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.
This is part 3 of 3 of his time as Frank Sinatra’s road manager. Talk about an insiders view. Excellent Reads!
Puget Sound Radio
By Dick Curtis
June 29th, 2015
Copyright © 2006 by Dick Curtis
After the Nashville appearance Frank went on up to Chicago for a few dates at the Sabre Room in Hickory Hills just outside of the city, then back to Las Vegas. In August we played Vancouver, British Columbia. Now I’ll have to tell you a quick story about that engagement. Terry McManus and Burl Barer were partners in a small commercial production company in Seattle. By now I’d taken to selling some of the Sinatra concerts similar to the way Elvis was advertised, using radio. I used the McManus-Barer Production Company to produce the radio spots. Radio is where I came from and I’m a big believer in the medium. When Elvis was coming to town radio advertising was purchased on nearly every station in the area. Very little print advertising, if any, was used. I was doing the same for Sinatra only on a much smaller scale. I bought key stations but still purchased newspapers only not nearly as heavy as I would normally. McManus and Barer had worked for me when I was managing KOL Radio Station in Seattle. McManus had the perfect voice for this kind of stuff. When Terry found out we were playing Vancouver he asked if there was any chance he could meet Frank. I explained that this was a tough request but here’s what I’ll do. I told him the exact time I would be arriving with Frank and walking the corridor of the Pacific National Exposition Center where we were playing. I said, “Be there and let’s see what happens.” Late in the afternoon, with my escort detail, I headed to the airport to pick up Sinatra. Returning to the Exposition Center and arriving at the precise time, we entered the building and Frank and I were walking in a closed off corridor. There to greet us I spotted Terry McManus. We paused for a moment and I said to Sinatra, “This is the fellow that produces your radio commercials Frank, Terry McManus.” A gracious Sinatra held out his hand and said, “Nice to meet you Terry.” McManus was dumbfounded. He couldn’t speak. He merely shook Frank’s hand and said nothing. He was awestruck and was unable to talk. Who can blame him?
We headed back east again for return dates at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York and the Garden State Arts Theater in New Jersey. Franks always stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when he was in the city and his entourage took up a large portion of one floor. I was partial to the Park Lane or the Essex House, both on Central Park South. I loved staying at either of those hotels. I rarely had an occasion to visit the Waldorf but on this particular stop I did. It had to do with a rehearsal for Frank that was set up at Studio 8-H at NBC. That’s the same studio where NBC’s Saturday Night Live has originated for many years. Ironically, Frank Jr. was appearing in the Rainbow Room at the top of the building. While I was at the Waldorf, former Vice-President Spiro Agnew was pacing around a reception area that had been set up. Agnew, who’d resigned his position three years earlier under charges of tax fraud, wanted to see Frank and wasn’t having much luck. I thought to myself, skip back three years and he’d have no problem at all but now he was considered disgraced. Agnew had pleaded nolo contendere, no contest to the charges and resigned his position as Nixon’s V-P. I don’t recall if he ever got to see Sinatra or not, I had to leave. I do know that while I was there, no one was making any effort to get the two connected.
We played the two outdoor facilities in upstate New York and New Jersey that we’d played earlier and then headed into Cincinnati for a show at the Riverfront Coliseum. The one thing that stands out in my mind about this performance didn’t happen on stage. It was during the walk to the stage. As we were walking in Frank said to me, “Let’s just bruise ‘em kid and get the hell out of here.” I thought to myself, during the next hour the man would pick up a check for nearly a quarter-million dollars and soon after that be headed back to Palm Springs in a private jet. I’d be hoofing it back to Los Angeles on a commercial flight. Why didn’t my mom make me take singing lessons anyway?
In September Sinatra joined another Weintraub client for what was billed, “A September To Remember.” John Denver would join Frank for five shows at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Nevada. An unusual combination to say the least but once again the genius of Jerry Weintraub was in full display. Who else could pull this off? Sinatra and Denver would sing a medley of Sinatra hits and then the duo would combine on some Denver compositions. “My Sweet Lady,” “Leaving On A Jet Plane” and “Like A Sad Song.” The pair then wrapping it up with“September Song.” While it was hailed a success, there was never a repeat performance. Word is that at one time Jerry was interested in putting Sinatra together with Elton John. Frank apparently wasn’t too familiar with Elton’s hits so he was given one of his albums to listen to in his dressing room. The first song he heard was “Crocodile Rock.” Frank immediately turned off the player and that was the end of that idea.
