He dumped them. Blew town, got famous, never looked back. But that didn't stop the folks in Hoboken, N.J., from having a wake for Frank Sinatra. They just did it their way.

STILL FRANK'S KIND OF TOWN

May 18, 1998|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

HOBOKEN, N.J. - The lyrical loves of his life, Chicago, New York, L.A., can't claim him anymore. Having once lost its native son and "Brightest Star," Hoboken this past weekend brought Francis Albert Sinatra home for good.

The town was swinging while in mourning. Just follow the music to the story of how the Mile Square City reclaimed Frank Sinatra - block by block, tune by tune, drink by drink:

The stone-cold-serious cab driver at Newark's Penn Station sings along with his lousy radio, as Frank and daughter Nancy croon "Somethin' Stupid." At a prom inside the Airport Marriot, Jersey guys sing scoobee-doobee-do. Some kid in Hoboken (with shorts down below his knees) belts out "New York, New York" as if Manhattan could hear him across the Hudson.

Welcome to Hoboken - "The Birth Place of Baseball and Frank Sinatra!" If you don't "get" Sinatra - which means you were born late or born boring - then Hoboken will convert you. In its first weekend without Frank Sinatra, every city block seemed to have its own Sinatra signature song. "That's Life" came from a third-story window on Garden Street. And near Sinatra's birthplace, 415 Monroe St., the neighborhood was crawling with boom boxes blaring "My Way."

Everybody tells you to stop first at Leo's. Got to see Leo's Grandesvous restaurant on Garden Street, where the jukebox is rigged with every Sinatra record. Leo DiTerlizzi, 82, can tell you about his old pal Frankie, about the times the skinny, sure-fire kid from Monroe Street would come in. Before all the famous stuff happened.

But Friday night, there's no talking to Leo. The restaurant is mobbed. Look at all the red and yellow carnations taped to the 100-odd framed portraits of Frank. Talk is loud; but there's no talk of such temporal things as Seinfeld's last show. Wrong room. Wrong town.

Bottles of special "Frank Sinatra" Korbel, wrapped in funereal cloth, are in a procession above the bar. On the bar, Chivas Regal is center stage. "That's why the lady is a tramp . . ." goes the jukebox. A lady buys a hunky TV cameraman a shot of Southern Comfort. From across the bar, he nods his head and lifts his glass. Another toast to Sinatra between strangers in this night.

The man, the singer, Hoboken's "Brightest Star," has been dead 24 hours.

On the 25th hour, disc jockey Al Tudanger at the River Street bar plays eight straight Sinatra songs. Odd because this is a kids' bar, which is a double-door down from some black leathery biker bar. Leo's, across town, might well be in an alternate universe. But here at River Street, I saw a man he danced with his girlfriend.

"I love Frank. He's so much fun," says 25-year-old Sharon Heptig, flushed from dancing. "His music is just so much fun." (Which could very well be the best definition of Sinatra's music we heard in Hoboken.)

"Sinatra, to this generation, is exactly like Harry Connick Jr.," Tudanger says from his deejay booth. "It's lounge music. It's hang out with your friends music."

Ladies and gentlemen, the deejay announces, I think Frank deserves a round of applause! I think he can hear you now. He's back in his hometown tonight!

Tudanger, all 27 years of him, doesn't play fair when he then

plays Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight." Couples couple on the scrawny dance floor. The mood is back. That mood that whispers in your ear: Don't you wish you had somebody to dance with, to drink with, to go home with?

Mercifully, Tudanger shatters the Sinatra mood with Barry Gibb's falsetto singing "More Than a Woman." We take our leave to continue searching for un-Frank joints in Hoboken.

Bubbling fish tanks, statues in their birthday suits and strobe lights decorate the Three Roses Bar, where the average age is maybe 20. Bartender Maria Bockman, 22, was born and raised in Hoboken and exudes an earthy un-Frankishness. She never really listened to his music, never really gave the man any thought.

"But then I was driving to work today when I heard them playing his songs on the loudspeakers at City Hall," she says. "I got a knot in my stomach." The young lady almost started crying. She remembered she was baptized at St. Francis Church, where Frank was baptized in December 1915. Then, Maria started to really think about Sinatra's music.

"His music is natural - not like the mechanical music you hear - yeah, like in here," she says. "The music was good. You can't deny that."

Before we call it a night, one more stop in this "new" part of Hoboken. (Tomorrow, we'll visit the old neighborhood, see where Sinatra was born, see the famous plaque, his church and school.)

Near the "My Way Cleaners," the Brass Rail bar emits a familiar sound - "The Way You Look Tonight." But this time, the singer is Bobby Harding. It's not often a man in dreadlocks leads a crowd in Sinatra favorites, but there he was - chasing innocent people with his microphone, making some poor guy named John sing along.

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