Gary James' Interview With Art Poco Of
The Rat Pack Now
Art Poco is Dean Martin in The Rat Pack Now (Tribute Show). The Rat Pack Now pays tribute to Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. Art Poco's group is considered to be the best in the country. With that in mind, we talked with Art Poco about how he got so good, how he put the group together and why.
Q - Art, you'll be happy to know I've never done an interview with a Rat Pack tribute act.
A - Oh, that's nice! We are your first! (Laughs)
Q - Somebody just played the Turning Stone Casino in Verona New York.
A - That's correct. We had a ball there. What a beautiful showroom! It snowed and it was very nice. What a property. What a beautiful staff! Everybody there is happy! It's a nice place to work obviously because they are all just really, really nice in that operation. We had a fun time there.
Q - Is that the type of venue The Rat Pack Now typically performs in?
A - Yes, amongst other things. Casinos are something we've really kind of expanded upon greatly in the past two years. It depends really on what agents you're working with, who has a specialty in one area. We've gotten more and more casinos, but we've always been very big with resort hotels and with corporate events. That's been the bread-and-butter for a long time. Always did casinos, but now we're doing casinos all over the country. We are really busy with that.
Q - For an act like this to succeed you have to be pulling in not only people who remember Sinatra and Martin and Sammy Davis, but younger people as well.
A - It's funny. I was just talking about this to somebody today. The sweet spot are the baby boomers for our act. If you're talking like 50 to 70, that's like throwing a fastball right down the middle for us. If you go over 70, they are there and they are terrific. Boomers saw it on TV and the people who are a little older, they lived the whole thing firsthand. What we are finding, and you're exactly right, especially in our gigs where we go over and over again like New Orleans, we are regulars there going into our third year, we're seeing more and more folks in their 30s, 40s, and even their upper 20s. I was laughing with the guys, I said "As soon as they start to acquire a taste for the thing they hated as a kid..." That's when they are starting to appreciate the kind of music that we do and the way we present it. It is the way that music was written. Even though we do a clean act and we adjust what the sensibility was for the real guys in 1963, it's still an odd thing for these younger people. It's three cats with tuxedos, cigarettes, drinks and then there's the two Italian guys and the Black guy. It's an outside-the-box kind of social sensibility that you just don't see much anymore today. Another thing that really rang the bell for them was the advent of Madmen. That lit the younger demographic up. They couldn't believe it. They smoked. They drank at work. (Laughs). Cocktails. So, that made them very curious. So, we are seeing a lot of the younger demographic along with the best expendable income, which are the baby boomers on up.
Q - I tried to get an interview a few years back with a gentleman who used to seat Sinatra at one of his favorite restaurants. He turned me down. He told me "That's old. Nobody cares about that anymore." This fellow was really wrong.
A - Really wrong. He needed a wake-up call, that one. He's gonna miss the boat. The retro is cool of Sinatra and Dean and Sam and really resonating in today's world. Plus, it was a great time. We were on top of our game, this country (United States). People miss that, man. They really want a taste of that.
Q - If you think about it, in the 1960s Sinatra was old hat to the baby boomers. Back then it was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the British invasion. But enough time is gone by so that the music of Sinatra, Martin and Sammy Davis sounds fresh and new. That's what's driving the interest.
A - That's a good point. That's a really good point. Quality is quality, right? It's gonna improve with age. We know that the rumors are there. It's nostalgia for them. It was a better time. It was sitting around the TV and family. It's nice to be a part of that. I always tease my wife - I'm living in the past, man! (Laughs). But I like it there!
Q - After you get offstage, do you catch yourself subconsciously acting like Dean Martin?
A - Good question. I come at it as an actor / singer. I started my career as a straight actor, got into musical theater and then of course got into this. The two guys I work with, they come at it as singers and now they act the part as well. So, for an actor that's an interesting question because I've never been a completely method guy where I just can't drop it. Guess what happens? You are darn right. It sticks with you. It does stick with you, especially with my guys. Were like three brothers. We really are and that reads on the stage. We fight. We laugh. We make up. We love each other and that comes through. We always do a meet and greet out in the lobby after a show when they allow it and that's most places, not all, but most, and we like that. The folks really get a kick out of that and they take pictures with us. We kept horsing around. We were just having a great time and he goes, "It never stops doesn't?" (Laughs). It might be true.
