Idol worship

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

In 1952, Fairfax Nisbet, then the nightclub reporter, moved to her new post as TV writer, and John Rosenfield offered Zoppi her position--which, back then, was an invitation into the glamorous life, a chance to mingle with celebrities like John Wayne and Don Ameche and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope at such places as the legendary Century Room in the Adolphus Hotel (where big-band leaders like Artie Shaw, then Jerry Lewis and Sophie Tucker, performed), the Baker Hotel (where Pat Boone and Bennett first sang in town), Cipango (known as the "millionaire's club"), the Statler-Hilton Hotel, and the University Club.

"Everybody played here," Zoppi says. "Even before I got here, Dallas was a hot nightclub town, a hot concert town...It was the cultural center of the Midwest. Everything was on such a high plain that nothing was too good for Dallas."

For Zoppi, who was raised on the big-band sounds of swing, the chance to leap from real estate to nightclubs was a "dream come true." From the time he was a kid growing up on the Jersey shore and hanging out with "Lucky Strike Hit Parade" singing star Barry Wood, Zoppi had wanted to be Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan, to be someone who not only wrote about the famous people but who could wield their power and have their ear. And to be such a person in Dallas in the '50s and early '60s, a town so celebrity-conscious that readers hungered for news from Vegas and New York, was to hold the ability to make or break careers within the space of a daily column.

"I didn't want to be a local columnist," Zoppi says. "I covered movie premieres in Chicago and Wyoming. The reaction was so great to it, especially my Las Vegas columns. It was really the in thing to say, 'I just got back from Vegas,' or, 'I'm going to Vegas next week.' It got to be a status symbol."

But unlike Winchell, who saw himself as an antagonist of the upper-class and glorified friends and vilified enemies in his columns for the New York Mirror that were syndicated throughout the country, Zoppi wanted so much to be a part of the society he covered. He was known to every doorman and waiter in this city, a reporter who needed no press pass to gain entrance into the swankiest galas and seediest joints. He was equally at ease with Sinatra and Dean Martin as he was with Jack Ruby and Abe Weinstein, the long-feuding owners of Commerce Street strip clubs where women like Candy Barr and Jada wiggled their ways to infamy. Zoppi could always be found surrounded by stars, whether at Cipango or at Jack Ruby's table during his trial for killing Oswald, consoling his pal and gathering material to feed Sullivan and Winchell back in New York.

To Zoppi there were no degrees of fame or talent, only fame itself. After all, this is the man who once wrote that "of all the Beatles, Paul McCartney was probably the most talented," and who takes pride in launching the career of Frank Sinatra Jr.

"I guess I'm kind of an idol worshiper, I don't know," says Zoppi. "I'm still impressed by big names, and invariably they are very nice people...I think we would lean over a little in their favor. If the act wasn't that good we didn't hit them over the head, where today they seem to delight in that. Another thing I did is if I didn't like the act, I looked around the room to see how the audience was reacting, and invariably, the audience liked it. So who the hell am I to trash them?"

Zoppi made no secret of his affection for stardom. He and his wife Terri would often host Sunday spaghetti dinners for visiting stars at their tiny home. Once, Zoppi recalls, 44 people showed up, including Liberace, the McGuire Sisters, and Rowan and Martin; by the end of the evening, they were performing for the guests, and Phyllis McGuire and Dan Rowan "fell in love," Zoppi says, and "had their big romance, but she was also going out with [Mob boss] Sam Giancana, and he found out about it and broke up the romance in a hurry."

After Kennedy's assassination, Zoppi noticed everything began to change--the nightclubs "lost their flavor," and jazz and big-band music had given way to the encroaching rock and roll culture. So he headed to Vegas and accepted a job as head of public relations and advertising for the Riviera Hotel, then as the booking agent, bringing in Sinatra, Minnelli, Kenny Rogers (for a million bucks), and Dolly Parton.

He then returned to Dallas to book the Fairmount, then left that gig to open his own agency, Chelsea Consultants, booking shows for Dr Pepper, Mary Kay Cosmetics, the Byron Nelson golf tournament, and others, "and I made a very good living doing that," Zoppi says. He retired four years ago, choosing to "enjoy life" and check out the big bands whenever they come through town, or visit Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett during their stops through town, or talk to Bob Hope on the phone every couple of weeks.

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