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Frank Sinatra

Cris Bottari a resident of The Bristal Assisted Living at Lake Grove celebrates his 100th birthday July 3. Photo from Rubenstein Strategic Communications

On the afternoon of July 3, a few employees of The Bristal Assisted Living facility in Lake Grove were spotted wearing New York Mets shirts. They had a particular reason — they were preparing to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of their residents, who happens to be a big New York Mets fan.

Chris Bottari met retired Mets player Frank Catalanotto at his 100th birthday party. Photo from Rubenstein Strategic Communications

As they prepared, Crispin Bottari, the guest of honor, sat in the game room wearing a Mets T-shirt and a decades-old hat that featured the team’s logo and the Mr. Met mascot. The room is where he and his wife regularly work on puzzles that they later laminate for keepsakes.

The party that night wasn’t the first one for the centenarian. Bottari said a few days earlier his family threw one for him at the Blueblinds Mansion in Smithtown, where nearly 150 guests were in attendance.

“It felt like my heart was bursting when I saw all those people,” he said. “I had tears.”

Born July 3, 1919, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he grew up a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers until they moved to Los Angeles in 1957. He said when he first met his wife, they would go to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn every Sunday and watch the team play.

A few years after the Dodgers departure, he discovered the Mets, initially watching them play at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan before Shea Stadium was built in Queens. He remembers taking his daughter to a 1969 World Series game, the year the Mets won.

“They were misfits at the time, but they played, and they won a pennant, and in ’69 they won the World Series,” Bottari said.

A year ago, he had the chance to watch the team play at Citi Field, where he attended a ceremony honoring World War II veterans. Out of a few people that were invited, he said he was the only one able to attend, and the ballplayers presented him with a flag and a baseball.

Bottari said he doesn’t have a favorite player now, but he lists Tom Seaver among his favorites from the 1969 Miracle Mets.

Bottari meeting Frank Sinatra while serving in Greenland during World War II. Photo from the Bottari family

“Talk about gung-ho,” he said. “They did it the way it should be done.”

While Bottari and his family love baseball, there is another love in their lives — music.

“Music in my family precedes everything, because everyone in my family somehow, someway is musically inclined,” he said, adding he owns a 70-year-old guitar that was given to him by his father that he is unable to play nowadays due to arthritis.

He remembered playing that guitar when he first met his wife, Anne. She was in a group called the Mayfair Trio with her sister and friend, and he would accompany them on guitar. The group would entertain injured soldiers in hospitals along the East Coast.

Bottari said he enjoyed seeing the big bands play in the city when he was a young man. One day he went to the Paramount Theatre in New York City to see Benny Goodman and his band, and he noticed that Frank Sinatra was also billed as playing. He said at the time he hadn’t heard of Sinatra and was surprised to see hundreds of teenage girls screaming and yelling.

During World War II, while serving in the Army with the 417th Engineer Company building airstrips in Greenland, Bottari met Sinatra, who he said would have breakfast with the soldiers every morning for the week he was in Greenland. While Bottari enjoyed having the singer around and took a picture with him, his fellow soldiers, who hadn’t heard about the entertainer, didn’t know what the big deal was and asked what his name was.

“Frank Sinatra,” he told them. “When the war is over, you’re going to hear about him,” he said.

While baseball and music have played a big part in Bottari’s life, family is the most important to him. His father, who was a tailor, immigrated to the U.S. from Italy when he was a teenager. He said his parents met through a matchmaker. At first, his mother felt hesitant about her future husband, because he didn’t speak English, but her mother encouraged her to teach him. The two would sit in the parlor and practice the language. Bottari is one of four sons born to the couple.

The centenarian said he never would have imagined celebrating his 100th birthday. While his mother lived to be 97, his father died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 50, while coming out of a subway station.

Crispin Bottari spending time at his daughter’s home. Photo from the Bottari family

“Fifty years old,” he said. “What is wrong with this picture.”

Bottari said another sorrow in his life was the death of his three younger brothers.

Despite the sorrow of losing his brothers, his own family has brought him immense joy. Sixty-nine years ago, he married his wife, Anne, who is now 94 years old.

