by Walt von Hauffe
As a film publicist of 40 years-plus, I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of major movie stars and directors from the golden age of Hollywood, but the biggest thrill I ever had was to meet and actually talk to Frank Sinatra.
Back in the very late ’60s or very early ’70s, a man named Bob Chiappari managed to get a radio station to play three days” worth of continuous Sinatra music at a Bay Area radio station, for which he was rewarded with a personally inscribed watch from Frank Sinatra. When I was working for MGM as a publicist for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob called me one day out of the blue to request a press kit for Dirty Dingus Magee and in our conversation, made me aware of a small group of dedicated Sinatra fans who met regularly …. of course, I had to be part of that group, and I wound up meeting him, Millie Hoffman, Isabel Mazzella and many others … We went to various Sinatra concerts together with excellent (but paid for) seats procured through the kindness of the Sinatra office. Before the actual meeting of Frank Sinatra took place, I was operating a small movie theatre in Half Moon Bay, and decided to do a film festival in his honor….
It ran on Thursdays through Sundays from April 16 to May 9, 1971. I put together a collage of the various publicity this event produced, and made a duplicate copy, and delivered it in person to Frank Sinatra’s office at the former Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles. A short while thereafter, I received a note from Frank Sinatra thanking me for the collage. The thank-you note still hangs on a wall in my house.
I had initially met Frank Sinatra in person back when I was 17 years old, four years after becoming a fan of his. Mr. Sinatra was slated to come to the former Paramount Theatre on Market Street, San Francisco (long torn down) for a preview of The Joker is Wild. He stepped out of a car, all alone, and as he walked up towards the theatre, I approached him to ask him to sign a small EP of Songs for Swingin’’ Lovers, which he graciously did, as we walked through the theater entrance … I guess the doorman must’ve thought I was with him, because he didn’t ask me for a ticket, but it was a school night, and I couldn’t stay out late lest I suffer the consequences of my strict parents.
So, now, we move ahead to 1977 … we hear Frank is going to appear at the Circle Star Theatre, as he did many times in his career, and I suggested to Bob Chiappari that he write a letter to Mr. Sinatra to see if we could possibly meet him any evening during his run there. Bob accepted my suggestion, somewhat apprehensively, and sent it off.
The first night of Sinatra’s six-night run rolled around on Tuesday, April 12, 1977. We went to the show. No word from the Sinatra office. No word on the April 13th show, either. No word every day/night that we went to see the show on through ’til Saturday the 16th. In the afternoon, I received a call from Bob Chiappari, who began, “You’d better sit down.”
I did, and he proceeded to tell me that he had just gotten a call from Mr. Sinatra’s longtime executive assistant, Dorothy Uhlemann, that we were invited backstage between the 7:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows for drinks with Mr. Sinatra. Needless to say, I was nervous, as were the other people mentioned earlier in this article. What had happened actually was that the letter arrived at the Sinatra office whilst Dorothy Uhlemman was elsewhere with Mr Sinatra’s necessities, and Marlene Mattaschiam, who was Dorothy’s assistant (and later a close friend of mine) had opened the letter from Bob and read it over the phone to Dorothy whilst she was already in San Francisco. Dorothy talked to Mr. Sinatra about the letter, and he agreed to meet us.
Well, after the first show ended, we were escorted backstage, into a room, offered some libation (I couldn’t have held anything in my hand from being so nervous), and then the curtain drew back, and in walked the man himself, Francis Albert Sinatra.
We chatted about various things … his grand-daughters, how we attended all his concerts in the Bay Area, and I brought up the fact that he had never performed my favorite Sinatra song (to this day, it’s my favorite song) Summer Wind. He looked at me and said, “Yes, that’s a really good song. Let me talk to the boys about it.”
We had pictures taken with him, and after about 20 minutes, we were told that Mr. Sinatra needed to rest a bit before his 11 p.m. show. So we thanked him for letting us meet him, and all of us had something signed by him, and we went back into the auditorium, floating on clouds…
Barbara Bladen (Porter) was an arts critic with the San Mateo Times for many years, and around the time of all this, on Wednesday, April 13, 1977, she wrote this in her column:
“Somehow, I can’t get enough of Sinatra. He could have sung for hours more and it wouldn’t have been enough. People were saying at intermission they were coming back again on the weekend. My friend Walt von Hauffe is a dedicated Sinatra fan. He’s coming to every performance and I can only envy him.”
Down the road, while in Las Vegas on work-related matters, I was able to see Mr. Sinatra perform at many Vegas venues, and one night, when the opening notes of “Summer Wind” began, I knew that he was going to fulfill another “dream” of mine … and he continued to include that song for many more years after that night.
Walt von Hauffe became a big Frank Sinatra fan at the age of 13 while growing up in post-World War II Japan. His second love was the movies. He jumped at the chance to become a film publicist. For over 40 years he promoted both the great and the not-so-good while working for United Artists Pictures, MGM, and Syufy Theatres. He also got assignments in New York and Los Angeles landing plum jobs such as Publicity Coordinator on the James Bond movie Moonraker and Marketing Coordinator for The Jazz Singer (1980). “When you have a lemon, make lemonade” might have inspired the showman when he created publicity stunts like spray-painting giant rabbit paw prints across a theater parking lot to get attention for Night of the Lepus (1972) and staging the Miss American Vampire Contest at Playland at the Beach to launch House of Dark Shadows (1970). The winner was Sacheen Littlefeather years before she became Marlon Brando’s Oscar surrogate.
Recently Von Hauffe has done freelance projects for movies he is passionate about, including promoting dozens of Castro Theatre special events.
Walt lives in Half Moon Bay, where he once operated the town’s only theatre, Von’s Cinema; regularly surfed with Maverick’s pioneer Jeff Clark; and was a popular Little League coach. He and his Sinatra fan circle get together regularly, most recently to enjoy Deana Martin at Feinstein’s at the Nikko.Read more: Pam Grady’s overview of Ring-a-Ding Ding! The Movies of Frank Sinatra from EDF69. Eat My Shorts features Frank Sinatra’s The House I Live In, Michael Cecconi shares a Sinatra-inspired Jack Daniels cocktail, and Eat Like the Stars presents three of Frank Sinatra’s recipes.