At first I didn’t think I’d have to spend much time in explaining Frank Sinatra. I have, however, thought the better of it. I write for a jazz site with some frequency, and a copy editor told me I had to identify “Bird” (i.e., Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist, sort of synonymous with the invention of bop music.) Well, for what it’s worth, I here post photos of Bird and Frank. A discussion of Frank follows. There will be a quiz. Bird is on the left.
One of these days, we should talk about Bird. But not today. Today we need to talk about Frank. And he was simply known in my youth as “Frank.” Especially in the Italo-American community. You didn’t call Franklin Roosevelt “Frank.” He was FDR. You didn’t call Philly nightclub owner Frank Palumbo “Frank” (at least civilians didn’t). You called him Mr Palumbo. Maybe Frank called Mr Palumbo “Frank”, or vice versa. They had a lot in common, including The Outfit (ok, The Mafia) and they were friends. They dined together. God only knows what else they did together. You shouldn’t ask. Anyway. You don’t need a photo of FDR, right?
From the very beginning of his career with the big bands–and that would have been with Harry James–Sinatra had a special cachet, but nowhere was that truer than in the Italian- American community. I knew that as a kid growing up in West and South Philly, and it wasn’t like anyone had to really tell me. When Frank sang “I’ll Never Smile Again” with Tommy Dorsey and the Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford could sing, true enough, but Frank was the only one who really mattered. It’s too bad this clip from 1941 is ruined by some idiotic dialog, but at the beginning and the end, there you have him: Frank the Hoboken Hearthrob. I can’t go through his ups and downs, many women, all that Godfather kind of crap (See Johnny Fontaine in the movie, who is, face it, Frank). At one point, at the end of the big band era, Frank was written off for dead. But he came roaring back. As comedian Joe Piscopo used to put it: “WWII. Japs.” Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953), “tough monkey,” as his fellow paisan and jailer, the sadistic Ernest Borgnine called him.
It’s hard to find many good things to say about a war that killed 43 million people, but for Italian-Americans (previously, known as greaseballs, wops and dagos), WWII was one of those ironic turning points in American history. You see, it’s not as if we were, ahhh, not to put too fine a point on it, genuine White Americans before the War. And that’s not just my hypersensitive opinion. I survived grad school at Princeton and a job interview at Wesleyan, sigh. Believe me, It was the 1980s and I was still under no illusions about what some people thought of Italian Catholics.
Now I’m gonna go easy on this stuff because it will offend some people. Not that I care, but educating ignorant Americans is not my primary purpose in writing this, and if I start ranting about “white privilege” and Italian-Americans, it’s going to sound like special pleading. And it is. I like to say we got ours at Normandy, but that still rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, so we’ll let it go. But I do give you a bit of evidence. No, not Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s been done to death, no pun intended, and one of them was probably guilty anyway. But check this out.
The page below comes from a payroll book from 1906 for mostly common labor–the kind my immigrant ancestors did. Notice that with the suspicious sounding name of a foreman, Ponzello, the rest of the names are WASP, maybe a few Irish. The common labor are labelled “Italian” or “Colored.” Now, a charitable explanation is that no one bothered with the surnames of any common laborer,, so the implied equivalence doesn’t mean much. The uncharitable explanation is that “Italian”=”Colored.” Since they lynched Sicilians in New Orleans, I lean to the latter explanation. Bluntly, Italians weren’t white in 1906, just like some of my Latin students would yell “I’m white” when some university baptized them “Hispanic.” But I digress.
The deal is, WWII was a mixed blessing for Italian-Americans. Yeah, quite a few got killed. But others came home, well, if not heros, then at least, grudgingly in some cases, “white.” And guess who hit a home run, Norman Mailer or PT 109 notwithstanding. You guessed it. Frank. People will tell you Frank was in the throes of a career meltdown in the late 1940s, and maybe even finished with throat problems. Aaaah, but you saw the Godfather, right? Johnny Fontaine the singer and the story of the headless thoroughbred? “Your signature or your brains on the contract.” “That’s my family Kay, not me.” Right. Well, first Frank became a spokesman for American egalitarianism in a 1945 short that was ostensibly about antisemitism. Dis is America, pal. We don’t discriminate. Right. Dat is de American Way. Michael Corleone went off to be a war hero, much over his family’s objections. The rest is leave the cannoli, take the role in “Here to Eternity.”
