Puget Sound Radio thanks our friend and long time Seattle radio icon Dick Curtis who has agreed to share the stories about his life, not just as one of Seattle’s most popular disc jockeys and news anchor at KJR in the 60′s and 70′s, but teaming up with another radio icon Pat O’Day in the promotion and management of bands in the Pacific Northwest and Nationally.
In his continuing series he shares part 2 of 3 about being Frank Sinatra’s road manager. Talk about an insiders view. Excellent Reads!
Puget Sound Radio
By Dick Curtis
June the 22nd, 2015
Copyright © 2006 by Dick Curtis
The last day of 1974 I joined Sinatra for a New Year’s Eve show at the Diplomat Hotel in North Miami Beach, Florida. This was a totally new scene for me but a very comfortable one for everyone else. I was use to arenas and coliseums but for the others involved, playing the Diplomat was just like playing a Las Vegas showroom which they had done hundreds of times before. It was actually a very easy gig. My job was mostly to be a buffer between the hotel and Frank. I oversaw security, did a dry run of Mr. Sinatra’s route to the stage area, which included a trudge through the kitchen; I kissed it up with hotel personnel but that was about it. There was no money to get involved with, that was already a done deal several months before the appearance. I did get the opportunity to meet Don Rickles the night of the performance. He and his wife Barbara dropped by to catch the show. As you might have guessed, Rickles was the same off-stage as he is on-stage. This guy is always on ala Robin Williams. Jonathan Winters, all the same way. I worked in Seattle radio with a guy named Robert O. Smith. Last I heard he was in the Vancouver market. You couldn’t turn him off. Try to have a straight ahead conversation, forget it! As naturally funny and talented as all these people are, when you meet them face to face and the one-liners never stop, you just want to say, “Stop it PLEASE, you’re hurting me!”
Following the New Year’s show it was back to Los Angeles and preparation for a much longer Sinatra string of concerts. For the sake of simplicity we called it the Sinatra Spring Tour ’75. The concerts weren’t billed that way; it was just the name we used. We started out in late April at the old San Francisco Civic Arena. We partnered the show with Bill Graham. In cities where long established promoters had claimed their tuff over the years, such as Bill Graham in San Francisco, out of courtesy they would be declared partners. It wouldn’t amount to much money, usually twenty-five hundred dollars, but it was very valuable in prestige in their home towns. So all the ads would read, Jerry Weintraub presents Frank Sinatra and at the bottom of the advertisement, “in association with Bill Graham Presents.” Quite often the local promoter would make an additional percentage on ticket fees. Ironically, during this date in San Francisco, the box office was handled by Graham’s man, Dave Furano. In the next few months, Furano would come to work for Weintraub in Los Angeles. One of his assignments involved working closely with the late John Denver. Furano made the mistake of attempting to take John away from Jerry. It didn’t work. His stay at Management III was short lived.
Two nights later we played the Portland, Oregon Memorial Coliseum. These west coast dates were interesting to me because we were back in my familiar territory but they didn’t hold the excitement that Frank commanded in New York, Philly or Chicago. The northeast was an entirely different ball game. For Sinatra it was electric and if we had wanted we could have played most of those arenas four times a year. Following Portland we moved on up to Seattle, my old home town. It was great to be back with the hottest name in entertainment business working with personnel at the Seattle Center that had seen me from the beginning of my concert involvement. We played the small Seattle Center Arena, less than six-thousand but the show was sold out and created a lot of excitement. After the concert, Les Smith, the major backer of Concerts West, came backstage to see Frank. Sinatra who had long left the building but I chatted briefly with Les. Frank had earlier been a partner with Smith and Danny Kaye in Seattle’s Radio Station KJR and others. I had worked for Smith during my seven years at KJR and now during my Concerts West employment. Following the show, my wife Karen, who’d flown into town, my brother Don and his wife Donna, along with Tom Hulett’s wife Charlene, who I’d known for many years, all congregated at the Thirteen Coins Restaurant. My very first secretary in the concert business, Linda Ott was invited to join us. She was the first person that Pat O’Day and I hired when we had our small office on Thomas Street bordering the Seattle Center. Linda had been an extremely loyal and efficient employee and I respected that. She had learned the business right along with Pat and me. We drank and ate into the night and things were fine until Charlene got very drunk and began making some embarrassing sexual statements. She was way out of line and I felt bad for all of the people gathered especially my brother and his wife, not to mention my wife. I quickly asked Linda if she would take one of the limousines and drive Charlene home. Obviously Char would be embarrassed about it the next day but sadly she had turned to drinking, frequently out of boredom. Her husband Tom was always on the road with Elvis and Mrs. Hulett had a lonesome lifestyle. It was another example that money doesn’t buy happiness. What made me even sadder was that before Tom was introduced to the concert business, no one loved each other more that he and Char. They were inseparable. Now they both had a huge house with maids, they drove a Rolls Royce among other cars but when you totaled it all up at the end of the day, they had very little.
