Gary James' Interview With
Frank Sinatra Tribute Artist
He's been a stand-up comic, a comedy writer, and now he does a tribute to Frank Sinatra. His name is Vaughn Suponatime. Not only does Vaughn look like Sinatra, but he sounds just like him as well! Now, that's a knock-out combination. Vaughn Suponatime spoke with us about his act.
Q - Vaughn, you appeared on The Tonight Show multiple times. Who was hosting, Johnny Carson or Jay Leno?
A - That was Carson.
Q - You were doing what then?
A - Stand-up comedy. I started very early doing stand-up in New York. I could only work the coffee houses 'cause I was under eighteen. In those days the nightclubs had a drinking age of eighteen. Now I believe it's twenty-one. So, for a couple of years I worked in the coffee houses. I would emcee shows and put together stand-up comedy, just trying to learn how to do things. Then when I turned eighteen there were comedy showcases uptown in these nightclubs that I would go to. When The Tonight Show moved out here (California), many of the comedians from New York moved out here (California) to get on the show 'cause that was the next step. That's what I did. It took years, that kind of path and years of working here in Los Angeles before I would even approach The Tonight Show because you could always do The Tonight Show later, but if you do it too early, you can't take it back. You go on before you're ready and you hurt yourself. It takes a long time to develop material, whether it's sketch or a monologue or whatever it is you're doing up there and to have it down in front of an audience so that it works like a little Swiss movement in a watch. When it's working like that, it's just beautiful. It's like flight.
Q - Did Johnny Carson call you back to the couch to talk to you?
A - On the first show I got back to the couch because one of the guests, Victor Buono, a character actor who was a very funny fellow had poems about his weight where he made fun of himself about being fat and he would do it as serious poetry and it was hysterical. In fact, when I look back at the line-up on the show that night as a TV viewer, the only person that would interest me would be Victor Buono. I did a very good comedy turn and they unfortunately had him scheduled on after me and he didn't want to do it. So, all I know is after the commercial, they said they want you back. So, I got lucky.
Q - I guess so. Did your appearance on The Tonight Show help your career in any way?
A - No. They didn't seek me out. I had to approach them. In those days I had to send them a VHS of the shot. You would take that video tape around to studios. I had gotten some representation which I wish had been better representation, but that company did get my tape around. I got some work from it. I was also involved with improvisation comedy. I was in The Groundlings for a couple of years. I was in Off The Wall during the time Robin Williams was there, just when he got his show. So, I had the privilege of working with him for about two years. From being in a talent pool like that, people come to see the show and because it was improvisation comedy you could come every week and never see the same show. It's mostly current events, so the audience would decide what sketches they wanted to see. It was truly a handful of us. There was only six of us I think total with a couple of revolving guests. John Ritter used to come in and improvise with us occasionally. Word got around and a lot of big people came down to see the improv show. From that, work begets work.
Q - I take it you didn't have anybody like A.P.A. or William Morris as your agent.
A - No. Unfortunately there's like five managers for comedians that can change your life. You have to have the goods, otherwise they're not interested in you, but they can pick up a phone and get you into an arena where you couldn't get yourself, or if you could get there it would take you years to try and connect with people. But they're there. They're the touchstone of new comedy. Bernie Brillstein's company is one of them. Bernie Brillstein passed away a number of years ago, but his company is very strong. When I was around, it was Rollins and Jeffe. They handled Robin. They handled Woody Allen, Dick Cavett. So, there's only a handful. And they had comedians on their roster they couldn't get work. They were very good comedians, but for some reason or another they weren't hitting on all four cylinders and they weren't getting national exposure. Nothing had clicked for them. To get one of those companies interested in you it's a very difficult thing. It's a matter of timing and if you know someone who's involved in that company and will vouch for you and say, "The guy's a worker and he's good at what he does." A lot of it is chance and I think the important thing is what you produce on stage should do your talking for you.
Q - Do you remember the first time someone said to you, "You know, you look a little like Frank Sinatra"?
A - When I first came out to L.A. in the '70s I took up jogging and lost a lot of weight and seems that the bone structure underneath was pretty similar. So I just kind of started getting that 'cause I'd been a performer before I started doing the Sinatra tribute, but I never capitalized on that when I was performing. And also, he had aged by that time, so the similarities were to his former self.
Q - The young Sinatra.
