Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest performers and recording artists of the 20th century. This December marks his 100th birthday. To celebrate the man and his music, the Grammy Museum of Los Angeles, in cooperation with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Sinatra family, has staged a lively “official” centennial exhibit at the NYPL at Lincoln Center, now through September 4.
The curators seduce you right away with the words of Bing Crosby, Sinatra’s idol, emblazoned on a wall at the show’s entrance. The admiration was mutual, of course: “Frank Sinatra is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime, but why did he have to come in mine?”
What follows is part personal history, part music history and part film history — told through artifacts in glass cases, photos, posters, videos, timelines, a recreation of famed Studio A at Hollywood’s Capitol Records Tower, a sound-mixing station, a jukebox and other displays designed to charm and beguile visitors. You can even enter a recording booth and sing along with Ol’ Blue Eyes to “New York, New York” — and play back your duet. If you weren’t a fan going into the show, you’ll be one going out.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born on Dec. 12, 1915, in Hoboken, N.J., to saloonkeepers Dolly and Marty Sinatra. His father was a fireman by trade, his mother a Hoboken ward leader and midwife. Their son never forgot his working-class roots. The exhibit traces Sinatra’s rise from singing waiter and roadhouse gigs in New Jersey to featured vocalist for big bands, first with Harry James’ band and then with Tommy Dorsey’s. From there, he went solo, signed with Columbia Records in 1943 and became a star in his own right.
Trivia buffs will relish the memorabilia provided by Sinatra’s children — keepers of the flame Nancy, Frank, and Tina — and their mother, Sinatra’s first wife, Nancy, who was serenaded with a ukulele on her first date with the man who would become “The Voice.” The ukulele has been carefully preserved and is under glass here. Take note, too, of the mugshot in the same display case, documenting the 22-year-old Sinatra’s 1938 arrest in Bergen County, N.J., on a seduction charge, which was amended to adultery when authorities found out the woman in question was not in fact single but married. Both charges were dismissed, but the mug shot was preserved and used on a popular “bad boy” poster.
Other campy personal items that thrill are Sinatra’s trademark black fedora, the tuxedo he wore when touring, his shoes from 1949’s “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (side-by-side with co-star Gene Kelly’s matching pair), and one of his signature bowties from the 1940s, hand-sewn by wife Nancy. The exhibit is brimming with the legend’s personal effects, culminating in a pair of pajamas, slippers, golf clubs and Jack Daniel’s decanter.
But Sinatra was all about the music and performance, and the sound of his inimitable phrasing wafted through the rooms during our visit, courtesy of the jukebox that visitors can play. “Strangers in the Night” competed with video screens showing film clips from “Pal Joey” on one side of the room, and an homage to Ella Fitzgerald, whom Sinatra worshipped, on the other.
Listening stations with headphones are sprinkled throughout the gallery, with touchscreens offering commentary on the music. Sinatra wasn’t interested in songwriting; he covered other artists’ works (Cole Porter’s, for starters) and employed the talents of Sammy Cahn (lyrics) and Jule Styne (melodies) and, later, Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, to turn out hits like “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” “Time After Time,” and “Love and Marriage.” He did it his way, and just sang.
The family’s influence on the Sinatra narrative presented here is palpable, however. His rocky marriage to actress Ava Gardner is noted briefly — he worked out his heartbreak in the album “In the Wee Small Hours,” we learn — but his later marriage to 21-year-old Mia Farrow in 1966 is marked by a pixie headshot on a timeline, and there is no mention of his fourth wife, Barbara, unless you count her cameos in the concert DVD at the exhibit’s finale. (Their 21-year marriage ended with his death in 1998.)
But the best is yet to come (literally, because he sings the song) when you reach the finale, where cushioned benches await those ready to savor more tunes. Six video screens project footage of the tuxedoed crooner at the 1982 Concert for the Americas in the Dominican Republic, an older Frank in the autumn of his years.
Sit down, relax, and enjoy the show.