- Historic Sites
Fly Me To The Moon
Reflections on the Rat Pack Everybody knows what they did. This is what they meant.
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Sinatra relished the Kennedy connection; his nickname for Peter was Brother-in-Lawford.
The music, in which bells and chimes follow through on the ringing-and-dinging theme, provides the era’s ideal soundtrack. The brassy arrangements carry forward the full-throttled power, boldness, and insouciant humor of Sinatra’s late-fifties and early-sixties Come Dance/Swing/Fly With Me albums, but there’s a new jazzy informality and casualness in the singing: Sinatra had recently been on the road with the Red Norvo combo, and the small-group experience lent a new looseness to his sense of timing. Big and luxurious but light and flexible and spacious, the effect is of driving an expensive car down a highway with one hand on the wheel, Sinatra nudging it along with punched-out consonants and perfect syncopations (“Let! sss . . . fall in- love ”).
The combination of power with casual comfort, the stylish looseness, carried over to the Rat Pack’s act, which with its improvisations and combination of solo and ensemble work had analogs to jazz performance. They were swingers; like the Las Vegas club sound they helped invent, they combined a hip, sophisticated urban polish with the new informality of suburban living.
The Rat Pack is remembered for their style, their irreverent humor, their boozy and fleshy private lives, their leader’s occasional thuggish arrogance. But in their time they meant something else too, something that had everything to do with the expectations and aspirations of their audience. The key was ethnicity and the special role it played in postwar America.
The Tin Pan Alley culture from which Sinatra and friends emerged, and which they culminated, was created mainly by Jewish and other recent immigrants in the urban ghettos and was first interpreted mainly by black and Jewish musicians and performers—Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, Louis Armstrong, and Ethel Waters, later Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. By the late 1930s this culture was Italian as well. In 1939, the same year Harry James hired young Frank Sinatra to sing with his band, Ted Weems hired the former barber Perry (Pierino) Como, and the Columbus, Ohio, bandleader Ernie McKay hired a handsome young singing croupier named Dino Crocetti to front his Band of Romance.
For the Italians, as for the Jews and blacks before them, it was understood that ethnicity was a handicap you overcame. Never mind that the slangy, vernacular American song culture got its vitality from the tensions between urban immigrant street talk and “correct” diction. The Broadway social ladder was black to white, ethnic to WASP, lower class to upper. This had been Irving Berlin’s route, and Fred Astaire’s. Dino Crocetti is a case in point. For his first job, singing at a Columbus chop suey joint on a bill with Terry’s Six Wonder Dogs, bandleader McKay tried to cash in on the ethnic craze by changing his name to Dino Martini to echo the then popular singer Nino Martini. A year later, when he played the classy “ultramodernistic, intimate” Vogue Room in Cleveland’s Hollenden Hotel, that would no longer do. There bandleader Sammy Watkins (né Watkovitz) shortened the name to Dean Martin. Dino protested: What about Sinatra? He didn’t have to change his name. A freak shot, Watkins replied. “If Mussolini had declared war on England and France a week earlier, they would have changed the kid’s name to Frankie Williams.”
But Watkins was wrong. As Sinatra intuited, the war changed all the old assumptions. Faced with Nazism, Americans were rethinking their core ideals, and Sinatra lent himself to the effort. In 1945 he toured the country speaking at high schools against intolerance. As a centerpiece to the crusade, he produced and starred in a ten-minute docudrama, The House I Live In , in which he preaches lessons in ethnic harmony to a mixed-race gang of street kids. “My dad came from Italy, but I’m an American. Should I hate your father ‘cause he came from Ireland or France or Russia ? Wouldn’t that make me a first-class fathead?”
The film was commended by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and it won Sinatra a special Oscar. He later told Edward R. Murrow that the Oscar meant more to him than the one he received for From Here to Eternity . He meant it. It was not with Bogart or in the Holmby Hills that the Rat Pack was conceived but in that mongrel gang of kids, teaching a lesson in American possibilities.
The Rat Pack show, unlike pre-war entertainment, featured—even flaunted—race and ethnicity. Bishop, dressed as a Jewish waiter, warns the two Italians to watch out “because I got my own group, the Matzia.” The night JFK showed up ringside, Dean picked Sammy up in his arms and held him out to the candidate: “Here. This award just came for you from the National Association for the Advancement of Col- ored People.” Sammy: “I’m colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican. When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out.”