Puget Sound Radio is pleased to present these momentus moments with our friend and long time Seattle radio icon Dick Curtis in tribute of his passing, who has agreed to share the stories about his life, not just as one of Seattle’s most popular disc jockeys at KJR in the 60’s and 70’s, but the teaming up with another radio icon Pat O’Day in the promotion and management of bands in the Pacific Northwest and Nationally. Dick opens with the story about his time as Frank Sinatra‘s road manager and he holds no punches. Enjoy
Puget Sound Radio
By Dick Curtis
June the 15th, 2015
Copyright © 2006 by Dick Curtis
Assigned to handle Frank Sinatra’s tours was unnerving to say the least. I had no idea what to expect. I was flown to New York City for the entertainers return to the stage following his retirement. It was a star studded, formal affair at Carnegie Hall in April of 1974. Nearly three years earlier, in 1971 Mr. Sinatra had performed his retirement concert at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back” was the name of the album that Warner Brothers had released a few months earlier and the crooner’s concert return was further proof Sinatra was indeed back from retirement. The “kick-off” event at Carnegie was a benefit for Variety Clubs International and the hall was packed with celebrities. I’d been to the rehearsal that afternoon and Jerry Weintraub had introduced me to a short, stout man in a suit. It was Mickey Rudin, Sinatra’s longtime attorney. For some reason Rudin had five-thousand dollars that needed to be delivered to Weintraub’s New York office and Jerry had asked me to take it over. Rudin was reluctant to trust me with the five-grand. Weintraub was assuring him that I was okay and could be trusted. I wondered to myself, “Does this guy actually think I’m going to steal the five-thousand and flee the country? Rudin was finally convinced and I was given the money. It was ironic that, just days later, I would be trusted with hundreds of thousands of Frank Sinatra’s dollars. That night the opening act was Milton Berle. At eight o’clock Carnegie Hall was approximately a third full which is usually the case at celebrity affairs. There’s no way we could ask Mr. Berle to go out there so we decided to delay the concert for twenty minutes. That’s when I got to meet Mr. Sinatra for the first time. When he arrived, “How come Milton’s still on?” An explanation was given about the house being nearly empty at eight o’clock. “You never hold a house for me! Understand?” Yes, we understood. Sinatra was coming through loud and clear. Never again was any concert that I produced for Frank as much as even a minute late. He was a stickler for punctuality and I had learned the number one rule early on. Sinatra kicked things off with “Come Fly With me” and ended the evening singing “My Kind Of Town.” The concert was a huge success, rave reviews in the New York papers and we were off on the one-nighters. For the next four years Frank would most often close his show with “My Way”, which he referred to as the National Anthem.
Sinatra In The 70’s
That first tour for me included five cities, all in April, beginning at Providence, Rhode Island, on to Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Chicago. Our opening act consisted of the most incredible break dancers I’d ever seen. They were called “The Lockers.” These guys knew something about dancing. The group had been formed by Toni Basil. She too knew a great deal about dancing. Basil had gone on from being a cheerleader at Las Vegas High to appear in the sixties hit “Pajama Party” with Annette, “Easy Rider,” Nicholson’s “Five Easy Pieces,” Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie.” As a choreographer among her credits was the classic movie, “American Graffiti” and Bette Middler’s “The Rose.” She made several television appearances on shows such as, “Laverne and Shirley” and “Three of a Kind.” In the early eighties Toni Basil hit it big with the million seller, “Mickey.” “Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey, hey Mickey!” It went to number one in the U-S and number two in Britain. But as far as the hit parade was concerned, Basil was a one-hit wonder. A later follow-up titled “Over My Head” was a bomb. Not to worry, Toni had a zillion other successes and many more in her future. Basil had assembled “The Lockers.” They had natural ability but it was her enthusiasm and dance expertise that was getting them exposure. Opening for Sinatra was HUGE.
