Hangin' With Frank!
I admit that throughout my teens and early 20s I wasn’t really up on all things Frank Sinatra. I was filled with my 70s rock and pop, EWF, Led Zeppelin, Elton, Boston, Three Dog Night, James Taylor, so many others, all those FM gods to keep me well-occupied. It wasn’t till a bit later, fully entrenched in my piano entertaining, that I began to hip to the sheer mastery, genius of the singing and entertaining that was Mr. Frank Sinatra. This was despite the fact that he had been such a great friend to my father since before I'd been born, and they had worked together.
Our encounter happened in the mid 80s, around the start of my stint as house pianist at the legendary Ma Maison Restaurant, the premier Hollywood royalty hangout on Melrose in Los Angeles at the time. It was an unpretentious shack with an asphalt parking lot floor, an unlisted phone number, buckets of culture, swagger and exclusivity. And it was the birthplace of “California Cuisine”. It was where a young Wolfgang Puck was working at the time, putting down some long roots. I have to credit Patrick Terrail, owner and caretaker, for helping to nurture the nucleus of what I do today, and for providing some pinnacle opportunities over the years and unforgettable moments in my entertaining timeline. There will be other blog posts illuminating more of those colorful LA adventures. He was a seasoned expert in gastronomique atmosphere, a wine savant, a complex and controversial person who knew how to give you the best of the best in food and service, a la Francaise. He took care of his clients like a doting father; people like Joan Collins, Neil Diamond, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Brigitte Bardot, Tony Curtis, Raquel Welch, Orson Welles, and that’s not the half of it. (There’s a separate Orson story elsewhere on the blog page).
And so it was, one night, Patrick came up to me and said “Now, I don’t want you to be nervous, but Frank Sinatra’s coming in tonight”. I felt like I was going to witness something indeedly unique. And about halfway through the evening, I hadn’t noticed when he came in, but he was now definitely at the number one table in the far corner. He was wearing a posh smoking jacket, sitting with two of the most fantastic buddies that a person could have, Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon. They were enjoying themselves, laughing between the food, drink, and what I’m sure was colorful conversation, and looking on into the full room with all its buzz. They were being treated with utter respect from patrons and staff alike, no popping flash bulbs, no people coming up to their table, none of that. There are numerous stories of the consequences, the dire consequences, for anybody who barged in on him uninvited, or who’d make a fool of themselves or heckle and act inappropriately.
At some point during my furtive glances toward his table I noticed he had gotten up and, yes, he was looking right at me. It was clear he was walking on his way to the piano. Once again the imagination flung into action and I began to worry whether I knew enough Sinatra songs to accompany him… yeah right, as if! Just before he got up to me, Patrick swiftly intervened, intercepting him as he stopped. I heard Patrick ask, “So you like our new pianist, eh?“ What followed makes me an admirer of Mr. Frank Sinatra forever. Even though we had never met before, he looked me square in the eye, and without looking away from me he answered Patrick: “What do you think I come here for, the food??“ He winked, and placed his hand on my shoulder, which was bobbing up and down from my unbridled chuckling. I was simply enthralled by such a generous, clever, kind funny remark. It was as if I were already an old friend of his. “Keep it up“, he added. He extended his hand and we shook with a mutually firm, long “vermouth grip” as I call it.
I was blanketed with a sense of wonder and privilege. As he turned and walked back to his buddies, he stopped and made a very distinct gesture of approval in my direction with his index finger, accompanied by a nod, and I don’t remember feeling anything for the rest of the night as far as my feet, hands, or anything else for that matter. His gift to people upon meeting them face-to-face is to leave them with a sensation that I can only describe as how it must feel to see with one's own eyes that area in the atmosphere where the sky fades and space begins. Too big to comprehend in an instant, but the feeling remains. Later in my life as my knowledge of his work and catalogue grew, our little interaction simply blossomed in meaning to me. Ten years after our encounter, somehow he heard that my mother was of failing health and he sent a beautiful letter to her, with a check, which touched us beyond belief. Although she was frail and afflicted with complications, you could see some relief, some escape from the grip of infirmity come over her brow, if only briefly. There are numerous opinions out there concerning Frank Sinatra, and then there are the people who have had personal encounters with his utter benevolence. I am but one of the lucky witnesses.