Q - Of the three guys up there on stage, you may have the toughest guy to portray. We know a lot about Sinatra and Sammy Davis, not all that much about Dean Martin. What he was really like offstage is still somewhat of a mystery, isn't it?
A - That's correct. And he is a hard voice to nail too. Sinatra is "the voice" and it's a clear, beautiful, resonant bell. Sammy is very pronounced. Dean is a tough voice to do. He's a woodwind. Very unique kind of sound for him. I did all the studying. YouTube, thank God for that. You can go back and see everything, and I did. But, his personal life was quiet. As an actor I was interested in that. A couple of years ago his daughter wrote a book, Deanna Martin, Memories Are Made Of This. She opened up that shell a little bit. It's from a daughter's perspective. I think it was a really well written book. You really got a feel for what Dean was behind the scenes. There was a lot to him. There were a lot of layers there. There was a lot of tragedy, as well as the joy in most lives. It gave me a fuller feeling of Dean Martin having read that. So that's a good observation. He's the only one who had a long-running, 10 years, show on television. You got all that, but to get behind the scenes, I didn't know about his first wife and that family and the other issues and the things that happened with Jerry, the money things and all that stuff. So that was an invaluable thing his daughter did for someone like me who spends his life with the guy.
Q - I don't know how old of a guy you are, but did you ever see Dean Martin in concert?
A - No. I'm pushing 50. I never saw him 'live'. I never got the opportunity, but as a small kid, I remember The Dean Martin Show on television and loves it. My parents were into it and I always looked forward to it.
Q - Did you ever see Sinatra or Sammy Davis?
A - No.
Q - How about the guys playing Sinatra and Sammy Davis in your show, did they ever see the real Sinatra and Sammy Davis?
A - No. They never got a chance to see them live either. We feel we know 'em. It gets a little spooky. The question you asked before, does it stay with you? We have a reverence for their place in our culture. You become spiritually connected. I think if you're doing it right, you become spiritually connected to the guy, so although I never saw his act, I never saw his performance on stage. I know the guys feel the same way. We feel that we visit with them sometimes. I know it's going to sound very strange, but we've all had our little minor out of body experience, playing our characters. So we go about it with a reverence for their place in our culture and what it means to these folks and what they created. We never lose sight of that. They created it. We are doing something on their backs, basically. So, if you're going to do that, you better do it the right way. Nothing irks me more than to see somebody who does it with ego or adjustments that are not their liberty to take. You got a put these guys where they belong. They are not here. There's nothing they can say about it. But it's like I said, we do communicate.
Q - Has anyone from their families ever come out to see your show that you know of?
A - We've not had a family member yet, although we did do a back-to-back gig at a different casino in Florida with Dean's daughter. She was there the night after. But we have met Golddiggers, the girls that used to back Dean. We also performed for Frank and Sammy's agent, Elliott Wiseman. We touched people who knew them, but not the actual family members, but they give you as much as can be. I've heard great stories about Dean. Just amazing stuff. One woman told me she was on Rodeo Drive shopping. Dean Martin pulled up to the red light in his convertible Bentley. She freaked out on the sidewalk. (Laughs). Got all excited. He waved her over. He told her "Get in the car I'll take you around the block." And took her for a ride around the block because it meant that much to that woman. I hear a lot of stories like that. Ran into him at the airport. He picked up my kid. He kissed him. Dean was a great guy, but he did love his privacy too. It's really funny. And life imitates art. Offstage we're exactly like our guys. It's not on purpose. After a show, Frank and Sammy go out for some cocktails. I go back up to my room and say "I've had it guys. I've had it. I'm done. I want quiet" I put on the TV. I get room service. (Laughs)
Q - Just like Dean Martin.
A - Just like Dean Martin! And I didn't even know that until after I was already doing that and like that. So, it's funny.
Q - Do you bring your own musicians with you or is that something the venue provides?
A - Well, we're kind of blessed with our musical director. He's a wonderful guy. He will come with us. For example, in Verona, at Turning Stone, he came with us. Then he hires the best musicians in that market.
Q - He must turn to the Musicians Union and ask "Who plays the best trumpet? Who plays the best piano?"