At my first show in Providence I met a nervous kid named “Nifty.” Turns out he was the son of a Las Vegas connection. His dad Dave Victorson was the entertainment director for Caesars Palace. Nifty’s real name was Larry Victorson. It was his first time on the road and lucky me, I got to be the baby sitter. In all fairness, nobody tried harder to please than Nifty. Handling the dressing room area was a real character named Billy Miller. Miller was Weintraub’s “go-fer” guy in his New York office. Billy was the typical New Yorker with the heavy Bronx accent; an incredibly funny guy. What he didn’t know he was very astute in“joking it off.” Miller was somewhat on the heavy side but not obese by any means. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Billy kept a small refrigerator above his bed so while reclining in bed he could reach up and grab a cold Coke when he got the whim. He indulged himself in what must have been a dozen Cokes every day. It was his responsibility to basically set up Sinatra’s dressing room and his number one chore was cooking the soup. Every night Frank insisted on Chicken with Rice soup. I’d been with “rock ‘n rollers” who’d demanded banquets. This was truly refreshing. We’d sent Nifty out to the store to buy some cans of Campbell’s Chicken with Rice soup and some extra rice in a bag. Billy heated up the water, poured in a couple cans of Campbell’s, threw in the extra rice and “viola” a masterpiece! Sinatra had no idea how it was made and raved about the soup. We repeated the same exercise night after night for all the years I was with Frank and the soup often got compliments. Aside from settling out the box office, I wasn’t exactly sure just what else my job entailed that first night in Providence. There was an old retired guy in his late 70’s, who’d been Frank’s road manager in the past and I quickly got the clue that his number one job was to constantly check up on me. His name was Milton Krasney. Milt had retired from the Woper Television Organization. I also rapidly figured out that his number two job was to fuck me up. He told me that Frank insisted the chairs in the orchestra be 20 inches apart. I didn’t know better, I was soon on the floor with a ruler measuring spaces for 40 musicians. Hell, I was feeling my way along these first few nights. I quickly turned this assignment over to my new pal Nifty.
Another one of Weintraub’s guys was Sal Bonafede; a New York Italian who fit the program perfectly. He basically looked out for Jerry’s interests and constantly kept his eye on Sinatra. Any other manager that had just landed Sinatra would be on the case 24/7 and falling all over Frank but Weintraub was always able to put someone else in the picture, doing his work. Weintraub could, without fail, convince the act that the guy would do an incredible job. “Besides Frank, I’ll always be available and only a phone-call away.” Basically Sal sat around and shot the bull, another one of the all-time great “smoozers.” This business had more of them than any I know. Sal was dating Denise Nicholas at the time. She had launched her career in a big way a few years earlier with the hit TV show “Room 222.” His girlfriend before Denise was Lanie Kazan, the singer and actress. I believe he’d truly been in love with Lanie. Sal never took things too serious but he was two-hundred percent loyal to Jerry Weintraub and that’s what made him so valuable. At the time of writing these memoirs Sal is now Neil Diamond’s personal manager. Anyway, backstage with the Sinatra tour there were a few bodies around but trouble was I was basically the only person actually doing much work. I had planned the tours, secured the arenas and cut the rental deals, bought the advertising, settled out the shows, handled the security, herded a 40 piece orchestra of old guys through airports and even handled the Sinatra concessions. Frank’s long-time pal and body guard Jilly Rizzo was raking in most of the concession money. What’s wrong with this picture? At the end of my fifteen hour day during the tours, I found myself sweating through everything I had on. We’re talking pressure and hard work.
I had one other major problem. Frank had insisted on using his sound company from Las Vegas, Bob Kiernan. Bob was a nice enough guy but he was familiar with working Las Vegas size arenas, not twenty-thousand seat coliseums. He never had enough sound to fill the halls and I used to marvel that the greatest entertainer of his time was using a sound company that on most nights was very inadequate. We had a joke on the tour. “What’s the Bob Kiernan sound system look like?” Someone would put together two paper cups. “What’s the Bob Kiernan sound system for arenas?” Another cup would be added. “What’s the Bob Kiernan sound system for coliseums?” A fourth cup was thrown in. Backstage humor that was painfully funny if you were close to the action. The miserable sound system that Kiernan used often led to refunds to the customers that couldn’t even hear Frank which was another needless headache as well as embarrassment.
