Idol worship

In the 1950s and '60s, Tony Zoppi wrote about -- and rode with -- the stars

The walls of Tony Zoppi's North Dallas townhouse apartment keep track of history better than any journal or book of newspaper clippings. It's as if the past 40 years have been preserved in this place--a shrine to celebrities and presidents and infamous figures who, even in death or old age, remain larger than life.

On the wall above the fireplace hang more than a dozen framed color and black-and-white photographs: Bob Hope at SMU in the 1960s, Frank Sinatra backstage, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, Louis Armstrong, Shecky Greene ("the funniest man I ever knew," Zoppi insists). And standing beside each of these figures of Tony Zoppi--sometimes as a young reporter taking notes, more often as an older man who's posing with a friend, his arm around the Chairman like an intimate from way back.

From 1952 to 1965, Zoppi was The Dallas Morning News' nightclub reporter, the man who chronicled "Dallas After Dark," as his column (and television show) promised, and who became pals with the biggest names of an era that created celebrities who were revered as immortals. Though he turned 75 on Tuesday, Zoppi looks a good 10 years younger; he is a man buoyed by good cheer and great memories, a man who lived out his life's ambition to move gracefully in a world that excluded all and embraced few.

As he says now, "I met just about every star there was at the time." It's a badge of honor worn proudly by a self-proclaimed "idol-worshiper."

Underneath his coffee table is an old photo album stuffed with pictures of Zoppi and Dolly Parton, Joe E. Lewis (the tragic, drunken comic who Sinatra portrayed in the film The Joker is Wild), Rat Packer Joey Bishop, Perry Como, Kim Novak, Liberace, Tony Orlando, Engelbert Humperdink. Stuck to one page is a photo of Zoppi helping to carry John Kennedy's coffin into Parkland hours after the assassination; if nothing else, Zoppi had a knack for being in the right place, and for knowing the right people.

And scattered around the place are even more mementos and souvenirs from the past: framed personal letters from Lyndon Johnson, for whom Zoppi worked in the late '40s; a going-away tribute signed by the likes of Jack Ruby and Joe Campisi; the golf club Bob Hope traveled with throughout his U.S.O. tour of Vietnam; and a copy of Tony Bennett's Art of Excellence album signed by the singer, who inscribed in shiny gold marker: "To Tony: THANKS FOR THE START."

To hear Zoppi tell it, Bennett owes him his career because Zoppi was the first newspaper writer to give him a glowing review. Zoppi was on the job for a short time when Bennett, then a virtual unknown, called to ask Zoppi for some publicity surrounding his show at the Baker Hotel. Bennett said Joe E. Lewis told him to call.

"That night I saw the show," Zoppi recalls, "and he sang a song called 'Lost in the Stars' that was very dramatic. It totally knocked me out, and I gave him a rave review, and that was the first real important review he had ever gotten in his career. When the paper came out, he called me and said, 'God, I don't believe that review--I want to thank you.'"

They became friends and started hanging out together, and when Bennett landed a gig at the Copa in New York City--then the most prestigious nightclub in the country--he flew Zoppi and his wife to the show, the one that established Bennett's career. Not long after that, Bennett flew Zoppi to his shows in Chicago and Hollywood. "I became like his good-luck charm," Zoppi says, "and I flew all over the country with him just like I did with Bob Hope later on, and we became tremendous friends."

Zoppi began his journalism career inauspiciously enough, working for the News-Journal in Longview, where he was stationed during the war as a special service officer at Harmon General Hospital. During the war, Zoppi wrote pieces for the News-Journal and for his own radio show about soldiers wounded in combat, especially those who were from Texas; the News-Journal would then put the pieces on the Associated Press wire, and they were sent throughout the state.

After the war, he and his wife stayed in Longview, and Zoppi accepted a job as the sports reporter for the local paper--"which meant I covered the city hall in the morning, the courthouse in the afternoon, the chamber of commerce in the late afternoon, and then if there was a ballgame at night, I'd cover the ballgame," Zoppi says. In 1948, Lyndon Johnson, then running for senator, came to Canton to deliver a campaign speech and Zoppi was assigned to cover the event; Johnson was so enamored of his piece that he hired Zoppi away to work as his advance man, writing press announcements.

Such experience made him a valuable newspaper man, and he came to the attention of Morning News managing editor Felix McKnight, who Zoppi had met while working for Johnson. McKnight brought Zoppi to the News as a football writer; shortly after, Zoppi moved to the newly created real estate and business section.

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