SPOTLIGHT ON FRANK SINATRA AT FOREST HILLS STADIUM
Composed by Michael Perlman, Forest Hills, NY
Singer, actor, and filmmaker Frank Sinatra, nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” would have turned 102 on December 12, but his spirit remains very much alive. He was raised by his parents, Italian immigrants in a Hoboken, New Jersey tenement. He would rise to stardom, and his singing style would be noted for color, intonation, and perhaps most of all his phrasing, which made lyrics resonate. After passing away in May 1998, he was remembered as “the #1 pop singer of the 20th century.”
The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, The Who, Hall & Oates, and Santana are only a small percentage of the legendary singers that graced and rocked the historic Forest Hills Tennis Stadium since its adaptation as a concert venue in 1960. Among them was Sinatra, who had three concerts in 1965 and two in 1977.
The 1965 Forest Hills Music Festival marked Sinatra’s first commercial appearance in New York in eight years, and he opened its sixth season with shows on July 8, 9, and 10. The producers booked him for a third concert after an ad generated mass response by mail, and each gig was a complete sellout. For his nightly concerts, he reportedly received $40,000, since it was his intent to keep the ticket prices minimal to respect the budget of a more youthful crowd. With tickets available at $6.95, fans traveled in from Buffalo to Atlanta.
Count Basie opened the concert and then accompanied Sinatra, and the 16-piece band performed arrangements by conductor and composer Quincy Jones. It was the season’s opening night, and in front of a sold-out venue consisting of 15,000 concertgoers, Sinatra performed 20 standards in 90 minutes which included “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “I Only Have Eyes For You.” On “Hello, Dolly!,” Louis Armstrong, an internationally renowned jazz musician who resided in Corona, made an appearance, and Sinatra improvised “Hello, Louis.”
The audience, largely in their thirties and forties, got dressed up for the occasion, recalling the 1940s era when some fans were bobby-soxers in Manhattan’s Paramount, who would stand in line since early in the morning. Sinatra was charismatic, warm, and personable, and in response to his low notes, some female fans would once again let out squeals. Near the stadium was a saloon with a jukebox offering some Sinatra tunes of an even earlier era.
The previous weekend, Sinatra landed in a helicopter for his Newport Jazz Festival gig, and he hoped to make another landing at Forest Hills Stadium. This would have also evoked memories of The Beatles’ landing at the stadium in the summer of 1964, but the West Side Tennis Club decided to prioritize on keeping its lawn greener. Also hoping to exit by helicopter, Sinatra had no choice but to settle for a limo, and off to Manhattan he was.
Television host Bill Boggs, who can be seen on BillBoggsTV on YouTube, has interviewed everyone from Frank Sinatra and Burt Bacharach to Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Barry Manilow throughout his career. He reminisced the July 10 concert. “In 1965, Frank was doing many recordings and consistently making movies, and it was rare for him to be performing a concert in a city at the time. If you wanted to see him live back then, it was basically Vegas or Miami. This was his first commercial gig in New York in eight years, so Forest Hills was special to him and the audiences. The Oscar Peterson Trio opened that show, and when Frank took the stage with Count Basie, a jolt of electric energy swept around the stadium.”
In 34 years, Boggs saw Sinatra around 75 times, and explained what made him great. “Frank had the ability to make an emotional connection with you through the song that brought you close to him as a performer, and he commanded the stage with an extremely powerful force.”
Boggs continued with a recollection of his mother seeing Sinatra as a bobby-soxer. “I asked what was so special when you first saw him, and she said ‘It felt like he was singing just for me.’ When I interviewed him, I mentioned it, and Frank said, ‘I try to put myself in the position of someone who would be experiencing what I’m singing about, and I try to make the case in that way.’” Boggs said that Sinatra’s ability as an actor enabled him to “inhabit” the lyrics.
In August 1965, as a cross-promotion between the Forest Hills Inn and the stadium, wet cement was sent to Sinatra in addition to Barbra Streisand, after rejecting to inset their handprints on site. After the blocks hardened, they were inserted at the Inn’s “Celebrity Sidewalk,” similar to the handprints outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
At Sinatra’s July 15 and July 16, 1977 concerts, the stadium was once again sold-out despite a bit of inflation with ticket prices at $10, $15, or $25. Joining him was special guest comedian Milton Berle. Sinatra’s hour set featured numbers such as “My Way,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Night and Day,” “My Kind of Town,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” and “Send in the Clowns.”
“I love that man!” said Forest Hills resident Gilda Flannery, a 1977 attendee. “He totally loved the outdoor venue, and the night was magic and the air… electric!” Hollywood resident Paul Mock, who owns every Sinatra commercial recording plus several very rare official recordings, calls himself a Sinatraphile. He said, “Sinatra was in very fine voice and great spirits, and no one came near to the energy that he exuded from the stage. Sinatra just completed filming ‘Contract on Cherry Street’ and had a gathering with those connected with the film post-concert offstage. I was blessed to have seen him 29 times between 1974 and 1991.”
Maryland resident Rae Finkelstein Treuhaft, formerly of Forest Hills, was in her late twenties at the time. She said, “Just seeing an icon was all that I needed. I saw different generations together, and everyone was enjoying the concert.” Despite a widespread New York City blackout that spanned two days prior and serial killer “Son of Sam” on the loose, attendees lived in the moment.