And World War II may have been tough on Italians and Italian-Americans, but in the 1950s, Frank made a series of blockbuster movies, two of which were explicitly designed to show (well, one at least) how Frank (who never went into the service because he was 4F) and the rest of us brought honor to our people. “From Here to Eternity” was really the one, with Frank as Maggio, who defends his sister’s virtue (natch) and ends up getting killed for his troubles. There was another, lesser known film, “Kings Go Forth,”(1958) in which Frank plays a lieutenant to Tony Curtis’ bigoted playboy-phony sergeant who thinks jilting Natalie Wood, a mulatto, but raised as white in France, is a racial kick (this is oversimplified, I know). Wood had been Frank’s hearthrob, stolen by Curtis, who plays trumpet like Pete Candoli, literally. Frank is triple pissed at the racism and everything else. Curtis gets killed in the end. Frank loses an arm and Wood, but there is still honor. You might also check out “Man With a Golden Arm,”(1956) in which Frank plays a drug addict drummer by the name of Frankie Machine (sounds kind of Italian, no?). The music is great, by the way, and I think Sinatra won an Academy or one of those gongs. Frank does vulnerable very well here, and if that doesn’t grab you, there’s always Kim Novak as eye candy. It’s not as if she could act.
By 1958, Frank had his own weekly television series, and if you think he was getting big again, you ain’t seen nothing. By the time I was at Devon Prep, Frank had been transmogrified into the Real Mr Las Vegas, friend to Jack Kennedy, sundry mobsters, oh my God, even “Strangers in the Night.” He had run through any number of Hollywood dolls and was getting read to create Ronan Farrow, but that came much later. You want to keep Frank in 1958, Hero to ordinary Italian-Americans, cause, finally, that’s where this story finally gets rolling.
Faithful readers know I split my young youth between West and South Philly, so we will skip over that (you can check: I’m in no mood to provide links today). Yeah, I grew up in part at 66th and Haverford, Bill Barrett was my Congressman (1945-1947, 1949-76) (i.e., forever), Ragni’s was the corner market (until maybe 1958) (pronounced rag-knee, youse guys), and Yock was the neighborhood purveyor of deli and pinball. Yock? What the Hell kind of name is that? Well, it’s a name that fit the neighborhood; the facing corner is shown below. This was 1949, and I couldn’t swear that Yock was on the adjacent corner yet cause I was born in 1951. But if you think it don’t exactly look like Pound Ridge or something, well, privilege is where you find it. Besides, on the SW corner there was a butcher shop called Danny’s Meats. Leading up to Easter, Danny had a pen full of live sheep for your convenience. Ho boy. A crash course in Christian symbolism if there ever was one. I never was too crazy about lamb as a result. Think about it.
In any event, Yock was a full service deli. There was a counter and a grill. An ice cream freezer that usually had a supply of Breyer’s ice cream and what we called Dixie cups. There was also a cooler with glass bottles of Coca Cola (yeah, glass) and some chocolate concoction called YooHoo. Plus a selection of Franks’ sodas. No, not that Frank, but a Philly institution nonetheless. “Is It Franks? Thanks.” Yeah. We were big on Frank. Check it (her) out.
Especially in 1958. Yock also had pinball on which illegal wagers were placed, especially by a guy named Johnny, who used the glass surface as a cigarette holder too. Oh, yeah. There were cigarettes for sale. 35 cents a pack. No. I didn’t smoke at seven, but my Dad did, and he thought nothing of sending me out to the corner to buy cigs. Imagine that. Not very Montessori, was he?
You could say that Yock’s was kind of the neighborhood hang out, for want of a better term. Yock was this Italian American, almost a stereotype. Slicked-back black hair. Probably mid-30s. A wolfish face on the dark complected side. Lousy teeth. Skinny, medium stature. Horn-rimmed glasses. Usually in some greasy polo shirt or Ban-Lon wannabee. Definitely not a cool guy, even by the modest standards of 66th Street. His given name was Albert Proetto. Hey. If you were named Albert Proetto, would you want to be called Albert Proetto? Yock is an improvement, capisci?
But Yock had something. Aside from the deli. Yock was an entrepreneur. Hell, he probably didn’t graduate from high school, but in those days, you didn’t go to some fancy-ass college to get a degree in “Entrepreneurship, Vision, and Accountancy” (whatever that is). You wanted to start a business, you started a business. It came naturally to us Italians, as you may have noticed. Nothing was personal. Everything was business. Didn’t need no Joe College type degree. Besides, we had lotsa models, you know. Everybody knew someone who was in a business. Numbers. Cigarette smuggling. Five-finger discount. You didn’t have to be a murderer. Just…..connected.
