When 19-year-old Gary Schneeberger stepped to the mic at a Racine bar in the mid-1980s ready to lip sync to a Frank Sinatra tune, he had no idea that the iconic crooner would figure prominently in his career.
When James Neibaur met Schneeberger around that same time working for the UW-Parkside student newspaper, he was likewise unaware of how fateful that encounter would turn out to be. As the Parkside publication’s entertainment and features editor, Neibaur thought his new acquaintance would make a great assistant for the year, of course not yet realizing Schneeberger would become a valued professional partner and lifelong dear friend.
Or maybe they did know. Both in print and in person, authors Schneeberger and Neibaur demonstrate insightfulness and wisdom, as well as the ability to achieve goals despite some devastating twists and turns.
One of those realized goals is their co-authored new book, “Frank Sinatra on the Big Screen: The Singer as Actor and Filmmaker” published this month by McFarland Books.
Sinatra fans, pop culture aficionados, film buffs, and readers who simply like well-crafted books will find much to love.
“Frank Sinatra on the Big Screen” is a film-by-film study examining the star’s often underplayed movie career, and his even more under-appreciated innate talent as an actor, all underscored by a true appreciation of Sinatra’s place in history.
Loaded with photographs, interviews, and industry acumen, the book follows Sinatra’s journey from bobby-soxer idol to an unsure, un-nuanced rookie actor (whose first review referred to his face as ‘ugly and bony’) to a critically-acclaimed Oscar winner. The authors weave in biography, not shying away from Sinatra’s professional and personal peaks and valleys along the way.
It’s hard to single out a chapter, as each provides a time capsule-like glimpse into Sinatra’s career and Hollywood’s classic era. So the authors themselves picked out some highlights:
Schneeberger pointed to the chapter on “Pal Joey” (1957) as a standout, based on the significance of the film in Sinatra’s career.
Sinatra plays Joey Evans, a philandering singer with a checkered past and big dreams of starting his own nightclub, “Chez Joey.” The character is torn between making a meaningful connection with a sweet chorus girl played by Kim Novak or falling back into his old ways, seducing a wealthy widow (Rita Hayworth) who can bankroll his club. Sinatra turns in a nuanced, vulnerable, and ultimately memorable performance. The scene in which he croons “The Lady is a Tramp” has been called the best of his career.
In an excerpt from the book:
Sinatra’s career was at its chrysalis moment when this screen adaptation of John O’Hara’s book and Broadway play about a low-wattage show biz rapscallion hit theaters in October 1957 … Pal Joey would be a motion picture of note if all it had to recommend it was documenting the cultural moment that The Voice metamorphosed into the Chairman of the Board as Technicolorfully as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. But it has much more going for it than that, singled out by one critic as the ‘quintessential Sinatra film musical.’
“For me, it is my favorite movie of his,” Schneeberger said. “I think it’s his most complete performance in both dramatic, musical and some comedy bits. I was just amazed when I watched it again, with the benefit of 30 more years of tread off my tires, if you will, at just how commanding his presence was in that movie.”
Neibaur cited two films that jumped out at him.
“Some Came Running” (1959) is a strong dramatic film directed by Vincent Minnelli. Sinatra plays an Army veteran who wakes after a drunken night and finds himself on a bus pulling into his hometown where he hasn’t been in many years.
“Sinatra doesn’t necessarily give the best performance of the film, that goes to Shirley McLaine who garnered an Oscar nomination as Ginny, the prostitute who accompanies Sinatra’s character back home. Also cast in the film was Dean Martin, who finally found firm footing following the breakup of his successful comedy partnership with Jerry Lewis.
“The performances are excellent, there’s a neat back story, there is a very good narrative to the film itself, and it’s very powerful,” Neibaur said.
“A Hole in the Head,” (1959) directed by the legendary Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Arsenic and Old Lace”) is another film Neibaur ranks near the top. The movie is best known for the Oscar-winning song “High Hopes” which Sinatra sings with child actor Eddie Hodges. Upon closer viewing, “A Hole in the Head” gave Sinatra one of his most appealing characters, Tony Manetta, a dreamer with big ideas that never materialized. Tony, a widower, so badly wants to make a name for himself and raise his son but finds himself in a bind and can’t get out of his own way despite his earnestness.
“That’s something that Sinatra went through was having to play a character that was very complex,” Neibaur said.
The chapter on “The First Deadly Sin,” Sinatra’s last movie in 1980, is particularly poignant. He plays a role he’d taken on many times, a police detective in the city. But this time something was different, and that something was Sinatra himself.
