Monday, August 27, 2012

Tony Zoppi dies

Staff Writer
Published: 27 August 2012 12:45 AM
In the 1950s, downtown Dallas was a sea of neon beckoning customers into movie palaces, nightclubs and hotel showrooms. Attending and reviewing shows, Dallas Morning News entertainment columnist Tony Zoppi became a personality in his own right and one of the best-known men in town.

Zoppi, who died Friday night in a Dallas nursing facility at age 92, was a friend to stars including Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Elvis Presley. Such was the power of his Dallas After Dark column that Ed Sullivan introduced the Dallas newspaperman from the audience during his national television show.

Singer Tony Bennett often credited Zoppi’s glowing review of his 1956 appearances at Dallas’ Baker Hotel for giving him the courage to expand his career nationally.

Later, working as a Las Vegas casino executive, Zoppi not only planned the wedding of Ann-Margret to Roger Smith, but he also served as a groomsman.

“Ann was crying so much during the ceremony that the preacher stopped and asked, ‘Young lady, are you sure you want to do this?’” he recalled in 2001.

Before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, made one of his regular calls on the columnist at the downtown offices of The News.

Zoppi recalled that Ruby was always seeking free publicity for his striptease clubs. On that day, he told Zoppi he planned to move from his cheap Oak Cliff apartment to a much nicer place at 21 Turtle Creek.

“On his scheduled moving day, he was in a jail cell,” Zoppi said.

Raised in Long Branch, N.J., a teenage Tony Zoppi worked days as a telephone pageboy at an elegant beach club. At night, at the same club, he was the band boy for the Abe Lyman Orchestra, often carrying bags for acts including singer and actress Sophie Tucker and comedian Milton Berle.

“I knew that’s where I wanted to be: in show business,” Zoppi remembered in 1999. “I didn’t want to be an entertainer. I wanted to be a writer like Walter Winchell or Ed Sullivan.”

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Zoppi enlisted in the Army, was given an officer’s commission and was sent to Longview in East Texas. He worked as a special service officer booking USO shows.

In Longview he met his wife, Terion Hebisen, a woman with two toddler sons whose husband was killed on Guadalcanal. After Zoppi and Hebisen were married, he adopted the two boys.

Taking a job at the Longview News Journal, Zoppi was hired in 1948 by U.S. Rep. Lyndon Johnson to do advance work for his Senate campaign. After working for Johnson, he took a job at The Dallas Morning News.

Zoppi left The News in the mid-’60s to take a job as publicity director for the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. He was later promoted to entertainment director.

After 17 years at the Riviera, Zoppi returned to Dallas when his wife became terminally ill with cancer. Terion Zoppi died in 1986.

In Dallas, Zoppi worked as public relations director for the Fairmont Hotel and opened his own publicity and entertainment agency.

For years, he booked acts for the Red Cross Gala in Monaco, joining Sinatra in the principality the year the Chairman was the headliner.

When the star’s valet failed to pack the right pants for his appearance in Monte Carlo, Sinatra trusted his friend, Zoppi, to make sure they made it to Europe. Sinatra’s secretary tracked Zoppi down in New York, and he flew to Monaco with the pants — along with some deli crumb cakes the singer craved.

Even in retirement, Zoppi would get the occasional call from Bob Hope, who would tell him a few jokes.

Bennett never forgot Zoppi, often flying him to see his shows or dining with him in Dallas.

“I became like his good-luck charm,” Zoppi said.

Both of Zoppi’s sons died before him. He is survived by seven grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, as well as daughters-in-law Joan Zoppi Bryan and Norma Hebisen.

His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Dallas. Visitation will be Friday at 6 p.m. at Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home.

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