As the nights went by I began to sort things out and took on more responsibility. All of Sinatra’s concerts were presented in the round, with the stage in the center of the arena. He felt closer to his audience and it allowed us to scale the house much higher. Instead of one front row of seats, we had four. After Providence it was on to Detroit’s Olympia Stadium, one of the early hockey stadiums that held nearly twenty thousand people located in the heart of the inner city. I left the arena only once during that day taking a limo to a Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant to grab a few buckets for the crew. You can bet I kept the windows up and the doors locked both ways. Then it was a mad dash from the limo to get the food and a hasty return to the car at the same rate of speed. Quickly locking the doors, I was safely inside the Limo. If you’ve never been to certain parts of Detroit you have no idea what I’m talking about. The concerts came off without a hitch. Next was the Philadelphia Spectrum then to the Capitol Centre in Landover, Maryland in the in the suburbs of Washington and finally on to Chicago where I would experience the concert of my life.
Coming to Chicago with Frank Sinatra was like arriving with the Pope in Rome. I was staying at the Ambassador East Hotel which was a far cry from the Holiday and Ramada Inns I was used to. We arrived a day before the show. Just in time for me to splurge and fork over a couple hundred dollars for a leather briefcase that held a ton. I realized that I would soon need it. Terry Bassett had told me about this leather shop in Chicago that hand-made these beautiful briefcases. So armed with my new briefcase, my Ambassador East residence and my new found fame, Billy Miller and I decided to look for a place to eat. He told me about this great Italian Steak House on North Franklin called Gene & Georgetti’s. The place was everything he said it was and more. Incredible food and when they discovered we were in town with Frank Sinatra waiters were falling all over themselves to serve us. Gene & Georgetti had opened the steak house in the forties and many of the patrons looked like they’d been around back then to sample the food. The 18 ounce steaks were to die for and before the night was over we were taking the small grandfathers type clock on the wall home with us. Not to keep. Billy and his big mouth told them he’d have Frank sign it. You know what, he did. If you visit that trendy restaurant to this day, you’ll see the clock proudly displayed with Frank’s signature.
Chicago Stadium was another one of the old hockey arenas from way back when and it was still used by the Chicago Blackhawks. The owner of the team and Chicago Stadium was Arthur Wertz. Wertz was in the later years of his life but still going strong. Very much a gentleman and one Chicago’s “movers and shakers.” You could almost put him right up there with Mayor Richard Dailey when it came to getting things done. Most of Wertz’s personnel at Chicago Stadium had been around as long as Mr. Wertz and they made us feel right at home. It was unlike appearing in other cities. Whatever we needed someone was instantly there to provide it. We were all immediately given three-hundred dollar, leather sleeved, Chicago Blackhawks jackets. Jerry Weintraub and Arthur Wertz had become friends. I think Arthur saw a lot of himself in Jerry, who now held the exclusive rights to all concerts presented in Chicago Stadium. What that meant is if you have an act and you want to play the biggest arena in Chicago at the time, you must go through Weintraub. Of course, the duties to run everything were pawned off on Concerts West. You could become very wealthy picking up the scraps that Weintraub didn’t have time for. Millionaires Terry Bassett and the late Tom Hulett are proof of that. It was an incredible concert to say the least and when Frank launched into “My kind of town, Chicago is, my kind of town, Chicago is, my kind of razzmatazz, and it has, all that jazz…” my heart was in my throat and the whole place was on its feet screaming. Frank concluded with the customary, “My Way” and within 60 seconds he had left the building. I now learned of another duty I would undertake. After the show several people that had known Sinatra over the years would somehow find the dressing room and insist on saying hello to their old buddy Frank. When it was explained that he wasn’t around and had already left many refused to believe me. I then invited some of them back into the dressing room for drinks. I was also your favorite bartender.
