which I can only respond: “How?” “You know your father,” says the mother.) But I’d spoken to Steve, a large man in charge. And Steve was adamant. Another reporter and photographer — incidentally, boyfriend-girlfriend — are disappointed too. My father had already doled out Heinekens. After the first song, when the photographers were required to disperse, he had prostrated himself at the woman’s feet, or something like that. She’d agreed to provide his daughter the necessary photos. Later, Dad would slip me a business card; I’d find out he’d convinced a second photographer to do the same — for back up. Now, do I want a beer? I don’t want one, no. I am auditing the bits and pieces, trying to figure if I can pull a minor (a very minor) Gay Talese... when the venue doors pop open. It is Junior and his entourage. They are coming out. I have enough time to think, They’re all wearing all black. Then I feel my father’s hand pressing on my back. He pushes me toward Junior — “Frank, this is my daughter Chantel.” Junior actually turns around. “Chantel. What a pretty French name.” His handshake is warm, significant. He moves to greet the coupled reporter and photographer; he bids — “Chantel, it was a pleasure” — and is gone. My father’s hand comes to rest on my shoulder.
People feed the slots. They crowd the green, felt stages of blackjack tables, and it’s not immediately clear who are the winners and who the losers — but there is congratulatory cigar smoke in the air. As we, father and daughter, make our way to the elevator, there again is the voice of Frank Sinatra. Softly over the speakers, Sr. sings. “Don’t you know little fool? / You never can win.”
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Shacter