A - Who swings? They got a be able to swing. You'll say "Can your drummer swing?" We don't need a shy guy. We need readers. Of course we have our charts for small band or big band. We go anywhere from five or six pieces up to sixteen pieces. They have to be readers, but they have to have an affinity. It's nice that they have a deeper experience with this type of music, the American standards. They do have a network. The good musicians in this country, which fascinates me, have a "cook on the hotline" as I call it. They know each other! (Laughs). If our musical director can't come with us, if he has a conflict of any kind, he sets us up with the musicians and the one who will serve as the musical director, conductor on-site. That's invaluable. You have to have the right guys.
Q - Do you have backup singers?
A - No. We go straight with the music. Even when we do track shows, which we do, our tracks are custom and they have no backup vocals on them. We want it as realistic as can be, as if a band was backing us, even if they are not there. On songs like "Everybody Loves Somebody", of course the hit recording had strong, prominent backup. But you work it, you rehearse it. You get down to the point where it's not even missed, if you do it the right way.
Q - How about props? Do you have many props on that stage?
A - Yeah. (Laughs). We got Jack. We got baby Jack and baby Jack's twin brother. (Laughs). You are probably thinking what the hell is that? (Laughs).
Q - That's exactly what I'm thinking. How did you know?
A - We've got a bottle of Jack Daniels that we got from a bar when we played in Deadwood, South Dakota years and years ago. I laminated it so that the label doesn't get all screwed up and it can take the travel and it's been with us ever since. We fill it with Diet Coke and water. We don't really drink on stage, but we make it look exactly like Jack Daniels. That is on our prop table. We do a comedy bit where Jack has a baby, baby Jack, and outcomes that little airline bottle of Jack Daniels. Sammy comes through with twins. "Look it's twins!" It's very cute. It gets big laughs. So that's a good shtick. Other than that, believe it or not, and this is a big deal for us in traveling nationally, and this year (2013) we will probably be going international with the act, from what it's looking like. It's good to travel light. We can move in and out of any situation very easily. Three guys with tuxes, three stools, a prop table, the Jack Daniels bottles, three straight mic stands and three wireless mics and we are in business. That's how simple it is. And that's on purpose. That's me. I own the act. I formulated and wrote the act. What I wanted to do is re-create what they actually did if they were here today, which is why it's Rat Pack Now. We stay akin to the material, but we cleaned it up because again the political and social sensibilities are different now than they were back then. So there are adjustments we make which make us a clean act. You can bring your grandmother and your kid. At the same time, I keep it simple, just like theirs! In all the research I did with them, there are times I'm seeing them on a showroom stage and I'm going "My God, if we walk into a place like that we'd be going 'what a dump!'" (Laughs). But they were simple. Everything was simple. There were no showgirls. No backup singers. Just three guys.
Q - What do you mean by keeping the show "clean"? I never heard of them doing anything that might be considered controversial.
A - No. They were pretty good. I'm sure they had their moments in some clubs that are not on film or tape and that may be the case, but they all worked television. They all worked every venue that there was. They didn't have to be dirty. They just didn't have to be dirty. The only thing we do, and again we don't make overt sexual references. They would do that sometimes. Dean once looked down in one of his acts, the Sabre Room in Chicago, I have the audio on that, not the video, but there was a woman sitting in front. She must have had large breasts and all of a sudden he goes "Oh my God! I feel like there's two locomotives coming at me." (Laughs) You could do that in a club if you have an adult audience, but we won't do that and we play corporate a lot. That is a big thing for us. So, you gotta be clean. You can't make racial references like they did, even though they did that. You keep your drinking references funny, but it's to a minimum. I don't play Dean as a drunk because he wasn't. You don't do that. There's no need for that. A clean act is really important for us. If you work hard enough, you get there without being dirty.
Q - How many shows are you doing a year?
A - Last year I think we were looking at between 80 and 90. With the proper management, they find you as you do better work. You don't find them. Luckily, we've been running into some really, really good people, real class people, which is important to me. I put a lot of years into this business, I'm not going to work with someone I don't like. I don't care what they can promise or provide. I told the boys, "Buckle your seat belts and get ready for the ride." It's busy enough as it is, but I think that number is going to increase dramatically. We're also going to be doing some cruise ships, which will bolster that up as well because when you go out there, you are doing several days.
Q - When you are not doing this act, does that mean you are doing something else in your life?
