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Cute film, pity about the facts, says John Pond, the man who was at the epicentre of the Frank Sinatra black ban crisis in 1974, the event that gave birth to the new Australian film, The Night We Called It A Day. Andrew L. Urban reports.

“It’s a cute film, and it’s technically good, the acting’s pretty good …. But the story’s sh**house,” says John Pond. “If I was Sinatra, I’d be rolling in my grave. They’ve made him the opposite of what he was…” and Pond should know: he was the marketing manager of the Boulevard Hotel when Sinatra stayed there, and he spent hours with ol’ blue eyes every day. He even had a friend build a self contained kitchen in the suite adjoining Sinatra’s so the crooner could cook up a meal for his friends.

"Fans wept"

And Sinatra changed Pond’s life.

But first things first: The Night We Called It A Day is a film that takes as its premise the 1974 Sinatra tour, when Sinatra famously referred to journalists as two-bit hookers, or words to that effect. The nation was outraged. The unions black banned his tour. Shows were cancelled. Fans wept. 

That much is true. The details shown in the film are not, he says.

In the film (opens August 14, 2003 in Australia), a young 1970s Australian rock promoter, Rod Blue (Joel Edgerton) works hard to secure the act of his so far so-so career: Frank Sinatra (Dennis Hopper) is coming to Australia and will set him up with kudos and cash. But when Sinatra’s private plane lands in Sydney with ol’ blue eyes and his girlfriend Barbara Marx (Melanie Griffith), the waiting press manage to provoke an outburst in which he insults the media, which triggers a union black ban on the Sinatra entourage. Rod’s blues have just begun, as he and his new assistant – and possibly new girlfriend – Audrey (Rose Byrne) do everything they can to resolve the crisis, even persuading the national leader of the union movement, Bob Hawke (David Field) to help negotiate a solution. Tom Burlinson stands in as Sinatra’s singing voice, and the film is directed by Paul Goldman, produced by Emile Sherman, Nik Powell, Peter Clifton, from a screenplay by Peter Clifton and Michael Thomas.

“None of the characters were like the ones in the film … Barbara Marx was a classy lady,” says Pond. In the screenplay, Melanie Griffith gets to disparage her first husband Chico Marx as being lousy in bed, and then to boast about Sinatra being “110 pounds of you know what” to the promoter’s assistant/girlfriend, played by Rose Byrne. 

Mickey Rudin, who according to Pond is “played like a little yes man in the film,” by David Hemmings, was in fact a wealthy, hot shot attorney, one of Hollywood’s greatest, with a client list that stretched from Marilyn Monroe to Liza Minelli and included Sinatra. 

"a total fabrication"

“And his lifelong friend Rizzo wasn’t a heavy – he never thumped anyone,” says Pond, referring to the film’s portrayal of Sinatra’s bodyguard. As for the promoter, played in the film by Joel Edgerton, “it’s a total fabrication,” says Pond.

The Sinatra tour was in fact promoted by three men: the famous and successful promoter of many entertainers, Cyril Smith, a man called Danny Donovan and Robert Raymond, who some years later bought the film rights to Tom Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, and sold them to Steven Spielberg, getting an associate producer credit on the film.

John Pond was in the room when, as the black ban put paid to most of the live concerts, Sinatra told the three despondent promoters, “Guys, stop worrying; you don’t have to pay me the full fee.” And it was John Pond who negotiated the historic live telecast of Sinatra’s final concert with Channel 9. 

“Sinatra came up to me and asked whether a tv station would telecast his last show, if Equity agreed - because in those days, artists couldn’t tour here doing live shows AND televised concerts. Sinatra said he wanted to give a free tv show to make it up to all the fans who missed out.”

The telecast is in the film, but the tapes of the telecast concert were not whisked away by Sinatra’s man as the film has it, says Pond. “Those two inch tapes they used in the 70s were worth a lot of money, something like $500 or $1,000 each, and they were always re-used. That’s what I think happened to them, either accidentally or intentionally – or it may even have been in the contract with Sinatra to delete the concert. They certainly weren’t taken away.”

"it was too late to change the script"

It was also Pond who set up the meetings with then union boss, ACTU President and later Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, which led to the resolution of the dispute, with a form of words that satisfied the hurt pride of the two-bit hookers in the media, the unions in general and Sinatra himself. 

Considering all this – and more – John Pond is “a little bit pissed off, actually” at how the real story was ignored. “I thought they’d contact me earlier, but when the producer and director got hold of me and came over for a coffee, it was just a month before filming and they said ‘we wish we’d spoken to you a year ago!’ But it was too late to change the script. Anyway, it was a love story, they said, and the Sinatra story was secondary…the film’s target audience wouldn’t know who Sinatra was. But I don’t buy that – why then use the incident with him at all as the trigger?”

At the very least, says Pond, the film should have a big disclaimer “everywhere, saying it’s all made up. People who see it and don’t know the truth will believe it all, and it wasn’t like that. “Sinatra in my experience never raised his voice, he was always charming and everyone around him worshipped the ground he walked on.”

And how did Sinatra change John Pond’s life? “He was very appreciative of the help we had given him, and he invited me to fly back to the US with him in his private plane – which, incidentally wasn’t like the small corporate jet in the film. It was a big plane, and it was owned by the casino chain of Harrah’s.”

"Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Black"

Sinatra flew on to Monaco for his annual charity performance in front of the Monaco Royals, and Pond was feted by Harrah’s in Nevada. He was put up in a suite at Ceasar’s Palace, Sinatra’s performance home in Las Vegas, and “treated like a king”. A friend from Sydney joined him, and the two lads painted the town red, white and blue. Back in sometime later Sydney, Harrah’s called him up again and invited him over, and Pond soon ended up with the offer of running Harrah’s then planned Australian casino operations. He spent three years training for it, but the plan was shelved. Nevertheless, it set Pond on a new path in his life; in all, he spent 12 years in the casino business in America. (Prior to marketing at the Boulevard Hotel, he had been Head of Production in Australia for Columbia Pictures, and prior to that a producer at Channel 7.)

John Pond continues to link his professional experiences as a marketing consultant, a film and television lecturer – and the best informed man about Sinatra’s Australian tour; the tour that might have been called Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Black.

Published August 7, 2003

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John Pond

The Night We Called It A Day

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