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The Night Everything Changed

The Night Everything Changed …From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth. I know, Hoboken is decidedly not South Jersey, it’s North Jersey. But the history of Sinatra and Atlantic City and the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill is so strong, you come away with the impression that he represents the entire state—if not the planet.

Plus, as you will see, he sort of plays a role in the birth of my two daughters. Please don’t read anything lecherous into that. I stress “sort of” in a roundabout way.

Let’s travel back to Friday night, May 23, 1980. I had been dating my future wife Debbie for a couple years, but we had split up for a few months. Toward the end days of this breakup, we bumped into each other at a party and it was obvious that some sparks were still hovering about.

I asked her if she felt like going out Friday night. She thought about it long and hard and kept me dangling for a few days before she said “yes.” The Phillies were in town and I suggested we go to a game and the soiree was set.

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We had been together for a long time and there wasn’t that much we didn’t know about each other. So it was an “odd” kind of “date.” I picked her up in my rusted ’62 Malibu and off we went.

One little problem. We’re chatting away and I miss the final exit off the Schuylkill for Veterans Stadium and we are now being forced over the Walt Whitman Bridge. We get to the top of it when Debbie says, “Let’s go to Atlantic City and check out the casino.”

Now A.C. at this point of its life had only one casino, Resorts. Neither one of us had ever stepped foot in a casino and I know I only have about $25 in my pocket. But what the heck, maybe I’ll get lucky and we’ll hit for millions and I won’t ever have to open the door of this crappy car again.

So off we go. We park on the street about a mile away to save money on parking. (Seriously, folks, does the word “loser” apply to me at all here?) We stroll in, hit the casino floor, and I have to admit; it was exciting. We had been to plenty of cool concerts and parties together in the past, but this energy level was a whole different buzz. And that oxygen!

Debbie immediately hits the slots and turns her $30 into $50. So we now have about $75 between us. We’re headed for a blackjack table when Debbie sees a sign on the floor that says Frank Sinatra has a show at 11 p.m. “I wanna see Sinatra,” she shouts over the noise.

“Sinatra?!”

I was into the Who and James Brown, Bruce and Motown. My mother had raised me on Big Band music, but my mom disliked Sinatra and his music was never played around the house when I was growing up. He just wasn’t my bag.

But Debbie wanted to go, and to tell you the truth this date was more about me winning her back than the other way around.

Of course we get to the box office and it’s been sold out for 37 years.

So I stood in front of the box office and when the line started forming for the late show, I started in on the “anyone have a pair of tickets they’re looking to sell?” bit.

No luck.

Then this well-dressed older man came over to me and said, “Kid, see that desk over there? That’s where the high-rollers pick up their tickets. You stand a better chance of picking up a pair over there. They get their tickets for free and because of that, occasionally a group of six shows up as a group of four.”

So that’s exactly what I do and you’re not going to believe this, but not only do I score the tickets, but this very attractive 40-something gives me two tickets. Free!

Now we’re in this very slow-moving line and when I get closer to the entrance, I discover why it’s moving so slow. A maître d’ greets you at the head of the line and you have to grease his palm. I had seen this scene in movies, but I myself had never gone through it. Now remember, I was dressed to go to a Phillies game, not Frank Sinatra, so my “loser” label is shining like a piece of Vegas neon. Debbie, on the other hand, was dressed just fine because Debbie doesn’t go to the Wawa without looking like a million bucks.

Remember, the tickets didn’t cost us a dime so I have $75 in my pocket. How much of that am I supposed to give him? Twenty? Fifty? This was Sinatra after all.

So, in my jeans and sneaks, with the gorgeous Debbie by my side, I whisper in the overly cologned maître d’s ear, “Sir, how much do you need for me to get a couple decent seats?” He looks at Debbie and says “follow me” and we start descending down the aisle. That’s descending. Not upwards, away from the stage, because trust me, there’s a lot of bad seats in the other direction.

We get seated at one of the front tables! As I realize this is happening, I’m arranging $50 to tip and the maître d’ waves it off and says, “Have fun, kid.” Are you kidding me?

I found out years later from South Jersyite Bobby McGee who used to take care of Sinatra when he came to A.C., that they used to always save about eight seats right up front for good-looking young women because Sinatra would rather look down and sing to some hot young babe then a woman his own age and Debbie certainly fit that bill.

Sinatra strutted out with no introduction, started into “I’ve Got the World on a String” and hooked the two of us for life. We ended up seeing him 19 more times before he died. He is the Greatest Pop Singer Who Ever Lived. Period.

We had a blast. With all the money we didn’t spend we grabbed a room and it became a night that we never forgot and 33 years later we’re still married.

So not only do I thank you, Mr. Sinatra, but so do my two daughters, Keely and Ava. Who knows for sure if they’d be here today without you?

Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com.

On Sunday, June 14, Big Daddy Graham will be performing his stage show about his dad, Last Call, for the first time ever in New Jersey. The 2 p.m. matinee will take place at the Broadway Theatre in Pitman and tickets are $25. Visit BigDaddyGraham.com for tickets and more information.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May, 2015).
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Author: Big Daddy Graham

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