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.

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.

Zoppi penned his autobiography a few years back, then decided to do nothing with it. He doesn't even know where the manuscript is--possibly it's in his cedar chest upstairs, buried under more old photos and telegrams and keepsakes, or maybe it's just gone. After all, Zoppi doesn't even know where his thousands of newspaper clips are, preferring instead the company of old photographs that preserve old memories.

Scene, heard
A Dream Team of local bands will pay homage to the music of Richard Thompson with an R.T. cover night November 16 at Trees. The bands that will be shooting out the lights and climbing the wall of death include: Vibrolux, the Cartwrights, Slowpoke, Josh Alan, Old 97s, and 66. The performance is in conjunction with the release of the Richard Thompson tribute album Beat the Retreat, and will be recorded for possible release--either as a regional release, or as a best-of compilation featuring performances from other tribute shows being held around the country. You'll need a canned good to get in--admission is free--and all donations will be turned over to the AIDS Resource Center...

Call it a battle of the signed (and used-to-be signed, or probably-will-be-signed-again) bands. Another local Dream Team performs November 12 at Trees, featuring Course of Empire, Toadies, and Funland.

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