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.
Five years ago, Mickey was still opening and closing that door, carrying luggage. He was 55, and life was kind of pointless. Jake Needleman, who ran Giovanni's in Edgewood, called to ask to borrow some of Mickey's posters and records. By then, he was known around town as a Sinatra buff.
'I could do that'
When Mickey delivered the stuff, Mr. Needleman told him he planned to hire a Sinatra impersonator to entertain his customers. For reasons he doesn't understand to this day, the words that changed Mickey's life sprang from his throat: "I could do something like that."
So he did, and pleased his audience and astounded himself. He thought it would be a one-day thing, but people started calling him. One guy even flew him out to Scottsdale, Ariz., to sing for a convention of Chrysler dealers.
As a senior-citizen success story, it may not match that of Harland Sanders, who started building his Kentucky Fried Chicken empire at age 66, but it was big time for Mickey Leicht of Essex. Embarked on a new career, he changed his name. He had to, he says, because people had the unfortunate tendency to mispronounce Leicht as "Leak."
His wife, Daintry, acts as his agent and handles his bookings. To her, Sinatra's OK, and she kind of shares Mickey's enthusiasm. "But I like Barbra Streisand," she says.
Mickey hasn't become famous; he hasn't become rich. He enjoys a mild renown which, if not great, sure beats his former anonymity. He also makes more money than he did when he was opening doors and pouring drinks. He can earn up to $400 a night, and in a good season can perform two to three times a week.
"This is easy work," he says. "You get up on the stage for maybe an hour, an hour-and-a-half. That's it." He rehearses every evening in his basement.
Some people believe that an approximation of an original idea or unique object is farther removed from that idea or object than its opposite. A zircon is as glittery as a diamond, pretends to be a diamond, but never will be a diamond. A lot of people, of course, are not finicky and are happy with the fake gem.
Few troubadours in this country have been as original as Sinatra, which is surely why he has spawned so many imitators. But his originality has such force that people will pay to see a facsimile of it. They will do so unashamedly, with the same sense of respectability that will lead them to buy a copy of a Winslow Homer to hang on their living room walls.
Mickey Light is clearly a counterfeit. But it's hard to come away from one of his performances without feeling one has been thoroughly entertained, especially if you are of that certain age. He is a grand faker, but he tells his audience right up front what he is, and they accept it and embrace it.
Mickey sings and tells jokes; he knows many people in the audience. It is a masquerade, a levity, and the only truth is that everything in it is false. The Jack Daniels is fake, and that dainty black thing Mickey is wiping his brow with isn't really Madonna's bra.
As he sings you can see the people in the audience, eyes all alight, mouthing the same words Mickey is belting into his hand-held mike as he prances across the low stage:
"Start spreading the news. "
He is one with them and now and then asserts his kinship. He tells them of his six kids, his seven grandchildren. Takes his hat off to reveal his baldness: It's confessional and endearing, even if contrived.
Just a show
"It's acting," Mickey says. "You gotta imagine you're out there with a spotlight on you, with a cigarette in one hand doing 'One For My Baby.' You gotta act like you're a little bit high. It affects people. I see them holding hands. I see people cryin'."
By now Katie Smeton is inured to this. "I've seen Sinatra 66 times," she said during a recent Mickey Light performance at Minnick's restaurant in Dundalk. "I've seen Mickey over 300 times."
But she's an old friend. She, too, is a collector, and after the performance she helps Mickey sell his cassette of Mickey doing Sinatra's songs, "Mickey Live."
The picture on the box suggests a younger man, with a full head of brown hair.
"Can you believe it?" asks Ms. Smeton. "That picture's only 2 years old. That's Mickey with his wig on. It's such a nice wig. But, . . . he don't wear it anymore."
Mickey's hair, what there is of it, is white now. Sometimes, because his hair is whiter, and more natural-looking than Sinatra's gray hairpiece, Mickey looks more like Steve Martin impersonating Frank Sinatra than like Sinatra.
The performer keeps a tan. "It looks nice up on the stage," he says. He's trim and probably taller than Sinatra and has intense blue eyes. "Somebody once accused him of wearing blue contacts," says Ms. Smeton.
Mickey's been asked more than once why he just doesn't sing for himself, since he has a pretty good voice. Why Frank Sinatra? Why not Mickey Light?
Though he may do a song or two Sinatra doesn't do, country songs like "Crazy" and "After the Lovin'," of one thing he is certain:
"If I was Mickey Light, I don't think I'd be working. I always say, I'm not a singer. I never had any coaches. I don't read music."
So he's not a singer, and not an impersonator. Then what is Mickey Light?
Maybe he's something that nobody aspires to be, but which the world cannot do without: the perfect disciple, the honest and loyal follower, and happy to be.
He is a guy who does it his way, even though his way happens to be somebody else's. He is, by his own definition, "Baltimore's own Blue Eyes."