The famous neighbor in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. When Frank and all of us were young, he was 'The Voice,' a rising star, already a teen idol. But he was also a dad, with a new house, and he lived just across town.

May 17, 1998|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Back then, when he came with his young wife and daughter to live in a little New Jersey town, Frank Sinatra wasn't "Chairman of the Board." He was a skinny boy singer, just starting to lay the foundation of his enduring show-business legend.

In the 1940s, Sinatra, who died Thursday at 82, was "The Voice," the kid from Hoboken who had the bobby-soxers screaming and swooning in the aisles at the Paramount Theater on Times Square in New York.

In 1941, he was named the country's most popular vocalist. Around that same time, Sinatra briefly became a suburbanite - and my neighbor - buying a modest, stone-faced and white clapboard house at 220 Lawrence Ave., in Hasbrouck Heights.

The town, about 5,800 people then, is in northern New Jersey above the Meadowlands. It was, and still is, a bedroom community for Manhattan, whose skyscrapers are clearly visible from the hills for which the town was named.

The new arrival quickly disrupted our quiet suburb. The tree-shaded street he lived on became a pilgrimage site for droves of squealing teen-aged girls.

They'd gather in front of his house, screaming, "Frankie! Frankie!" and squealing if they caught - or even if they didn't catch - sight of Sinatra or his wife or his 3-year-old daughter, both Nancy at that time. Occasionally, when the crowd grew too large and boisterous, the local police would have to come to quiet the noise.

The bolder ones found the house's white front door an ideal place to scrawl messages to their idol - often in bright red lipstick.

Sinatra wasn't Hasbrouck Heights' only celebrity. Arthur Godfrey lived there for many years, often mentioning it on his radio program.

But Sinatra was the first of real note. And it was fun for us to have a show biz star in our small town, even if we boys couldn't understand the girls' squealing and swooning over a singer.

Occasionally, I and other kids from the west side of town would climb on our bikes and pedal over to Lawrence Street, on the east side, just to see what was going on. You might catch a glimpse of the singer, maybe even have a few minutes of chit-chat. He'd pose amiably for a snapshot even as he sought a measure of quiet home life.

Sinatra's suburban interlude was brief, though. Hollywood beckoned, and in 1944 he packed up the family to head for the really big time, on his way - through many personal and career peaks and valleys - to movie stardom and worldwide musical fame.

Before he left, though, he crossed paths with another, more dubious Hasbrouck Heights celebrity: Willie Moretti, a notorious Mafioso who became a Sinatra friend. Moretti owned a walled, stucco villa at the other end of town from the singer.

Years later, when federal investigators questioned Sinatra about mob ties and his acquaintance with Moretti, the singer professed many memory lapses. But he had returned to sing at the 1947 wedding of a Moretti daughter at Corpus Christi, the local Catholic church, for which the mobster's "linen supply company" was a big advertiser at every affair.

A few years after Sinatra left, though, Moretti's sojourn in Hasbrouck Heights ended, too, in a hail of bullets. The 57-year-old racketeer and gambler talked too much to congressional committees investigating La Cosa Nostra, and four men executed him gangland-style in Joe's Restaurant, in nearby Cliffside Park, on Oct. 4, 1951.

The Sinatra house is still there on Lawrence Street. There's no more lipstick on the door, but the present owners, Anthony and Maria Tozzi, say everyone still knows it as "the Sinatra house." They get asked about it frequently, Maria Tozzi says.

Mrs. Tozzi said she heard the news of Sinatra's death on the 6.30 a.m. radio news Friday. "The radio stations in New York are all playing his songs today," she said.

"It's very sad," she said. "Sad to know he's gone."

The Tozzis have kept Sinatra's connection to their home alive. "We have his music all over the house, and his picture is in the living room and in the hallway," Tozzi said. "My mother-in-law, in Jersey City [near Sinatra's hometown of Hoboken] is an even bigger fan; I don't know how she's taking this."

The Tozzis bought the house just a few years ago from the estate of a woman whose father had bought it for her from Sinatra when she was a young bride. She'd lived there alone for many years after her husband died.

"We really enjoy it," Tozzi said. "We collect articles about the house, and it's in Nancy's book about her father. We even found an old Life magazine with an article about it; it cost $25."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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