Get ready to put a little jingle in your ring-a-ding-ding!
With the long-unseen holiday special The Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra Family Christmas Show returning to television 54 years after its original airing, fans of the iconic performers will get a taste of the warm bond the legends and their real-life families shared – a closeness that, two of the stars’ daughters tell PEOPLE, extended well beyond the screen.
Airing on PBS stations around the country throughout the 2021 holiday season, the Christmas show — shot on the NBC set of Martin’s top-rated The Dean Martin Show — hasn’t been seen in its entirety since its original broadcast on Dec. 21, 1967.
On the special, Martin, then 50, was joined by his wife Jeanne and all seven of their children – Craig, Claudia, Gail, Deana, Dean Paul, Ricci and Gina — while 52-year-old Sinatra (who’d just split from third wife Mia Farrow) was accompanied by his three offspring, Nancy Sinatra, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Tina Sinatra.
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“We love the season as a family — we still love it,” Tina Sinatra tells PEOPLE, noting that her father’s birthday also fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tina, who has long overseen the bulk of her father’s show business legacy, says the time feels right to revisit a bit of holiday cheer, in rousing Rat Pack style (though the stars and their pal Sammy Davis, Jr. — who cameos in the special — preferred to be known as The Summit).
“I thought it was good to share,” she says of teaming with the Martin family to revive the special. “I’m not morbid about the times we’re living through, but it’s just that I found — I hadn’t seen it in decades — I got such a hoot out of watching it, and it just felt right to do.”
In a multitude of pairings, the Martin and Sinatra clans sing, dance and joke their way through a lively series of holiday songs – including some seasonal riffs on hits by Martin, Sinatra and then-red-hot pop star Nancy. The loose, off-the-cuff and unpredictable chemistry that characterized the superstar patriarchs’ often-shared nightclub and film appearances shines through.
Nancy and Frank, Jr., had thriving musical careers of their own, while Deana, Gail and Dean Paul were also racking up show business successes. But Tina wasn’t exactly eager to perform a duet with her close friend and high school classmate Deana.
“I was flooded by the recollection of unadulterated fear! I truly was thinking I was going to die of heart failure that day,” laughs Tina, who ultimately pursued a behind-the-scenes career in entertainment. “I arrived at NBC and sat in my car outside the studio thinking, ‘Well, I just won’t show up. They’ll be fine. They’ll do it without me. Deana can sing two parts.’ I did not want to make a fool of myself.”
“I mustered the energy, and as soon as I walked in and saw how everybody else was natural, was comfortable. I felt more natural doing it – I thought ‘OK, what a good way to die. If you’re going to die, you’ll do it having a good time,'” Tina continues, “It was pressure, but it was an experience that I have had never had before, have never had since and never will again.”
Tina credits Dean for helping ease her nerves. “Dean knew that I was nervous,” Tina says. “He knew his kids were fine. He knew I wasn’t, and he made me feel really good…He was a wonderful guy, and my Papa was just as wonderful. I know he was very good with Gail and Deana. I mean, they really called him ‘Uncle Frank.’ We were like one big pack.”
“They loved seeing all their kids [performing together],” Dean’s daughter Gail Martin Downey, who opened for her father’s Las Vegas performances around the time, tells PEOPLE. “They were so proud of all of us, and I just loved that. They weren’t nervous, because they knew we could all do it, but they were trying to make everybody comfortable and relaxed, like they normally did.”
“It was so fun to be with Dad and Uncle Frank, because they were just so funny,” remembers Gail. “And they had the best time – but they always had the best time together.”
The revival of the special for PBS also created the opportunity for the second-generation Sinatras and Martins to reunite, with Tina and Deana Martin joining to record new reminiscences for the special, while Nancy and Gail convened together for further nostalgic memories.
“We were close-knit and far more average than most people thought,” says Tina. “The camaraderie between families started with the youngest and went to the oldest, and that’s really true. My mother and Jeanne were fond of each other, so it was heartfelt, every bit of it.”
With both families located in and around the Beverly Hills area, Tina remembers the Martins home as “a happy household — albeit large! Dinner at their house was exactly what you think it would have been…My dad liked that kind of commotion, so having a lot of kids around was great. We did spend time and holidays together and it was special. The privilege was a given, but remember we didn’t know any other way, until we matured and then we could see how fortunate [we were].”
“We’d always say to Dad, ‘Nancy got a brand-new car and her dad drove it over and parked it in her driveway.'” remembers Gail. “He said, ‘Well, Frank only has three kids!'” But Gail says her father was a notoriously soft touch whenever they asked for anything. “He was sort of Santa any day and every day,” she says.
But her “Uncle Frank” was just as generous and even more spontaneous, says Gail, recalling how she admired Sinatra’s diamond-studded pinky ring during one holiday party.
“I said, ‘God, that ring is gorgeous,'” recalls Gail. “He took it off and gave it to me! I said, ‘No, no — don’t be silly!’ He left, and I went to Dad and said, ‘What am I going to do with this ring?’ And he said, ‘I’d get it insured.'” She ultimately took it to the Rodeo Drive jeweler where Ol’ Blue Eyes bought all his jewelry and exchanged it for a pair of earrings, while the jeweler delivered the ring back to Sinatra. “I put a note on it saying, ‘Listen, thank you very much for the ring, but I do have two ears, too, you know.'”
Both men were routinely there for the other’s children in rockier times as well: Tina recalls Martin rushing to her side when she was in a car accident as a teen, and how he later shouldered the task of informing the Sinatra children that their father was marrying Farrow, who was much closer to their age than his; Gail remembers how Sinatra provided comfort to the entire Martin family when Dean Paul, who’d matured from teen pop star in the group Dino, Desi and Billy to National Guard fighter pilot, died in a plane crash in 1987.
The losses of other members of both families over the years brought a bittersweet edge to the special: along with Dean Paul, Martin’s daughter Claudia died in 2001; his son Ricci died in 2016, as did his ex-wife Jeanne; Sinatra’s son Frank, Jr. also died in 2016. But watching the still-exuberant pairing of their fathers brought back joyous memories for both Tina and Gail.
“They were buds — ‘pallies,'” says Tina, using their affectionate term, despite the fact Sinatra was a famously habitual night owl always looking for action into the wee hours, while Martin, despite his hard-drinking persona, preferred golfing and watching Westerns at home on TV. “Dean was a kind of the reverse, the antithesis of Frank, but somewhere down in that Italian lineage, they all kind of came together anyway…Their work was important, but so was home, and they had that much in common.”
Gail says the friendship endured all the way to end, even when Martin, heartbroken by the loss of his son, became more reclusive, before Martin’s death in 1995 at age 78, and Sinatra’s passing three years later at age 82.
“They would talk to each other [on the phone],” Gail recalls. “There were very few people that he enjoyed talking to, and Frank was one — Frank, who loved to talk, and Dad, who didn’t. Dad says, ‘I’m watching something here! I’m trying to watch the game!’ But I think they both became, as they got much older, sentimental and just as sweet as could be.”
“There’s nothing that one wouldn’t do for the other, and that the joy of their work together, a lot of it was about their ease,” Tina adds. “They were not that different on camera than off, and vice versa. They were fun, and it was eventful to be around them. There was an energy they would bring and you’d get sucked up in it and you were glad to be there,
“Mostly, they just had a good time!” agrees Gail.