Every show business career is a roller-coaster, but nobody had ups and downs like Frank Sinatra.
Dec. 12 marks the centennial of the birth of Sinatra, who seemed to have had four careers: As a big-band singer and bobby-soxer idol, a nightclub showman, recording star (150 million sold worldwide) and Oscar-winning actor. He also had two unofficial careers: as the symbol of ring-a-ding-ding swinger-hipness (either with the Rat Pack or solo) and as a gossip favorite — for his marriages, alleged Mob connections, feuds with reporters and temper outbursts (though his pals would always remind that his philanthropy usually went unreported).
He made his first record in 1940, with the Tommy Dorsey band, and was such a sensation that Hollywood came calling. He made his film debut in “Higher and Higher” and Variety reported that the RKO execs were so enthused about the performer — who was nicknamed “Mr. Swoon” — that the studio signed him to a long-term contract.
But by the end of the decade, he hit a career low. The recordings weren’t clicking with buyers, the films were lackluster (aside from a few hits like “Anchors Aweigh,” “On the Town”), and he was performing to half-empty houses, only a few years after audiences were almost rioting to grab tickets.
On top of it, he got a lot of bad publicity for his divorce from longtime wife Nancy.
So in 1951 he headed for Vegas, at a time when it was not fashionable to perform at the entertainment town. According to a Sept. 7, 1951, Variety review, he appeared in the Painted Desert Room of the newish Desert Inn, on the same bill as “acro-contortionist” Ruby Ring and magician-ventriloquist Jay Marshall. It didn’t sound promising, but the review said “Frank Sinatra comes on like gangbusters” in a terrific show, and his seven-minute “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, “KO’s the whole room but good.”
It helped put the burgeoning Vegas on the map for entertainers. But Sinatra’s career was still iffy, until he revved it up again with the 1953 “From Here to Eternity.” Though many singers have tried their hand at acting, Sinatra not only proved his talent, but won an Oscar.
He held his own against the Elvis Presley rock & roll phenomenon with albums like the 1958 “Come Fly With Me”; his rebound continued in the following decade with his 1961 startup Reprise Records; films like “Ocean’s 11” and “The Manchurian Candidate”; and albums including his 1967 collaboration with Brazilian music maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim. There were also TV specials like “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back,” and nitery comebacks, as in his 1973 Caesars Palace stint.
Every career surge seemed accompanied by press attacks. There were many tabloid stories about his brief marriage to Mia Farrow, who was less than half his age; stories alleging a self-indulgent lifestyle in the Rat Pack days, and endless rumors about the shady characters he was associating with. On a 1974 tour of Australia, he blasted reporters there as “bums, parasites” and unleashed some unprintable insults. When asked to apologize, he said the press should apologize to him for 15 years of abuse.
Some entertainers aren’t appreciated until after they die, but Sinatra didn’t have to wait. On July 8, 1980, Steve Ginsberg in Variety reviewed his stand at the Universal Amphitheatre and stated, “Frank Sinatra is clearly a show-business legend. Although he still terms himself simply a ‘saloon singer,’ Sinatra has risen beyond the professional heights of almost anyone else in the entertainment world.”
Sinatra died in 1998, but the tributes for his centennial, overseen by his family, are a year long, including museum exhibits, album reissues, screenings, TV specials and endless salutes by other entertainers.