Tony Zappone at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City/Photo by David R. Wheeler for AliveTampaBay.
By David R. Wheeler, Editor
He’s here. He’s there. And over the years, he has been Mr. Everywhere — in photo after photo with stars and politicians. Through careful planning, he captured many epochal photos through the lens of a Nikon.
But on this particularly rainy Tampa day, Tony Zappone, the one and only, is with AliveTampaBay in Ybor City at Florida’s oldest restaurant. Sipping an unsweetened iced tea and seated at a four-top next to a sash window in the historic Columbia Café, it’s clear the gregarious photographer is primed for a story.
With Tony, you learn that there is always an interesting story on the ready, and that this special one, spun with extra Zappone zest, is not going to be about a headline name but about a student in the eleventh grade and his first published photograph.
AliveTampaBay: How did you get started in photography?
Tony Zappone: I started early in my life. I was 14 when I started freelancing for the Tampa Tribune. The very first picture I took for the paper was right here at this corner. It was 1962. At the time, 22nd street used to be two ways. When they widened 22nd, they made it one-way. But since 22nd had been two ways for decades, there were people still going the wrong way. So I got a picture of a couple people going the wrong way, and nearly colliding. It was a car going the wrong way, and the one-way sign is in the background.
ATB: How did you make the connection?
TZ: I had a coach in junior high school, Jerome Sierra, and he introduced me to the editors and stuff. I was really interested in news photography. I didn’t have a car. I ran, I rode my bicycle, I hitchhiked, I caught the bus. And I got some really good pictures.
ATB: It’s amazing to get so many photos published by professional outlets when you’re just a teenager.
TZ: I always seemed to have an imagination for seeing things that were different, and I remember walking around one day and seeing a purse open over a parking meter. And I thought, that’s cool; this woman spent all her money on the parking meter. I took a picture, and they published it. I just saw a lot of things all over that were worth photographing. The people at the Tribune, I think they felt sorry for me. My mother died when I was 13. But the pictures came out well. They used my bad stuff so they could have access to my good stuff.
ATB: You famously took photos of JFK when he came to Tampa, just four days before his assassination in Dallas.
TZ: Kennedy was here Nov. 18, 1963, and I remember reading that he was coming. I worshipped the guy. Young people just idolized the guy. He used to have a press conference every Wednesday at 3:30. I just couldn’t wait to see it. I’d run two miles home, turn on the TV. I didn’t even do that for American Bandstand. I was 14 or 15. I didn’t know three-fourths of what he was talking about. I just liked watching him. Once in a while I got something. So when I found out he was coming, I went to get press credentials. So I went to the Chamber of Commerce. They said, “Well, who are you going to represent?” And I said, “My school yearbook.” He said, “I need a letter from your school yearbook.” So I got the letter. The yearbook adviser wrote it. I got the letter. Jim Metcalfe was the guy, who later had a big advertising agency in town. Ethel Schilling was the yearbook adviser. I think she wrote the letter just to get rid of me and get me out of the school for the day. But I was finally going to see my hero. I didn’t have a car, so I devised a master plan. I got this guy named Gary Williams to be my driver, to take me to the venues. I would take my photos, and we would leave before everyone else, and we’d get to the next venue ahead of time. We arrived at MacDill Air Force Base. I stood on a flatbed truck that was on loan from Florida Steel where my father worked. All the press was there. When Kennedy’s plane landed, everything that day happened down to the second. When he walked out, it was just an incredible thing. We see presidents today; they don’t impress us like that. When you’re a 16-year-old kid, it was like the second coming. At that time, he was so far away, I used my telephoto lens. I started thinking, “I’m never going to get close to this guy.” He came out, and he reviewed the color guard, and all of a sudden he disappeared in the back. I jumped off the flatbed truck. They were yelling at me to get back on the truck, but I went across the tarmac, and he was shaking hands with some kids from school. But anyway, I’m not in it, it’s just the picture. And I got some others too. And the girl he shook hands with when he got off the plane happened to be the daughter of the guy who owned Tampa Photo Supply, where I got my film, so that came in handy too. The national press came and started getting in front of us and just taking over, and I busted their chops. I said, “There’s no way you’re gonna get in front of me.” And they backed off. I would have punched them out. You get a bunch of bullies saying, “We’re from the national press. We’re ahead of you guys.” No way. Then he went over to get into a limousine, and he’s sitting there and next to him is General Paul Adams, who is the commander at the base, and just sitting there, so I walked up and I shook his hand. I said, “Welcome to Tampa,” and then I took a couple pictures of him. And I’m the only one there. In the background, you can see Tim Maran from Channel 13, and that was it. The Secret Service gave me numerous dirty looks all day. They saw that I was harmless. They still didn’t like what I was doing. At the armory, he was speaking to the Florida Chamber of Commerce. In one of his pictures, I got a picture, his shoelace was loose, and I didn’t know it, I just took a picture of him with his loose shoelace. All of a sudden he reaches down to tie his shoes, and I went “click.” When he came up, he gave me the dirtiest, nastiest look. I doubt there are 10 people who have ever gotten that much of a dirty look. The press secretary asked me not to use it. And I had some exchanges with him in the mail. I was a 16-year-old kid who just got a look from the president who looked like he might order the CIA to have me killed. It turns out he had a bad back, and he couldn’t bend his back because of the pain. So his shoe came unlaced very often.