Anyway, Yock was an entrepreneur. And he was in a neighborhood in which the general level of education was, admittedly, not terribly high (high school, if you were lucky. The Army, if you were not.) People believed in stuff. You know, rumors. Gossip. Italian voodoo. Like giving someone the horns–cornuto–which could mean anything from “sod off” to “your wife is making the 82d Airborne happy”. You didn’t do it lightly, huh? There were folk remedies, some of which actually worked pretty well. There were bleeding Madonnas (not at St Donato’s (Hail to the Blue and Gold) but hey, she couldn’t be pulling Fatima stunts everywhere). Man, there was a lot of gossip, although not so much in my immediate family. There was a lot of folklore about, you guessed it, sex and conception. I’ll save that for another time. And about, well, I’ll stop. I never heard most of it anyway…….
So, Yock, being resourceful, must’ve been casting about for a way he could drum up business without breaking too many laws (we had Skippy for that). And, whaddya know? In 1958, when Frank was really in the ascendant, Yock met Frank. And was gonna bring him to West Philly. To 66th and Haverford. To…….Yock’s!!!!
I know what you’re thinking. Right? Why the Hell would Frank Sinatra visit Yock’s? Hell, aside from Frank Palumbo’s, why would he even come to Philadelphia, let alone my neck of the woods? He grew up in Hoboken, the son of an abortionist-midwife. It’s not like he needed more of it. Well, truth be told, there was no reason on Earth for Frank to come to Yock’s on a Friday night in September 1958. But Yock said he was coming. Ho boy, did he ever say Frank was coming. Yock took out a radio spot on one of the South Jersey AM stations, probably some low wattage operation, telling everyone within the sound of his voice that Frank was coming to Yock’s. On Friday night. September 26, 1958. Hell, it was in all the papers. At least the one that Yock had posted in window. You know,, “Frank Sinatra to Appear at Yock’s Friday Night.” I saw it with my own eyes. Hell, I was THERE!.
In those days, if you went down to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, you could get a fake newspaper front page made, above the fold in bold letters, if you wanted. I always wanted one that said that I was joining a big band, but my Dad took a dim view of it. Yock, on the other hand, had more expansive horizons. He actually had the damn thing printed up and posted on various windows in the neighborhood. Especially his. And so the fun began.
I can’t swear I remember much discussion of the putative visit of Ole’ Blue Eyes in the week preceding the appointed evening, but there must have been some. What I can tell you is that a sizeable crowd had gathered at 66th and Haverford, basically milling around. I don’t remember the traffic jam, there apparently was one on both 66th Street and Haverford Avenue, and that the Philly cops were none too pleased. Was my Dad with me–I don’t remember, although in those days no one would have thought too long about letting a seven-year old hang on a crowded corner at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. Any event, what I do remember was the natives getting restless, as in “Where’s Frank?” Finally, some idiot wearing sunglasses, a Frank fedora, and a white raincoat showed up. Was it? There was a momentary flutter. The flutter turned into an angry grumble when everyone realized that this was not Frank. I’m surprised, honestly, that someone didn’t try to clock the guy and there was some pushing and shoving. But pseudo-Frank disappeared into Yock’s, or the night, or somewhere. I guess I went home. If I was disappointed, I don’t remember.
There was a write up in the Philly newspapers the next day. When someone pressed Yock about Sinatra not showing, his sage reply was “I never said which Frank Sinatra was coming.” Cute. You could tell that Yock was a nobody because he didn’t get hurt, or busted, or even particularly hassled. At least Skippy the Bookie would get his picture in the paper. Or his wife did.
So, yeah, what did it prove? Well, a bunch of working class Italian-Americans would fall for a transparent hoax. Really? Think of what else they fell for. The biggest hoax of all: The American Dream. They fell for Vietnam, remember, and they bought that in a big way. I talked to a kid at the local beer distributor on Haverford Avenue about five doors down from Yock’s once. He was on leave from the Au Shau Valley in Vietnam around 1970. He was in uniform and proud of it. A marine. I often wonder if he made it home alive. We fell for all that Land of the Free and Home of the Brave stuff. Hell, the Frank myth was a good myth. In 1958, the children of immigrant families were heavy into good myths. You too could be a WASP. Get a place in Delmar Village or some tacky suburb. Start today! Easy payments. Frank was part of the myth we all shared. And, sorry, we made America too. People like.Joe Villari and Stan the Man And then came Viet Nam. Some of the innocence started to wear off. By the time Ronnie Ray-Guns came along, a lot of my paysans were only too ready to listen to his bullshit. They were now “white” and aspiring gentry too.
The joke was on us. Yock was smarter than he looked. Ahead of his time even. He knew we were gullible. So did Uncle Sam. So did Frank. We were the idiots, and he provided the background music for our let’s-pretend “classless” society. As he crooned, sort of, “We’ll get along.” Yup. Frank never showed. Only in the movies. That was real life. And in the end, even Frank got screwed.