In late 1942, after his stint with band leader Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra was back in New Jersey playing small-town theaters. His luck turned on December 12, his twenty-seventh birthday, thanks to a persistent New York booker named Harry Romm. After weeks of trying, Romm got the attention of Robert Weitman, director of the Paramount Theater, Broadway’s hottest music and movie venue.
Romm went on and on about Sinatra. “Take a chance. Come over and look for yourself,” he recalled telling Weitman. “It’s the damnedest thing you ever saw. A skinny kid who looks strictly from hunger is singing over in Newark and the she kids are yelling and fainting all over the joint. You’ve got to see it to believe it….”
Weitman agreed to go to Newark’s cavernous Mosque Theater to hear Sinatra perform. The place was less than half full. “Then,” he remembered, “this skinny kid walks out on the stage. He was not much older than the kids in the seats. He looked like he still had milk on his chin. As soon as they saw him, the kids went crazy. And when he started to sing they stood up and yelled and moaned and carried on until I thought – excuse the expression – his pants had fallen down.”
Weitman swung into action within hours. “He rang me at the house,” Frank remembered, “and said ‘What are you doing New Year’s Eve?’ I said, ‘Not a thing. I can’t even get booked anywhere….He said, ‘I’d like you to open at the joint.’ He used to call the Paramount ‘the joint.’ I said, ‘You mean on New Year’s Eve?’ He said, ‘That’s right.’…And I fell right on my butt!”
The Paramount was majestic, the tallest structure on Broadway north of the Woolworth Building. The illuminated glass globe at its top could be seen as far away as New Jersey. Its plush red and gold auditorium could accommodate almost four thousand people. Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, were among the stars who had seen their names on the marquee beneath the Paramount’s vast ornamental arch. At dawn on December 30, when Frank arrived to rehearse, there was his name beneath the title of the movie and “Benny Goodman and his Band,” and alongside the billings for the Radio Rogues comedy act: “EXTRA – FRANK SINATRA.”
That night was pivotal. For all his early success, he was still relatively unknown. When Weitman told Goodman that Frank would be appearing, Goodman asked: “Who’s he?” “I introduced Frank Sinatra as if he were one of my closest friends,” the comedian Jack Benny remembered. “I had to make all of this up, because I didn’t know who he was.” He did it only as a favor to Weitman.
Yet as Sinatra’s name was spoken, there came a reaction from the audience that no one present ever forgot. “I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in,” said Benny, “people running down to the stage, screaming and nearly knocking me off the ramp.” As Weitman remembered it, there was a long call from the audience of “F-R-A-N-K-I-E-E-E-E-E!” Sinatra himself recalled a sound that was “absolutely deafening…a tremendous roar.” Conducting with his back to the audience, Goodman could not imagine what was going on.
Frank froze in terror for a moment, then burst out laughing. He could not remember later whether he began by singing “For Me and My Gal” or “Black Magic.” “The devout,” wrote the editor of The New Republic, Bruce Bliven, had recognized “a pleasant-appearing young man” who “with gawky long steps moves awkwardly to the center of the stage while the shrieking continues….He has a head of black curls and holds it to one side as he gestures clumsily and bashfully, trying to keep the crowd quiet enough for him to sing….”
Something unprecedented had begun. Vast throngs of people, most of them very young and most of them female, began flocking to the theater. Frank was soon singing as many as a hundred songs a day – at least nine shows. “One Saturday I did eleven shows,” he remembered. “We started at 8:10 in the morning and finished at 2:30 Sunday morning.”
When his family came to the theater they became part of the spectacle. Nancy was lost to sight in the throng and Dolly was pawed by the fans. “I couldn’t hear,” Marty complained. “Who could hear?” For Frank’s grandfather Francesco, now in his late eighties, it was all too much. “I put him in the third row, in among the kids,” Frank remembered. “He didn’t know what the hell happened to him because when I came out on the stage everything broke loose and he just sat there. I could see his face. He was absolutely terrified. They brought him back in the dressing room after the performance, and he was so angry – that he had come that far and never heard me sing. He didn’t understand that that was the game that the kids played….”
The original one-week appearance at the Paramount was extended, first to a month, then to two months, a theater record. Frank agreed to return in the spring. His audience was made up overwhelmingly of schoolgirls in their early or mid-teens, typically dressed in sweaters, knee-length skirts, and white socks – bobbysoxers. Webster’s Dictionary defines one as an “adolescent girl”.
