Stories that feature ‘Willard Alexander’

Sinatra redux

This story takes place in 1968. It was told on September 20th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

My phone rang one afternoon and it was Mickey Rudin, Frank Sinatra’s lawyer, personal manager and so on. I’d met Rudin shortly after the first Sinatra date, when I’d helped him get some tickets to the Beatles concert in Los Angeles. He was already a powerful Los Angeles lawyer by then; later on, he succeeded Sidney Korshak as the elder statesman of show business. Rudin had a red phone on his desk that was a direct wire to the chief. (By coincidence, he was also a cousin to Milt Okun, the man who arranged most of the Chad Mitchell Trio’s songs, and those of Peter, Paul and Mary and who knew how many others.)

Rudin told me it was time for another Sinatra tour. “We’d like you to handle Madison, Cleveland and Detroit as well as Chicago,” he said. “Do you think you can do it? We’re arranging the dates ourselves this time around, so you’ll be dealing directly with me and Peter Epstein.” I refrained from asking what had become of Willard Alexander.

l’ve dealt with people who’ve been very tough negotiators, but when that spills over into a general neurosis, it’s something else. Talking to Rudin, I could feel the pressure coming all the way from the top. The contract came in the mail two days later, and it was indeed the toughest deal I ever signed: a guarantee of fifty thousand dollars, plus sixty-five percent of the gross. I had to mortgage my house. I had to take out insurance on Sinatra’s life, because in the event that he died they were not obligated to return the deposit. But I got out my pencil and did my figuring, and I did two other things: I made sure that I had more than one date, and I booked the International Amphitheater, a hall that did not charge a percentage. Otherwise the numbers didn’t make sense, no matter how big a draw Sinatra’s handlers thought their man was.

So we made the deal. I signed my life away.

I called Peter Epstein to see what his ticket needs might be. “Let’s get together and talk about it, Frank,” he said. “Come to think of it — did you get your invitation to our Pontiac party? Why don‘t we talk there?” Peter Epstein was the biggest Pontiac dealer in the world. He got that way by figuring out how to sell status, not just steel. One of his gimmicks was to throw a huge cocktail party to show off each year’s new line of Pontiacs. I had to hand it to him, it was probably one of the cleverer promotions I had seen. lt would never work today — everybody would know it was a scam.

But in those days to get an engraved invitation to a cocktail party was a big deal. I remembered an envelope, hand-lettered and silver—embossed, that had come in the mail the week before and I’d forgotten to open.

The party was a profusion of overdressed middle managers and their wives, milling about with martinis and exclaiming over the latest whitewalled wonder.

When Francoise and I got there, the booze was all gone and the buffet food was cold. We stood in a corner by ourselves, part miserable and part amused.

Soon I caught sight of Peter Epstein himself, gladhanding his way through the crowd. He was headed in our direction. When he saw us, he came over and I introduced him to Francoise, and we made the obligatory small talk.

I told Epstein what Mickey Rudin had said, and what he hadn’t said. “Willard? Oh, he didn’t handle things properly,” Epstein explained, leaning in close to us for privacy. “Too many people looking after themselves, if you ask me. Especially in New York — you had all the local promoters bringing their friends backstage, and they all thought they were going to be Frank’s new best friend.”

“I suppose Frank has all the best friends he needs,” I agreed. Epstein’s own patron in the court, I’d heard, was Jack Entratter, the man who owned the Sands Casino in Las Vegas and was without a doubt one of Frank’s very best friends. Epstein had worked hard to get this far into the inner circle.

Meanwhile, he and I were now bosom buddies. We had been through the Sinatra wars together once, and I was one of only two promoters who got dates the second time around. They’d found fault with everybody else. So my I star was still ascending.

Epstein resumed his rounds, and Francoise and I waited until he was safely out of sight and made our escape.

We did everything the organization asked for, but still we could feel the tension mounting as the dates approached. When the backstage crew flew in ahead of the tour, I did not recognize any of the faces — the old crowd had all been purged. I couldn’t stop thinking we were coming up short in some way and we would be next.

Big, big, big

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on February 25th, 2010 by The editor.  4 Comments

Peter Epstein took the stairs up to my office two at a time, his blue silk jacket unbuttoned and floating along behind him. “I knew this was gonna be big, big, big,” he announced. “Harold Gibbons is coming in ahead of the Sinatra tour!” I sat up. “The Harold Gibbons?” “Teamster Number Two,” Epstein nodded triumphantly.

I wondered what Epstein would think if he knew what I knew about Harold Gibbons. I decided to keep it to myself for now.

Eight weeks ago I’d taken a long-distance call from Willard Alexander in New York. All I knew about him was that he was the agent who booked Count Basie, Harry James, and some other big ballroom acts.

We exchanged pleasantries. “Sinatra,” he told me, “is going out on tour with Basie.” Alexander had come up with the idea himself, he said. “I told him just last month, I said, ‘Frankie, you ought to be playing with Basie. You should go out on a tour.’ He says to me, ‘Gee, you think I can draw that many people?’ Of course he can, right?” Right, I agreed.

I was not in the ballroom business, however, and I knew very little about that side of the market. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

“You, my friend, are the promoter on the Chicago dates,” Alexander said, exhaling again. My eyebrows went up. “Who says?” “Me,” he answered. “Frank says Iet’s do it, so right away I think, who’s the only guy in that town for the kind of show we want to do? Frank’s people want a first-class production at a major venue. Mr. Fried, of course.” He was gilding things a bit, I thought — I had never done any business with Alexander. He was the agent for most of the remaining big bands. I didn’t do big bands. But I said, “Yes? Go on.”

“We’II take a thirty-five thousand dollar guarantee against sixty percent, you keep the rest. Deal?” I thought for a moment. It was the most money I’d ever paid for an act. But this was a huge infusion of prestige to be handed without so much as asking.

I had a virtual lock on the use of McCormick Place, and I knew I had enough in the bank to come up with the front money. “DeaI,” I said.

“Peter Epstein — do you know him? He’s gonna be taking care of some things for Frank on the Midwest part of the tour, outside of the actual concerts,” Alexander said. “He’ll be in touch.”

That evening I was sitting across the table from a booking agent friend of mine at the Chicago Hilton, my favorite place for dinner. When I told him about my unexpected conversation with Willard Alexander, he straightened up and gave me a long look. “I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he said.

“What do you mean?” He shook his head. “Frank, Frank. Haven’t you been paying attention? Sinatra played the Villa Moderne last year with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. People said it was the biggest floating crap game in America.”

“ReaIly?” I asked. The Villa Moderne was a small club outside the city limits, where you could do things the authorities didn’t want to know about.

“The heaviest collection of heavies in many years,” he nodded. “Word was they were paying off some kind of obligation. Obviously, Sinatra’s people want to clean up their image. There’s a lot image and money riding on this comeback of his, and they don’t want to jeopardize it by letting the mob reputation get out of hand.” Aha, I thought. Hence the presence of Willard Alexander, a booking agent who never booked anything like this. Add the innocent Frank Fried, and you have yet another layer of kosher. I told him about the man who was supposed to be calling to oversee things.

“Epstein? The biggest Pontiac dealer in the country? Nice guy. They say he’s General Motors’ link to the mob.” I stared at him for a moment, wondering, not for the first time, if I knew what I was doing.