The kid Sinatra was back home in Chicago. Dakota Horvath has been doing Frank since he was five years old. Now 14 and a veteran of gigs in Vegas and Miami and at Brad Pitt’s wedding, he was preparing to take the stage at last month’s Heart of Italy Food and Wine Street Festival, at 24th and Oakley.
Forty-five minutes before show time, he was in Alderman Danny Solis’s office rehearsing with a band of Vegas pros borrowed from the evening’s headliner, Louis Prima’s daughter Lena. He faced the musicians and slid his hands into his back pockets. A pinky ring glittered above the seam. His black pompadour, designed by an LA stylist, bobbed up and down to the bass line of “Danielle.”
“All right,” Horvath said to the band. “We’re gonna start out with ‘The Lady Is a Tramp,’ then ‘At Long Last Love.’ Next we’re gonna do ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,’ then next we’re gonna do ‘Danielle,’ ‘I’ll Wait for You,’ ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ That’s it. That’s the show.”
Horvath’s father and manager, Lawrence, handed him his suit, his polished shoes, his cufflinks embossed with the letter H. Lawrence has been in showbiz all his life, as a bass player for Rush Street jazz combos and as a stand-in for actor Robert Conrad. But for the last nine years he’s managed his son’s career full-time. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Lawrence is Broadway Danny Rose with a Chicago accent.
“He just got signed to a record label, and he’ll be going to New York in about two weeks,” Lawrence said while Dakota got dressed. “He’ll be starting recording in July for the album. They’re thinking of him as a romance singer. They said like in the 50s, when the rock ‘n’ roll started, Johnny Mathis was singing romantic songs. There’s always room for romantic songs. Young or old will listen to ’em. In 2000 they want to keep romantic songs going, and they still got Dakota to carry out these romantic songs.”
But for the Heart of Italy festival Dakota was going to do one more night of Sinatra. He emerged from the basement in cuffed, baggy pants and a jacket with a beautiful three-button roll. Lawrence flipped up his son’s collar and knotted his silver necktie. They walked half a block to the stage on Oakley Avenue, between Miceli’s Deli and Maurice D. Russo, DDS. Dakota drank a bottle of water, and Lawrence carried a duffel bag full of copies of Dakota’s CD Just Wild About That Girl, recorded two years ago when his voice was changing.
Street fairs aren’t Dakota’s usual scene, Lawrence explained. The big stars never sing to people who don’t pay. Dakota was doing it as a favor for the old fans who remember when he played this festival as a boy. And it might be their last chance to see him for free, because after he finished his recording sessions Dakota was going to Hollywood. “He’s got a movie with Michael Madsen,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s called ‘Flying Bullets.’ It’s like a movie where he plays a scrooge, but he’s a gangster. Dakota just has scenes where he’ll be in a nightclub singing. There’s another movie with Jerry Lewis and Michael Madsen, also a gangster movie. It’s Jerry Lewis playing the big gangster in the movie, a mean gangster. Jerry Lewis owns a nightclub. Dakota will be in the nightclub singing.”
The sound system was warming up the crowd with songs by great Italian crooners. Most of the men and women who filled the folding chairs in front of the stage looked old enough to remember when Vic Damone and Dean Martin were big names on radio and in nightclubs. “I have but one heart,” the speakers burbled. “This heart I bring you.”
“You recognize that one?” asked a heavyset vendor sitting behind a barrel of cold pop. “That’s Al Martino from The Godfather. The guy who played Johnny Fontaine.”
The street was packed from curb to curb. Jack Miuccio, the tuxedoed bel canto singer who would follow Dakota, was bounding through the audience, shaking hands, hugging dark-eyed old ladies. Beyond the folding chairs were the sausage vendors, the cannoli vendors, and a set of Roman columns erected to remind the southwest side that this food, this wine, this music was part of a longstanding cultural tradition.
The music ended, and Dakota climbed three steps to the wooden stage, which was roofed by a giant Italian flag. Master of ceremonies Ron Onesti put his arm around Dakota’s shoulder. “I remember when I could put my arm here”–he dropped his hand to knee height. “And here”–he lifted it to his waist. “He performed at Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s wedding. Let’s have a big round of applause for Dakota!”
Dakota slunk to the edge of the stage, snapping his fingers to the sliding piano and the hurricane of bright horns. “I don’t get too hungry for dinner at eight. I like the theater, but never come late.”
Dakota’s voice was rich and husky, and he shook his arm and leg as the poker-faced musicians nailed the horn blast. “I never bother with people I hate. That’s why the lady is a tramp!”