So my first tour with Frank Sinatra was over. He was headed back to Palm Springs to get ready for June engagements at Caesars Palace. Those would conclude with a concert featuring guest stars, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. I would later have the privilege of producing that same show for our one-nighters. But now I was flying back to Los Angeles and a touch of reality; most likely headed out to do some rock ‘n roll dates and get ready for the next Sinatra tour. I want to point out that my only involvement with Mr. Sinatra was the one-nighters. Las Vegas, theater runs and concerts out of country were not my responsibility although I did produce a New Year’s Eve Show that year at the Diplomat Hotel in North Miami Beach. Frank was scheduled to play concerts in Japan and Australia as well as some for the troops in the Far East. It was in Australia in July of 1974 that Sinatra got more publicity that he’d bargained for. He’d had his famous clash with the Australian press and a concert was cancelled. Sinatra had made an ill-advised remark about the nation’s press. The Sinatra-targeted strike action that followed, led by union leader Bob Hawke, left the “Chairman of the Board” a virtual hostage in his Sydney hotel. In the months to come Frank would joke about it in nearly every one of his monologs but it was anything but funny at the time.
Sinatra surrounded himself with musicians that were the crème d` la crème and when Frank performed they were always there. Al Viola on Guitar; Gene Cherico and his stand-up Bass; Charlie Turner’s Trumpet; Irv Cottler was always on drums wherever Sinatra appeared and pianist Bill Miller conducted the orchestra. Not to be confused with Weintraub’s guy, Billy Miller. As far as the remainder of the orchestra, when playing the east coast, Sinatra would use New York musicians. Chicago musicians were always hired in the Midwest and on the west coast it was Los Angeles musicians. Occasionally some band would join us and fill in some of the spots; like Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd or Don Costa’s Orchestra. The musicians were always “nothing but the best.” They played their asses off for Frank Sinatra who was a musician’s singer. He gave credits to the song writer and arranger on nearly every song he performed. And for most of these musicians, backing up Frank Sinatra was something they’d dreamed of their entire lives.
In the fall of 1974 I once again rejoined Sinatra for the famous “Main Event” tour. The band was Woody Herman and The Young Thundering Herd augmented by the contracted musicians and Frank’s own guys. The tour included a two-night stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden where the show would be broadcast live to twenty-six countries and recorded for an upcoming album. That’s where I learned all about New York unions.
We opened at the old Boston Gardens on October 2nd, a day off then over to another ancient arena, the Buffalo War Memorial Auditorium. On October 7th we played the relatively new Philadelphia Spectrum. I spent part of one of the off days with my new found buddy Milt Krasney. My wife at the time, who was visiting her grandmother in New York, had arrived in Philly. Oh, did I forget to mention I had gotten married again while living in Atlanta? I was addicted to this institution! Karen was working for a booking agency in New York and that’s where we met. After a while she moved to Atlanta and it was while on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico that we both got loaded enough to go to the mayor and get married. So with chickens flying around in his back yard, the mayor said those words that I should have engraved on my tombstone, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Karen was Jewish and her father was the well-known men’s fashion designer, John Weitz. John was one of the most egotistical men I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Weitz had been a race car driver, an agent for the OSS during World War II, a spokesman for El Capitan cigars and had authored the books, “Hitler’s Banker” and “Hitler’s Diplomat.” The German born Weitz had been educated in England and came to America in 1940. With his design offices located in New York, London and Tokyo, I actually believe that he fancied himself as the original James Bond. He had divorced Karen’s mother when she was very young and in the sixties, married actress Susan Kohner, who starred in the five-hanky movie “Imitation of Life.” Suddenly I found myself getting more respect from my other Jewish friend Milt Krasney. So now here we were; strolling the streets of Philadelphia together, gazing in store windows and taking in the historical sights. Another large east coast city, another sellout for Frank! Young and old alike, they never got enough of Sinatra.