A - No. We all used to. We all used to do solo acts and I used to be an actor for hire as well. I used to do other mediums. Due to the success of the show and because our schedule has to be open for whatever comes up, we've been lucky enough to be able to commit. The three of us made that commitment. We don't work with any other Rat Packs. We're the only one in the country that does that, the only Rat Pack that does not interchange. It's the three of us. I feel strongly about that. Again, we don't think we're the real guys. We're not that presumptuous, but back in the day when you got Frank, Dean and Sammy, you got Frank, Dean and Sammy. When you get The Rat Pack Now, you get Art and Bob and Dezhon as these characters and there are no substitutes. And we don't work with other guys.
Q - How did you find Bob and Dezhon? Did you see them perform someplace?
A - After years I've been through; this is my fourth Sammy and my second Frank. The Frank, Bob Hoose, we were booked on the same venue, the same ticket so to speak, together. He opened his mouth and I was like "Oh my gosh!" And he wasn't a tribute artist. He wasn't doing the full presentation of the character. He was just singing it. He would sing in the style of Frank and it was dead on. You close your eyes, it blew your mind. That was about 3 1/2 years ago. So I put him into this act. He was very hesitant at first because he didn't feel right about it, but in time he got to see we do it a different way with this act and he's been groomed and come along, so now he plays comedy real well. He visually works at being the character. I'm not done with him completely yet. I haven't created my Frankenstein monster, pun intended, but he is darn, darn close. So he gives the full presentation. Dezhon Fields, who plays Sammy, again I've gone through a few Sammy's. Things happened with the last one. I did an Internet search and we became Facebook friends and then when it was time to go back I said "This is the guy" and my Frank and I were talking about it and he's a clone. He's an absolute Sammy Davis Jr. clone. He's the one when we're at airports or malls, people go "Do you know you look like Sammy?" They love it. He had it all going on coming right in. There's nobody in my mind that does it better than him because he is truly a triple threat, and that's hard to find. No less looking exactly like him, and being short, nobody is quite as short as Sammy, but he is short, skinny as a rail and able to dance the heck out of the songs that he sings. "Mr. Bojangles", he does full choreography and all of the others. He throws in all the moves.
Q - You are a graduate of the State University of New York.
A - Correct.
Q - Which one?
A - New Paltz.
Q - That's down by New York City, isn't it?
A - Yeah, it's halfway between New York and Albany. About 100 miles north.
Q - You majored in communication?
A - That's right.
Q - Speech?
A - Yeah. Speech communication was the major at the time. I don't know what they call it now. I was very heavily into radio and television, commercial production and on-air. So that was my major at the time. I dabbled in theater. Well, I was doing that at school and both off-campus.
Q - You wanted to pursue a career in radio or TV?
A - Yeah I went straight into radio. I worked at two radio stations and a television station in the first three years out of college. And then, the calling came. This is true. I'm sitting there working at a television station in Scranton, Pennsylvania and I just said "This is it! I ain't getting any younger. What's in my heart is to be on the boards." I got cast again. I was always involved a little bit in community theater while I was doing what I was doing. I just had the bug. I said to my wife at the time, "I'm going to go to New York. I'm gonna audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I heard that's the best. If I get in, I'll make my decisions from there. If I don't, if they don't accept me, I'll continue on with my career in this." I did get accepted after two or three callbacks and just left, moved, picked up, relocated and started a career as a stage actor in New York.
Q - When you were working in either the radio or TV station, did anyone ever tell you you look like Dean Martin?
A - Not at the time, no. And I think I aged more into that. Now I get that a lot because I've adjusted my look to be that and that doesn't change. My wife now says, "Thank God I love Dino, because the way you look and the fact that the music is on so often, I would go insane if you were a Country artist!" (Laughs). She's not overly fond of Country music, but she loves Dean. But, I've morphed into it through age and I am 100% Italian, both sides, which helps. It's just kind of the way it is.
Q - So some Elvis tribute artists will have plastic surgery to look more like Elvis, but all you have to do is put on a tux and have your hair styled like Dean Martin.
A - Exactly. That's it. It's about having that haircut, that "feeling it" from the core out. That's very much the way I work and every detail of the externals, every detail, the right bow tie, the right pocket handkerchief, the right kind of tux, single button. Everything externally is as authentic as possible. You become him. As an actor, you become him.
