Tony’s fans play waiting game in Virgin territory

IT WAS 1 P.M. LAST SATURDAY afternoon and turning into the kind of day when most publicists start thinking about switching to a less-demanding career … something like law enforcement, military service or wild animal training.

For there was the Sunset Strip’s giant Virgin Megastore awaiting the arrival of Tony Bennett, who, it had been announced with great fanfare, was going to be there signing copies of his newest CD, “Perfectly Frank,” a musical tribute to the songs of Frank Sinatra.

These days, even Bennett, who has established himself as one of the all-time great vocalists — in a career that has spanned more than four decades — has found that the personal touch doesn’t hurt, especially when it comes to selling a few more CDs. Even if it does mean spending the afternoon signing hundreds of autographs.

Everything seemed to be going as planned: The store was packed with fans of all shapes, sizes and ages and, much to the delight of the various flacks on hand, there were even members of the press to record the event for posterity.

But, there was no Tony.

It seems the man Sinatra calls “the best singer in the business” was in a plane somewhere over Arizona–presumably watching a bad movie and eating a bad meal–the result of having his flight canceled in Newark and having to catch a later flight out of JFK.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” the Megastore’s in-house DJ intoned from his glass booth to the assembled throng, “but for those of you waiting for Tony Bennett, he’s going to be a little late.”

“Who’s Tony Bennett,” asked one teenaged boy, wearing a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt and four earrings.

“I think he’s the dude who used to be in charge of making the drug laws,” his friend muttered, confusing Tony with William.

“Then we better get out of here,” said the earring-clad teenager. “I’m holding.” With that, the pair quickly vanished, probably headed for nearby Tower Records.

Curiously, the in-house DJ wasn’t even playing any of Bennett’s music over the store’s sound system. At the moment, he was playing Sugar’s “Copper Blue,” which was not going over well with Lou, a retired butcher who had traveled all the way from Valencia to see Bennett. “How come you’re not playing any of Tony’s music,” Lou angrily asked one of the store’s clerks. “I don’t want to hear that crap. I want to hear ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ ”

“We’re playing his video,” she said, pointing to a bank of monitors, indeed showing Bennett in concert. Unfortunately for Lou, the sound was off.

“If I want mime, I’ll go see Marcel Marceau,” Lou told the clerk as she hurried off.

Farther down the line, which was now snaking around the perimeter of the store, two men were getting into a heated argument over the merits of Sinatra and Bennett.

“I still think Frank is better than Tony,” the first man said.

“How can you be so stupid,” the other man shot back. “Frank says Tony’s the best singer in the business.”

“Maybe so, but I didn’t notice Frank recording an album called ‘Perfectly Tony.’ ”

An hour and a half later, word spread quickly through the line that Bennett had indeed landed in Los Angeles and was in a limousine headed toward the store.

“It shouldn’t be too much longer for the great Tony Bennett,” the DJ assured the crowd, as he began playing a record by Nine Inch Nails, bringing more groans from Lou, the retired butcher.

“I still want to hear ‘I Left My Heart in San Fransisco,’ ” Lou yelled up at the DJ, who was, fortunately for him, protected by the glass booth.

Down the line, another patient fan was singing Bennett’s praises.

“One of the great things about Tony is that he’s changed his hairpieces over the years,” said Tom, a 40-ish accountant. “He had the good sense to go from black to gray.”

A few minutes later, the gray-haired Bennett finally arrived, much to the delight of the crowd. Taking his place behind a counter, the singer began furiously signing autographs.

“Do I have to buy anything to get his autograph,” a 28-year-old woman asked a clerk.

“What would you like him to sign?” the clerk asked.

“The same thing I tried to get Michael Bolton to sign,” she said, “My inner thigh.” After being informed that this would not be possible, she bought a CD.

A little later, the DJ made another announcement.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but Tony is short on time and will only be able to sign one item.” Lou, who had brought 12 vintage Tony Bennett albums to be signed , let out a sigh of disappointment.

“I’ve waited all this time, listening to all that terrible music and now I can only get one thing signed,” Lou said. “I’m gonna talk to the manager.”

As the last of the autograph hunters slowly made their way toward Bennett, who must have had a bad case of writer’s cramp by this time, the DJ finally played “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

“It’s about time they played that,” said Lou, who had gotten Bennett to sign two of his albums. “That’s his anthem.”

Anthem or not, Bennett had other things to worry about–like where he was going to find a clean shirt and a toothbrush.

For Tony Bennett might have left his heart in San Francisco, but on this particular day, his luggage was still in Newark.

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