STILL FRANK'S KIND OF TOWN 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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"Get some of that beer and get back over here! John, I'm going to make you a star. You and me!" Bobby announces. On the overhead TV, the Yankees are losing to the Twins. No one is watching. On the bar, martinis glisten. Thank Frank for that.

Yes . . . you are lovely, don't you ever change. Because I love you and the way you look tonight, John sings. "Everybody help me out!" Bobby says. And everybody does, in their own way.

Then you remember what somebody wrote about Sinatra a million years ago - that he always considered himself just a saloon singer.

And so do we all - in our hearts.

Letter from Frankie

You know, Dolly Della Bella says, my husband Joseph grew up with Frankie. When he was very sick, Frankie wrote him a letter from California. It was a beautiful letter, Dolly says. "Do you want me to get it for you?" Please. "I got to walk up two flights of stairs again." If you would.

Rocky Carnival, 81, minds the front stoop as Dolly walks. This is the old neighborhood, two streets down from Frank's birthplace on Monroe Street and near St. Francis Church on Jefferson Street - the Sinatra family church. Hoboken Electric (its store symbol, a neon fist) has honored Frank with a splendid carnation wreath on a stand.

"Oh, he was a helluva guy. I knew his mother and father, too," Rocky says. "I had a cousin who played with him. He played guitar in his band."

The Hoboken Four Band featured a spindly, 20-year-old singer named Frank Sinatra. In 1935, the Hoboken Four won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, which doesn't ring any bells now. But then it was big, Sinatra's first break, his first splash of celebrity. Only four years later, Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey's band, which propelled him to a singing career in which he would own the 1940s.

When he was 19, Sinatra split Hoboken and never looked back, they say. A nasty, prolonged grudge match between city and native son ensued. The causes are clouded now. Sinatra did venture back many years later while stumping with President Ronald Reagan. In 1985, he came back to receive an honorary degree from Hoboken's Stevens Institute of Technology. And flimsier stories say Frank would whisk wife Mia Farrow into Hoboken via limo late at night to show her his old haunts.

For much of his storied life, though, Sinatra kept his distance from Hoboken. But he kept his friends.

"Watch it! I got to frame it!" Dolly is back, and scolding Rocky for manhandling The Letter From Frank in 1990 to her late husband, Joe Della Bella:

Dear Joe,

I just heard that you've been ill. . . . I have fond memories of our youth back in Hoboken. I hope you do too! Take care of yourself.

All the best, Frank

"It's very precious to me," Dolly says. "I'm going to have it laminated."

Monroe Street shrine

Frank Sinatra was born Dec. 12, 1915, at 415 Monroe St. The house burned down years ago, but a brick-and-stucco arch and a brick wall still stand. In 1996, the city erected a plaque here, and it's here where the masses come. Sinatra's star on the ground is covered with carnations, Teddy bears, straw hats, golfer's hats, bottles of Chivas, Black Label and Jack Daniel's, burning candles, sealed notes and open verses. The backdrop is the Italian flag.

Next door to the shrine, Pinky's Wholesale sells records, pins, T-shirts, postcards, you-name-it. "Didn't we almost make it this time," Sinatra sings from a beat-up cassette player on the doorstep. The radio station is "forgoing commercials" today in honor of Sinatra. Women weep before the bricks - imagining, perhaps, Frank's early sound waves once bouncing off this wall.

"I never do anything like this. I'm not like those people - not that there's anything wrong with this," says Ingrid Zahn, a Hoboken resident nearly of Sinatra's generation. "He's just been such a part of my life," she says, crying, standing, crying some more. She does not want to leave this spot.

"There's nothing like living in Hoboken and walking down the street and hearing Frankie played on the radio somewhere," she says, hearing the music now in her head. "Hey Frankie!" she calls - to herself.

Al and Margot Abramovitch feel a little funny standing so close to the shrine. So, they have backed off, gone across the street. Despite their distance, they don't want to leave either.

"You can ask yourself, 'What are all these people doing here?'" Al says. "Then I ask myself, what am I doing here?"

They live in California now, but were visiting family here when they heard the news. Al is a Jersey guy, you see. On their honeymoon 20 years ago, they went to Vegas to see Sinatra vTC because, as Margot says, "you got to do that." Just as you got to stop here at the plaque, she says.

"Frank had charisma," Margot says.

"The guy was smooth. The guy was smooth," Al says.

"Oh," Margot says, "he must be having a good time up there in heaven."

Who knows, Old Blue Eyes just might be up there with St. Francis of Assisi - for whom Sinatra's family church was named. "The Little Church With the Big Heart" has a big day planned today: A Frank Sinatra Memorial Mass will be held at 5:30 p.m.

"We're expecting a lot of people," says Mario Ragno, spending his Saturday tidying up the church and rectory. "I don't know what we're going to do. We're not a big church here, but we'll work it out. We'll work it out."

Mario leads us to the very spot where Sinatra was baptized 82 years ago, the same place Maria Bockman was baptized 22 years ago. Mario has never heard of Maria Bockman from the Three Roses bar across town. He just knows Sinatra.

"From Hoboken," Mario says. "Came up the hard way."

The day after

Last call to Leo's. Almost 48 hours after Sinatra's death, the crowd at Leo's has thinned. The night before, "Nobody wanted to go home. We stayed open until 4," Leo says. Tonight, only eight customers. Very quiet.

The jukebox is still playing Sinatra, who's singing a song with the line, "If you go away . . ." The best singer go away, Leo DiTerlizzi says to himself, plucking two olives from a jar. Feel so bad.

Leo is just chatting now, with no TV cameras or crowd around. Everything he says gets back, somehow, to Frank. The portrait over the jukebox, for instance, that's going to the memorial mass, Leo says. The jukebox flips to another Sinatra classic:

When I was 17, it was a very good year. It was a very good year for small-town girls and soft summer nights . . . we'd hide from the lights . . . when I was 17. . . .

In a quiet bar in the middle of Hoboken, you really listen when Frank Sinatra sings. If you didn't "get" him, you do now. But now the days are short . . . I'm in the autumn of my years. . . . Sinatra will break your heart.

And now the end is near. . . .

As Leo serves a couple of Bass Ales, he talks along to Frank's "My Way." The crowd is four. I did it my way, Frank sings, airing it out.did it my way," Leo says, under his breath.

Leo DiTerlizzi is 82, which was Sinatra's age. Also, we're both from Hoboken, Leo says, keeping the connection.

"But I'm still here," Leo says. "What are you drinking?"

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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