Says Riot Jon Savage
Punk Chronicler, Jon Savage, Looks At The Arrival Of The Teenager And Cites Sinatra As The Arch Instigator Of Teenage Rebellion And The First Non-masculine American Hero
On October 12, 1944, Frank Sinatra opened his third season at New York’s Paramount Theater. It was Columbus Day, and the premiere was a wow even before it began. “The line in front of the Paramount Theater starts forming at midnight. By four in the morning there are over 500 girls... they wear bobby sox (of course), bow ties (the same as Frankie wears) and photos of Sinatra pinned to their dresses,” reported the New York Daily News. By eight in the morning there was a huge milling mob: “A big blow-up picture of Sinatra in front of the theatre is marked with red lipstick impressions of kisses, endearing messages of love, and even telephone numbers. The theatre is soon filled. The show starts with the feature (Our Hearts Were Young and Gay). This is the most heckled movie of all times... not that it is a bad movie... just the opposite... but the girls simply didn’t come to see that.
“Then the great moment arrives. Sinatra appears on the stage... hysterical shouts of Frankie... Frankie... you’ve heard the squeals on the radio when he sings... multiply that by about a thousand times and you get an idea of the deafening noise. Sinatra does a few numbers and leaves the stage hurriedly.” But that wasn’t the end of it: “A big mob is waiting at the stage entrance... he dares not leave... So he’s marooned inside the theatre... “At two in the morning the theatre closes... the porters come in to clean up... some of the girls, having been in all day and night and having seen the five shows, refuse to leave... and try and hide in the ladies room... but the matrons chase them out.” What the article didn’t mention was the fact that, after each performance, the Paramount was drenched in urine. The Columbus day riot was a generation-defining event acted out on Manhattan’s streets: some
30,000 frenzied girls taking over Times Square. The writer Bruce Bliven called it “a phenomenon of mass hysteria that is only seen two or three times in a century.” Sinatra’s fame had been steadily building for three years or more. His first major breakthrough came during his first Paramount season in December 1942, when he was billed as “Extra Added Attraction” to the Benny Goodman Orchestra: the moment he was introduced, the theatre erupted with “5,000 kids stamping, yelling, screaming, applauding.” These scenes were amplified when Sinatra returned to the Paramount in May 1943: “This time, they threw more than roses,” remembered his factotum, Nick Sevano, “They threw their panties and their brassieres.” The furore overtook the hype. The media might have called Sinatra “Mister Swoonarta” but his audience did more than that. His press agents remembered hiring “girls to scream when he sexily rolled a note. But we needn’t have. The dozen girls we hired to scream and swoon did exactly as we told them. But hundreds more we didn’t hire, screamed even louder. It was wild, crazy, and completely out of control.” The hysteria continued throughout 1943 and 1944, boosted by cameos in films like Higher and Higher. In concert, he seduced his young audience with a ferocious intensity only accentuated by his gaze. His bright blue eyes raked the crowd, singling out individuals and thus appearing to be singing for them alone, just one in a crowd of thousands. Bruce Bliven observed Sinatra at the Paramount: “When he sings sadly, I’ll walk alone, the child sitting next to me shouts in seemingly genuine anguish, ‘I’ll walk wid ya, Frankie,’ and so on, in various words, do several hundred others.
When the song says that nobody loves him, a faithful protagonist on my right groans, ‘Are you kiddin’ Frankie?’ The whole audience falls into an antiphony with him, Frankie shouting ‘No!’ and the audience ‘Yes’ five or six times.” Although nearly 29 by October 1944, Sinatra was slightly built, nervous, and young-looking for his age. Married with a child, he was still a Peter Pan figure: as he later stated, “It was the war years, and there was a great loneliness. I was the boy in every corner drugstore, the boy who had gone off to war.” Sinatra was both at one with his audience yet forever out of reach: “He earns a million a year, and yet he talks their language; he is just a kid from Hoboken who got the breaks. In everything he says and does, he aligns himself with the youngsters and against the adult world. It is always ‘we’ and never ‘you’.” Not everyone was so understanding. The Herald Tribune held that his concerts were in no way an “artistic manifestation”. The education commissioner of New York blamed Sinatra for making young people lose “control of their emotions”. Much more controversial was Sinatra’s draft status: because of an ear injury, he was classified 4F during 1943. To patriotic Americans, this was a red rag to a bull. Sinatra was constantly attacked by the press for being out of uniform. After a much-publicised incident where a young man threw eggs at Sinatra, a group of sailors threw tomatoes at the enormous blow-up of the singer outside the theatre – a symbolic desecration enacted for the press cameras. But there was an added thrust to the vitriol directed at Sinatra. Like Valentino, the singer was not traditionally masculine: he was designed to appeal to young women. This not only excited jealousy but also dramatised the split between the GIs’ expectation of home life and the reality. The land that they had left was not the same. A new generation had come up, and – in the vacuum caused by the drafting of two million young men during 1944 – was claiming its time. The fact that the bobbysoxers did not desire battlehardened GIs but a seemingly effete “feather merchant” was an index of that change.
Jon Savage’s Teenage – The Creation of Youth 1875-1945 (Chatto & Windus) is out now
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