Off-key campus prophet sings it 'His Way'

MIDDLE-AGED intellectuals who, in their more interesting youths, took part in American campus protests must be shaking their beards in dismay. Poor Rick Starr is the ultimate proof that the world just isn't what it used to be.

Mr Starr is among the small crowd of prophets, politicians and preachers who daily assemble at the Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley, seeding ground of the student activism which swept the country during the Sixties.

The plaza is a monument to the founding of the international freedom of speech movement. It is also a speakers' corner, where anyone can hold forth on any subject they choose. But unlike his soap-box colleagues, Mr Starr simply puts on his tatty white fedora hat and his houndstooth suit, and sings. Hour after hour, he croons his way through his favourite Frank Sinatra numbers, like New York, New York and My Way. Sometimes he performs all day.

But the university's tradition of tolerance appears to be wearing thin. University employees have accused him of being off-key, and a source of that late 20th-century condition: stress.

One grumbled that she repeatedly woke up at night with Moon River reverberating in her head. The other day Mr Starr, 46, was arrested mid-verse and accused of disturbing campus workers. The local district attorney is now prosecuting him on criminal charges. He has been fingerprinted and photographed.

Mr Starr, who claims his mission is merely to entertain, is upset. In his six years of serenading campus crowds, he has become a local celebrity.

His photograph appears on postcards. A small but devoted, band of student fans appeared at his arraignment, complaining that his silencing was a 'political issue'.

Mr Starr pleaded not guilty to the charges - and promptly shot back to the campus in time to provide another lengthy session of crooning.

His mother, who is also his agent, is equally outraged, complaining that he is being treated like a common felon. His case is still more galling in the light of other recent events at the plaza. Last week, some 20 students took part in a 'nude-in' in which, in an obscure celebration of their civil rights, they stripped off, made speeches, and daubed one another with fluorescent paint. No one was arrested.

Perhaps his repertoire is to blame. A social science teacher in Riverside, Illinois, last year decided to play Frank Sinatra recordings to his students in after-school detention, working on the theory that they would automatically hate anything which their parents liked. The recordings were administered in half-hour stints called 'Franks'.

One student who was sentenced to two Franks in one afternoon later complained that he 'couldn't stand it'.

Classroom work is said to have improved significantly.