It was sometime later that I had the opportunity to work a Jerry Weintraub produced show at the Beverly Hilton Hotel that honored former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Security was on high with dogs being used to sniff under all the tables prior to the show. Appearing on the bill would be Diana Ross, John Denver and Frank Sinatra. Neither John nor Frank did a sound check, Ross did. She not only insisted on closing the show but put everyone within earshot through their paces while she paraded, primped and was a downright “pain in the ass.” I didn’t see much of the show, I was busy backstage. The ballroom was packed with hundreds of movie stars, other celebrities and Hollywood movers and shakers. Each of them had submitted to a full search, opening their purses and coats. A problem cropped up. There was there’s just one large rest room area, off the lobby, for the audience to use. The celebrities in attendance would need to make an uncomfortable parade past the common folk to use the facilities. The only other rest room was located in the one dressing room shared by the three singers. Frank, John & Diana didn’t really need it, they had prepared in their suites. Because the entertainers didn’t need it, the dressing room sat vacant for the most part. Following the show Kissinger and Rabin were whisked away to their suites. The government security man guarding the dressing room area remained in full attention at the door. I informed him that Kissinger and Rabin had retired to their suites. All he said to me was, “I can not leave my post!” I feebly attempted once again to convince him otherwise but to no avail. Just then, a large man appeared, I only saw him from the back but I recognized his deep, loud voice immediately when he bellowed, “My name is Gregory Peck and I would like to take a piss.” Peck was admitted.
In October of 1976 we again began in the Northeast, this time in Hartford, Connecticut, then returning to Buffalo for another show at Memorial Auditorium. We were then heading to Binghamton, New York and the small seven-thousand seat building there. It was October ninth and we were playing Binghamton because the building manager, Charles Theokas, constantly called me for the attraction. I tried to discourage him but over time Charlie and I became friends through the phone calls. Charlie went on to manage some large buildings in the east, get involved in pro sports and become Athletic Director at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was at Charlie’s building shortly after noon. About two in the afternoon, I got “The Call.” Charlie and I were talking in his office and someone ran in and said, “Mr. Sinatra’s on the telephone for Mr. Curtis.” I picked up the phone and Frank told me he was not going to make the show that night. You understand, I had to tread lightly but I informed him how hard Mr. Theokas had worked to secure his show. Sinatra then said, “Tell the cat we’ll make it up to him next time.” I told Frank that perhaps we could pick a new date and still make Binghamton on an off day during this tour. He told me to work out the date; conversation over. Charlie said to me, “Was that reallyFrank?” “Yup, that was really him Charlie and we’ve got some bad news.” Theokas took it very well and we both got to work finding a make-up date. We got on the radio stations immediately announcing the show had been postponed and told listeners if they have tickets to the show they’d be honored for the next show but there’d be no show tonight. Patrons were given the option of getting their money back or hanging on to their tickets. That’s why it was so important to pick out a new date immediately. In the next two hours I called Frank back and got through with no problem. “How does October seventeenth work for you Mr. Sinatra, it’s a Sunday night?” He wanted to know where we were the day before and the days after and then gave me the go ahead. “Tell him we’ll be there.” The face of Charlie Theokas lit up at the news. When patrons that hadn’t gotten word of the postponement came for the show, they were told they could get a refund or hang onto their tickets for the program a week later. There were very few refunds. We went on to play a week’s worth of dates around the northeast and on Saturday night went on to Syracuse. Finally on a Sunday night in Binghamton, New York a very casual Frank Sinatra preformed for Theokas and the people of that New York town. There were smiles everywhere. It was the only show I recall Sinatra doing, at least the only one I was involved in, where he wasn’t wearing a tux. Frank wore a leisure suit, Jilly was in a sweater. Tuxedo or leisure suit made no matter. The songs all sounded wonderful to a very appreciative audience.
