Frankly Fake A real fan: Mickey Light isn't Frank Sinatra, but he's having a ball acting like it.

January 27, 1996|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

It's a good thing nobody ever told Mickey Light that the way to be happy is to just be yourself. Mickey was himself for 55 years and something always seemed to be missing.

He got a better deal from life when he started being somebody else. When he started being Frank Sinatra.

"How many people do you know who just hate to go to work?" he asks. That's the way it used to be with him when he was lugging wire at Bethlehem Steel, or tending bar. But today, as he puts it, "I'm just tickled to death."

Mickey likes to profess his happiness. It rushes out when he talks about Frank; when he stands amid the Sinatra memorabilia in the basement of his red-brick house in Essex -- the Sinatra cocktail glasses, the Sinatra posters, biographies, records, sheet music, invitations to Sinatra concerts, and little plastic dolls of Ol' Blue Eyes.

He is especially happy when he's being Frank, which is a couple of times a week, in restaurants, road houses, the occasional American Legion hall, mostly in and around East Baltimore. But he has played out of town, in Boston, Atlantic City, Chicago. He even has his own groupies, mostly gray-haired women of a certain age.

Though Mickey calls his show "The Sounds of Sinatra," he insists not an impersonator. What he might be instead is never clearly explained. He tries to look like Sinatra, to move like Sinatra, to alternately slouch and square his shoulders, to wear his hat and arch his back like Sinatra. He performs in a black fedora, a tux with an orange handkerchief in his jacket.

"Orange is Frank's favorite color," he says. "Not many people know that."

People pay good money to witness this transformation. They enjoy seeing Mickey in the front of the room with his half-full bourbon bottle, the tilted hat, the body language they're all so familiar with: the gestures of a life-worn man with a battered heart, expressing his melancholy through tough, sentimental story-songs.

Mickey estimates that Frank Sinatra has recorded maybe 1,700 songs. ("At least! At least!") Mickey says he has sung about 200 of them. He probably owns the sheet music or recordings of them all.

It all began when he was growing up on Ensor Street, near the penitentiary. He's still loyal to that old neighborhood, or at least the Dead-End-Kid idea of it. He's got the words "Tenth Ward" tattooed on his right biceps. And it's because of that humble beginning that he's proud of any success he can now lay claim to. He likens it to Frank's Hoboken days.

His fascination with Sinatra began with a sappy movie he saw him in called "The Kissing Bandit." It was 1948 and Mickey was 13. He began collecting records.

Mickey, and some other friends captured by the Sinatra style and voice, started to range up into New York and New Jersey to see and hear the crooner in the flesh. He's gone as far as Florida and Chicago for a Sinatra concert.

Mickey uses the pronoun "we" a lot when he speaks. It's not a habit that suggests imperial pretensions so much as a desire to include all of those who shared experiences with him in his recollections.

Before he was 20 he was a serious collector of objects related to the career of Sinatra. He has seen him perform many, many times, and has met him on occasion.

"As a collector," he says, not as an alter ego.

Mickey can talk about Sinatra for hours. He says that if he had to spend six months in a hospital and could pick his roommate, it would be Frank. He defends the singer against those who suggest, as Garry Trudeau did in a recent "Doonesbury" strip, that the singer has a thuggish side.

None of that's true, he says, though he does admit the mighty Sinatra has changed over the years, from an open and friendly guy to a more guarded and removed celebrity.

"He used to stop and talk to you then [in his earlier years]," Mickey says. "But after [John] Lennon was killed, he changed. If you went up to him, he'd tell you to get outta here."

Thus, for almost 40 years, Mickey was a hobbyist, a collector, and as most people are who are smitten by entertainers, something of a fantasist. And he used to sing.

"If you're going to listen to a song a couple of times, you sing," he says. "You sing in the shower, you sing in the car."

And like most people who sing secretly, he never really knew what he sounded like in his solitude, never knew he had a pretty fair natural voice. He could carry a tune, if not a very heavy one.

Then there was his real life. Mickey, not burdened with too much formal education, came out of the Army in 1957, got married, and took a job in the wire mill at Sparrows Point.

"I hated it! I hated it!"

Two years later, he escaped into bartending at the Brentwood Inn. "I was a mixologist," he said, with the entertainer's inclination to put a gloss on things. After about six years, when the bar closed, he sank into dishwashing at the Hyatt hotel at the Inner Harbor, then worked his way up to the more elevated job of doorman.

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