Frank Sinatra's Inaugural Galas
How he produced two of the most memorable celebrations in American history.
Sinatra's Inaugural Galas
"and it truly was magic"

George Washington had his a week after he took the oath of office. James Madison sold 400 tickets to his for $4 each. Checkroom problems at Ulysses S. Grant's forced some guests to go home without their coats and hats. Eisenhower had four of them, Kennedy five, Clinton 14, Bush (the younger) nine.

But when it comes to Inaugural Galas, two of the most memorable were produced by Frank Sinatra. They took place 20 years apart; the first was for a Democratic president, the second for a Republican. In both cases, the incoming president was a close friend of Sinatra's and in both cases, the quintessential performer involved himself in planning, booking and staging elaborate evenings to honor the new president, and to showcase Sinatra's vision of the country to which his grandparents had emigrated more than a century earlier.When he began work on the 1961 gala for his friend John F. Kennedy, Sinatra called the job "the most exciting assignment of my life." Two decades later, he was similarly thrilled to organize a gala for Ronald Reagan, promising to make it "a night America and the world will remember." In producing the two events, Sinatra put up with a blizzard that nearly derailed one ball; rearranged Broadway theater schedules to secure his performers; filled a 10,000-seat theater one time and an 18,000-seat basketball arena the other; and presented entertainers that ranged from Leonard Bernstein to Johnny Carson, Laurence Olivier to Dean Martin, Louis Prima to Charlton Heston. And at one point he also fought a losing battle against a skittish White House over the participation of his friend Sammy Davis Jr., who was considered problematic because of his recent marriage to Swedish actress Mai Britt. For the most part, though, Sinatra's inaugural galas were milestone events for the man. "For the son of an immigrant Italian couple who had risen from the streets of Hoboken to become the biggest and most powerful star in show business," wrote Nancy Sinatra in Frank Sinatra: An American Legend, "it was a moment to savor for a lifetime." Sinatra had long been a friend and avid supporter of John Kennedy when the young senator was elected president in 1960; in fact, the president-elect spent two nights at Sinatra's house in Palm Springs only a few days after winning the election. So in December 1960, Kennedy asked Sinatra and his friend Peter Lawford `who was married to Kennedy's sister Patricia` to produce and perform at an inaugural gala to take place on January 19, the night before Kennedy's inauguration. Sinatra and Lawford flew to Washington on Kennedy's private plane, and lined up an extensive slate of performers. He wanted Laurence Olivier, who was appearing on Broadway in Becket, and Ethel Merman, who was doing the same in Gypsy, so he bought all the seats for both shows that night. He brought in a team of writers, including famed radio broadcaster Norman Corwin, and had special material prepared by one of his favorite songwriting teams, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.Many of Sinatra's pals participated, but there were a few conspicuous absences. Dean Martin, for one, was busy making a movie, while the Kennedys, to Sinatra's dismay, sent word that they'd prefer that Sammy Davis not perform. His recent interracial wedding `at which Sinatra had served as best man` had made Davis a lightning rod for criticism, and his presence was considered likely to inflame conservatives. "It was one of the few times [Sinatra] ever felt at such a loss," wrote Nancy Sinatra. The night of the gala, a brutal snowstorm hit Washington, D.C. Guests and performers were delayed, and some came to rehearsal but couldn't get back to the hotel to change into their show clothes. After a special bus was pressed into service to get people to the National Guard Armory, the show finally went on, hours late. In a PBS special about Sinatra, Sammy Cahn laughed about the blizzard: "It's just God reminding Sinatra He's around."The show kicked off with the orchestra performing Leonard Bernstein's "A Fanfare for Inauguration," followed by Bernstein conducting Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." Sanford and Mysels and the entire cast performed "Walking Down to Washington." "Anchors Aweigh" serenaded the entrance of Kennedy and vice-president-elect Lyndon Johnson. Gospel great Mahalia Jackson sang the Star-Spangled Banner. Sinatra performed, and he was followed by a skit, entitled "Club Sandwich in Four Parts." It featured Bette Davis, Frederic March, Sidney Poitier, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. Joey Bishop took the stage. Louis Prima and Keely Smith performed, followed by Juliet Prowse with the Tom Hanson Dancers. Opera singer Helen Traubel sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Ella Fitzgerald performed, then Pat Suzuki, then Gene Kelly, then Alan King, then Sinatra again, then Peter Lawford.And that was just Act I. After intermission, the performers included Ethel Merman, Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte, Milton Berle, Eleanor Roosevelt, and addresses by both LBJ and JFK. "I'm proud to be a Democrat," said Kennedy afterwards, "because since the time of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic Party has been identified with the pursuit of excellence, and we saw excellence tonight. The happy relationship between the arts and politics which has characterized our long history I think reached culmination tonight."The president went on to heap praise on Sinatra, saying "You cannot imagine the work he has done to make this show a success." Calling Sinatra "a great friend," JFK gave a quick history lesson and made a prediction: "Long before [Sinatra] could sing, he used to poll a Democratic precinct back in New Jersey. That precinct has grown to cover a country. But long after he has ceased to sing, he is going to be standing up and speaking for the Democratic Party."Sinatra appreciated Kennedy's words, often playing a recording of them for friends. But the president didn't turn out to be much of a prophet because within a decade Sinatra was supporting Richard Nixon and the Republican Party, and the next time he produced an Inaugural Gala it was on behalf of his old pal and one-time fellow actor Ronald Reagan.Back in 1970, Reagan had become one of the first Republican candidates Sinatra publicly supported when he ran for governor of California. (Four years earlier, he'd done fund-raisers for Reagan's Democratic opponent.) So when Reagan asked Sinatra to produce a gala, he immediately agreed."It's a big thrill," Sinatra said. "Somebody you love has made the big move. You don't say, "Hello, Ron" anymore. You say, "Hello, Mr. Presiden". I promise I will try to make it the greatest gala in history." Production manager Hank Cattaneo, a longtime friend, said that Sinatra was truly a hands-on producer: "It was his show, he ran it, he produced it, he directed it, every shot was his shot he called them all and the rest of us were just there as support."Again, the event took place the night before the inauguration; this time, the site was outside of Washington, D.C., at the Capitol Centre in Landover, Maryland. It was staged in the round, with a clean, bare stage sitting in the center of what was usually the 'Washington Bullets' and 'Georgetown Hoyas' basketball court. In a program note that addressed Reagan and vice-president-elect George H.W. Bush, Sinatra wrote, "Let our songs and laughter ring in this beginning of a new era of hope, peace and freedom for the citizens of our land. An era that with your leadership sees our nation regain its respect in the world and sees our nation lead rather than follow."The show titled "The Beginning of a Great New Beginning," was three hours long. Johnny Carson served as master of ceremonies, while performers included Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Ethel Merman, Charlton Heston, Charlie Pride, Donny and Marie Osmond, Ben Vereen, Debby Boone, Rich Little, Mel Tillis and Sinatra whose performance included a new version of "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," rewritten to salute Nancy Reagan, the incoming first lady. "This is the first administration to have a premiere," joked Carson of the star-studded event. "Mr. Reagan, if your movies drew crowds like this, you wouldn't have had to get into politics."One hour of highlights were broadcast the following night on ABC. The day after that, Sinatra was the guest of honor at a White House reception. And later in the week, Reagan sent Sinatra a letter. "I still feel the magic of the `Gala,` " he wrote". "And it truly was magic. For a time Nancy and I both thought maybe we were the only ones who felt the spell. We know now it was felt by everyone. We can never thank you enough for all that you did. This certainly wasn't just another benefit. It was produced, and masterfully so. Every moment was sheer magic and that was due to you." And for those who wondered how the man who was raised in the Democratic Party, who had produced a gala for Jack Kennedy two decades earlier, could now be doing the same for a president from the other side of the fence, Sinatra had a simple answer: when it comes to inaugural galas, partisanship takes a back seat to patriotism."I don't view the inaugural as political," he said. "If Walter Mondale had won, and has asked me to do what Mr. Reagan asked me to do in connection with his inaugural, I'd have been there."
Click here to view the program from the Kennedy Gala.
Click here to view the program from the Reagan Gala.

 

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