Tuned Out : Crooner Forced Off Berkeley Campus, Into Court

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amid the noontime bazaar of prophets, doomsayers and political activists on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, one familiar voice is missing this year: that of eccentric crooner Rick Starr, almost as much a campus landmark as the school's famed bell tower.

Almost every day for the last six years, Starr could be found standing in the shadow of Sather Gate in his trademark fedora and threadbare jacket, belting out such standards as "My Way" and "New York, New York."

But on Wednesday, he will appear in Alameda County Municipal Court to answer the charge that his droning, off-key renditions maliciously disturb the peace of campus employees. If convicted, he could face up to 90 days in jail and $400 in fines for offering his tunes to the lunchtime crowd.

Students say Starr's arrest on Sproul Plaza--site of the university's monument to the free speech movement--is ironic at best, hypocritical at worst.

"The idea of Sproul Plaza is freedom of expression. The point is to have a place where people can make more noise than usual," said Taj Aitlaoussine, a senior. "It's part of the legacy of Berkeley."

Dolores Garey, a junior, agreed. "If you want to vocalize, you come to Sproul. It's such a forum for free expression. Persecuting old Rick Starr isn't going to solve the noise problem. He's just kind of this odd guy singing his songs."

Fans of Starr, whose legal name is Richard Frankel, once gathered 1,600 signatures in an unsuccessful attempt to put him on "Late Night With David Letterman." But others, such as the UC worker whose repeated complaints led campus police to arrest Starr last month, have a different view of his talents.

"His daily 'singing' at Sather Gate interferes with my work," stated UC Berkeley office worker Thomas Ventresco in the Aug. 21 complaint that dropped the curtain on Starr. "The stress is causing me to lose sleep at night."

In an interview, Flora Elstein, Starr's publicist, mother and roommate, replied: "(Ventresco) must have some very serious mental problems. As a crooner, (Starr) doesn't have a loud voice. He's not a screamer."

Starr enjoys high name recognition, due in part to the photograph of him that appears on postcards for the city, along with the motto: "The People's Republic of Berkeley: You must see it to believe it." His photo was included in the 1990 edition of the university's resource guide.

"I am a UC Berkeley personality," Starr, 46, boasts. "I just sing. I make people happy."

A native of Brooklyn who has lived in the Bay Area for about six years, Starr got his start in show business at the former Venetian Square Hotel in Long Beach when, as a precocious 12-year-old, he sat in with the band for "Twilight Time." During his years at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, he listened endlessly to Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. The apex of his career came in 1964, when his 45 r.p.m. recording of "Mr. Astrologer" was selected by KGIL-AM in Los Angeles as its "pick hit of the week."

For now, it appears that the lanky vocalist may have flatted his final note in front of Sather Gate. While vowing to fight the charges and the university, he says he will sing on campus until the charges are resolved.

One possible compromise, Starr said, would be to leave the popular Sather Gate thoroughfare for the steps of the administration building, where he crooned in his early days on campus, and hope for a more favorable reception there.

Students say they would like to see him return. "There will definitely be something missing," said UC sophomore Bill Logan. "He was slightly off-key . . . but I can't see how anybody could get so irritated as to have him arrested. He was harmless. It's kind of unbelievable."

Jean Smith, an administrative assistant in the university's public information office, concedes that there is a "certain fondness and tolerance for him because he's a loony . . . a benign loony."

"But I broke about two years ago, after three years of listening to him," Smith said. "You wake up at night and there's 'Moon River' echoing in your ears."

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