Frank had it all. His career was once again exploding. Since returning from retirement it was like he’d never left. We took the show into the Denver Coliseum and then it was back to Chicago and the Chicago Stadium. Like I said, some of these places we could play several times a year. We moved on over to Minneapolis and down to Indianapolis.
After the show in Minneapolis, as is the custom, several people gathered looking for Frank. As usual I informed them that Frank had left the building but how about coming back to his dressing room for a drink. There were about a dozen people gathered there, including former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and his wife Muriel. Humphrey had been vice-president under Lyndon Johnson and was beaten out in his bid for the presidency by Richard Nixon. He was now once again Senator Humphrey and seemed to be having a good time. Seeing his glass was nearly empty, I asked, “Would you care for another one senator?” He looked over at Muriel, as if to get permission, and smiled, “don’t mind if I do.” I rustled up another Seagram’s and Seven-Up. He was one of nicest, most unassuming men I’ve ever met. She was just sweet, that’s the adjective that first comes to mind. It’s a shame that cancer would take his life three years later. Murial, who was appointed by the governor to take his place, would only serve until his term ended later in 1978.
Then it was on to the old Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis where Milt Krasney couldn’t resist, he had me again. The building seated just over ten-thousand. I’d never played the facility with any act prior to this engagement so I knew nothing about Kiel. Milt had played there several times with Sinatra. He told me there was no parking under the building so in my naiveté I arranged for Frank to enter from a side stage door. In nearly all of our one-nighters Sinatra would fly into town just before the beginning of the concert. I would have a police escort on both ends of his limousine and I would hop into the lead police car. Since Frank was such a stickler for punctuality I could make sure we arrived at the exact time we were supposed to. He didn’t want to know how many miles to the arena from the airport, Sinatra insisted on knowing how many minutes. In the front patrol car I could tell the officer to speed it up or slow it down, depending on how the timing was going. Comedian Pat Henry was most often our opening act. Entering the building Sinatra would always look at his watch and tell by listening to which joke Henry was relating, whether we had started the show on time or not. In nearly all cases we were on the money. It was a different situation in St. Louis. Frank had visited teamster union friends in the city prior to the show and he and his wife Barbara would arrive at the stage door in a limo by themselves and Jilly. We had only sold about nine-thousand seats in St. Louis and it didn’t look like it was the hottest ticket in town. We should have no crowd problems, right? How wrong I was. About an hour before the show a crowd began gathering in the area of the stage door. They had figured it out and I knew I was in trouble. There were several large guys that had come down from Chicago to see Frank. I recognized some of them from our shows in the windy city. I walked up to a few of them and said, “How’d you liked to guard Frank tonight?” Shit, this was something they’d dreamed of their entire lives. “Ya, what’d ya need?” “Frank’s getting out of the limo here and will be walking to the stage entrance over there. Get your guys together.” I had about twenty of them and slapped backstage, “Frank Sinatra In Concert,” passes on all of them. “Tonight you’re guarding Frank,” I declared. The massive bunch formed a very impressive looking line on both sides of the walkway and what stories they’d have to tell their friends about the night they guarded Frank. I can tell you this, no one dared to cross that line. When Sinatra and Barbara arrived, he saw the mob and was not happy, to say the least. I tried to reassure him. “We’re okay Frank; we have some of the boys helping us out.” All he said was, “Watch out for Barbara.” Everyone was screaming and hollering and pushing but not a hand reached Frank or his wife. Just like that they were safely inside. Sinatra knew the building. He asked me, “Why didn’t we park inside?” I knew I was had. Less than an hour later I got the phone call from Jerry Weintraub and he was well aware of what had happened. Every once in a while, Milt Krasney couldn’t stand seeing someone else be successful doing the job he use to do and he had to react. Milt wouldn’t be with us on the road much longer. That’s something else I had to attend to.
Shelly Schultz – Dorie, a Weintraub employee – Milt Krasney
We next headed north across the border to play the Montreal Forum and Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens for the Bronfman Family who owed just about everything in that city. The money came from their Seagram fortune. Nowadays, the family owns the majority of MCA which owns RCA and Universal Studios. They got their start in the liquor business in Canada while America was going through prohibition. They had purchased a small Canadian liquor distillery and the rest is history. Sinatra had outstanding performances in both Montreal and Toronto and we headed back to one of those places we could play at least twice a year, Providence, Rhode Island.
