Frank Sinatra: “All Aboard!”

By John Aaron
Posted July 2014

SINATRA THE ENIGMA. Frank Sinatra was vast, complex and controversial. Since his death in 1998 at age 82, it seems like a new book comes out every year outlining his remarkable career and promising that the author has gotten to the root of what Sinatra was really like. No one gets it entirely right because Frank was a many-faceted person, and people became familiar only with those aspects of his personality he chose to show them.

Over the years, I interacted with him as a musician, piano technician and fellow toy train enthusiast. I might just as well have been dealing with three different people. Add to this the legends and rumors that surrounded him—most of which he neither confirmed nor denied—and it's no wonder he was a hard character to nail down. I eventually decided not to attempt to do what so many others failed to accomplish. Therefore, I will confine my narrative to our mutual hobby of collecting and operating toy trains. All aboard!

SINATRA THE COLLECTOR. Frank collected and operated toy trains, a hobby that should not be confused with model railroading. Toy trains are the big, heavy, colorful, noisy electric trains that were most popular from the 1920s to 1960s and were a fixture under most families’ Christmas trees. Almost every major department store had an operating layout on display during the holiday season. As a youngster growing up in Hoboken, N.J., Frank made the pilgrimage to Manhattan whenever possible to view the department store holiday layouts and the year-round showroom layouts at the Lionel and American Flyer headquarters.

The Chairman of the Board was also the CEO of a million-dollar train collection.

Most of us who collect toy trains got hooked on them as kids. Operating them on our home layouts now takes us back to our childhood times. The hobby has wide appeal to people in high stress professions. For example, of the nearly 30,000 active toy train enthusiasts in the United States, the largest single professional group represented is doctors, followed by corporate CEOs and CFOs, lawyers, business owners and clergymen. People in show business, although the smallest professional group, are naturally the most visible. Besides Mr. "S," there is Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Mandy Patinkin and Joe Regalbuto (“Frank” on the Murphy Brown TV series). Now deceased, there was also Jackie Gleason, Tom Snyder, Ward Kimball, Dudley Moore, Arthur Godfrey, Tommy Dorsey and Gary Coleman. In my more than 50 years in the hobby, I have had the pleasure of visiting the home layouts of many of these famous collectors. Many celebrity train layouts can be viewed via the Internet.1

SINATRA'S TRAIN LAYOUT. Hoboken is one of New Jersey's premier communities, but that was not the case in the Roaring Twenties when the youngster Frank Sinatra started to take an interest in toy trains. Hoboken was the low-rent district. In later life, Frank would quip, "I was born in Hoboken, but today, I couldn't afford to live there."

Most folks in his neighborhood could not buy electric trains which have always been costly, but so the story goes, Frank's mother pawned an old fox fur piece she had acquired and bought him his first set of trains. Another often-heard tale has Frank and various friends jumping aboard a streetcar every now and then and traveling the dozen miles or so to the Lionel Train factory where they would rummage through the trash bins after hours in search of discarded train parts. From the parts, they would cobble together whole trains. Typical of the Sinatra mystique, Frank never confirmed or denied either story.

Frank Sinatra’s train layout.

In his glory years, Sinatra would stroll the Lionel factory floors with Joshua Lionel Cowen himself as Frank picked out the latest Lionel offerings to add to his growing collection. Frank collected trains from almost all the major manufactures the world over. The value of his collection eventually exceeded a million dollars.

Of course, once the word got out that Sinatra loved toy trains, many came to him as gifts, including an antique locomotive courtesy of the Vatican. Tommy Dorsey, one of the first bandleaders Frank worked for, had a huge train layout in the basement of his Bernardsville, New Jersey, mansion which Frank enjoyed visiting and operating. Frank was also quite taken with the 1949 Macy’s holiday display layout in New York. Sinatra's personal toy train layout not only surpassed both the Dorsey and Macy’s layouts, but it also gave the Lionel Corporation’s New York showroom layout a good run for the money!

The Sinatra collection and layout was not about owning the most toys. It was about fun. I never saw him more relaxed than when he was cleaning or oiling a locomotive or at the controls while four or five trains roared around his layout.

During the holidays, Frank often had neighborhood kids in to not only look at but to actually operate his layout. The fact that some trains were occasionally damaged by the overly enthusiastic kids did not upset him. Perhaps he remembered his childhood.