He said he was at a dance and when the young woman he was dancing with excused herself to talk to someone else, he started talking to Anne. He asked his future wife for her phone number, and when she said she didn’t have a pen, he said, “I can solve that situation,” and lit a match and used the charcoal to write her number on the matchbook.

As for the secret to a long marriage, Bottari said it’s important to talk to each other.

“If you have a problem, resolve it,” he said.

Anne Bottari agreed and described her husband as an easygoing man. Both also said it helped that they had children who always got along and visit them often, because it keeps them going.

The Bottaris raised their five daughters in Jamaica, Queens.

“One smarter than the other,” he said. “They’re smarter than their father.”

With six females in the house, to get a chance to get into the bathroom before going to work as an accumulator of salaries for the Social Security Administration in the city, Bottari said he would wake up an hour earlier than needed.

Nearly 40 years ago, when their daughters began moving out of the house, the Bottaris relocated to Selden to be near their children, who were starting to have children of their own. The couple now has 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Through the years in Selden, the biggest change Bottari said he has seen is the increase of the numbers of condos and stores in the area.

The couple moved into The Bristal in 2015, but Bottari said they get out often to attend family functions. He loves visiting his daughter and son-in-law, Donna and Matty Kaspak, in St. James and seeing their dog, Cooper. His son-in-law said that Bottari is always there when the family needs them, whether it’s to see his nephew playing with a band or his grandson wrestling.

“The TV goes off, and he’s in the car,” Kaspak said.

When it comes to tips for living a long life, Bottari said he’s not sure he can speak about what to eat or not eat, admitting he loves a hot dog and a beer at a baseball game.

“Each individual person has his own genes that he’s acquired from someone else in his family,” Bottari said.

On the night of his 100th birthday, in addition to family and friends, retired Mets player Frank Catalanotto was on hand at The Bristal, and Bottari received a custom-made Mets hat with his name and number 100 on it and a plate signed by Catalanotto from the facility’s employees.

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From left, Sarah Cronk, Sara Costantino and Kim Dufrenoy in a scene from ‘Strangers in the Night.’ Photo by Giselle Barkley

By Stacy Santini

“With him it’s impossible…it’s like being with a woman. He’s so gentle. It is as though he thinks I’ll break, as though I am a piece of Dresden china and he’s gonna hurt me,” the American Film Institute’s 25th greatest female star of classic Hollywood cinema Ava Gardner was quoted saying about her marriage to the most tremendous musical icon of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra. Hailed as one of the most sensational, intense romances of all time, the bond between Gardner and Sinatra was as complex as the participants themselves.

Sal St. George and his wife Mary, of St. George Living History Productions take on the task of telling the lovers’ story in Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Holiday Musical Theatre Performance of “Strangers in the Night … The Story of ‘The Crooner’ and the most beautiful woman in the world, Ava Gardner” currently in production through Jan. 10.

Gardner’s dreamlike pilgrimage toward stardom was what so many young girls could only hope would happen to them. The ease at which fame came upon her was not without a cost, and like many well-known 1950s leading ladies, her life was peppered with tumultuous relationships and conflicting interpersonal desires.

Raised in the Deep South, this ravishing beauty was from humble beginnings; her parents Molly and Jonas Gardner were poor cotton and tobacco farmers in Grabtown, North Carolina, a spec on the map in Johnston County. While visiting one of her four sisters, Beatrice, in New York City, her brother-in-law, Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, took some pictures of her to place in his storefront window. The images captured the eye of Loews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard Duhan, hoping to secure a date with the alluring Gardner. This interaction prompted Tarr to send her pictures to MGM. Within the blink of an eye, Gardner was solicited to do a screen test for MGM’s talent agent, Al Altman. She was immediately signed to a standard 7-year MGM contract and flown to Hollywood.

Sal St. George talks about Ava’s ascent to celebrity: “Her story is fantastic. Coming from this tiny farm town, on a fluke a man notices her at seventeen years old. She is brought to Hollywood, signed to a contract and essentially thrown to the wolves, and in a very short time she is right there, smack dab in the middle of the pack, keeping company with some of the most famous stars of all time.”