The first time I’d arrived in Providence with the Sinatra show I’d been greeted by the owner of the limousine service. During the first five minutes of our conversation he let me know that if anyone in the group wanted a hooker he could bury the cost in the limo bill. I can honestly say there were no takers. At the opposite end of the spectrum, at the Providence Civic Center I had the privilege of meeting one of the most charming women I had ever met, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She arrived alone, early for the performance. I showed her to her seat and asked if I could get her anything. She declined and thanked me very much for my courtesies. She had lost her second husband Aristotle Onassis just two months earlier. Watching this woman on television you saw her professionalism and grace. In person it was even more apparent. Jackie oozed class and charm. Another performance ended with everyone standing on their feet screaming and cheering for more. There was only one Sinatra!
We finished at New Haven, Connecticut the following night. General Manager Lorris Smith thought I was kidding one night months earlier when I was playing his building, the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum with the rock group, Bachman Turner Overdrive. While settling out the show I asked him how he’d like an appearance by Frank Sinatra. He kind of laughed. I said I’m serious; give me your best possible rental deal. When I returned to Los Angeles I called Lorris. He quoted me a price and on May 13th, 1975, here was the king of the entertainment world playing his building. He was grateful. Lorris Smith was one of the good guys when it came to picking out favorite building managers.
Just like that, the April 24th to May 13th tour was finished. Three weeks doesn’t sound like such a long time but we’d had traversed the United States; up the West Coast, through the Midwest, and ending in the Northeast. To me it seemed like three months.
Frank went on to perform concerts in France, Austria, Germany and England the remainder of May. He then played Belgium and the Netherlands before returning home. Sinatra opened at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas later in June.
In mid-August I joined Frank once again and we headed east. We played Detroit, Washington DC, and two nights at the Garden State Arts Theater in Holmdel, New Jersey. Then it was up to Saratoga, New York for a night at the Performing Arts Center. Both Holmdel and Saratoga were similar; outdoor venues with much of the seating on the grass. The opening act for this tour was Sam Butera and the Witnesses. For much of his life, Sam had been the band leader for Louis Prima. The Witnesses were the back-up band. After Prima’s death Sam continued on with his saxophone and singing the Louis Prima hits with the same arrangements. Just a Gigolo combined with “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Basin Street Blues,” “When You’re Smilin’” and “That Old Black Magic.” There was no one better at these songs than Louis Prima and Kelly Smith but if they they’re not around I’ll take Sam Butera anytime. Eat your heart out David Lee Roth. My heart went out for Sam after we arrived in Saratoga. Butera’s saxophone was missing. He came up to me and said, “My axe man, my axe.” “What happened?” trying to calm him down. All he could say was “My axe man, my axe.” I quickly learned that the airlines had lost his saxophone. If you’re not a musician you can’t feel what a loss that is. I’d been around musicians long enough to have a good idea. I’m not sure if he ever got it back. It hadn’t been returned last I heard but I didn’t see Sam after Saratoga. That was once again the end of my part of the tour.
The second week of September Sinatra opened a week’s stand at the Uris Theater in New York City with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. The show played to sold out audiences for two solid weeks. Following the run I joined Frank again for three one nighters featuring the same line-up. It was billed as “THE Concert.” I’m sorry this one didn’t play forever, it was that good. The performances opened with The Count and his band. He was then joined by Ella and finally Sinatra to finish the show. Some of the songs that Frank and Ella sang together were “The Song Is You,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and of course “The Lady Is a Tramp.” We took the show to the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Oh, did I tell you that Milt Krasney wasn’t around to show me Philadelphia this time. I had taken care of that problem with Sinatra’s people convincing them that Milt was just too old to be on the road. The concert was a smash in Philly, also in Cleveland at the Coliseum. Then we finished back in our familiar stomping grounds, the Chicago Stadium. I had played Sinatra so many times in the facility that it was like setting up a concert in my living room. So with my free time I took Ella Fitzgerald and her road manager to my now favorite Chicago spot, Gene & Georgetti’s. Imagine the treatment when I walked in with Ella Fitzgerald. The service was impeccable any day of the year but on this occasion it was beyond belief. You know what? Ella wasn’t fazed by it at all. She wouldn’t of said anything if the service had been bad. She was that kind of an unassuming person. To her she was just another human being on this earth. To everyone else she was a legend. I still treasure that special night with a very special lady, Ms. Ella Fitzgerald. It was mostly small talk, not too much about the business and then we left to get on with our job at hand. A magical concert night in the Chicago Stadium; “THE Concert,” Sinatra, Fitzgerald and Basie! I’m so fortunate I was there.
