Blue Muse Interview with Gil Gigliotti |Ken Kaminski

Professor, scholar, radio host, and Sinatra connoisseur Gilbert Gigliotti wears many hats at Central Connecticut State University. Gigliotti earned his PhD in comparative literature from The Catholic University of America. Since arriving on campus in 1992, he has taught courses on everything from elementary Latin to singer-songwriter Randy Newman. Gigliotti’s other passion projects include hosting Frank, Gil, and Friends on CCSU’s WFCS 107.7 The Edge, emceeing the TV show Central Authors, and organizing the Classic Friday Films series. His books and articles cover the fields of early American literature and “Sinatra Studies,” including Musae Americanae: The Neo-Latin Poetry of Colonial and Revolutionary America and A Storied Singer: Frank Sinatra as Literary Conceit.

We sent Blue Muse staff writer Ken Kaminski, who recently wrote about the CCSU Theater Department’s production of The Laramie Project, to interview Gigliotti after a taping of Central Authors, a thirty-minute cable series that allows campus faculty to promote their books.

“As we went up to his office, I mentioned I heard his den on campus was like a museum,” said Kaminski. “Professor Gigliotti chuckled and said it has its knick knacks.”

“When I walked in, I quickly noticed the knick knacks: Marilyn Monroe stood beside the mirror above the turntable. Dean Martin leaned from behind a metal cabinet. However, Sinatra reigned supreme over the two corners. Over a bookcase filled with vinyl records, the Voice stood at the mic in a brown suit and red tie. On the poster for 1966’s Assault on a Queen, the Chairman of the Board held a gun and looked back for cover. On top of the turntable speaker, Ol’ Blue Eyes stood a whole one foot in black with a paper bag hung on his arm. On a ‘Sinatra at 100’ conference poster, Frank smiled in the studio wearing one of his famous fedoras.”

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I know your main area of study is Latin poetry in early America. How did you begin studying these subjects?

One of the last classes I took in the [Comparative Literature] program was at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. It was on “Latin after Petrarch,” so neo-Latin. I found this book in the library [called] Early American Latin Verse 1620-1820. I said “Who knew?”

I wouldn’t have thought about American colonists writing Latin poetry. What got you to center your work on this?

[The editor Leo Kaiser] discovered it all, put it together and wrote a lot about “Oh, in this poem, you see a lot of Virgil or Horace or Catullus.” But then he didn’t do anything else with it. This was a dissertation waiting to happen. He assembled all this stuff but didn’t ask the bigger questions: “Why would anyone living in America in 1650 want to write a Latin poem for God’s sakes? Weren’t there better things to do at the time?” And so I looked at a number of poems and came up with a number of ideas.

Since you’ve studied the humanities as an undergrad, you know firsthand the importance of this work. There seems to be plenty to explore in the humanities just as, for example, natural sciences.

Needless to say, one needs engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. It’s essential. At the same time, as soon as higher education becomes just about getting a job, then I think we’ve lost something. A university education should be about learning how the world works, not just scientifically, not just how to build something or create something that does something practical, but the humanitarian interconnection. It’s not unlike in the [Central Authors taping] today, about the book [The Essential Guide to Business Communication for Financial Professionals.] One of the keys of intercommunication is that interpersonal relationship. That’s why I think folks in the humanities need to understand science and should take classes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.) At the same time, engineers and scientists need to be taking literature classes, art classes, and philosophy classes, because that’s what makes people good citizens.

And here you are, sharing old but great finds, both in and out the classroom. First, you’ve been organizing the Central Film Friday series since it began in Spring of 2010. Why is it important to expose today’s Central students to films before their era?

Despite having access to more films than ever before in ever-more-convenient ways, you can’t look for what you don’t know about. I view Classic Fridays as a way of giving younger film-goers a cheap and convenient way to see older films the way they were meant to be seen—on a big screen!

You showcase Sinatra’s music and the work of CCSU professors on your radio show Frank, Gil, and Friends. Could you tell us your philosophy behind this show?

Since WFCS is a college radio station, I created Frank, Gil, and Friends as an “alternative Sinatra” program. I’ll play any and every Sinatra song (good or bad or indifferent) except for “New York, New York” and “My Way.” You can hear those songs anywhere. I’ll play any song, of any genre (heavy metal, country, emo and big band included) that mentions Sinatra in its lyrics.

Engineers and Scientists need to be taking literature classes, art classes, and philosophy classes, because that’s what makes people good citizens.

“Alternative Sinatra” indeed. Big band is one thing, but heavy metal is another.

What’s interesting is that everybody wants to be connected to him. I’m doing my radio show on Tuesday morning, this was years ago now, when I was chair of the English department. So I did my show, and I go back to my office and this young student comes in, and says “You’re the guy that was playing Michael Bublé!”

I said “Pardon me?”