Her first fifteen movie roles for MGM were small “walk-on” parts and it appeared that it was only her beauty the studio was interested in. But in 1946, she starred opposite George Raft in “Whistle Stop” and Gardner began to carve out her place in Hollywood movie history. Playing femme fatale Kitty Collins, in Universal Studios’ adaption of Hemingway’s “The Killers” with the legendary Burt Lancaster further secured her status. Performances in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Sun Also Rises” made it impossible to not recognize that there was indeed a tremendous talent behind the now tempered southern drawl. Although nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “The Killers,” it was her role in “The Barefoot Contessa” that gave her international acclaim.

As intrigued as the populace was by her beauty and her eventually respected talent as an actress, Gardner gained much notoriety for her romantic pursuits. Over the years, her partners — some spouses, some merely lovers — read like a who’s who of Hollywood.

Her first marriage, at the age of nineteen, was to Mickey Rooney. Lasting only one year, Gardner quickly moved on to famed bandleader and musician Artie Shaw. Eventually the union met the same fate as her marriage to Rooney, and Gardner moved on to marry Frank Sinatra. That relationship also did not last but, although Gardner had several more dalliances with men such as Ernest Hemingway and bullfighter Miguel Dominguin, it was “The Voice” that remained her one true love. Frank Sinatra dwelled deep in Gardner’s heart until she took her last breath in 1990.

Sal St. George is no stranger to the theater or legendary icons. Prior to starting his creative consulting company, St. George Living History Productions, he was a playwright for entities such as Disneyland, Sea World and Busch Gardens. Specializing in historic sites and museums, St. George is often commissioned to tell a story based on the history of a venue, such as The Vanderbilt Museum. He and his wife have also become known for their ability to translate, in fantastic ways, the lives of celebrated actors and actresses of the past — Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, to name a few.

St. George likes to write from the women’s perspective and his stance when it comes to his scripts is often surprising and unexpected. In his own words, “It is easy to just go with the facts. When I am writing a script, I write to myself; it is instinctive and I believe if I find something interesting, others will too. I want the audience to feel like they are eavesdropping on the rich and famous.”

Producing about two shows per year along with the Edgar Allen Poe Festival, “Strangers in the Night” joins a long roster of stellar productions. St. George describes the show, “When Gloria Rocchio, president of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization, discovered it was Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, she wanted to do something special. She has been pivotal in bringing us on board, very supportive and encouraging. I always try to approach things from a different angle, and with this I kept thinking that behind every great man is a great woman. I wondered what it was like to be married to Frank Sinatra, and so it was Ava Gardner’s perspective that undoubtedly would make the most impact.”

St. George’s unique perspective is further developed in his choice of settings for the storyline. Actress Gail Storm’s 1957 musical TV show serves as the catalyst for this biographical tale. Along with her sidekick Rosie, they prod guest Ava Gardner to expose what it was really like to be married to the infamous Sinatra. Expect surprises along the way.

Ava Gardner’s character is played by Sara Costantino. She is joined on stage by Sarah Cronk as Gale Storm and Kim Dufrenoy as Rosie. The production most certainly tells Ava’s story, but one will not leave without understanding Sinatra’s life as well.

Ironically, Costantino, whose resemblance to Gardner is uncanny, did not know who the woman was that she is now so elegantly portraying. After much study, it is apparent that she has assumed the role with a complete understanding of this complicated woman. When asked about her part, Costantino says, “The most challenging and exciting part about playing Ava is that she had two different lives in a way … because the studio was promoting her as one thing, but deep down she felt completely different; finding the balance between the façade she put on and who she truly felt she was. I really related to this. There are things she said in her autobiography that I have said over the years. My connection with her was amazing.”

When asking St. George what his favorite part of putting on these shows is he says, “My favorite thing in the world, period, is a blank piece of paper, for everything is created from it — the Verrazano Bridge, the Mona Lisa, all the great novels … all these started with just a blank piece of paper. I get to let my imagination run wild.”

It is hard to imagine that “Strangers in the Night … The Story of ‘The Crooner’ and the most beautiful woman in the world, Ava Gardner” was ever a blank piece of paper, but nonetheless, it has been filled in quite beautifully.

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational and Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook, will present “Strangers in the Night” through Jan. 10 as part of its Holiday Musical Theatre Performance series. Catered by Crazy Beans Restaurant, tickets are $50 adults, $48 seniors (60 and over), $45 groups of 20 or more. For reservations, please call 631-689-5888.