Q - That's when your training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts kicks in and helps you with your stage act.
A - Yeah. Absolutely. That and years of experience as a stage actor for hire from off-Broadway to dinner theater, summer stock, regional theater. I did everything. That's called conservatory training. You can really sniff it out with other performers who are conservatory trained. There's a discipline and a method and a process that you just can kind of see with another actor. That's why you go there. That's why you learn. You learn things that you may never use, but you learn them. You do Shakespeare. You do Shakespeare with your accent if you have to. It's a good thing to do, the discipline that sticks with you the whole way through.
Q - I wonder what Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis would think about your act? None of these guys had any training.
A - No, they didn't.
Q - They just went on stage and did what they did.
A - That's true. The guys and I always look at each other and say there's divine intervention going on here. We really truly believe that. We feel that we are sanctioned. I think it's pretty important to feel that. If you don't feel that in your heart, you don't really know it. It's not going to come out the same way. You're not going to have the audience reaction that we have. We do feel that their energy sanctions us. I can tell you a spooky story. We were working New Orleans at the National World War II Museum, Stage Door, Canteen Theater. I'm in the middle of "Everybody Loves Somebody". At that point Frank and Sammy are standing in the back at the prop table, having a drink. I came from stage left, across center, heading toward stage right and I was on the move with that. At that point, for about who knows how long it was, it felt like it was about 8 to 10 seconds, at that point, I had no control. I had no control of my body. I had no control of my voice, although I do a good job of impersonating Dean's singing voice, I heard Dean's singing. I heard Dean singing. It wasn't even me. It was exact, dead on. My body did something, almost like I was a marionette. I did not have complete control. That happened to me. After that number is over, Frank and I go off. Sammy does a solo number. I walk offstage, off the wings heading back to our little area in the dressing room. Bob (Frank) turns to me and says, "Did something odd happen when you were crossing, (the stage) during that song?" I got goose bumps on my arms. I said "Why do you ask?" He said, "Well, when you were coming across during one part, you were right in the middle of the stage and the spotlight was on you and there was like this weird glow around you, but I heard and saw Dean." This is true. I had an agent call it a "God moment," when I told him the story. He plucked it out exactly when it was. We all believe what we want, but I know that I had a visit. That's all I'm gonna say.
Q - Did Dean Martin ever perform on the stage you were on?
A - No. I think they were in New Orleans for sure and New Orleans is a very haunted town, as you know. It's a cool place and it's got that element to it. But no, that theater was not in existence at the time. The people in New Orleans are very spiritual. They're very connected. So if it was gonna happen anyplace, it doesn't surprise me that it was in New Orleans. Bob (Frank) told me he had an experience in Palm Springs, which we just played by the way, where he was there with his wife. She was there for a corporate event. He took an afternoon to see Franks grave, to just go over to it. He wasn't really exploiting it at this time. He wasn't really singing a lot and doing it. He was just dabbling. He told me he looked at the grave and he said "Should I do this, Frank?" And he swears he heard "Go ahead kid, but just do it right." He swears he heard that and I gotta believe him. So, these things are weird. When you're playing people like this who had this profound of an effect on people, and they're not here anymore, yeah. You are going full guns, yeah. I believe it can happen to an Elvis or a Dean or anybody else who is not here anymore. And I wouldn't be surprised, because it did happen to me.
Q - How often I've heard, Harry Connick Jr. or Michael Buble is the next Frank Sinatra? There was only one Frank Sinatra and that cannot be duplicated.
A - That's right. I agree with you and the guys agree with you. We always look at each other and go, "Michael Buble? I don't get it." The same thing. I don't get it. Across the board I don't get it. That's it.
Q - If he's trying to imitate Sinatra, he's barking up the wrong tree. Sinatra in his own time.
A - That's it.
Q - You cannot go and try to be Frank Sinatra in the 21st century. It doesn't cut it.
A - It doesn't cut it. And you can't put "cool" on.
Q - Unless you're in The Rat Pack Now. That works. Not these other fellas.
A - Then you're doing something that's obvious to the people. They know what they're doing. Yeah, we're not talking somebody's persona and saying this is me, like Buble does, like trying to be the swinging guys. He's working too hard. It's obvious. I'm not knocking the kid. He's a big star. Hey, no problem. But I don't hear it in the music either. It's not coming from the heart.