One of the first things you see upon entering the Grammy Museum's new exhibit, “Sinatra: An American Icon,” is Frank Sinatra's pajamas. The exhibit, which opens today and runs through Feb. 15, is a personal and at times startlingly intimate celebration of the life and career of one of the most famously private superstars of the 20th century. Whatever mythic image of the Chairman of the Board most visitors will walk in with, it's safe to say they'll leave with a very different one.
“In the research of figuring out who Sinatra really was, in the interviews with the family, we found out there were [other] components of Sinatra that had to be told,” explains Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum and chief curator of the exhibit. “So we ventured off the track a little to talk about some of the other, non-musical things that he did.”
So while the exhibit, produced in honor of the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birth, includes plenty of music, as well as artifacts from his lengthy film career, it also features things like the singer's golf clubs, home movies shot around the family pool in Palm Springs and a toddler-sized T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Ol' Blue Eyes Is My Grandpa,” printed up for his granddaughters in the '70s.
One of those granddaughters, Amanda Erlinger, worked closely with Santelli on the exhibit. When she sees him at a preview event, she greets him with a big hug. “This looks amazing,” she gushes, gazing around at all the memorabilia.
A painter and photographer who now lives in Laguna Beach, the 39-year-old Erlinger essentially put all other work on hold for a year and a half to help bring the Grammy Museum exhibit to life — and to compile and edit a limited-edition collection of Sinatra photographs, which came out in August. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind, but I’m not complaining,” she says. “I’m happy to do it. It’s an honor.”
Produced by the Grammy Museum, “Sinatra: An American Idol” debuted earlier this year at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. For Santelli — like Sinatra, an Italian-American from the New Jersey suburbs of New York City — it was important that the exhibit first appear close to the singer's roots.
“My parents saw him perform when he was a singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin,” Santelli says, referring to a restaurant in Englewood, N.J., where the crooner got his start. In addition to the Grammy Museum, Santelli has worked for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was artistic director of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. But he considers the Sinatra centennial exhibit a career highlight. “For me, this has always been on my professional bucket list.”
Of course, the exhibit isn't all just pajamas and home movies. There's a re-creation of the vocal booth at Capitol Records' Studio A, complete with ashtray and a glass of bourbon on the rocks. Visitors can hear the perfectionist Sinatra lead his orchestra through multiple takes of the same songs, stopping and starting them to subtly tweak his phrasing or crack a joke. (“I think I swallowed a shot glass,” he quips after one uncharacteristically froggy take.)
One display case is filled with Grammys and other awards, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Ronald Reagan bestowed on Sinatra in 1985. It also displays his trademark fedora, the most iconic American headgear since Daniel Boone's mythical coonskin cap, next to one of the black tuxedos that became his preferred stage attire later in his career.
A concert film from the early '80s plays on a loop in the Clive Davis Theater, and listening stations throughout the exhibit play Sinatra tunes, from familiar classics like “Night and Day” and “Strangers in the Night” to lesser-known but noteworthy sides such as “From the Bottom of My Heart,” his first professional recording, cut in 1939 with bandleader Harry James.
The artifacts of Sinatra's early years are among the exhibit's most fascinating. Later generations often forgot that the world-weary crooner of In the Wee Small Hours and the brassy elder statesman of “New York, New York” began his career as the first real teen idol, gushed over by ardent young female fans whose official fan newsletter (on display) was titled Swooner's Universe.
Another intriguing corner of the exhibit is one dearest to Erlinger: a re-creation of Sinatra's home art studio, where he relaxed by painting canvases in a variety of styles, from abstract expressionist swirls of color to whimsical clown portraits signed “Grandpa” and given to Erlinger and her older sister, AJ. “My sister and I were in [the studio] with him constantly, just painting and drawing,” she remembers. It's this Frank Sinatra, the artist and family man, that she hopes visitors will come away with a clearer impression of.
Asked what the most common misconception is about her grandfather, Erlinger replies, “I think probably that he was this 24/7 party, rip-roaring it up all the time,” alluding to one of the most famous phases of his career: the Rat Pack years, when he frequently performed and appeared in films with his good friends Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis Jr. “That was definitely part of his life at a certain point. He definitely knew how to have a good time, and he had so much fun with all of his friends.
“But,” she continues, “there’s also this really private, personal side to him. He was a very warm and generous and really loving and caring, gentle person. And I don’t know that people really know that about him. But he was. He was so peaceful to be around.”
It's hard, looking at all the activities and achievements packed into “Sinatra: An American Icon,” to imagine a peaceful man. But it's easier to understand where that man came from, and to peel back the layers of myth that have accumulated on him over the course of his six-decade career and in the 17 years since his death.
Frank Sinatra was many things to many people. But he was also, at the end of the day, just a hard-working guy from Hoboken, New Jersey, who transformed himself into one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. “Sinatra: An American Icon” succeeds in bringing that kid to life, and in doing so makes his accomplishments seem all the more remarkable.
“Frank Sinatra: An American Icon” is on display at the Grammy Museum through Feb. 15. More info.