Ella at an earlier time
The following day Sinatra was heading to New York for either business or pleasure, I didn’t ask. I was able to hitch a ride. I had some other Concerts West business to attend to in New York. It wasn’t usual for me to ride along in Harrah’s G2 Aircraft. In fact I’d never done it before but being as Frank and I were both going to the same place he gave his permission for me to come along. Taking off from Midway Airport, I don’t think I said two words to him the entire trip. I didn’t want to screw up any future possibilities so I quietly did my paper work. Frank was buried in his crossword puzzles. Upon landing at La Guardia all Frank said was, “You got wheels kid?” I guess he was offering me a ride into Manhattan in his limo. I lied and said yes. I’d just as soon spend the money, take a cab and start breathing again. Remember, anytime a person in a management capacity is around the star, you’re working!
That last concert in Chicago was on September 24th. Three months later we were back in Chicago Stadium for a huge New Year’s Eve concert. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said Sinatra could play some of these places four times a year. It wasn’t “My Way” that he concluded with on this special night; it was “My Kind of Town.” In Chicago, that brings the house down. Because it was New Year’s Eve we were all invited to join Frank, Jilly, Pat Henry and some other close friends for a celebration at The Four Torches Restaurant. When I say we, I mean Sal Bonafede and myself. I remember, as we were exiting Chicago Stadium, gun shots suddenly rang out. Frank literally hit the sidewalk and I wasted no time ducking. Then we realized, the gun shots were coming from the high rise buildings in the area. It’s a tradition, on the south side of Chicago. People fire their guns from the rooftops on New Year’s Eve. Who knew?
It was then on to the Four Torches restaurant where a line had formed. I heard a few grumbles as we paraded past everyone to a couple of large tables that had been reserved for us. Frank and his group at one table, Sal, myself and some other people I didn’t know at ours. We had a couple of drinks and I said to Sal, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” He agreed but we had to have a good excuse. We didn’t want to appear ungrateful or rude but keep in mind, like I said earlier, as long as we were around Sinatra, we were both on the job. Sal and I had just finished our day’s work and wanted to relax and unwind ourselves. Telling everyone how tired we were, both of us left the restaurant. I remarked to Sal later, “How many guys would give their left, you know what, to party with Frank Sinatra let alone on New Year’s Eve?” Here we were, making a feeble excuse to get away. I guess when you’re around entertainers often enough you get somewhat jaded. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been one to ask for autographs or have a picture taken with them. OK, you’ve seen a few in this book but honestly I never asked for the picture to be taken. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never had the time of day for groupies or hangers-on. Sounds like I’m starting to get off on a rant here; time to close this chapter.
After playing Las Vegas and the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey early in 1976, Sinatra settled in for two weeks, beginning April First, at the Westchester Premier Theater. The venue was located north of Manhattan in Tarrytown, New York. I joined in as he headed for three one-nighters with the third one being very special, The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. We started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the Milwaukee Arena. I’d only played the building once before with John Denver and on that tour I performed a minor role. With Frank, as usual we were playing in the round, with the stage in the center of the arena. I met with arena manager Fred Muth and then went out to walk the building. Comparing the building’s seating diagram with the way we had it scaled, there were way too many seats. Many of them were restrictive to the way Sinatra entered and walked to the stage. I confronted him about the problem. I estimated at least a thousand extra seats had been placed in the arena. He pleaded that he was unaware at first then finally admitted that he thought there’d be no problem. If I hadn’t of caught the extra seats, someone would have made a big score; namely Fred Muth. I told him that the seats would have to be removed. He pleaded, “We can’t do that, those seats are sold.” I insisted that they had to be moved and if those folks can’t be relocated their money would have to be refunded. Muth stood his ground and wouldn’t back down. It’s now three in the afternoon the day of the show. I called Jerry Weintraub in Los Angeles and informed him of the situation. He told me do whatever I have to do to get it taken care of and he backed me one-hundred percent. I again approached the guy, “you’re still telling me you won’t remove the seats.” He nodded yes.
