Frank Sinatra may have been Hoboken’s most famous son, but his long career in the film and music industries meant that he spent much of his life in Southern California. I went on a pilgrimage this past week following his footsteps, hitting both the landmarks of his career, as well as the perhaps even more vital landmarks of favorite food and drink.
The Hollywood Palladium
The Hollywood Palladium (6215 Sunset Blvd.) first opened its doors on Halloween night in 1940, with a swinging performance from Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra, featuring—who else?—young singer Frank Sinatra. Designed by architect Gordon Kaufmann (who was also responsible for Greystone Mansion, the LA Times building downtown, and Santa Anita Racetrack) and interior designer Frank Don Riha (who also did hotspot Ciro’s interior), the million-dollar “ballroom-cafe” boasted a capacity of 7,500, six bars, and a dance floor that could fit 3,000 couples at once. Dorothy Lamour and Dorsey served as official ribbon-cutters for the opening in 1940, with Claude Rains, Sylvia Sidney, and Franchot Tone also in attendance that night. (At this point in his career, Sinatra didn’t even merit a mention by name in the otherwise breathless write-up of the event in the newspaper.)
As big band music dipped in popularity, the venue became a popular site for Latin orchestras, rock concerts, and even comedy—Richard Pryor’s landmark Live on the Sunset Strip performance was filmed there.
Sony Pictures Studios (Former MGM Studios)
Sinatra performed in a few pictures for RKO in the early 1940s, but his film career really took off when Louis B. Mayer bought out his contract and signed him to MGM in 1944. At MGM he would ultimately star in films like Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and On the Town alongside Gene Kelly, as well as It Happened in Brooklyn, Guys and Dolls, High Society, and Some Came Running. (Those came in two separate contractual chunks, by the way—Mayer may have been good at spotting talent, but he wasn’t one to keep people on the payroll if they were underperforming… though Sinatra was happily accepted back into the family once he was back on the upswing.)
Unfortunately, MGM sold the studio in the 1970s, and much of its iconic backlot was destroyed. Today, Sony Pictures Studios occupies part of the original lot, including the Thalberg Building, which still stands. Though the “New York streets” and “Medieval villages” no longer remain, Sony pays tribute to MGM stars of the past by naming buildings after them, adding to the feeling of standing on hallowed ground.
Patsy D’Amore’s Pizzeria
Pasquale “Patsy” D’Amore arrived in Hollywood, by way of New York, in 1940, but unlike most people arriving in glamour city with visions of fame and fortune, D’Amore had his sights set on another prize: fine Italian cuisine. His first restaurant, Casa D’Amore, was located on Cahuenga Boulevard, and one of the early pioneers in introducing pizza to the west coast. With that success (and Californian demand for pizza increasing), he opened the standalone Patsy D’Amore’s Pizza in the Farmers’ Market at Third and Fairfax in 1949. He also opened a swankier restaurant, the Villa Capri, in 1950, which moved to its final location on Yucca Street in 1957. The Villa Capri was a hotspot of celebrity activity throughout the decade, attracting movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, with regular casual performances from the likes of Dean Martin, Vic Damone, and Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra and D’Amore were actually good friends and business partners—Sinatra was even godfather to one of D’Amore’s sons. At one point, Sinatra owned 25% of the Villa Capri, and snuck in a reference to the restaurant in “The Isle of Capri”: “She wore a lovely meatball on her finger… It was goodbye at the Villa Capri.”
Today, a modern-looking condo stands on the former site of the Villa Capri, but D’Amore’s family still runs Patsy D’Amore’s Pizzeria out of a booth at the Farmers’ Market. When I visited this week, they were offering pizzas “Sinatra-style”—cut into square pieces, which Sinatra apparently favored!
In 1949, Carmen Miceli, along with his wife, Sylvia, and four of his siblings, founded Miceli’s Italian Restaurant at 1646 North Las Palmas Avenue, the site where it remains today. Its longevity has earned it the distinction of Hollywood’s Oldest Italian Restaurant—a fact they proudly proclaim in multiple spots around the location. Inside, the restaurant embodies the classic decor of American Italian restaurants: dark wood, red leather booths, checkered tablecloths, and chianti bottles inscribed with the missives of past guests.
Throughout its reign (so far), Miceli’s has entertained the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s legacy is particularly tied to the location now due to the large mural next to the restaurant, sponsored by the Sinatra Society of America.
Carmen passed away just last month, at the age of 92, but his sons had already been running the restaurant’s day-to-day operations for the past few decades, so it should be in good hands.
Although it’s hard to believe today, Sinatra’s career took a dangerous dip in the early 1950s, an era that saw him performing at county fairs and nearly empty concert halls. After Columbia Records dropped him in 1952, a calculating Capitol Records signed him to a seven-year recording contract, around the same time that he was acting in From Here to Eternity. Sinatra’s performance in that film would garner him an Oscar, and some of the songs from the Capitol Records era included classics like “Come Fly With Me,” “Young at Heart,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” among many others, plus four Grammys.
The thirteen-story Capitol Records building (1750 Vine Street) was designed to resemble a stack of records on a turntable, and today is one of Hollywood’s most recognizable landmarks. Construction on the building was completed in 1956, and the first artist to record an album in the tower? Frank Sinatra, of course—the inventive Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color.
Hoboken native Matty “Matteo” Jordan opened Matteo’s (2321 Westwood Boulevard) in 1963, to the immediate interest of close childhood friend Frank Sinatra. (So close, in fact, that Matteo’s mom was the midwife at Frank’s birth.) Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin also regularly held court in the restaurant, as well as Judy Garland and Lucille Ball.
In 1986, Jordan opened the smaller, deli-style Hoboken next door, which also still stands today. Though Jordan died in 1993, Matteo’s new owners seem committed to maintaining an atmosphere that is both “homey and hip,” and harkens back to Sinatra’s heyday. The original leopard print (!) booths may have been replaced with red leather, but clues to the past remain in hidden corners if you know where to look (…such as the carpet in the stairway).
La Dolce Vita
Continuing the complicated genealogy of Los Angeles Italian restaurants, La Dolce Vita of Beverly Hills (9785 Santa Monica Boulevard) was founded in 1966 by Jimmy Ullo and George Smith, two former Villa Capri waiters, and funded by George Raft and Frank Sinatra. If, today, the restaurant still gives off the vibe of 1960s Rat Pack-cool, it’s by design—current owner Alessandro Uzielli is a huge Sinatra fan, and worked to restore the restaurant to its peak vintage glory after taking over in 2003.
La Dolce Vita was one of Sinatra’s favorite places to entertain in his later years, especially as the previously mentioned haunts largely began closing in the ensuing decades. TV Producer George Schlatter recalled a few wild stories that started at Dolce at a recent panel, though perhaps the more important commonality was his note that “You couldn’t be with him [Frank] and not have a beverage.” (And “a beverage” sounded like quite the understatement given what followed…) Sinatra’s favorite table, according to longtime Maitre D’ Ruben Castro was Table 2, which gave him a view of everyone entering the restaurant—I’ve heard reports of similar seating preferences from other restaurants.