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The North Dakota gospel singer whose life and career were chronicled in a Hollywood movie

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen concludes the story of Tony Fontane.

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The cover for Tony Fontane's "The Hymns My Mother Sang" as seen on the album's Discogs page. Special to The Forum
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Prior to becoming a highly acclaimed gospel singer, Tony Fontane, who grew up in Cando and Grand Forks, N.D., had been a popular recording artist with a hit song on the Billboard chart. He also acted onstage, television and in motion pictures and “he performed for four U.S. presidents — Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.”

During the latter 1940s, Tony Fontane got started on a road that was leading to stardom as a popular American singer. He, and a quartet featuring Frank Sinatra, were the only singers to be granted encores on the popular radio program "Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour."

Fontane then starred on his own radio program in Chicago, "The Tony Fontane Show," and was a guest singer on nationally aired radio and television programs. In 1950, Fontane became a client of the William Morris Agency that negotiated a contract for him with Mercury Records. Mercury was a major record company, based in Chicago, that already had popular singers like Frankie Laine, Vic Damone and Patti Page recording under their label.

Fontane often socialized with other rising stars in the entertainment industry and, on May 2, 1950, married the popular movie starlet Kerry Vaughn, who had appeared in nine motion pictures and was contracted to play a major role in an upcoming movie, "Prehistoric Women." In 1945, Vaughn was one of “seven starlets selected as the best bets for screen stardom” and was later labeled as “a second Marilyn Monroe.”

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On June 29, 1951, Fontane made a television appearance on the popular "Ed Sullivan Show" along with Yul Brynner, Cab Calloway, Professor Backwards, Pinky Lee and Rose Marie. Then, in August, he recorded his first hit song, “Cold, Cold, Heart,” which was recorded and released earlier in the year by the composer Hank Williams, a major country artist. Not only was it a hit for Williams, it also helped launch the national singing careers of Fontane and Tony Bennett.

The orchestration for Fontane’s recording was provided by Lew Douglas, the head arranger and producer for Mercury Records. Other songs Fontane recorded for Mercury were “Ol’ Man River,” “Why Do I Love You,” “The Love of a Gypsy,” “I Still Suits Me,” “No One But You” and “A Love Like Yours.”

On Jan. 12, 1952, Kerry gave birth to Char “Kaci” Fontane, the only child born to the Fontanes. Kaci would grow up to have a successful acting and singing career in movies, television and on Broadway.

On Sept. 16, Fontane, along with Bob Sweeney and Ruth Olney, debuted their own weekly musical television program, "The Jerry Fielding Show." Fielding was a musical conductor who hosted the show.

After her marriage to Fontane, but before the birth of Char, Kerry appeared in a couple more motion pictures. Then, in 1953, she began singing and performing onstage with her husband at different nightclubs close to their home in Canoga Park, Calif. In 1954, Tony and Kerry were offered two of the lead roles in the theatrical production of "Zip Goes a Million" in Australia.

"Zip" was a musical adaptation of the classic novel and stage play "Brewster’s Millions." It opened at the Tivoli Theater in Sydney on April 17 and, after a six-month run, then moved over to the Tivoli Theater in Melbourne on Oct. 30. The Fontanes were very popular in Australia.

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When the Fontanes returned to the U.S., many offers came in for them to perform as a duo, as well as individual engagements for Tony. On Sept. 3, 1957, after Tony finished a rehearsal for a television special at NBC, he was driving to his home in Canoga Park “when another motorist ran a red light and plowed into the driver’s side of Fontane’s sports car.” When rescue workers arrived, it took them more than two and a half hours to free Fontane from his vehicle.
Hovering near death, Fontane was rushed to the hospital, and doctors discovered “two broken legs, numerous head injuries, a number of broken ribs, cracked vertebrae, and severe internal injuries." Because of his broken ribs, Fontane’s heart and lungs were barely functioning, and he was in a coma for a month. While in that state, he claimed he “had a vision that God came to him and offered him one more chance.” Because of this vision, “Fontane gave up being an atheist and converted to Christianity.” He also made a vow to be more selective on the songs that he would sing.

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Once Fontane left the hospital and recovered enough to resume his singing career, he made the announcement that, in the future, he would only be singing gospel songs at his performances. This was in violation of the contract he held with the William Morris Agency, and they sued him for nearly everything he had. Also, all of his future bookings were canceled by William Morris, and once again, Fontane found himself “living in extreme poverty.”

To support his family, “Fontane made the rounds of churches asking to sing for them.” After about a year of singing to smaller church gatherings, Fontane was contacted by the noted musical evangelist Phil Kerr, who asked him to perform at Pasadena Civic Auditorium for his “Monday Night Musical.” The performance was a huge success, and Kerr, who had composed and published over 3,000 songs and choruses, made an arrangement with RCA Victor for Fontane to record an album, "The Touch of His Hand," containing songs that Kerr had composed.

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The cover for Tony Fontane's "The Hymns My Mother Sang" as seen on the album's Discogs page. Special to The Forum

From 1959 to 1967, RCA released 10 albums of gospel songs sung by Fontane. During those years, “Fontane became one of the busiest gospel singers in the world,” performing in churches, civic auditoriums, schools, military bases and concert halls. To document the transformation miracle of his life and his conversion to Christianity, Fontane wrote a movie script titled "The Tony Fontane Story."

The movie was released in 1963 and Tony, along with his wife, Kerry, and his 10-year-old daughter, Char/Kaci, were the stars. Char, who would later have a career in motion pictures and television, had a dual role in the film. She not only played herself, but was also cast as Tony when he was a young boy. The focus of the film was Fontane’s near-fatal automobile accident in 1957 and his conversion to Christianity. This was the first dramatic Christian motion picture to also be a musical.

Fontane continued his gospel concerts and performances into the early 1970s. He “even traveled several times to Vietnam to sing for American troops stationed there.” However, in 1973, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had “several unsuccessful operations” and still continued to sing.

On June 26, 1974, he had a scheduled performance at a church near his home, and in order to sing, “two men — one on each side of him — helped stand him up.” Four days later, on June 30, Tony Fontane/Trankina died. “His funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park was attended by an estimated 10,000 people.”

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@gmail.com.

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Curt Eriksmoen, "Did You Know That" columnist. landscape

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