#146 – My Way by Frank Sinatra
– This edition of The Classic Rocker is not going to go the way you think it’s supposed to. In fact, this will be nowhere near what you might be expecting…
First of all, My Way is Frank Sinatra’s signature song. Yes, I know there are many others to choose from over a career in which he was as popular in the 1940s as Elvis was in the 50’s and The Beatles were in the 60’s. But unless you’re leaving Yankee Stadium at the end of a baseball game where Frank’s version of New York New York is still ringing in your ears, My Way was Frank’s way of telling you he was king of the hill.
My Way hit a line drive through my sleeping mind on January 14th. The tune is actually from a 1967 French pop song, but the English lyrics were penned by American pop star and composer, Paul Anka. Everyone from Paul to Elvis to Sid Vicious recorded a version, but Sinatra’s is the classic of the bunch. It may not be considered classic rock, but it joins this Dream Song Countdown in the subconscious category since I don’t own a copy and haven’t heard it since before my last visit to Yankee Stadium many seasons ago.
But as mentioned earlier, the memory induced by this 1969 worldwide hit song undoubtedly varies from any memories it may bring to you. Mine includes a very different star from a different world of entertainment.
Back in the late 1980’s I was manager of the world famous Improv Comedy Club – officially known as The Original Improvisation – in New York City. This was actually the first comedy club in the country and the one all others were modeled after. It was a hotbed of laughter on West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue in a district still known as Hell’s Kitchen.
During recent visits to Manhattan I’ve described the updated city as more Disneyland than The Gotham City I remember. The Improv is long gone and the famous original brick wall that stood behind the stage is the only reminder left. It’s now part of an Italian restaurant that displays a plaque listing many of the famous comedians that had been regular performers at the club.
And no… my name is not included since there’s no “management” listing. Ha!!!
One rainy and dark off-night, meaning not a Friday or Saturday when we always had comedy fans lined up around the block waiting for our next show, I was doing my best to look busy. What that actually means is I was trying to decide what comedian would go on stage next. The “name” comedians were always scheduled for earlier in the shows, while newer performers would come to the club around midnight and hang-out, hoping they would be chosen for time on stage.
It wasn’t uncommon for famous comedians to pop in and do a guest set.
It was always exciting because we never knew who might walk off the mean streets and in through the club entrance. I could name-drop some impressive drop-ins right now, but let’s concentrate on one who in comedy circles is probably just as legendary as Frank Sinatra is with singers.
So, on this particular night I was talking with the two “door guys” – who were both very funny up-and-coming comedians still needing jobs to earn money – near the club entrance. Since it was the 1980’s and Hell’s Kitchen was more Adventure Land than Disneyland, we always kept an eye on the door to make sure any trouble was kept outside. Let’s just say the streets could be wild and though there was never a sense we were in any type of real danger, we had to be cautious about who walked in.
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At the same time during this late, dark and wet city night, the three of us noticed a sinister figure jaywalking across 44th Street to the club. The guy was dressed in a jogging suit with a hood covering the upper half of his face and didn’t seem to be walking too steady. Both door guys started to lock the door, which was a standard move when we saw potential trouble coming our way.
But just as the hooded figure stepped onto the sidewalk, I caught a glimpse of his face in the streetlight. “Wait,” I told the guys. “It’s okay – that’s Rodney.”
They stepped back, the door opened, and Rodney Dangerfield walked in.
Yeah, he looked just like the characters he played in Caddyshack, Back To School and Easy Money. He introduced himself (like we didn’t know who he was) and got a drink at the bar. As I did whenever a celebrity came in, I asked if he would like to go on stage and say “hello” to the audience. He walked to the showroom door, looked inside and declined. He didn’t seem all that interested in an “off-night” crowd that wasn’t the same as a sold-out crowd.
He finished his drink and took off into the dark, damp night to his next destination.
I ended up seeing Rodney more than a dozen times during my New York and Los Angeles career and this was only our first meeting. I bring it up because we never seemed to know “what” Rodney we would get. Honestly, the way he approached the club on West 44th Street that night had the guys almost locking this “sinister” looking person out. But there were other times he was a Hollywood legend basking in celebrity.
But getting back to “my way” – Rodney did things “his way.”
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In New York City, the night before Columbus Day always had a party atmosphere and shows we booked at The Improv followed that theme. We would schedule the city’s best comedians and definitely new it would be an “on-night” with a full audience. One year during our pre-Columbus Day show the comics were hot and the club was steaming with laughter.
Then in through the door – unannounced – walked Rodney Dangerfield.
Following my offer to say “hello” to the audience, he looked in the showroom, saw it was packed and said okay. When the comedian on stage finished his set, I told the MC to introduce Rodney. As he walked to the stage the audiences’ cheers raised the excitement to another level.
Then he made an announcement. “No jokes,” he said into the microphone, before taking a sip from his drink. “I’ll just answer questions.”
I was as surprised as my door guys while we stood in the back of the showroom and watched. The first question from the audience was, “Are you going to make any more movies?”
“No,” he answered. “Next question.”
This is a detailed description of his performance during the next ten minutes he stood on stage. There would be a question, his one or two word response, a sip from his drink, and then a request for the next question. It wasn’t exactly what any of us would call “entertainment.”
Finally, he did tell one joke – that has been lost to my memory. But I’m sure it included his famous line, “I don’t get no respect.” When he finished, he waved the the audience and walked off stage.
Disaster? I assumed it was.
However, the crowd jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. Rodney walked by us, hit the bar for one more and then disappeared back into the NYC night.
After closing, I grabbed a taxi heading downtown with both door guys and another comedian from the show. We were all very excited about how the evening had gone with a line up of top comedians, a full audience and a lot of laughs – until we stopped talking about it, looked at each other and pretty much said at the same time…
“Except for Rodney.”
We couldn’t figure out why he didn’t want to tell any jokes to an audience that was obviously thrilled to be in the presence of a comedy legend and movie star. But that’s just the way it went. As a club manager I never knew who might walk through the door or how they would respond to my invitation to “say hello to the audience.” But one thing I learned from working with Rodney.
He always did it his way.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
Here’s a video of Frank Sinatra performing My Way. It’s not at The Improv, but it was close. New York’s Madison Square Garden was only about ten blocks away. Too bad Rodney didn’t wander in to say hello.
To purchase My Way 50th Anniversary Edition by Frank Sinatra, visit Amazon.com
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