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Hypothetical Coffee Mug Jolts Sinatra Into Action To Protect His Image


This next story is a reminder that this is still Frank Sinatra's world - we're just living in it. Sinatra would've been 100 this week. He was such a huge star that he altered the business of celebrity. It was always true that when some rich person dies they could leave their money to their heirs. Thanks to Sinatra, they can also leave their image.


FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) All of me - why not take all of me?

INSKEEP: Sinatra was a pioneer in protecting the likenesses of famous people. NPR's Sonari Glinton has the story.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: In the '60s and '70s, families of stars like Bella Lugosi - you know, the famous Dracula - and the Marx Brothers were seeing their images pop up everywhere. But those families weren't making money off of Dracula masks or Groucho glasses and the like. That wasn't such a big deal until...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good evening. Elvis Presley died today. He was 42.

GLINTON: Now, Elvis's face started turning up everywhere - velvet paintings, T-shirts, coffee mugs. Hollywood was taking notice, and Tina Sinatra - Frank Sinatra's daughter - says he was too.

TINA SINATRA: The notion that people were getting on coffee mugs and T-shirts scared the crap out of pop. He didn't want that at all. He saw it happening. It was happening.

GLINTON: So Frank Sinatra sat her down and said in no uncertain terms, I don't want to end up on a coffee mug. A then-young lawyer, Bob Finkelstein, was beginning to work with the Sinatras. Tina remembers him explaining to a famous family friend...

T. SINATRA: It was a film "Debbie Does Dallas." And Bob said, your husband could be substituted as Debbie. They can do anything in the future once he's not here to speak for himself. I mean, that's pretty crummy.

GLINTON: Finkelstein had been the lawyer for the Marx Brothers, and he lost in court trying to protect their rights. Finkelstein, though, had a choice - appeal to the Supreme Court...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Or do what they taught you in the Jesuit law school to do something different and see about changing the law. And we put together a group of people, went to the California legislature and introduced a right of publicity statute in the state of California which became law.

GLINTON: So if you live in California and many other states, you own the right to your likeness, your voice and your signature. And if you die, you can pass that right on to your kids. So Frank Sinatra created a company for his image to go along with the ones for his movies and his music. And he put Bob Finkelstein and Tina Sinatra in charge.

T. SINATRA: People were ready to start to rip him off. And when we sort of showed up and put a sign outside the door, it sent a message. And they didn't screw with us as much as they were screwing already with other estates, living or dead.

GLINTON: When Frank Sinatra died, Tina says her mission was to maintain her dad's place in the culture. She's made him sort of an upscale lifestyle brand - so there's a satellite channel, there've been birthday concerts, a special bottle of Jack Daniels. She says she tries to think what would Frank do, which isn't hard when you're Tina Sinatra.

T. SINATRA: I have his temperament. I think I do. That doesn't mean it's good, but it's his, and I got it.

GLINTON: And like many kids, she's found herself defying her dad on occasion.

He did end up being on a coffee mug.

T. SINATRA: Well, he ended up on a coffee mug because when you do live theater, you've got to give something in memorabilia and merchandise. And you have to make it affordable. So we were stuck with hats, coffee mugs - it's a running gag, don't tell Tina but we've got to do coffee mugs and they sell - they're gone.

GLINTON: But how more explicit, though, can you be than, don't put my face on a coffee mug? Do you think he'd understand or...

T. SINATRA: I don't think one has anything to do with the other, and I'm going to come over there and smack you. No.

GLINTON: All kidding aside, she says, it's not just about business or money.

T. SINATRA: It was the most important thing in his life. I shared him with that drive all my life. We were second; career was first. Why would I not continue to do that for him now?

GLINTON: Tina Sinatra says protecting and preserving her dad's life's work has become her own life mission. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.


F. SINATRA: (Singing) I'm going to live until I die. I'm going to laugh instead of cry. I'm going to take the town. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.