WHEN SINATRA SINGS

Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly in High Society (1956)

DALLAS, TEXAS: In October of 1986, there was a huge event at the Hilton Anatole Hotel (which was then called the Loews Anatole).  It was the Princess Grace Foundation, and it would become the biggest event in the history of this hotel.  Several days prior to this event, all waiters who were scheduled to be working this function underwent background checks.  Though we weren’t told of any specifics, there were a lot of suits walking around and we suspected they were federal agents.

In the afternoon, as we were setting up the banquet tables with wine glasses and silverware, numerous celebrities were rehearsing their presentations for the event later that evening.  As I was wiping and placing the dinner knives around the table, Diane Warwick was sound-checking the microphone from different locations in the back of the Pavilion room.  Based on her interaction with some of the people around her, I found her lacking presence and color, much like the dress she was wearing. This was disappointing because as a teenager in Holland I often played her LPs on my record player to the extent that my mother asked me if I was in love.

I expected Dianne Warwick to have a rich personality, much like her voice and the lyrics of her songs.  But it seemed that the only thing noticeable about her was the very large cross she wore around her neck with Jesus on it.  And it looked as if Jesus was in tremendous pain.  I didn’t understand why someone would be wearing this, but at this point I had other things to do: I was polishing the wine glasses and placing them right above the dinner knives, for this banquet dinner would entail many different courses, many different wines and many different celebrities.

In sharp contrast to Dianne Warwick was Robert Wagner.  He appeared moments later and was rehearsing his lines behind the podium stand and was dressed in his usual debonair style.  I was only a few meters away from him when he smiled at me and said “How are you doing?”  I was surprised by the instantaneous sincerity with which he said that, and I greeted him back with a smile.  He appeared to be very gracious and elegant, much like the character he portrayed in Hart to Hart, and his presence in the room was as strong as it was inspiring.  Strangely enough, many of the Spanish speaking waiters had no idea who Robert Wagner was, though they suspected he was a famous movie star because it was written all over him.

Only hours later the room would be filled with hundreds of people, many of them world famous actors, musicians, politicians, and other media celebrities.  Behind the microphone where Robert Wagner had been rehearsing earlier, was an elevated platform with a long table of about 20 seats facing the crowd.  In the middle of this row was King Rainier of Monaco, with his wife, Princess Grace; and daughter, Princess Stefanie; and son, Prince Albert, and numerous other family members.  Also sitting on stage was Frank Sinatra. Behind the stage were many large curtains; behind that were many employee exits; and behind that was the very large banquet kitchen, filled with an army of cooks and chefs, fighting for their life to dish-out each course in a timely manner.  And between all these layers were armies of waiters with large oval trays on their shoulders, carrying dinner plates stacked on top of dinner plates, going to-and-fro, much like working ants serving the colonies.

At some point, after the dinner was served, all waiters were ordered out of the Pavilion Room as the show was about to commence.  Finally, we were allowed to take a deep breath.  


I stood somewhere behind the curtain in the pantry aisle, drinking some coffee from one of my spare porcelain cups, when I saw Frank Sinatra gently walk right by me into the seedy employee restroom, much to the surprise of the hotel’s upper management.  My friend and fellow waiter, Mario from New York City, was already taking a leak when he suddenly saw Frank Sinatra standing next to him, doing the same.  As he looked over, Sinatra said: “How you’re doing?”  The two of them began talking and this was a dream come true for Mario, who was also of Italian heritage and a big Sinatra fan.  When Sinatra exited the restroom he remained in the employee pantry area, talking to some of his people, not bothered by loitering waiters and pantry workers wheeling trays of dirty dishes right by him.  Sinatra was relaxed, as he was awaiting his cue to take to the stage.



Once Sinatra took to the stage, his voice, so familiar and so widely recognized, would change the ambiance of the entire room instantaneously.  When I heard Sinatra sing, I felt suddenly that I was living in America, the America I had seen in the movies, the America I had come for, the America that was a promise… for so many, for so many afar. 

Occasionally I peeked through the curtains to see him in action, and came to realize that Sinatra was as comfortable on the stage as he was behind it, and that he could talk to King Rainier just as easily as to a waiter or any man on the street.  Sinatra was a real man in the traditional and honorable sense.  He was that man who Kipling wrote about in his “If” poem: "the man who could talk to crowds and keep his virtue, and walk with Kings yet not lose the common touch, and that the Earth was his and everything in it."  Sinatra really did have the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow, string around his finger -- as the song goes:




During the presentations and performances, we had a large and decorative coffee and dessert buffet set up outside of the Pavilion Room in the lobby.  Among a variety of pastries, it included sliced fruit, Swiss chocolate and after-dinner drinks.

I was wearing a tuxedo with white gloves, busing dirty plates, refilling coffee and accommodating special requests when I noticed a couple of military men, both with crew-cuts, both with many meddles on their chest, and both with a drink in their hand.  I thought it was great that they were also in attendance and greeted them with admiration.  I offered them coffee but the most senior one told me that he was only interested in “gun-powder and pussy juice.”  I found this was a funny thing to say and realized these were men that had real combat experience.  I also realized that they were both drunk.

At some point, I entered the Pavilion room again and was waived down by a beautiful, smiling woman.  She was Stefanie Powers, asking for a refill of coffee, and I quickly poured her a cup from the pot that I was holding.  We exchanged a few pleasantries and she asked me where my accent was from, so I told her I was from Holland.  We spoke some more and she asked me if I was allowed to sit down at her table.  But being stupidly professional, I told her that I had to continue working.  After I left her table, I looked back at her and she smiled, and I remember thinking that I had just spoken to Mrs. H, and earlier to Mr. H.  And both of them were as charming in person as they were on television.

The next day when I returned to work I heard that Frank Sinatra had tipped the manager on duty four bills of $100 for bringing breakfast to his suite at 4 o’clock in the morning.  Among some of the people in his suite were Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Carey Grant and Roger Moore.  These kinds of men knew how to party, but they also knew how to be gracious and grateful towards the people serving them -- they were from a better generation.




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