"Sinatra: An American Icon" at the Grammy Museum

Frank Sinatra's tuxedo, black fedora and numerous awards at the GRAMMY Museum
Frank Sinatra's tuxedo, black fedora and numerous awards at the GRAMMY Museum | Photo by Daniel Djang

Now on view at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. LIVE in Downtown L.A., Sinatra: An American Icon traces 100 years of the extraordinary legacy of Frank Sinatra. The official exhibit of the Frank Sinatra Centennial, Sinatra: An American Icon follows the legendary entertainer from his humble beginnings in Hoboken, New Jersey through international superstardom as one of the world's greatest entertainers, chronicling the meteoric rise of his music career, his Hollywood success, personal life and humanitarian work. Sinatra: An American Icon will be on display in the museum’s Special Exhibits Gallery through the 58th Annual GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 15, 2016.

GRAMMY Museum Executive Director, Bob Santelli says the seed for the exhibit was planted when Frank Sinatra’s eldest daughter, Nancy Sinatra participated in a book signing at the museum. “While I was onstage I said to her, ‘If you ever decide to do a Frank Sinatra exhibit, please consider the GRAMMY Museum.’” A year or so later, when they realized that Sinatra’s centennial was coming up in 2015, he gave Nancy a call. The museum had just finished a big Woody Guthrie centennial celebration. “We did three separate exhibits, conferences, concerts, everything. I think that kind of proved to her what we were capable and able to do. And then she gave us the green light to do it.”

Although there have been other Frank Sinatra exhibits, Sinatra: An American Icon is unprecedented for receiving the Sinatra family endorsement and for having total access to a treasure trove of photos, family mementos, rare correspondence, personal items, artwork and recordings. “No one’s ever been into the Frank Sinatra archives to select artifacts to tell his story," says Santelli. "We’re the first ones and we’re very proud of that. One of my curators says it was like going through a Frank Sinatra Home Depot. Ninety-nine percent of the things that are on display here have never been on display before.”

Santelli continues, “They really gave us carte blanche to pick what we wanted. Of the three [Sinatra children], the most hands on was Tina Sinatra. And then a grandchild, Amanda Erlinger took a great interest. She almost acted as a guest curator, if you will. But we were never told ‘don’t do this,’ ‘can’t take that.’ You’re blessed when you get that kind of freedom to do what you want.”

Frank Sinatra at the Rustic Cabin, from "Sinatra: An American Idol"
A young Frank Sinatra pictured at the Rustic Cabin, a popular New Jersey roadhouse | Photo by Daniel Djang

“This is a guy who knew right away that he wanted to be a star,” says Santelli. “Here he is as a young kid in New Jersey, the place was the Rustic Cabin. And it’s interesting, because I grew up in New Jersey not two miles from where he lived. My mom was a bobby soxer, so she went to the Rustic Cabin. This is part of her legacy. The very earliest musical memory that I have is Sinatra, played all the time in our house. For me personally and professionally, this is one of the most important exhibits I could do.”

Hoboken trolley car at "Sinatra: An American Icon"
Hoboken trolley car at "Sinatra: An American Icon" | Photo by Daniel Djang

GRAMMY Museum visitors can “ride” a recreation of a Hoboken trolley car, similar to one that Sinatra would use to travel to Jersey City to see his idol, Bing Crosby.

Frank Sinatra's ukulele with photos of Frank and Nancy Sinatra
Frank Sinatra's ukulele with photos of Frank and Nancy Sinatra | Photo by Daniel Djang

Spanning hundreds of artifacts, the Sinatra exhibit offers surprises around every corner and in every display case. Santelli shares some insight about one of these treasures: “No one knew that Frank Sinatra played the ukulele! And then we found out in the research, on one of his very first dates with his first wife Nancy, the mother of the three Sinatra children - [she’s] still alive, by the way - he serenaded her on the ukulele on the New Jersey Shore.”

Frank Sinatra's bow tie, hand-sewn by his wife Nancy
Frank Sinatra's bow tie, hand-sewn by his wife Nancy | Photo by Daniel Djang

Before The Beatles and Elvis Presley, there was Frank Sinatra, regarded as the first true teen idol. Following his “legendary opening” at New York’s Paramount Theatre on Dec. 30, 1942, “Sinatramania” swept the nation. Within a few weeks, 1,000 Frank Sinatra fan clubs were reported across the country. Santelli says, “He was very famous in the 1940s for his bowties, which were made by Nancy. There are very few of these that still exist.”

Frank Sinatra's Academy Award for "The House I Live In," on view at "Sinatra: An American Icon"
Frank Sinatra's Academy Award for "The House I Live In" | Photo by Daniel Djang

Sinatra won his first Oscar for The House I Live In, a short film released in September 1945. The film featured Sinatra talking to a group of young people about why prejudice and anti-Semitism should have no home in America. Santelli points to a screen that’s showing The House I Live In. “One of the interesting things that we found was the social activism. He does a short about racial and religious tolerance right after World War II. He didn’t have to do this, but right through his entire career, he fought for African Americans to be included at hotels where he sang, the whole idea of the intolerance of Jews - [he] worked tirelessly to do this. Not a lot of artists at the time were doing it, he did. Which I found very, very amazing the more I found out about this.”

The legendary Studio A is recreated at "Sinatra: An American Icon"
The legendary Studio A is recreated at "Sinatra: An American Icon" | Photo by Daniel Djang

One of the highlights of the exhibit is the recreation of Sinatra's favorite place to record, the legendary Studio A at the famed Capitol Studios in Hollywood. From 1953 to 1962, Sinatra recorded 19 albums for Capitol Records. "The Voice" cut more than 300 tracks in Studio A - these recordings would set him apart from nearly every 20th century vocalist. To give museum visitors a truly immersive experience, studio session chatter discovered by GRAMMY Museum curators is heard as Sinatra records Nice 'N' Easy and other tracks.

Frank Sinatra's GRAMMY Award for Album of the Year - "September of My Years," 1965
Frank Sinatra's GRAMMY Award for Album of the Year - "September of My Years," 1965 | Photo by Daniel Djang

During his career, Sinatra earned 11 GRAMMY Awards, three Oscars (including Best Supporting Actor), two Golden Globes, the Presidential Medal Of Honor and the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest award for a civilian.

Painting paraphernalia and furniture from Frank Sinatra's home art studio in Rancho Mirage, California
Painting paraphernalia and furniture from Frank Sinatra's home art studio | Photo by Daniel Djang

Another remarkable display is Sinatra’s home art studio. “He was such a creative guy, and there was a side of him that we found in the research - ‘wow, we have to tell this.’ When he came home from tours or from recording, he didn’t just sit by the pool. He immediately began creating again in another medium, art. He never sold the stuff, always gave it away to hospitals, to friends et cetera, so it wasn’t like he was trying to make a buck on it. But he felt very strongly of this need to create. Many creative people are like that, we find out more and more.” Santelli names musicians Joni Mitchell, John Mellencamp, Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett as examples. “They have this need to continue the creative process even if it isn’t in their primary medium.”

Mixing station at "Sinatra: An American Icon"
Mixing station at "Sinatra: An American Icon" | Photo by Daniel Djang

Sinatra: An American Icon also offers interactive multimedia experiences. Visitors can belt out New York, New York with Ol’ Blue Eyes, select Sinatra songs from a jukebox, and play the role of an audio engineer at a recording session for "Teach Me Tonight," from Sinatra’s 1984 album L.A. Is My Lady.

Sinatra: An American Icon is now on view at the GRAMMY Museum through Feb. 15, 2016. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the GRAMMY Museum website.