Our next city was Pittsburgh. The Civic Arena where the roof actually can open up for a nighttime concert under the stars. We kept it closed. With the now famous Bob Kiernan sound system I authorized several hundred refunds that night. Can you even imagine; hundreds of people, many who had waited their entire lives to see Frank Sinatra and when they finally did, they couldn’t even hear him. I’m afraid to guess how many refunds there might have been had the roof been opened. These four cities were a warm-up for “The Main Event” in New York City. We would play two nights in Madison Square Garden, October 12th and 13th. The entire show had to be blocked for timing; a one-hour, live television show that had the feeling of an ABC Monday Night Football game. It should, it was produced by Roone Arledge, Sports Director for ABC. The opening was an inspirational piece about New York, the metropolis and Frank Sinatra, the greatest entertainer in the world narrated by Howard Cosell. Frank was introduced as if he was entering the ring to participate in a prize fight. It was pure genius on the part of Jerry Weintraub and Arledge. The opening night was more or less a dress rehearsal for the TV show the next night.
I arrived in New York two days in front of the show. I was about to enjoy my first experience with the unions of New York in general and Madison Square Garden in particular. I was a neophyte in both areas. As is the custom, Record Plant, the company that was recording the album, had set up microphones in the orchestra pit. A few minutes later a large man approached me and said, “What’s he doin? What’s going on?” I had no idea what he was talking about, “What?” “He can’t set up microphones in the orchestra pit, only the stage hands can.” “Okay, I hollered to the Record Plant engineer. Take the mike stands down.” Then mister union man said to me, “No, he can’t touch those microphone stands.” “You win,” I told the guy, “Have your union stagehands take them down then.” “No you don’t understand they can’t take them down because they didn’t put them up.” That’s how it went for hours and hours and it wasn’t settled until the next day when the stage hands did take the mike stands down and then promptly put them back up. Dressing rooms were torn down after every show and rebuilt for the next one. Who knew? No one had informed me about the carpenters union and their agreement with Madison Square Garden. Besides the Garden’s array of union spotlight operators, union electricians, union stagehands and all the other unions, I still had to deal with ABC’s union personnel and the union folks from Record Plant. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that unions had their place and maybe still do in some circumstances but in most cases that day has come and gone. I still recall years ago, the disk jockeys in San Francisco were made to join the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The person that set the needle on the record had to belong to the Musicians Union and the person that turned the microphone on and off actually belonged to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; three people to perform a one person job. Don’t get me started on unions or I’ll have to bore you for a few more hours about my friends at the musicians union; more scoundrels. So the first night was the run-through, the second night was for real. The audience was real both nights and although the first night was a dress rehearsal, the show continued as any normal performance, without interruption.
The opening night went well and we were all geared for the second night and what would prove to be “a spectacular.” Famous faces were pouring in as well as fans of all ages. Frank was back in New York City the place where his lengthy career had begun. It was the place to be seen. Keep in mind the stage was in the center of the arena similar to a boxing ring. I was standing back underneath the stands where Frank would come out. As he is every night, Sinatra would be closely followed by his personal body guard and long-time closest friend, Jilly Rizzo and most times I followed in behind. At one point there was a hold up and Jilly came out first to check out the situation. There was this guy standing right in the area where Sinatra would pass. Rizzo told Madison Square Garden security to move him. The guy said, “YOU move him, it’s Serpico.” The real Serpico; the New York cop that Al Pacino had immortalized in a film by the same name. Jilly talked to Serpico and he agreed to move. At that very moment I heard a commotion in the stands above me. I walked out a bit and turned around to see ushers flocking to the aid of a woman whose seat had apparently broken. They were trying to fix it as quietly as possible because we were about to go live with the television show. Then it dawned on me. It couldn’t be. Why me? While it wasn’t her fault, the person causing all the commotion was my wife Karen. With over twenty-thousand people inside the place, what were the odds? The matter was quickly taken care of just seconds before Sinatra appeared on the scene. The lights dimmed, a drum roll, the orchestra struck the overture and Howard Cosell began “Live from New York, the city whose landmarks are familiar all over the world. The world center for shipping, transportation, communication, finance, fashion and above all entertainment. A city that pulsates always