“The squealing yells reverberated,” Bob Weitman’s friend Armand Deutsch, a film producer, said of the fans, “It was a new sound, a screaming expression of adulation and curiously innocent eroticism. They were, Bob told me sadly, almost impossible to dislodge, fiercely fighting all eviction efforts and drastically cutting the grosses.”
Few bobbysoxers stayed for only one performance. They came with food and drink and settled in. Theater staff often found the girls had urinated on their seats, either out of fear of losing them if they went to the bathroom or out of sheer excitement.
“They would scream every time he sang a word like ‘love,’” said Al Viola, who was to become Frank’s principal guitarist. “I used to think, ‘Oh, here it comes!’” Sometimes, though, the fans were “as hushed as if they were in church.”
Fans fell to their knees in the aisles. Girls lined up to kiss Frank’s picture on billboards, begged for trimmings from the floor of his barber’s shop, snatched the handkerchief from his jacket pocket as he passed. In the hope of forcing him to stop and sign autographs, some flung themselves in front of his car. They gave him teddy bears, heart-shaped flower arrangements, a loving cup, a golden key – said to fit the heart of its sender.
“He was my idol when I was in eighth grade,” Marie Caruba, a former teacher in her late seventies, recalled half a century later. “I had his photos all over my locker. I worked some days at Gardella’s Ice Cream shop, and the only way I’d work in the afternoons would be if Mr. Gardella let me listen to Frank on the radio. I knew, of course, that he was singing just to me. We lived in Connecticut, and a girlfriend and I would hop a train down to New York to go to matinees at the Paramount. I went as often as I could, but my mother never knew.”
“Groups of little girls used to play hooky from school,” said Martha Lear,“off to shriek and swoon through four shows live, along with several thousand other demented teenagers….That glorious shouldered spaghetti strand way down there in the spotlight would croon on serenely, giving us a quick little flick of a smile or, as a special bonus, a sidelong tremor of the lower lip. I used to bring binoculars just to watch that lower lip….Before going home we would forge the notes from our parents: ‘Please excuse Martha’s absence from school yesterday as she was sick….’”
On October 11, 1944, opening night of another run at the Paramount in New York, Frank triggered a frenzy unprecedented in the history of music. Girls waited in the street all night to buy tickets. When the doors opened, a capacity crowd crammed into the theater and began chanting his name. The fans totally ignored the movie that was shown and then – when he appeared – their screaming made him virtually inaudible.
By five o’clock in the morning the next day, a veritable army of young people was already waiting outside and near the Paramount. “I ventured down to Times Square,” wrote Earl Wilson, who had been working through the night at the Post, “and was literally scared away. The police estimated that 10,000 kids were queued up six abreast on 43rd Street, Eighth Avenue, and 44th Street, and another 20,000 were running wild in Times Square, overrunning the sidewalks and making traffic movement almost impossible.
“Over on Fifth Avenue, a Columbus Day parade was forming. Two hundred cops were taken off guard duty there and rushed over….Eventually there were 421 police reserves, twenty radio cars, two emergency trucks, four lieutenants, six sergeants, two captains, two assistant chief inspectors, two inspectors, seventy patrolmen, fifty traffic cops, twelve mounted police, twenty policewomen and two hundred detectives, trying to control some 25,000 teenage girls. Girls shrieked, fainted – or swooned – fell down, were stepped on and pulled up by their companions and resumed screaming. They rushed the ticket booth and damaged it. Windows were broken.”
Of the 3,600 fans admitted for the first performance, only a couple of hundred left when it ended. Angry thousands waiting outside swarmed around the neighborhood all day, not dispersing until nightfall. There was similar chaos when Frank appeared in Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. The New Republic described it as an “electric contagion of excitement…a phenomenon of mass hysteria that is seen only two or three times in a century.”
“What is it you’ve got,” the actress Carmen Miranda asked Frank in 1944, “that makes the girls all cry over you?”
“It’s not what I’ve got, Carmen,” Frank replied, “it’s what they’ve got. Imagination.”
The adulation of Elvis Presley ten years later, or of the Beatles in 1964, perhaps came close. The furor over Frank, though, was the first eruption of youthful idolatry in the twentieth century, and as great as any that has come since.