Mel Haber Interview
In May of 1998, one of the greatest singers of the Twentieth Century, Frank
Sinatra, passed away.
In tribute to Frank Sinatra, we thought it would be fitting to offer up remembrances
of the singer by some of the people who either knew or worked with him.
Mel Haber is one such person. He is the owner of Melvyn’s Restaurant
in Palm Springs, California, a favorite restaurant of Frank Sinatra.
Q – This restaurant of yours, Melvyn’s Restaurant,
you purchased in 1975?
A – Right. Correct.
Q – I should say you bought the Ingleside Inn and then
added a restaurant?
A – Well, there was an existing restaurant here. When I bought the property
in 1975, it was a 20 room hotel, with a little restaurant that catered only
to the people in the hotel. It was an American Plan where when you stayed in
the hotel you got your 3 meals. The woman who ran it ran it sort of as a private
home. You had to almost be invited to get here. She catered to the Who’s
Who of the World. She had everybody from Howard Hughes to Gianni who built
the Bank of America to Herbert Hoover and J.C. Penny and every famous name
you ever heard of.
Q – So, when did Frank Sinatra start coming to the restaurant?
A – It fell into a state of dis-repair because the woman who owned it
didn’t operate it in such a glamorous fashion. She passed away in 1965.
I came along in 1975, ten years after she passed away, and by that time, the
people who owned it were absentee owners and the place was absolutely derelict.
In 1975 the country was in a recession and the interest rates were 17% and
they couldn’t give property away, and I bought it primarily as a real
estate investment. It was 2 acres in the middle of Palm Springs. I decided
to take a shot and run a hotel and restaurant, and spent all the money I had
renovating it. O.K. so I bought it in April of ’75 and close it and go
through this renovation stage. I re-open it in October of ’75 . I would
guess it was about 3 or 4 months before Mr. Sinatra came into the place. In
those days, Palm Springs was a very small village and everybody knew where
Sinatra was all the time. You would hear he’s having dinner here, he
went over to this lounge over here, and I sort of felt like I didn’t
exist because I was open 3 months and Sinatra had not visited my restaurant.
Then lo and behold one night Sinatra came in with his entourage.
Q – How many people were with him?
A – Sinatra traveled in those days with about 8 people. There were like
7 guys and only 1 lady and that was Barbara. He was not yet married to Barbara.
It was Jimmy VanHeusen, the songwriter. It was Leo Derousher, the baseball
guy. There was a guy named Ruby who had a restaurant in town called Ruby’s
Dunes. Allegedly the story I heard, he fed Sinatra before he made his comeback
in “From Here To Eternity”! Sinatra being the kind of loyal guy
he was, Ruby and a good friend of his by the name of Herbie became part of
Sinatra’s entourage. But, generally he traveled with about 7 or 8 guys
and the only lady was Barbara.
Q – Would he have his people call ahead to say he’s
coming in, or did he just walk in?
A – He did both. Sometimes he would just pop in. Sometimes he called
up. If he was having dinner, they would call a make a reservation. If they
just popped into the lounge, ‘cause we have a piano lounge here, and
the group had dinner somewhere else and they were just coming over for cocktails
they wouldn’t call and make a reservation.
Q – Did he pop in often?
A – Oh, yeah. He came in frequently. He spent a lot of time in the lounge.
Never sang here. Jimmy VanHeusen sang once in awhile.
Q – Was there something different in the atmosphere
when Frank Sinatra entered the restaurant as opposed to another celebrity?
A – My personal comment, my personal observation-----I say Sinatra is
the only human being I’ve ever been in awe of. There was an aura about
him, that I don’t know that I can describe. It’s indescribable.
There was something about this guy. I wasn’t one of those fanatical Sinatra
fans. I have a friend of mine who is and was. I’m not. But, there was
something about Sinatra. Some power. Some aura about him that is really indescribable.
What amazed me about Sinatra was he made himself available. When he came in,
he would stand in front of the bar where everybody coming and going into the
restaurant or to a restroom would have to pass him. I never saw anybody bother
him. He was totally accessible. Never ceased to amazed me. In Palm Springs
you expect to see celebrities. So, if you see a celebrity, you see a celebrity.
You see President Ford. You see Bob Hope walking down Palm Canyon Drive. You
see Lucille Ball. They were around all the time. Where, I came from New York,
and if there was a celebrity there would be a crowd around them. They’d
be standing around the restaurant, I’m sorry, waiting for the guy to
come and go. But, I never saw anybody bother Sinatra and again he made himself
Q – Did he have a particular table he would always sit
A – No. It depended on the size of the party. On some occasions he would
come with a party of four people. And, that was one kind of table. If he brought
in a big party of 8, 10, 12 people you had to set up a whole different table.
When he came into the lounge, it seemed like he always had the same entourage.
That always seemed to be the same. When he dined, one night he might be out
with Dr. Kaplan, his doctor and Barbara and Kaplan’s wife. Another time
he might have a whole party of 10 people. So, it was a different group all
Q – What did he like to eat at your restaurant?
A – Veal, primarily. He was a veal man. He was very meticulous. He had
his pre-wedding dinner at our restaurant. When he planned that menu it amazed
me how meticulous he was right down to how the vegetables should be placed
and how they should be cooked. He really knew his food. He was really into
it. Barbara did not plan it. He did. We had his pre-wedding dinner which I
thought would make national news. The pre-wedding dinner was on a Saturday
in the summer. He got married on Sunday at the Annenberg estate, so by the
time the papers came out on Monday the wedding got all the press not the pre-wedding
Q – How many times over the years did he come into your
A – Oh, 20 times. 25 times. That’s just a wild guess. I don’t
know. There were many nights he came in, I wasn’t here. So, I wouldn’t
be able to keep track of that.
Q – What is your lasting memory of Frank Sinatra?
A – This aura about him. The magic about him. The power that the guy
carried with him. Sinatra was all things to all people. He was everything.
He could be the worst guy in the world. He could be the greatest guy in the
world. He was a great philanthropist. Did a lot of wonderful things, for a
lot of wonderful charities. He was everything. As you know he was a ladies
man. He was a man’s man. The guy encompassed every facet. There were
nights you had to be scared of him. He was in a bad mood. He was rough on people.
Other times he helped out the whole world. So, he was just everything. He was
literally bigger than life. I’ve met a lot of celebrities in my 30 years
here and there’s nobody that even comes close to him. I wanted to run
away. I was absolutely intimidated by the guy. I didn’t know what to
do. I was afraid to be around him.
Q – Afraid?
A – Intimidated is a better word.
Q – He knew who you were didn’t he?
A – Oh, sure he knew who I was. He was very nice to me.
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