In late January, Las Vegas took a step back in time to its Rat Pack heyday when FRANK The Man. The Music—a supper club-themed musical production showcasing the life and work of Frank Sinatra—made its debut at The Palazzo Theatre. Playing the role of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself is Bob Anderson, a longtime Vegas headliner whom Merv Griffin dubbed “The Singing Impressionist.”
While Anderson’s act typically features a handful of musical impressions—from Frank to Dean Martin to Sammy Davis Jr. to Tom Jones—for FRANK, it’s all Sinatra all the time, a changeup that requires Anderson to act as both impersonator and impressionist. Here, he shares some of his trade secrets.
1. START EARLY.
“I lived on a farm in Michigan and there was always a lot of music going on with my mom and dad,” Anderson says of his childhood. “I wanted to learn to sing and I thought that the best way for me to do that without taking lessons was to listen to the greatest singers and sing along with them. So I would put their music on and try to sing to as close as I could to whichever singer I was listening to. I thought that if I could sound even a little bit like these guys I’d do well, because they were the best. Little did I know that I was really learning how to do impressions of each one of these people.”
2. FIND YOUR NICHE.
“At the time that I started nobody was doing singing impressions, they were usually doing big actors or political figures,” Anderson recalls. “I never planned on being a singing impressionist; I wanted to be a singer and that’s what I was doing. But this was in the 1970s and everyone was losing their record contracts, so you had to produce your own music and hope to get a distribution deal.”
3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TAKE A CHANCE.
Anderson was just 20 when he arrived in Las Vegas. “I had no money, long hair, a peace sign for a belt buckle, and all that stuff," he says. "I got to Las Vegas and, after sleeping in my car, I walked into the Sahara Hotel and just started walking around. I saw the show room, opened the door, and a guy asked, ‘Can I help you, kid?’ I said I was just looking around and he asked if I’d ever seen a rehearsal. I said no, that I didn’t even know what that was. He said, ‘Why don’t you sit in that booth over there. Don’t make any noise and you can watch this.’ It was about three o’clock in the afternoon and Nancy Sinatra was up there rehearsing with a full orchestra.”
Though the Everly Brothers were scheduled as her opening act, an incident during rehearsal found Ms. Sinatra scrambling for a replacement. Call it being in the right place at the right time or simply a moment of serendipity. “She was going to open in four hours and she was stuck,” says Anderson. “She was calling everybody and nobody could get there in time. I was sitting there and realized, ‘I can do whatever she needs.’ I don’t know where I got the whatever to get up there and do it, but I walked up to the stage and—with everybody looking at me like, ‘How did this guy get in here?’—I said, ‘Hey, Nancy. I’m a singer. And I can do whatever you need.’ Everybody laughed except for the conductor. He told her, ‘Nancy, we are stuck. See if this kid can sing. It might be funny.’ I told her I knew all her duets. Her conductor, Billy Strange, started playing the song ‘Something Stupid,’ which she did with her dad. So I sang this song with her. She came off the stage, hugged me, and I opened that evening in the Sahara Hotel.”
4. IT’S WHO YOU KNOW.
After that fortuitous afternoon at the Sahara Hotel, Anderson continued working with Nancy Sinatra for the next year. And she began introducing him to some of her friends and colleagues. Just days after Sinatra took him on The Merv Griffin Show, Anderson got a call from Paul Anka, who had seen his performance and asked him to come back on Merv’s show with him a week later. “After the show Merv Griffin came up to me and said, ‘You know Bob, you have to have a reason for being on the show. You have to have a hit record or be in the movies or have a TV show or something. We can’t just keep having you back here on the show,’ and I told him that I totally understood,” says Anderson. “About a year later I was working in L.A. and Merv came into the club where I was and told me that he was having a party at his house and wanted me to come.’