I wouldn’t be so fortunate on the remainder of dates on this tour. Following Binghamton we were scheduled to play Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia, a date in Tennessee, Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama. Sinatra never has had the drawing power in the south that he enjoys other places. While the Virginia dates were selling fairly well and Birmingham was doing gangbusters, the others were slow. The reason Birmingham was selling so well; Frank was to be the opening attraction for the city’s new twenty-thousand seat Civic Center Arena. My old friend Casey Jones was the new manager. I’d come to know Casey and his wife Betty when he was running the old Birmingham Municipal Auditorium after I first moved to Atlanta. Their five-thousand seat building was the only game in town at the time. Casey and his wife were genuine people. I like them both, a lot! I got the call from Jerry Weintraub, the tour is off. Nothing to talk about, Sinatra was obviously burned out. It was either that or the fact that ticket sales weren’t breaking any records. I’d put my money on the later. I flew to Norfolk, Virginia and settled up with the building. Another friend that ran that building, retired Admiral Ebbie Bell. He understood my situation. There were thousands of dollars in accrued costs that had to be taken care of; cancellations are not much fun. When Elvis died an entire tour had to be cancelled but so many people hung on to their tickets for souvenirs that even though he was dead, he ended up making Concerts West and Jerry Weintraub lots of money. In the case of Sinatra, he was very much alive and most everyone wanted their money back. I decided to just stay with a limousine and avoid the hassle of airports. So I headed on over to Richmond, Virginia then on to Tennessee, Atlanta and finally over to see my friend, Casey Jones in Birmingham. That was one of the hardest calls I ever had to make; telling Casey that the opening act for his brand new twenty-thousand seat building wasn’t going to show up. He was very understanding and said he wasn’t surprised. When I walked in to settle out the show Casey said in all his years in the business that was the first time anyone had ever came in person to settle out a cancelled show. My reasoning was this. I wanted to make sure Concerts West was square with the buildings. We produced several shows a year in those cities. I had to make sure that the money paid back was Sinatra money. So no one could say, a few months down the road, “Hey you still owe us such and such dollars for that cancelled Sinatra show.” After traveling the Southeast in a limo, it was time to FLY back to Los Angeles and get ready for what would be my final Sinatra tour. I didn’t realize it at the time.
Once again we were headed for the Southeast and into Florida. We were to open in Mobile, Alabama with my good friend Buddy Clewis. Both Buddy and his assistant George had told me over and over, just get us Sinatra and we’ll pack this place. We didn’t. First of all, even though the short tour started in Mobile I first had to fly to New York. Remember I told you a long time back that I had to secure a private plane to move this band around. I finally got the aircraft from a company called Toby Roberts Tours in Los Angeles. That’s all the company does, secure transportation for mostly rock groups. In our case, Sinatra’s people didn’t want to spend much money so I had to make sure that this wasn’t going to cost us much more than flying commercial. The plane was a four-engine prop and the reason I had to go to New York was the band had decided they wouldn’t fly on it unless I also flew with them. Talk about cowards. When I first saw the plane at La Guardia I didn’t blame them for feeling that way. The aircraft said Wright Airlines. The company was based in Michigan. The paint job was so bad the plane looked to me like it had been in a fire and the trip to Mobile seemed to take hours. Most likely because it actually did, flying in a prop aircraft. But the flight attendants were very nice, there were no airports to waddle through and while slow, it was very convenient. The band quickly learned to enjoy it.
It was the middle of November 1976 and Frank was to fly into Mobile from his Palm Springs home; then we’d play Jacksonville and Lakeland, Florida. In Mobile we were not playing in the round. We were playing from a normal stage. Checking ticket sales daily, almost on an hourly basis as we got close to the show date, we were assured that everything was on target for a sellout. We had told Building Manager Buddy Clewis over and over, if the show doesn’t sell out, just move the stage up. We don’t want Frank to see empty seats. Granted the Mobile Municipal Auditorium had a proscenium stage, meaning a permanent stage, but it was possible to add on to it. Buddy Clewis chose not to do that. He merely chose to drape the many empty seats in the back. This might of worked had Sinatra’s attorney Mickey Ruden not flown in with the entertainer. So while Frank was singing, Mickey was walking the hall and discovered all the empty, draped seats. My ass is still smarting from the chewing out it got from Rudin. Remember in the beginning of the company’s involvement with Sinatra all the bodies that were around supposedly looking out for these kinds of things. During these recent tours nearly everyone had vanished. So it was me, myself and I to take the brunt of any screw-up and this one was huge, in my mind anyway. After the show we flew on over to Jacksonville. I couldn’t wait to leave Mobile and as soon as I arrived in my hotel I called L-A and Jerry Weintraub. I clued him in on the situation in Mobile. He backed me one-hundred percent and said, “Don’t worry about it kid.” All these New Yorkers liked to call me kid for some reason; I was forty-three. Jerry then ended the conversation by saying, “I’ll call Mickey in Miami.” That’s where Frank and Ruden were staying between concerts. That’s the last I ever heard about it. Jacksonville went off without a hitch and the same in Lakeland, Florida where I was presented with a plaque for bringing Sinatra to town. I still possess the wooden and metal plaque shaped like a shield. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my work with Frank Sinatra had ended.
In 1977 Sinatra played mostly Casino dates with a tour of Europe thrown in. As the year neared an end it was becoming obvious that Jerry Weintraub’s involvement with Sinatra’s one nighters was coming to a conclusion. Weintraub was about to introduce me to my next assignment, Bob Dylan