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Frank Sinatra 'felt like he was home' in Atlantic City

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Frank Sinatra got plenty of love from Atlantic City audiences throughout his career, and he returned the affection.

During the 1930s and '40s, he sang in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey big bands at Steel Pier. As a solo artist, Sinatra made a home at the legendary 500 Club during the 1950s and early '60s.

Atlantic City always stood by Sinatra, and the icon stood up for the resort, including performing a benefit concert at Boardwalk Hall in 1978 for Atlantic City Medical Center, now AtlantiCare. The following year, he started a 25-year run performing in the city's casinos, starting at Resorts Casino Hotel and ending at the Sands.

Sinatra, who died in 1998, touched many local lives. In celebration of his 100th birthday Saturday, people who knew him were glad to reminisce.

Listen to a 1966 Sinatra performance of "That's Life." 

Atlantic City felt like home

Frank Sinatra Jr. said his father loved Atlantic City.

"When playing there, he was thrilled to be there. He even said he felt like he was home," said Sinatra Jr., 71. In fact, Sinatra's parents (Frank Jr.'s grandparents) honeymooned in 1910 at the Claridge.

The last time his father talked about Atlantic City, he complained there were too many casinos in town, which would hurt efforts to make the city a gambling town of distinction.

Behind the scenes

Paulajane D'Amato, 65, who lives in Delray Beach, Florida, is the daughter of the late Paul (Skinny) D'Amato, who operated the now defunct 500 Club.

D'Amato was too young to see Sinatra perform inside the club, but she did attend rehearsals where Sinatra would goof around for the lighting and sound guys.

One morning, D'Amato woke up and found that her father, Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. had been up all night, were soaking wet and were laughing hysterically at 9 a.m. because they had squirted each other with soda guns.

Still relevant

Richard Helfant, 58, of Egg Harbor Township, was the assistant to the vice president of entertainment at Resorts from 1978 to 1984.

When Sinatra made his debut at Resorts, he gave a stamp of legitimacy to the Atlantic City gambling experiment, Helfant said.

Helfant was in the front row when Sinatra performed his benefit concert on Oct. 29, 1978 in the old Atlantic City Convention Center. He estimates he saw at least 50 Sinatra shows during the entertainer's Resorts years.

"He is as relevant today as his music. There will never be another Frank Sinatra. Our world couldn't create another Frank Sinatra," said Helfant, who lights up Lucy the Elephant's eyes the color blue nightly as a tribute to Sinatra.

Listen to Sinatra sing "Come Fly With Me."

The private Sinatra

Merrill Kelem, 65, was an Atlantic City police officer from 1973 to 2005. He and Bobby Palamaro, 81, served as security consultants for Sinatra, starting in 1979.

Kelem talked about how generous Sinatra was. Back in 1982 or 1983, a woman living on South Massachusetts Avenue was robbed of her $5,000 life savings. Sinatra saw the story on TV and told Kelem to make a phone call. They discovered the woman was in the hospital, so Sinatra went to visit her with a flower display and $5,000.

"Sinatra had never seen some of his movies. On Saturday nights, we would go backstage in between shows (at Resorts) and take off suits and put on robes. The suits had to be pressed. He would take a nap, but one night, 'Guys and Dolls' was on ABC," Kelem said. "He said, 'This is the first time I have seen this picture."

An intimate space

John Grasso, 51, of Northfield, who own Atlantic City Instrumental Rental, handled the sound that Sinatra heard on stage from 1989 to 1994.

"The (Sands') Copa Room was such an intimate space. By being on stage, I saw two 18- or 20-year-olds were actually weeping to see him," Grasso said.

Instant awe

Bob Chambers, 69, was the director of show operations at Resorts from 1978 to 1998.

From 1979 to 1981, Sinatra would do two weekends of four shows and one full week each year in Resorts' Superstar Theatre. Chambers attended all the performances.

"People were crammed. There was no thought of going to the rest room," said Chambers, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. "Before the show, all the house lights would go down to half. Then, they would go out. Everyone shut up. When he walked out on stage, you could hear a pin drop. There was instant awe."

Behind the curtain

Charlie Horner, who lives in Galloway Township, was a stagehand and then lead stagehand for 32 years at Resorts Casino Hotel.

"I would open the curtain, and when he would come off stage during his set, one of his entourage would meet him with a flashlight, and I would hold a cup and saucer with hot tea and honey in it. When he was ready to go back on stage, he would always look at you and say "Thanks, pal," or "Thanks, bud" and give me a tap on the arm," Horner said.

A musician's musician

John Guida, of Vineland, played tenor saxophone in the first Resorts house band during the Sinatra years.

"I can remember during the (first) rehearsal when I opened up the first sheet of music and saw his name in the upper hand corner, and it did register with me that this was something special," said Guida.

Sinatra could really tell a story with his interpretation and delivery of ballads," Guida said.

"The swinging numbers, his phrasing was the best. Frank Sinatra had such high standards. His musical integrity was beyond reproach, and every performance, every tune was like a take. It could have been recorded," Guida said.

Bringing the swagger

Bill Talarico, 57, of Galloway Township, is the current entertainment director at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. Talarico saw Sinatra during his final shows at the Sands.

"I wanted to see the show. My wife and I went. It was a three-show engagement, and I went once," said Talarico, who remembers Sinatra being upset because someone put ice in his Jack Daniels. "He was drinking Jack Daniels and spitting the ice cubes in the air."

"There was no other person of any genre who commanded the stage presence he did by just walking out there," Talarico said. "Sinatra brought the swagger... You didn't show up in jeans and a T-shirt. You dressed up. It was more of an event than just a concert. In the 1990s, it was exciting and interesting. You didn't know who would be in the audience."

A huge boost

George Fleming, manager at FIN in the Tropicana Casino and Resort, was the manager at Charlie's Steakhouse, where Sinatra would come for dinner when he was appearing at the Golden Nugget in the 1980s.

"There was a special party one time for the third anniversary of the Golden Nugget with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. attended by 175 people," Fleming said. "Over the years, I knew Sinatra very well. Everybody was scared, but he was a gentleman, really easy to talk to."

Sinatra liked to show up a couple of days prior to an engagement and practice with his orchestra, Fleming said.

"It was a huge, huge boost," said Fleming, 66, who lives in Egg Harbor Township. "The entire city would be busy when Frank would be in town. At 10 p.m. when he would show up for a late dinner, no one would leave the restaurant. ... We had to block it off with security, so people wouldn't bother him. People in the old days worshipped Sinatra."

How did Don Altobell get those great photographs of Sinatra at Atlantic City's 500 Club?

Contact: 609-272-7202

VJackson@pressofac.com

Staff writer

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