July 21, 2023 By Bill Parry
Astoria is mourning the loss of legendary crooner Tony Bennett, who died Friday morning at his Central Park South home less than 6 miles from where he grew up during the Great Depression on 32nd Street near Ditmars Boulevard. His rise to world fame gave pride to generations of Astorians.
“He was part of the fabric of the community and when I heard the news I looked at other blogs and social media within the community and literally hundreds of people were expressing their personal tributes to him. It was really pretty extraordinary,” Greater Astoria Historical Society Executive Director Bob Singleton said. “He has a special connection with the community.”
Born on Aug. 3, 1926, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was raised by his Italian immigrant father, who labored as a grocer, and his mother, who worked as a seamstress. He began to display his talents at an early age, performing at age 10 at the opening of the Tri-borough Bridge in 1936.
Soon after his father Giovanni died in 1936, Bennett dropped out of high school to help support his family by singing at Italian restaurants like Riccardo’s by the Bridge, which closed down in 2021. Benedetto was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and saw combat while serving in the 63rd Infantry Division, which was sent to France and Germany. His unit was involved in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Kaufering/Landsberg, Germany.
Following his discharge in 1946, he returned to Astoria and performed at hot spots such as the Shangri-La on Ditmars Boulevard and The Red Door on Steinway Street. One night in 1949, Pearl Bailey heard him sing and invited him to open for her in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was in the audience and visited with him after the show.
“Bob Hope came down to check out my act,” Bennett said during a 2009 interview. “He liked my singing so much he came back to see me in my dressing room and said, ‘Come on kid, you’re going to come to the Paramount and sing with me.’ First, he told me he didn’t care for my stage name and asked me what my real name was. I told him, ‘My name is Anthony Dominick Benedetto,’ he said, ‘We’ll call you Tony Bennett.”
He went on to sell more than 50 million albums worldwide and won 17 Grammy Awards and Bennett was one of the select few artists to have new albums at the top of the charts in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
“He kept the Great American Songbook alive,” Singleton said. “He represents a style, an era of performance that is historic in a sense, and yet he was still contemporary. He became a giant in music and the arts and his legacy outlast his life.”
It is a legacy that will live on at the Frank Sinatra School for the Arts High School he founded with his wife Susan in 2001. Eight years later, the school moved into its $78 million home on 31st Avenue and 36th Street across from the Kaufman Astoria Studios.
“We’re sad to hear of Tony Bennett’s passing. As a native son of Astoria, Tony’s historic career has always been focused on spreading his love of music and the arts — both across the country and within his own backyard,” Kaufman Astoria Studios President Hal Rosenbluth said. “Tony and his wife Susan have been pivotal in their support of the arts and education, including the opening of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in the Kaufman Arts District. With Exploring the Arts, the nonprofit founded by Tony and Susan, headquartered at our studio, we look forward to our continued work together, and will honor Tony’s legacy. He will undoubtedly live on as one of Astoria’s most famous sons who also chose to give back to the community he called home.”
State Senator Michael Gianaris echoed that sentiment.
“Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco but his soul was always in Astoria, Queens. The world knew Tony as a brilliant entertainer but we knew him as a beloved neighbor and friend,” Gianaris said. “I was honored to meet him throughout his life and represent the community he so proudly called home and never forgot. Thank you for everything Tony, you indeed lived ‘The Good Life.’”
President of the Old Astoria Neighborhood Association Richard Khuzami will work toward commemorating Bennett’s life with a statue of him to remind neighbors and visitors of his remarkable accomplishments.
“As an Astoria resident and a musician, there is no better representative of both music and the village of Astoria than Tony Bennett and we are very proud of what he accomplished,” Khuzami said. “We would love to establish a memorial to him either in Astoria Park or as a cornerstone in our proposed Astoria Waterfront Arts District.”