Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2019

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Franchini’s long, music-filled life ends at 99

Most folks would have to live 200 years to accomplish what Anthony Franchini did in just less than a century.

He was a prolific songwriter and violinist who played with five symphonies, several Las Vegas showroom orchestras and was a fiddler for Hank Williams Sr.

He had a Nevada driver's license until he was 98 and a perfect driving record. He even did his own repairs and oil changes on his old station wagon well into his 90s.

He fought in both world wars for his adopted country, the United States, which he so loved that he rearranged the National Anthem to make it easier for all Americans to sing.

Anthony Joseph Franchini, who credited his longevity to a good attitude, a good diet and, as he told the SUN in a 1996 interview: "You have to be a little lucky too," died last Wednesday at a local hospital. He was 99.

Services for the 20-year Las Vegas resident were Monday at the Civic Center Ward Lola and White Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Chapel. He had converted to the Mormon faith in 1966.

Among the mourners in the small gathering were former North Las Vegas Mayor James Seastrand, whose wife, Rosel, delivered the eulogy; former North Las Vegas judges Gary Davis and James Kelly; and former Clark County Commissioner Jay Bingham, who delivered the benediction.

A longtime Republican and political activist, Franchini had worked on their campaigns well into his 90s and had done Election Day volunteer work at the polls. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush had sent him thank you notes for his dedication.

Bishop Greg Peterson, who had studied as a church pianist under Franchini, officiated the ceremony, where church member Marian Folkman performed a piano version of "Come, Come Ye Saints," which she and Franchini had arranged.

Interment was at the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City. Desert Memorial handled the arrangements.

"He thoroughly enjoyed his music and was a very versatile man," Rosel Seastrand said during the eulogy. "He could go from one thing to another and always seemed to enjoy it."

The Seastrands arranged with the UNLV library to take Franchini's scrapbook and other pieces of entertainment memorabilia he had collected during his career that started when he was an 8-year-old prodigy performing a concert in Boston and ended with him playing mandolin in a three-piece band when he was in his 90s.

Franchini had been in excellent health until several months before his 98th birthday, when he fell in his North Las Vegas apartment and broke his hip. He was forced to move into a convalescent group home, but last year moved in with a woman from the church, who converted her garage into an apartment for him.

"Tony had a great sense of humor and was still so sharp, even though his speech had slowed," said Lori Badouin, who took care of Franchini during his last year.

"He often would turn in early, but on Saturday nights when Lawrence Welk (the syndicated series) came on, he'd stay up for that. Tony had once worked in Welk's orchestra. He also loved to watch any symphony specials on PBS."

Franchini played the mandolin, violin, guitar and other instruments on 3,500 recordings in the early to mid-20th century on such labels as Victor, Columbia and Edison. His earliest recordings were on cylinders.

He wrote 150 recorded songs under the pen name Mel Ball.

Born Antonio Giuseppe Franchini (pronounced fran-KEE-nee) in Napoli, Italy, on Aug. 2, 1898, Franchini came to the United States with his family at age 5 -- the year the Wright Brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Franchini, the son of a Boston fish merchant, dropped out of school at age 8. Nevertheless, he became a college graduate in 1957, earning a degree in biochemistry. He also operated and taught at his own music school for several years.

The songs he wrote included "Moon Walk," a 1969 instrumental tribute to man's landing on the moon -- the greatest accomplishment in his lifetime, he once said. Franchini wrote "Every Now and Then" in 1966 and "Talkin' to My Heart" with Big Band leader Jimmy Dorsey.

In the 1930s and early '40s, Franchini wrote a string of Hawaiian songs that helped expand the Polynesian genre far beyond the South Pacific shores. Among those now hard-to-find recordings were "My Sweet Hawaiian Baby" and "Sweet Kalua Lady."

From 1949-51, under the name Tony Zachary, Franchini performed with the legendary Hank Williams. His fiddle playing can be heard on the classic recording "Your Cheatin' Heart."

In the 1950s, Franchini performed with Mantovani's orchestra. The symphonies for which he worked were in Reno, Houston, El Paso, Tucson and Phoenix. He performed at several major Las Vegas resorts. His favorite was the old MGM Grand, now Bally's.

A member of Musicians Union Local 369, Franchini performed with Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Benny, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, Andy Williams, Eddy Arnold, Tiny Tim and Red Skelton.

"I would play just about any instrument -- any kind of music for anyone," Franchini once told the SUN. "I was glad to have the opportunity to broaden my horizons as a musician."

In 1981, at age 83, Franchini won Best Overall Fiddler honors at the Jaycee State Fair. Well into his 80s, Franchini worked in local restaurants as a strolling violinist.

For many years, he tried to get the United States to adopt his 1983 rearrangement of the National Anthem as the official version. Members of Nevada's congressional delegation presented it to three presidents for consideration.

Franchini's arrangement of the song that Francis Scott Key wrote as a tribute to America's defense of bombarded Fort McHenry in 1914 changes the key and the voice-straining "rockets' red glare" to make it easier to sing.

"It squeaks like hell," Franchini once said of the standard version, noting that he sought no money for his rendition, which he offered "in good patriotic spirit."

At the outbreak of World War I, Franchini, who did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 1942, entered the Army, where he operated a 70 mm gun. At age 45, he reenlisted to fight in World War II.

Franchini stood 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 139 pounds in his prime. He was an excellent cook and an associate member of the American Association of Nutrition and Dietary Consultants.

He said one of his keys to longevity was that for many years he ate a teaspoon of brewer's yeast before lunch and dinner and a teaspoon of bee pollen before all meals.

Franchini's diet included goat's milk, pure juices, liver, chicken, cauliflower, bananas, oranges, grapefruit and nuts. His diet don'ts included coffee and red meat.

He smoked cigarettes from 1918 to the early 1940s, before kicking the habit. He did not drink alcohol.

Franchini, who was married three times and outlived his family, came from a long line of people of great longevity. A grandfather lived to be 105, a grandmother 103, his mother 99, his father 87 and his sister 86.