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Jay Weston

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Remembering Tony Martin

Posted: 08/02/2012 11:59 am

tony martin at mancini dinner party
Tony Martin singing at a Mancini dinner party.

I was privileged to know Tony Martin in the last few decades of his life. He died Friday night at his West L.A. home at the age of 98. Last night at dinner someone noted that Frank Sinatra said about Tony, "He had the best pipes of any one of us." My dear friend Ginny Mancini was very friendly with Tony and his wife of 60 years, Cyd Charisse, so we would occasionally double-date. Tony was the most charming, fun and provocative dinner companion. We once compared war stories; I pontificated about my Korean service and he quietly told me of his three Army years in the Far East during World War II, ending up singing in Captain Glenn Miller's band. Cyd Charisse may have been the most beautiful woman I ever encountered. When we met she was already suffering from some hearing problems (as am I), so she was the quiet one among us. But no red-blooded boy on the planet will ever recover from seeing her steaming dance with Gene Kelly in the movie, Singing in the Rain.

Tony and Cyd performed a nightclub act for many years, she danced enchantedly while he sang "I Get Ideas" and "It's Magic." Even into his 90s he was up-and-eager for any challenge. I remember seeing him a few years ago at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, sitting on a stool with a hot jazz group behind him, singing his classics and joking with the enthusiastic crowd, especially when he forgot some lyrics. A 2009 New York Times review of his five-night appearance at Feinstein's in New York said, "The rich timbre of his voice was surprisingly unchanged from what is was in the 1940s and '50s. He sang perfectly-recollected versions of songs associated with him such as 'I Surrender, Dear' and 'There's No Tomorrow." (which Tony said was passed on to him by Perry Como, according to the review.

And there was a night at a beautiful Mancini dinner party when, after dinner, Tony's long-time accompanist appeared and Mr. Martin sang his heart out... there wasn't a dry eye in the crowd. "Stranger in Paradise," "La Vie en Rose," "Fools Rush In" (oh, my, so beautiful!) and Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." My favorite: "I'll See You in My Dreams."

tony martin and ginny mancini playing gin
Tony and Ginny playing a quiet game of gin rummy.

I am of a certain age, so I well remember when Tony was in his heyday as the last big star of Hollywood's golden age of musicals. Whenever AMC shows the 1948 remake of Pepe LeMoko called Casbah, I watch entranced as he sings For Every Man There's a Woman. He told me that he had appeared in some two dozen movies, starting in the late '30s, and I know that the handsome devil had met and married the reigning queen of films, blonde bombshell Alice Faye, while co-starring in Sally, Irene and Mary in 1937... a marriage which did not last very long. From '38 to '56 he was a major recording star, with 14 top-10 hits in those years. He told me that his recording career virtually ended when rock-n-roll ascended. I remember his doing a 15-minute TV show in the mid-50s, on which Dinah Shore made an appearance. (Dear Dinah, whom I met at the invitation of Kirk Douglas' wife, Anne, who seated us together at a dinner party and whom I dated 'til she died unexpectedly.) It was on this show, directed by Bud Yorkin, where Ginny -- then married to composer Hank Mancini -- went back to work as part of his backup singing group... and established a friendship with Tony which lasted through the years. Tony was the featured singer on the Burns-and-Allen TV show, and Wikipedia tells the story of Gracie, adoring him, saying, "Oh, Tony, you look so tired. Why don't you rest your lips on mine." Funny.

From Wikipedia, I learned that he was born Alvin Morris to Jewish immigrant parents in San Francisco on Christmas Day in 1913. His parents divorced when he was young, and he once mentioned that his grandmother gave him a saxophone when he was 10, and he was hooked on music. He broke into films in the mid-'30s and built a remarkable career after returning from the Second World War.

Remember him playing Gaylord Ravenal in the Showboat segment of the film Till The Clouds Roll By? Twice songs which he sang in movie musicals were nominated for Academy Award; the one I mentioned from Casbah and also "It's a Blue World" from Music in my Heart. And I still love seeing him singing to Hedy LaMarr, Judy Garland and Lana Turner in 1941's Ziegfield Girl... the song was "You Stepped Out of Dream." Being a huge Marx Bros. fan, I kidded him about his appearing in their classic film The Big Store, and he told me that he remained friends with Groucho until the latter's death. He married Cyd in 1948 and they remained a stunning, fascinating couple until her death in 2008. So I want to imagine that this weekend, somewhere up there, God assembled a big audience of music fans and Tony sang his heart out to an enthusiastic audience. Ginny and I can hear him now.

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