“For me, (the film) was a revelation,” Schneeberger said. “Here’s Sinatra in his late 60s, and he’s older and he’s quieter there’s an earnestness and a softness to the way he plays. Sinatra played private eyes and cops a lot throughout the 1960s, and he was a little bit more rambunctious then. He had delivered emotion on screen before but never quite at this level, very understated. Sinatra flexes his acting muscles in a way he hadn’t done before, in an moving, emotional way.
“It shows the arc of his career. In the last movie he makes, Sinatra sends a shot across the bow to say he’s still got it. He definitely still had it in that movie.”
Added Neibaur: ”I’m sitting here thinking I’m the same age as Sinatra was when he shot that movie. Old and weathered and grizzled and all the rest.”
The cliche is true: Time is both a blessing and a curse. While the authors spoke of the effects of time on Sinatra’s career, they also spoke glowingly about the decades-long span of their friendship, and how “Sinatra on the Big Screen” is in some ways a product of that time-tested partnership.
The project’s roots reach back to the duo’s aforementioned introduction at Parkside in the mid-80s. Neibaur already had a degree and was a published author, but had returned to college on a Pell Grant following a career upheaval that left him struggling to support his family. Schneeberger, a 1982 Tremper graduate, took the traditional path to college and was making his mark with a local entertainment column. As the student newspaper’s features and entertainment editor, Neibaur was looking for an assistant and figured Schneeberger would be a great fit.
“So that happened,” Neibaur said. “I was a fan of his column. I approached him and told him I was a fan of his work. I won’t tell you his response, but little did we know that we’d be writing together for McFarland later.
“We hit it off as friends, and we’ve been very, very dear friends for 40 years. The fact that we’re collaborating on writing projects about entertainment I guess is just part of the trajectory,” Neibaur said.
After that meeting, Scheeberger soon took an interest in Neibaur’s early books about the entertainment industry.
“When I met Jim in college, he was putting his love of (entertainment) into books that brought those things alive to a new generation of people,” Schneeberger recalled. “I wanted to try that out myself, which is why the idea for the book was birthed back in 1991. I had been someone who loved Frank Sinatra and I could do the same sort of thing Jim was doing myself, it just took me longer to get going.
That initial working relationship continued when Schneeberger became Parkside’s editor-in-chief. They stayed in contact, and a few years later Schneeberger decided to follow in Neibaur’s footsteps by writing a book about an entertainment icon, and the idea of the Sinatra book was born. Neibaur offered guidance and helped Schneeberger connect with publisher McFarland Books.
After Schneeberger knocked out the first chapters on his word processor, however, the project stalled.
“Life sort of ran into me,” Schneeberger said. “I made some bad decisions, and I never completed it.”
But despite some self-inflicted chaos, Schneeberger managed to keep that original manuscript all these years.
“In 30 years, it never got lost or thrown away,” he said. “That’s my personality. I’m a pack rat. I’ve got baseball cards from when I was a kid, I’ve got all kinds of things that just moved with me. More surprising than that I didn’t throw it away is that it didn’t get lost, because I’ve lost a bunch of other things as I’ve moved throughout my career.”
The passage of time between Schneeberger’s initial effort and the pair’s eventual collaboration hit home when Schneeberger looked back at the introduction he wrote in the early 1990s. The verbs referring to Sinatra in that intro were all present tense. Sinatra died May 14, 1998, causing the lights on Broadway to be dimmed in his honor, and prompting Schneeberger to have to change “Sinatra is … ” to “Sinatra was … ”
Between Schneeberger’s affinity for Sinatra and journalism and Neibaur’s extensive publishing experience, when the most recent move brought Gary back to the area, rekindling the project was a perfect fit.
“When I moved back to Wisconsin in 2016 after 28 years away, Jim said, ‘Hey, remember that Sinatra book? Let’s revisit this and let’s do it as a collaboration.’ It was the perfect idea,” Schneeberger said. “It never ever would have begun, I wouldn’t have had those first few chapters if it wasn’t for Jim, and I wouldn’t have been able to finish it up and hold this book in my hands now if it wasn’t for Jim.”
Both men brim with enthusiasm describing the positive result of the collaboration. The co-authors wrote their respective chapters based on whoever had the “best depth of appreciation” for each film.
“Another reason the book is better now is that Jim is my co-author on the project, and it includes his vantage point and his perspective,” Schneeberger said. “There are movies that I liked more than he did, movies that he liked better, so for the reader they are going to get the most fulsome exploration of what makes a Sinatra film good, or on those occasions that it was less than good, almost always entertaining. The fact that both of us brought our perspective to bear on this study absolutely made it a better book than it would have been.”
“Prolific” doesn’t begin to describe the authors’ respective careers.
Neibaur, a retired special education teacher with Racine Unified School District, has written more than 30 books on the entertainment industry, examining the works of stars like Buster Keaton, Elvis Presley and Jack Nicholson, with several more in the works.