Frank's fabulous layout and collection were housed in a special building at his Rancho Mirage estate in Palm Springs, Calif., known simply as "The Compound." The two-plus acre, walled compound sat on the seventeenth fairway of the Tamarisk Country Club and as I recall, consisted of about eight buildings, tennis and handball courts, and a swimming pool. Some of the buildings were small houses for guests. One was Frank's art studio (another hobby). One was a replica of a Santa Fe railroad caboose that was built up from an actual railroad flat car. I think it was used as a barber shop and exercise room.

Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly
in High Society, 1956.

Frank Sinatra at Liederkranz Hall,
N.Y., ca. 1947.
(Photo: Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.)

Frank in the 1940s.

The trains resided in a replica of an actual railroad station that was located in Ramsey, N.J. Lionel also made a reasonable model of this same station. Sinatra crammed his station from the floor to the rafters with wooden display cases and shelves brimming with trains of every type and manufacturer. The huge layout dominated the center of the room. Five trains could be operated simultaneously on the layout while others ran on separate loops or around the ceiling. A prominent area of the layout depicted Frank's hometown of Hoboken. Another area of the station served as a library nook for Sinatra's many train books and periodicals.

MR."S" AND ME. In the early ‘60s, I worked in Hollywood as a studio musician and songwriter for several major record labels. On occasion, I would have reason to interact with Sinatra, and we developed a nodding acquaintance. When I opted for the more quiet lifestyle of a piano technician, Frank's long-time pianist Bill Miller would call upon me for piano work, which eventually led me to occasionally service Frank's personal pianos.

At some point, Sinatra saw my photo in one of the train magazines he regularly read and made the connection. He looked me up in the national directory of the Train Collectors Association, of which we were both members, and the next time he was performing in my area, he called me to ask if he could visit my layout. Since we were both night owls, we agreed that a late-night visit was best for security reasons. Frank arrived around midnight along with his driver and a bodyguard, and we wound up playing with trains till around dawn.

It is reasonable to ask why Sinatra would take an interest in me. Collecting toy trains has never been a hobby for the faint of wallet, and my income level was upper middle class at best. However, I could write, and so I did for almost all the major publications in the hobby. This led me to becoming a nationally recognized train "expert" and much in demand as a speaker and clinician at train conventions and shows. This brought many people, who wanted to sell the old trains they found in dad's attic after he passed away, to my door. Manufactures also mailed me their latest new trains in hopes I would mention them in one of my articles. Technically, these trains were loaned to me for review and would be picked up by a representative of the company sometime in the future.

I'm still waiting.

I also had many of my own trains from my youth. Trains were the only birthday or Christmas presents I ever asked for. They made a great foundation to build my collection on. During the 1970s and ‘80s, the general public had no interest in old toy trains, and piano-tuning clients often gifted me with boxes of trains they were anxious to rid their homes of.

For Sinatra's part, he had access to me, a knowledgeable train enthusiast with a first-class collection. More than that, however, we shared a lot of common interests. We both collected foreign trains from all over the world. Most collectors stick to American prototypes. Although most collectors prefer freight trains, both Frank and I favored passenger trains, and our collections were heavily weighted in their direction. Sinatra, of course, rode passenger trains frequently in the early years of his career.

Many enthusiasts have a lot of trains in their collections for display purposes only that do not work. Frank and I both agreed that every item in a collection should be operable, and we spent a lot of extra time and money restoring our trains to top-running condition.

Sinatra and I were also of the mind that no train was too rare or valuable to operate. We both owned the rare and highly coveted 1957 Lionel pink girl's train sets. Although they were beyond valuable, we both frequently operated them on our layouts. Neither of us was much into the mint, never-opened, boxed train sets so many collectors strive to acquire. We both felt that toy trains were made to be toys and made to be played with.

Over the years, we met up at train conventions, shows, swap meets, auctions, etc. We also frequented many hobby shops, after regular hours, of course, and visited numerous layouts of fellow train collectors. Toy trains transported Sinatra light years away from concerts, movies and his legendary Las Vegas Rat Pack.

No glitz. No glamour. Just lots of fun!


John Aaron is a semi-retired master piano tuner and technician. He blogs wonderful stories at

1TM Books and Videos,, a.k.a. Tom McComas Productions offers many videos of celebrities showing off their home layouts. The one on Frank Sinatra is excellent. 




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