because of the millions of people who live here, work here, visit here. And in the heart of the metropolis, the great arena, Madison Square Garden which has created and housed so many champions. And which is why tonight, from the garden, the most enduring champion of them all Frank Sinatra comes to the entire Western Hemisphere live; With the Main Event, Frank Sinatra in concert!” An orchestra crescendo then the strains of “All The Way” for twenty seconds or so. Cosell continues, “Madison Square Garden, October thirteenth, nineteen seventy-four, jam packed with twenty-thousand people plus. Just people. People from all walks of life. People who are young and people who are old, here to see, hear, pay homage to a man who has bridged four generations and somehow never found a gap. Hello again everyone, I’m Howard Cosell and I’ve been here so many times and in a curious way, this event, live with the king of entertainment carries with it the breathless excitement and anticipation of a heavyweight championship fight. Celebrities are here in profusion, one after another, Rex Harrison, Professor Higgins, if you will…Carol Channing, Hello Dolly!…Walter Cronkite, Mr. Believable…and of course the great romantic hero, Robert Redford. But here, coming through the same tunnel that so many champions have walked before, the great man, Frank Sinatra.” As Cosell continued it was at that point that Frank, Jilly and I would begin walking the roped aisle to the center stage. But at that same moment, Jerry Weintraub jumped in beside Sinatra, which I thought was appropriate. Then Billy Miller from Weintraub’s New York office hopped in behind Jerry and before I knew it, a new Weintraub employee who had just left International Famous Agency in New York as an agent, who coincidentally was my wife’s ex-boss, Shelly Schultz, jumped over the rope and fell in beside Miller. They all wanted to be seen on television walking into the arena with Frank Sinatra. At that point I said to myself, “Fuck it.” I quickly made my way to the stage area, kneeling down to join the eight plain closed officers that surrounded the ring. Frank opened with “The Lady Is a Tramp” and brought the house down. The show went off without a hitch and before you knew it he was singing, “My Way.” It was all soon over; much too soon considering all the work that had gone into its preparation. For the most part, great reviews the next day. There were also some comments that his age had taken some of the edge off his voice but you had to expect those. They were right but the charisma was still as strong as ever. Frank Sinatra had once again conquered New York City.
On the twenty-fifth we moved the show into Kansas City, then on to the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. The new twenty-thousand seat Coliseum in Richfield had been built by Nick Mileti. Frank Sinatra would be the very first artist to perform there. Mileti was an attorney and real estate agent who had bought the Cleveland Indians baseball team a couple of years earlier. He owned a radio station or two and would go on to eventually bring the Cleveland Cavaliers to his new Coliseum as owner. A mover and shaker in the Cleveland area and beyond, Nick had the parties planned including a huge gala in the private club inside the facility. Three thousand people were invited. Heavy gold medallions on an even heavier gold chain were given to all patrons attending his party. The medallions read, “Opening Night, October 26, 1974 Frank Sinatra In Concert.” On other side, “Nick J. Mileti presents The Coliseum.” All this was well and good but imagine my surprise when we pulled into the arena shortly before noon and found workers were still removing seats from the boxes they were packed in. Over a hundred landscapers were planting shrubs and flowers. At first it looked to me like the soonest we could put on a show in this facility would be in about a week. That’s before I met the manager of the brand new building, Claire Rothman. Claire was in charge; carrying on a conversation with me while ordering, “Put those over there! Hurry up with that shrubbery. I want those seats totally in by 4 o’clock.” “Are we going to make it Clair?” “I think we will,” was the reply. You know what, we did. It was close but by our eight o’clock show time an outsider would have no idea that the floor of this coliseum looked barren just eight hours earlier at noon. My respect for Ms. Rothman grew in immense proportions. The show was fabulous, the party a success, Nick Mileti a local hero but I knew who the real honors should go to; Claire Rothman who pulled it off. She and I became casual friends over the years as a result of our grueling twelve hours together. Claire went on to manage the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, California, at the time home of the Los Angeles Lakers. We worked together on several presentations.
Two days later we played the show in Houston and the next night it was Dallas. My second tour with Frank Sinatra was complete and it was time to inhale a breath and take stock of things. One of my biggest headaches was herding these elderly musicians around airports. It was tough enough just presenting the shows, but being the road manager to forty guys that hadn’t really seen the road in twenty-five years was more than I was up for. I had to find an answer; perhaps a private aircraft. I’d have to work on that one.