A - The youngest, yeah. The look is very helpful on a lot of different jobs. About five minutes after you walk on stage it's a radio show. (laughs) There are things I can take credit for and there are things I lucked out (on). I happen to be in his vocal range. So if I find an arrangement that was written for him or a take down of an arrangement and it was in the key he sang it in, I don't have to transpose it. I can use that key. So that's another similarity that was helpful. I capitalized on that. And then the homework you do. It's not important for the audience to see the homework. It's like a magician. You want to make it look easy. When you hear Sinatra sing, you think you could roll out of bed and sing that way. But then you start realizing what he's doing vocally... and he always warmed up before a show. It was his ritual. He always had to warm up his voice, whereas Sammy Davis never warmed up. It was right there.
Q - There's a lot of personality in Sinatra's voice.
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - That's why when someone like a Harry Connick Jr. tries to imitate Frank Sinatra, it's not there. It's not the same.
A - Well, I think when Connick first came out of course there were those comparisons and he was doing cover songs with similar arrangements. I think that's what got him attention, but since then he has branched out. He's also written his own songs. He's quite a musician in his own right and quite a Jazz singer in his own right, plus he went on to do Broadway and film and expanded the career. But we all build on the shoulders of the people who came before us. Interesting thing about Sinatra is he changed the face of music on two occasions when he started singing with the Big Bands. People came to see the band. When Sinatra came on the scene, people started showing up to hear the vocalist. That was a big change in music. The second time he did it was when he staged a comeback in the 1950s. His career was shot. He had fractured or herniated his vocal chords. He had to remain silent for a number of months. His record company had dropped him, his film company, one of the studios had dropped him. His marriage was finished. The divorce from Ava Gardner was just ruinous to his health. I think the people in the business respect him because here's a guy who had it all, lost it all, then got it back. And he earned it. An Academy Award for From Here To Eternity. In the same year, "Young At Heart" came out and he was back on the record charts. He was back in business.
Q - Did you ever see Sinatra in concert?
A - I saw Frank Sinatra perform in 1979 in Los Angeles. I was going out with a girl at the time who her family was friendly with Sinatra's attorney. So, she got us backstage passes and we sat on the side of the stage watching the profile of him come out and do the show. It was interesting 'cause it was an outdoor amphitheatre and it was misting. It was drizzling. They had to put tarps over the generators so they wouldn't short out. The front of the stage was wet and behind him on the stage was wet too and I thought he's going to cut the show a little bit short 'cause it was a charity show and behind us was an enormous tent set up for dinner. Now, when I say a tent, the tent had chandeliers in it. That's big tent, okay? All his work from the '60s on went to charity. But he didn't cut the show short. The thing I noticed too is he didn't make an attempt to grab the audience. His whole aura up there was he drew you in. So when it came time to sing the saloon song, "One For My Baby, One More For The Road", he took this amphitheatre and turned it into a little bistro. It was so intimate. He made no attempt to grab the audience. That you can't pick up if you listen to him on a recording, or even if you see him on television you won't pick that up. Television works very close.
Q - When you say he worked for charity from the '60s on, what time in the '60s are we talking about?
A - It's my understanding, and I was friends with a fellow who worked for him as a valet for twenty-five years, George Jacobs, that from somewhere in the '60s on, I don't know the exact year, that all the work he did, it all went to charity.
Q - I never heard that before.
A - I work at his Palm Springs estate and once in a while at the Rancho Mirage estate and the Palm Springs estate I was there about three months after he passed away. Afterwards I walked into a restaurant that's not there anymore. It was called Sorrentino's. I didn't call ahead. I was with a lady. They looked at me and I was in a tuxedo. I was just finishing work. "Would you like Mr. Sinatra's booth?" Oh, yeah. I think they must've thought I was a relative. So, we sat down and had dinner. Afterwards the waiter comes over and he says, "Everyone's talking." I told him what I do. He said he used to come in here and he didn't know what he wanted to eat. He'd go in the kitchen and we'd let him cook. (laughs) Then, he would tip every waiter a hundred dollars, every busboy two hundred dollars. If you ever worked as a waiter you understand here's a guy who understands the waiters don't make much. They make tips, but the busboys make 10% of hardly anything. So, he was sensitive to that. Then he goes out to the valet, a twenty-one year old kid. He says, "I'll get your car Mr. Sinatra." He says, "Hey kid. What is the biggest tip you ever got?" He said, "I got a hundred dollars once." He said, "Here's two hundred (dollars). Get my car." So, he comes back and Sinatra says, "By the way, who gave you the hundred dollars?" He said, "Well, you did about two weeks ago." (laughs) He wanted to be the guy that tipped the valet the most money. Today if a celebrity leaves a hundred dollars he gets a lot of publicity, TMZ. Oh, what a generous guy. It's a generous tip if your bill wasn't that big. On the other hand, it was quite frequent for just a handful of celebrities to be known as that generous when they went out and they did it every time they went out. They didn't stay home much.
