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Let's be Frank: Sinatra still huge in the desert

3:50 PM, Dec 11, 2012
Frankie Randall in his Chrysler convertible in La Quinta.
Frankie Randall in his Chrysler convertible in La Quinta.
Written by: Bruce Fessier - The Desert Sun - Photograph by: Richard Lui
12/12/12 has different meanings in different places.

 

In New York, it’s the day the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Who, et al, perform at Madison Square Garden for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

In Mayan parts of the hemisphere, it’s time to prepare for the end of the world.

In the desert, it’s Frank Sinatra’s 97th birthday.

The iconic Rancho Mirage resident — whose widow, Barbara, just received the Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce’s first Community Icon Award — died in 1998 and is buried in Desert Memorial Park. But he remains a significant part of the desert conversation.

Producer Jerry Weintraub, who booked Sinatra’s tours in the 1970s, was talking about him Dec. 1 while preparing to serve as grand marshal of the Palm Springs Festival of Lights Parade. He was telling an entertainment reporter from “Extra” how he came to live in the desert, and it involved Sinatra.

The story was too long for “Extra,” but, in a nutshell, Weintraub was playing poker with Sinatra. Actor George Hamilton approached him about a house for sale in Palm Springs and Weintraub didn’t want to be disturbed. So he told Hamilton to buy it and went back to his game. A year later, his wife, singer Jane Morgan, was looking at houses in Palm Springs when their accountant told her she and her husband already owned one.

Jazz artists Morgana King and Frankie Randall told me that weekend they also bought homes in Rancho Mirage because of Sinatra.

I met King at a For the Children benefit for foster parents at the Hotel Zoso in Palm Springs. She was sitting across from Mickey Rooney, whose first wife was Sinatra’s second wife, Ava Gardner. King said she always listened to the Franks in her life. One was mob boss Frank Costello, who ran New York’s Copacabana nightclub. Marlon Brando patterned his Don Corleone character in “The Godfather” after Costello and King co-starred as his wife, Carmela.

Another was Sinatra, who recorded her in the 1960s.

Morgana’s husband, trombonist Willie Dennis, died in a car accident in 1965. Three weeks later, Sinatra told her it was time to come out of mourning. Pioneering African American star Dorothy Dandridge had died suddenly at age 42, just before a gig at Basin Street East in New York. Sinatra asked her to fill Dandridge’s engagement and King did. A few years later, she moved into a neighborhood around Tamarisk Country Club she called the “Sinatra circle” in Rancho Mirage.

Randall also lived in the “Sinatra circle” — a few doors from my house. The last wife of Rat Pack member Peter Lawford also lives on that street. Sinatra’s best friend, Jilly Rizzo; his opening comic, Pat Henry; his Paramount producer, Howard Koch; and even Copacabana manager Jack Entratter lived in that circle. Barbara met Sinatra because she lived across the fairway from him. If you wanted to be around Sinatra, you had to live around him.

Randall, a former Festival of Lights grand marshal, was driving me around Palm Springs in a cool Chrysler convertible the night of the parade. He told me he wound up booking Sinatra as a vice president for Steve Wynn after spending many late nights with Sinatra in New York, Las Vegas and Palm Springs

He met Sinatra while playing Jilly’s bar in New York. Frankie was not only a Nat King Cole-level pianist, he was good looking and charming. Soon he was appearing on Dean Martin’s summer TV replacement series and impressing Sinatra in Vegas as a chick magnet.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to move to Palm Springs,’ ” Randall recalled. “ ‘We need a guy like you.’ ”

Randall had no interest. He told the man they called “The Pope,” “You guys are waiting to die down there.” But he followed him to the desert and every night they’d go out on the town and wind up back at Sinatra’s piano, playing until the crack of dawn.

“I had such a good time,” said Randall, “I said, ‘Screw it. I’m going to move here.’ ”

In the early 1970s, Randall was playing in an all-star jazz band in L.A. led by Pat Rizzo. Rizzo played saxophone for Sinatra and also lived in the “Sinatra circle.” When his father decided not to buy a house in the neighborhood, Randall bought it and the vacant lot next door. Soon he was trekking across the golf course to Sinatra’s compound so often, he became known as Sinatra’s personal pianist.

Frankie and I drove to the Elvis Honeymoon House, where tribute artists were supposed to be re-enacting Sinatra’s 1960 “Welcome Back, Elvis” TV special. But the Sinatra “artist” did an opening set that was so bad, I asked Frankie what he was thinking. He said, “How do I get out of here?” We made a quick exit and, as we drove by Desert Memorial Park, Frankie suggested we check on Sinatra because, “He had to have been rolling over in his grave.”

Sinatra’s music is still so popular in the desert, you can hear it almost nightly. Crooner Steve DiTullio’s Sinatra birthday salute Wednesday at the Purple Room at Club Trinidad was postponed today, but he will perform a Sinatra Holiday Extravaganza Dec. 19 with an 18-piece orchestra and a Marilyn Monroe tribute artist at the Indian Wells Theater, Cal State San Bernardino, Palm Desert.

Mike Costley, my favorite Sinatra-style singer, performs Thursdays at 360 North in Palm Springs. Frank DiSalvo celebrates Sinatra Thursdays through Saturdays at the Indian Wells Resort Hotel.

But, for a truly authentic Sinatra experience, check out Randall Jan. 11 at the McCallum with the Desert Symphony. It won’t be a tribute show. Frankie will play piano and sing the material that attracted Sinatra to him. It will be Frankie’s 75th birthday and what better place to celebrate than the last desert venue where Sinatra played with Sammy Davis Jr.? Ticket info: (760) 340-2787.