The phrasing was all Frank’s, and so was the patter. “I was actually in Las Vegas recently,” said Dakota, who won’t be old enough to gamble until 2006. “I was there for sentimental reasons–to visit my money!”
Lawrence stood beside the sound tent, arms folded. He smiled when an astonished woman pointed at the stage and exclaimed, “That’s a young boy!”
Dakota, Lawrence said, had been blessed by Sinatra himself–they’d been introduced by Sinatra’s warm-up comedian, Tom Dreesen, who knew Lawrence. It was 1994, and the Horvaths had just moved to Miami. “Tom Dreesen took Dakota backstage and introduced him to Sinatra,” said Lawrence. “He took his scarf out of his tuxedo jacket and put it in Dakota’s. He said, ‘I’m gonna give you some luck, kid.’ Sinatra picked him up, gave him a kiss, hugged him, told him good luck, and then Dakota said, ‘I want your permission to sing like you.’ Sinatra said, ‘You got it, kid.'”
After the last laid-back note of “Fly Me to the Moon,” Dakota signed CDs for a few fans. “All the girls look at him,” Lawrence said, pointing to two teenage girls at the signing table. “That’s why they want to focus him on the romantic stuff.”
After the signing Dakota walked back to the alderman’s office. He said his first musical memory is of singing along to Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You” on the radio when he was three years old. Soon after that he discovered Sinatra. His grandmother was a fan, and Dakota was captivated with her record collection, especially In the Wee Small Hours.
Sinatra’s songs felt natural, Dakota says. “I loved him as a person–his aura, what he stood for. I think he stood for a person who wanted to achieve something and did it–he was very poor when he was younger, and he wanted to become a singer.”
Lawrence immediately saw the show-business possibilities of a boy Sinatra. Dakota’s mother, Crystal, is Italian, so the kid had the right look, and when he was six he got his first gig, at Mickey Rourke’s nightclub. “We went up to his gym, because I’m a big boxing fan,” Dakota said. “A week later I sang at the opening of his nightclub. We were working at Mickey’s steady. We were also doing a convention for TV shows, and we went on Jerry Springer’s show. After that, we were getting all kinds of calls.”
The Horvaths followed Rourke to LA, hoping the actor would make Dakota a star. But Rourke was preoccupied with divorcing his wife, so Lawrence moved the family back to Chicago, where Dakota sang for the gamblers at Hawthorne Race Course, appeared on Danny Bonaduce’s radio show, and was mentioned more than once in Irv Kupcinet’s column.
Dakota slipped his pinky ring on and off as he spoke about his career. You could imagine him on the couch next to Regis–he exuded confidence that everyone wanted to hear his stories, his jokes. He talked about his eagerness to start a film career: “I’ve always been completely into acting. It’s been my second passion. I do an OK job with it. Some people disagree with my comic timing.” He talked about how a 14-year-old can sing like the lovelorn Sinatra: “I’ve dated girls. We’ve broken up. The heartache is still there.” He talked about Brad Pitt’s wedding: “We met him when he was going out with Gwyneth Paltrow. My dad screamed his name, and he pulled up. He called me to the car. I’m sitting on Gwyneth Paltrow’s lap. Later on he saw me on the Martin Short Show. He must have remembered me, because he asked me to do the wedding. I got to kiss the bride. I got to dance with Salma Hayek, which I think was the high point of the evening.”
Us magazine covered the wedding, and thanks to the publicity, Dakota sang 200 dates last year, which kept him on the road so much he had to study with a tutor. “Last year was more of a buzz, because the wedding happened,” he said. “I got so much press. TV shows kept coming in every day. I was supposed to do three days in Vegas. I did two and a half weeks.”
So far this year he’d done only 30 dates, which let him attend Luther North High School. But he had a gig coming up the following weekend, at the Holiday Inn in Independence, Ohio. Then it would be on to New York.
This evening’s Sinatra act had been just for his old fans, the ones who knew him when he was a little kid in a black fedora. The hat doesn’t look so cute on a teenager, and Dakota wants to grow up now. He hopes his album will introduce him to the rest of the world as something other than Frank in miniature. “I’m trying to develop my own style,” he said. “I’m trying to develop an American version of a Luis Miguel. I think the novelty of Sinatra’s kind of fading. I’d like to have a lasting career. If the album sells, I’d like to go to New York or LA.”
There was a knock at the door. Dakota opened it.
A fan standing outside gushed, “I remember seeing you sing here three years ago. I hope you come back next year.”
“Thank you,” Dakota said. “I’ll try to.” Then he shut the door and turned the lock.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.