“It was Merv’s 50th birthday and everybody in Hollywood was there—and I mean everybody: Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, and Elizabeth Taylor. The Beach Boys were sitting in the front room and Mama Cass, who had a cast on her foot, was resting it on Brian Wilson’s lap. Goldie Hawn was walking around. I couldn’t believe it. All of a sudden, Merv started playing the piano and asked me to come up and sing something. And out of nowhere I started singing the songs just like the people who made the famous: If he played ‘Misty,’ I did Johnny Mathis. If he played ‘If Ever I Would Leave You,’ I was Robert Goulet. If he did ‘Delilah,’ I was Tom Jones. Within five minutes you could hear a pin drop in Merv’s house and I will never forget that Cary Grant was sitting on the floor, about 10 feet away from me, and said, ‘This is amazing. I have never seen anything like this.’ And it was amazing. So Merv Griffin made me ‘The Singing Impressionist.’”
5. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
Anderson’s role in FRANK just might be the part he was born to play. “I watched Frank Sinatra my whole life,” Anderson admits. “If you are a singer, and you are serious about it, you are going to watch Frank Sinatra and you are going to like Frank Sinatra. You have to. He is just that good. So I used to watch him and sing along to him all the time and I just really felt at home doing Frank Sinatra songs. I knew his gestures and all that stuff. But when I started to work on FRANK, I spent two years getting up at 6 a.m., four days a week, and practicing two hours a day. I had a great big 10-foot by 12-foot video screen with mirrors all around the room and a great sound system and I would get up in the morning, put on a tuxedo, and study every move. I sang along with him and watched every gesture—the way he cocks his head, the way he points, the way he snaps his fingers, the way he walks, everything.”
6. MAKEUP MAKES THE MAN.
To get completely into character, FRANK enlisted the help of two-time Oscar-nominated makeup artist Kazu Tsuji (Looper, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Planet of the Apes) in order to turn Anderson into the legendary showman. And that’s when the character really clicked for Anderson. “Certainly when I have the makeup on and the wig and the whole thing, that makes me feel the part,” says Anderson. “Kazu told me that when he works with movie stars, ‘Once they put this makeup on, they feel the role and it helps them to be the person.’ Well that is exactly what it does to me.”
7. YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE BLUE EYES TO PLAY OL’ BLUE EYES.
One physical feature that Anderson does not have in common with his on-stage alter ego is those famously blue eyes. “No, I have contacts in,” Anderson says, laughing.
8. MAKE IT AUTHENTIC.
As if Anderson’s spot-on Sinatra impression weren’t enough to put audiences in the mood, he also recruited Sinatra’s former musical director, Vincent Falcone, to conduct the 32-piece orchestra that performs throughout the 90-minute production. “Vince was with Sinatra for more than a decade and has the original arrangements that Sinatra gave him,” Anderson says. “I am singing the original arrangements, and 16 players in my orchestra were with Frank Sinatra. I’ve got the real thing.”
9. SET THE SCENE.
In order to fully immerse his audience in Sinatra’s world, Anderson asked the production team “to design me a set that would be reminiscent of the old Persian Room of The Plaza Hotel. I wanted to go back to circa 1965 and go into a supper club when they had their heyday. And so my stage is a supper club; in front of the stage, down in the orchestra seating, we put beautiful tables and lamps on the tabletops and really comfortable chairs and stuff for people to come in. So people who are sitting in the theater seating are looking forward at the stage and they are just looking in on a nightclub … It’s the quintessential reenactment of Sinatra.”
10. KNOW WHEN TO TURN IT OFF.
“I have been in the business for a long time, almost 40 years, and I am very comfortable with what I do at this point,” says Anderson when asked about whether it’s easy for him to shed Sinatra’s persona when he’s not on stage. “I am the last of the singers that have touched that Golden Age of music. I became friends with all those people; I have done all the television things and stuff and I think I grew up quite a few years ago. I am here because I really enjoy it. I enjoy what we are doing … and I am really just having a great time with it. I have surrounded myself with the best of the best and that is what we are doing.”