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One More for the Road

Friends gather in Las Vegas for a touching farewell to the singer.

June 01, 1998|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

LAS VEGAS — Francis Albert wasn't the only Sinatra with style.

In her first public appearance since her husband's funeral on May 20, Barbara Sinatra showed courage and class in addressing a benefit concert audience here on Saturday night.

"Join me in a toast to my husband and let's celebrate his life," she urged the 1,200 people at the black-tie event in the MGM Grand Hotel's Premier Ballroom. "I know he's raising his glass to us."

Raising her own glass, she then added softly, "Here's to you, Ol' Blue Eyes."

She then took her seat in the audience and watched as a series of performers, including such Las Vegas regulars as Vic Damone and Paul Anka, sang some of her husband's most celebrated tunes. There will be more farewells to Sinatra over the coming months, and while some may be more musically rich, none will be any more heartfelt.

It would have been understandable if Sinatra's widow had bowed out of the musical salute to the singer, which had been scheduled long before his May 14 death.

But the affair was the climax of the week's Frank Sinatra Las Vegas Celebrity Classic golf tournament here, and she wanted to personally thank all those who participated in the event as well as the concert-goers who paid up to $500 for tickets.

Proceeds from the week's events go in part to the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, which was the couple's shared dream. The facility in Rancho Mirage has been caring for abused and neglected children since 1986.

Barbara Sinatra quite likely also wanted to use the occasion to express her appreciation for the thousands of messages and donations that have been received in her husband's name.

Though she entered the ballroom through a private entrance to avoid the photographers and fans gathered at the main door, Sinatra graciously greeted well-wishers who stopped by her table during the dinner that preceded the nearly two-hour concert.

Seated between actor Robert De Niro, who is a friend of the Sinatras, and Wayne Newton, the co-host of the tournament, she was a model of dignity, dressed in a long black tunic over a white silk blouse and floor-length black skirt.

In both her words and her modest manner, she helped guarantee that the evening would be a celebration of her husband's life, not a tearful memorial--although those near her table could see that she frequently wiped tears from her eyes during the program.

Without her example, the mood of the evening could have been quite different, because the room was filled with friends of Sinatra's from the years he spent in Las Vegas, and they were quite emotional in their comments before the dinner.

"This is Sinatra country," hotel magnate Steve Wynn said in an interview, summing up the spirit of the crowd.

Many cities can lay claim to part of the Sinatra legacy, from the Hoboken of his birth to the Beverly Hills of his final years. During his legendary career, Sinatra also lauded in song the wonders of April in Paris, declared Chicago his kind of town, saluted New York as the city that never sleeps and suggested, less memorably, that L.A. was his lady.

But it is this flamboyant land of the high rollers that best mirrors the drama and the swagger of Sinatra's music and persona, and it's here where you feel the closest to his memory.

Sinatra stepped on stages around the world, but the one place that you wish above all others that you could have seen him perform was at one of the showrooms on the Strip--either the cozy Copa Room at the old Sands Hotel, where he cavorted with the Rat Pack, or Caesars Palace's luxurious Circus Maximus, where he later headlined.

So it was fitting that the first public tribute following his death be held here.

"Frank Sinatra invented Las Vegas," Quincy Jones, the evening's musical director, said in an interview before the concert.

"If they don't build a monument to Frank on this Strip, there is no justice because there is no question he built this Strip," comedian Tom Dreesen, who toured with Sinatra for 13 years, said in another interview. "He brought the people here."

Wynn predicted that a new, three-mile street, running parallel to the Strip and due to open in October, will be named Frank Sinatra Drive.

And the concert itself?

Well, the performers gave it their best try.

*

But you've got the odds against you when you try to sing Sinatra songs, backed by a 55-piece orchestra (including longtime Sinatra pianist Bill Miller) that is following the same arrangements that Sinatra used.

When a variety of rock and pop artists, including Bruce Springsteen and Ray Charles, were able to do their own arrangements on some signature Sinatra tunes during an 80th birthday tribute in 1995 at the Shrine Auditorium, the results were always at least interesting.

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