“Maybe Jim didn’t invent the format, but he certainly has mastered the format,” Schneeberger said of his co-author’s success. “It was great to match my talents to that format and do it in partnership with him.”
After college Schneeberger worked in newspapers beginning at the Racine Journal Times, then onto Iowa and continuing westward to Nebraska, Texas, and California before he shifted to PR in Hollywood.
After his return to Wisconsin in 2016, Schneeberger became the founder/president of Roar, a full-service boutique communications and marketing firm, as well as host of a podcast and author of Bite the Dog (2018), offering expert advice on PR strategies.
The real story isn’t found in the lines of their resumes, however. Life has knocked down both men, and their friendship served as a rock during some of their lowest points.
Schneeberger is upfront about his personal struggles.
“I made some bad decisions did some stupid things,” Schneeberger said.
He got back on track with the move back to Wisconsin to, as he tells it, “court and marry my wife.” Neibaur was here for him both personally and professionally throughout.
In Neibaur’s case, life imitates art; there’s no doubt that the backstory of this man who writes about films could be made into a movie. Bring some tissues.
“I had two tragedies in life,” Neibaur said. “I’m a widower, I lost my wife in 1987 and my son (Max) died in 2018 in the hospital unexpectedly after a minor surgery. I needed a support system to get through that. Losing my wife was bad enough, but I had a child to raise as a single parent. I am so proud of the man he became. He was teaching at UWM and writing articles on the Milwaukee Brewers.
“I was ready to just chuck it myself. I’ll be candid about that.”
“My support system was what gave me strength,” he continued. “Gary and his wife and family are very much a part of that. I just wanted to mention this isn’t just a couple of guys who are buddies, this is a very deep and genuine friendship.”
The mutual support system is still paying off.
“Going on 40 years and what we’ve been through as friends there’s nothing that is going to cleave that,” Schneeberger said.”We’ll get through it. Do we always agree? No. That’s good. That keeps us sharp.”
The duo’s affinity for pop culture predates their college days, starting in childhood. For example, Neibaur’s love of old comedies dating back to the silent films had a memorable beginning.
“The first time I went to a movie was the weekend after the Kennedy assassination,” he recalled. “My parents took my brother and I to the movies. I was a kindergartner and had never been to a movie before. It was a Jerry Lewis movie, and the theater was just packed, people rocking in their seats in laughter at this silly guy on the screen.
“My young mind realized that this guy was making a lot of people happy at a time that the country was very sad. I understood the power of film and humor right then.
“The old silent movies that I grew up watching, I wanted to learn more about them. I wanted to know the story, how it developed. Eventually I had acquired so much knowledge I started writing about it, first articles when I was as young as 16 and finally my first two books came out before I was 30. I guess my interest is film history and I’m a film historian, that’s what I do.”
Schneeberger shares in the book’s acknowledgments that his late mother Martha Johnson inspired both his affinity for Sinatra and his eventual career path. When Gary was a small child she introduced him to the crooner via 78 rpm records, which he still owns. She also bought him his first electric typewriter when he was 12 years old. In another of his journey’s many kismet moments, Schneeberger’s contribution to the Sinatra book was completed on what would have been her 90th birthday.
That early interest in Sinatra as a singer continued into his teen years.
“Here’s how silly it was,” Schneeberger recounted. “As a late teenager, 18-19 years old I won a lip sync contest in Racine as Frank Sinatra. Who does that at age 19? Nobody.
“I had an appreciation, even though it wasn’t my era’s music. I had other interests, too. But there was something about Sinatra, something that appealed to me. In college I remember writing about how Frank would cradle the microphone like a dance partner when he sang. Something about his mannerisms and the way he commanded the stage that appealed to me, there was something he brought to the table, and that has never gone away.”
Schneeberger said he can still recall the place where his crooner act won the lip sync contest, The Pirates Den, and that the bar ran a radio ad that touted “We even had someone win as Frank Sinatra!” because it was so strange that someone in the ‘80s would lip synch to Sinatra.
Flash forward to 2022. “Frank Sinatra on the Big Screen” isn’t just the the culmination of a long partnership, in some ways it’s a beginning; Neibaur and Schneeberger have a signed contract to do a book on Robert Redford movies, and also have publisher-approved plans to write about actor Gene Hackman, the Rocky movie series, and director Norman Jewison (“In the Heat of the Night,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Moonstruck,” “And Justice for All”).
Asked if there are any stars today whose career comes close to Sinatra’s long and varied success as reference point for younger generations, Neibaur’s answer was simple and swift:
“No. There wasn’t even anyone then.”
“Frank Sinatra on the Big Screen: The Singer as Actor and Filmmaker” can be ordered locally from Blue House Books, and also through McFarland Publishing and Amazon.