I had never heard of Michael Bublé at this point. This was at the beginning of his [career, and] I don’t listen to pop radio. So I didn’t know who this Michael Bublé was, and I said, “No, I was playing Frank Sinatra.”

“No, no, it was Michael Bublé.”

“What song?”

“You played ‘Come Fly With Me’!”

“No, no, no, that wasn’t Michael Bublé. That was Frank Sinatra.”

And she refused to accept that I wasn’t playing Michael Bublé.

It’s easier to confuse Sinatra with Bublé than heavy metal.

He’s a pleasant enough singer, but he ain’t Frank. Then again, if he gets people to like that music and find Frank, I’m not gonna complain.

What attracted you to Sinatra?

When you’re talking from the point of view of a teenage boy back in the ‘70’s, being that kind of swinging ladies’ man was certainly [attractive.] It was way out of my reach—I certainly wasn’t gonna be Sinatra—but that connection certainly inspires you. And the more you listen to him, the more you realize what a great musician he is. He’s got a beautiful ear, he picked great songs, and that’s [why] in many ways, he and his arrangers were responsible for creating the Great American Songbook.

So he helped to solidify these classics, then.

Because he was the one saying “These are the songs I’m gonna record. I’m not gonna record a lot of new songs.” Most of the music he sung was fifteen, twenty, thirty years old, and that was even when he started in the ‘40’s. His taste in music is remarkably good.

Speaking of your work and singers, I know you’re currently writing about singer and Oscar nominee Randy Newman, namely for scoring films like Toy Story.

Yes, I’m working on a book right now.

How did you end up writing about him?

That kinda came up in a weird way. I had been teaching a course on this singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding. He came to campus a couple of times because I was teaching a course on him. And so I was working on a book proposal for John Wesley Harding because he went from making albums to writing novels under his real name, Wesley Stace. I started sending out my proposal for the book and I couldn’t have been rejected more quickly.

So where does Randy come in?

One of the publishers, Praeger Press, wrote back saying, “We have no room in our catalogue for a book on Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding, but if you could write about somebody else, we have this series The Word and Music of… and we’re always looking for new titles in there.” I’ve always been a big fan of Randy Newman for a long time going back to 1977, when he had his only hit called “Short People” (this was before he was writing movie soundtracks and that sort of thing.) They said, “Oh, we’ve been looking for someone to write a Randy Newman book. Could you work up a proposal?” And so I did, and so, all of a sudden, I become an expert on Randy Newman quite out of the blue.

There’s one thing I wanted to touch on from your neo-Latin paper Reconfiguring the Stars; the idea of imitatio. There are numerous emulations in neo-Latin works from Latin poetry. This even comes up in your Sinatra papers with comparisons to Walt Whitman’s American bard. These different images, concepts, and archetypes pop up over and over again.

Right, and what’s interesting is how those images are changed just a little bit. They’re always speaking to one another. Again, in the Great American Songbook, you have songs referencing other songs all the time. You have Rodgers and Hart making reference to Gershwin, and you have Gershwin making reference to Irving Berlin, and that sort of thing. In many ways, like I said, it’s not all that different at times.

And then you have Sinatra putting all these songs together and then his versions have been getting covered ever since. If I may take the idea of emulation in another direction, how was Sinatra influential?

The thing about Sinatra, at the height of his fame, he was everything; he was actor, he was singer, he was producer, he was business mogul. He was one of the first to completely control his career. That’s what made him the “Chairman of the Board.” He was there when the major movie studios that were making films from the 1910’s and ‘20’s into the ‘50’s broke down. You had people like Sinatra start saying, “No, I want more control over the films I make and I want a bigger cut of the profits.” So he was there when they fell apart to step up and be his own boss, as it were.

That’s really interesting, especially since you now see many big artists doing that. A good example that comes to my mind is Michael Jackson. His estate is still going well with tribute shows and new albums.

Right, and buying the Beatles catalogue when he was still alive.

Based on what you said, how do you think Sinatra will be viewed fifty years from now?

First of all, I think he’d be viewed as the premier interpreter/shaper of the Great American Songbook. Second, as the prototype of the popular singer (in whose footsteps Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson walked). Third, he’d be seen as a political mirror of the “American Century.” There’s that sense that American culture over the course of the 20th century became more conservative. He, I think, reflects that change. The same guy who’s a New Deal Democrat in the ‘40s is a Reagan Republican in the ‘80s. Finally, as a mighty fine film actor, whose resume includes at least two of the finest films ever made: On the Town and The Manchurian Candidate. (There are others too, but these are masterpieces of their respective genres.) His comeback was even spawned by a film, From Here to Eternity. He wins an Academy Award for that for Best Supporting Actor, and he’s back! It’s one thing to be singing and dancing with Gene Kelly and lots of beautiful women, but it’s another to carry a dramatic role.