My first call was to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper. I asked for the news desk and spoke to the assignment editor. I told him of the situation and informed him there’s a good chance Frank Sinatra would not be playing Milwaukee tonight. I told the reporter this was the only city where we’ve ever had this kind of problem. Keep in mind the concert had been the talk of Milwaukee for several weeks. It was a much anticipated event, especially for many prominent locals all expected to be in attendance. It was just a matter of minutes before the newspaper reporter called the Fred Muth to confirm the possibility of no Frank Sinatra concert tonight. Approximately fifteen minutes after that a much shaken Muth told me they would be able to relocated the seats after all. Ah, the power of the press. Case closed.
After Milwaukee a quick show in Omaha, Nebraska. I’d never produced a show there either. The Omaha Auditorium seated about twelve-thousand. Three hours before show time, I conducted my meeting with the security personnel at the building and with a couple of plain close cops headed for the police cars outside the building to pick up Frank and his entourage at the private airport. As is the custom, two limousines and two police cars make the trek. As I exited the building, standing beside one of the limos was the most elderly driver I had ever seen. He would have been considered old if he’d just been chauffeuring himself to the supermarket. I went back to meet the gentleman and found he was eighty-one years old; a very excited eighty-one. He’d dreamt his entire life about driving Frank Sinatra. I didn’t have the heart to take him off the job. I questioned my decision all the way to the airport weighing the pros and cons. There were not too many pros except I was making someone’s dad, grandfather and most likely great-grandfather the happiest, most fulfilled man on Earth. I wish I could remember this man’s name because he reminded me so much of my grandfather, Adam.
We made the connection at the airport, Frank and Jilly hopped into the limo. The valet, who was carrying Sinatra’s clothes for the show, grabbed the other limo. I climbed in the lead patrol car next to the police officer driving and with the other patrol car falling in behind the limos we were on our way. I’m checking my watch to make sure we’re on the minute when I turned around and looked at the limousine carrying Sinatra and Jilly behind us. The fucking trunk lid is bouncing in the wind. Up and down, bouncing; I can’t believe it! The old guy was so excited to finally be driving Frank he forgot to shut the trunk. What can you say? You know what? Sinatra never said a word about it, at least not to me and I wasn’t about to bring the subject up. Probably the most embarrassed was the elderly limo driver. I never said anything to him about it either. Why ruin his special day.
Speaking of special days, two nights later was a magical time. Frank Sinatra would be appearing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry Theater. The most recognized country music palace in the world hosting the most recognizable performer on Earth and he doesn’t sing country. It was an event! James Bacon was there from the L-A Herald Examiner along with other reporters from Los Angeles and several other cities. Newspaper reporters had come from as far away as London. I conducted my security meeting at the theater with the eight plain clothes detectives and taking the two in charge with me, we got ready to head out to the airport. Don’t ask me why, other than this was a special concert, but I anticipated a potential problem. You know how you just feel things sometimes. We jumped into the police cars. The limos, police cars and ooops; we were being tailed. Three cars were following us to the “General Aviation” area of the airport to see exactly where the Sinatra airplane was going to be parked. When we got there we discovered the fellows in the other cars were also police officers. The press detail had hired their own cops for protection. My security detail consisted of a captain and a lieutenant. Most of their contingency included sergeants and lesser ranking policemen. My guys were saying things like, “You’re going to regret this,” “You’ll be walking the beat tomorrow,” stuff like that. I headed into the General Aviation building and talked to the person in charge. I asked, “Where are you planning on parking Frank’s plane?” He showed me. I told him to have a crew pretending they were going to park the plane and at the last minute have them taxi to another location. He went along with the idea and radioed the pilot of the plane. It would be just a slight diversion that might give us an extra minute or two. When the time came the ground crew acted like they were preparing for the Sinatra plane’s arrival. As the members of the press gathered, my guys were just standing by. Another unseen ground crew was preparing the actual spot where the plane would taxi to and be parked. They were all out of their cars. We remained inside ours. The plane landed, taxied up to the spot where the press had gathered…and they kept going. We sped up to the aircraft once it stopped at the alternate location. The door opened and I hollered to Jilly, “We have a problem. Get Frank off right now.” Sinatra was hustled off the aircraft into the limo along with Jilly and we took off for the theater with our police escort. The other limo stayed to pick up the rest of the party. We had done it! Before they could regroup, the reporters and their own security personnel had been snookered. That was the only time that had ever happened to me. Of course, as far as I know, that was the only time that Frank Sinatra had played the Grand Ole Opry. It was a magical night. Nearly every country singer I’d heard about was in attendance. Sinatra always seemed to reach down and move everything up a notch on special concerts like this one. In my opinion, he never sounded better than he did this night…AT ANY AGE.