Q - I recall trying to do an interview with a maitre'd about Frank Sinatra and he something like "That's ancient history. Nobody cares about that anymore." But he's wrong, isn't he? People are still very interested in Frank Sinatra.
A - Very much so. You know they utilize some of his songs in movie tracks like Catch Me If You Can. I think they used "Come Fly With Me" and one other song from that era. Sometimes when I do a show that's open and selling tickets to the public I find twenty year olds, thirty year olds and I speak to them and they say, "Well, we saw Ocean's Eleven with George Clooney and we wanted to see the original." So, they were introduced to The Rat Pack through the original film. Some of these young people develop an affinity for their swagger I guess, the image of them on screen and high living. They fancy that kind of lounge kind of style. I think you'll find through every generation you'll find a certain niche group that always find something amazing from the past. Now with YouTube you don't even have to go to a library to find out who anyone is.
Q - How much of a demand is there for a Frank Sinatra tribute show?
A - Well, there's various types of categories. In other words, when there are big events, corporate events, they'll have a theme like Casino Night or Las Vegas Night. Now of course what's a natural for that? A Rat Pack? A Sinatra? A Dean Martin? Even a Marilyn (Monroe). So, there's that. Then there's a theme of the Big Band era. There's certain jobs where they celebrate the '40s and '50s of Hollywood glamour and Sinatra also fits into that category. There are fans. There are fans that have followed him through most of his career and they kind of pass it on to their kids because they played it in the house when the kids were growing up. There's no way to put a numerical figure to how much of a demand there is, but there seems to be very much of an appreciation. Look at the activity about Sinatra on Facebook alone. It's in every State. When I first started, they would fly me all over the country because there were no Sinatra impersonators that were available. But now, you throw a rock, any guy with a hat is doing Frank. (laughs) There's a Rat Pack out of Holland, I see on Facebook. I don't know who is who. I can't tell who does Frank and who does Dean. They're all healthy looking, beefy guys. (laughs) So, it's that popular. That boggles my mind. Why Holland? But, hey! He might be big in Holland. I don't know. (laughs)
Q - You performed your Sinatra tribute in front of Ernest Borgnine, didn't you?
A - Yes. If I remember the event was an Air Force base out in Lancaster before they closed it, when I first began. It was an organization for senior citizens and I went out there to do a show. Ernest Borgnine at that time was only seventy-seven and he had more energy than anyone in that room. I never saw a guy who had this like motor-churning enthusiasm in his demeanor. I tried to ask him a little about From Here To Eternity, but he gave me these stock answers. "It was a great time. He was great. It was a wonderful film", but he was very upbeat. Here's a guy whose motor must've just stopped. I don't think there was any winding down of him. He was like a child. He was happy to meet everyone. (laughs)
Q - People I've interviewed never say anything negative about Frank Sinatra. In fact, some people get emotional when his name is brought up.
A - Yeah. I've seen that before myself. Once in a while I'll have a woman in her 80s come up to me after a show here in Hollywood or the Hollywood area and start off by saying, "You know, I knew Frank." (laughs) "Really?" "We dated." "Oh, that's great. What was that like?" And their eyes glaze over. "Oh, he sent a limo and made breakfast." They're like eighteen years old again. (laughs)
Q - Do you believe them or are they trying to impress you?
A - I think from the glaze in their eyes that they're really re-living those moments. I mean, it's not thousands of people. I've had more than three or four times a similar situation. I have to laugh. He got around in Hollywood in those days.
Q - Those are ex-starlets?
A - Those are lie B-starlets that didn't hit the big time. You can tell that when they were young they were really attractive women.
Q - Now that you do this Sinatra tribute, is your comedic background a thing of the past?
A - No, no, no. In between the songs, the show is still going on. I had seen Frank perform and if he had focused on putting some one-liners in between some of those songs, those throw-aways the way Dean Martin did, not Dean Martin jokes, but his own type. I've written jokes that sound like they might have come from Frank. Don't push it. They're there for the music. I introduce the next number and if there's a little story that'll get a laugh that goes with it, I don't push it. Then I'll talk about my friends Dean and Sammy 'cause he would have. I have a few jokes for them. I have a way to personalize the show although they're hearing it from Frank in their mind's eye. I think they remember you by doing that. The songs? A lot of guys sing "Fly Me To The Moon", some better than others, but what makes it memorable is the whole show, the idea that you had an entertaining time and you felt that Sinatra was in the room and you heard these wonderful tunes that bring you back to whatever chapter of your life you were living when that tune came out.