ATB: Can you tell us about the motorcade?
TZ: It wove around Dale Mabry, Grand Central, which is Kennedy now; I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew is he would come down Franklin Street. I got a block away, and there was a lot of shade coming in from the building, there at Twiggs and Franklin, the sun was coming in. I said, “That’s where I’m gonna shoot it.” I got my long lens, I got focused, and I took the photo. Guess what. Over 45 years went by and I didn’t think about this, but I saw other pictures people had taken of him in the motorcade, and he was always sitting down. But he stood up a little bit downtown, and then he sat down. Had he not been standing up, I wouldn’t have gotten anything. Because in the second picture I took, he was sitting down already. I’m sure he stood up maybe 15 seconds. The car was going fast. His car doesn’t go slow. That’s what I really thought. He’s going fast. Real fast.
ATB: How old were you?
TZ: I turned 16 in October of 63, and he was here the following month.
ATB: Where were you when you heard he was shot in Dallas?
TZ: I was in journalism class in Jefferson High School, and the teacher, Alexene Allen, was crying, and she announced that President Kennedy had been shot. And in my mind I said you can’t shoot President Kennedy. He can’t die. That was everybody’s feeling. And they let everybody out of school. I was very curious. I just didn’t feel like he was going to die. You don’t think John F. Kennedy can die. He can’t die. And that was the feeling of most people.
ATB: You had taken all these great photos of JFK. How did you decide to take those for Robert Kennedy to see?
TZ: I wanted to meet him really badly, and I made copies for him of everything I took that day. I had several hundred really good pictures. And I had some rotten ones too. I kept the rotten ones out. Understand that I don’t think I shot pictures that were that great, but there are some award-winning pictures in there. I wasn’t that good, but I think that I was inspired. Angie Castellano at Tampa Photo made up a bunch of pictures, plus some 11x14s. I called up a guy named Ed Guthman, he was a PR guy for Robert Kennedy, and he said, “Come on up.” My father and I were on vacation in Philadelphia. We went to Washington. I called him up and I said, “We’re here and I’ve got the pictures.” He said, “Oh Tony, he’s so busy, blah blah blah.” Man, I got hot. I said, “Mr. Guthman, you told me to come here! We came all this way.” He said, “Be here tomorrow at 3:30.” We got a room at the Colonial Inn. It was hard to find a room. And they had a fire at two o’clock in the morning. We got out with our lives, but couldn’t find another room, so we slept on a bench outside Washington Union Station. You know what? Nobody bothered us, not a soul bothered us. The cops didn’t come and get us. So the next day, I called him and I said, “We’ll be there.” He said, “Tony, he doesn’t have time…” and I lit into him again. I said, “We stayed here the whole night, there was a fire, we had to sleep outside.” He said, “Okay, be here at 3:30.” So I gave the pictures to Hector Alcalde. I didn’t want to take them around Washington all day. Hector was the chief of staff for (U.S Rep.) Sam Gibbons, and I was also going to let him take pictures of us with Robert. So we got there at 3:15. I tell the girl, “My name is Tony Zappone. I have a 3:30 appointment with Mr. Kennedy.” She says, “I’m sorry; I don’t have anything like that.” I said, “Mr. Guthman told me to be here!” She said, “Oh, Mr. Guthman, he’s always making appointments and not telling us.” I had said the right thing. He called me right in. I had to explain to him that the pictures were on their way. He was very nice. He said, “When they get here, let me know.” When he got there, we went in, he had his dog Brumus, and it was a big dog about he size of a horse, and when it saw me, it knocked me down. And we spent half the time with Robert pulling his dog off me. But I made the presentation, and it came off very well.
ATB: What was RFK’s reaction?
TZ: He almost didn’t believe I took these photos. I had to convince him. He really loved them. He particularly, the one I sent you of [JFK] laughing from the side, the close-up of him, he really liked it. Of course, he was sad looking through these pictures. He looked at them very intently. He was very interested. This happened pretty fast. They were damn good pictures. I see some kid, 16 years old, and I say, Jesus Christ, did I look like that? If somebody marched into my office looking that young, I’d say, get the hell out of my office. I asked him if I could take a picture of him with his dog, and he said no. But he was a good guy.
ATB: How soon after Dallas did you show RFK these photos of his brother?
TZ: JFK was in Tampa Nov. 18, 1963, and I got the pictures to him August 18. Nine months to the day, from his visit to Tampa.
ATB: You’ve met an incredible number of celebrities over they years, including Johnny Carson.
TZ: That’s right. I wrote to Johnny Carson, and I ended up riding with him to Cypress Gardens. It’s Legoland now, but it was a tourist attraction near Winter Haven for many decades. In 1968, Carson came to Tampa to do an hour special: Johnny Carson Discovers Cypress Gardens. This was in June. They paired it with the Miss America pageant on TV. He came to the airport, and I rode with Dick Pope, who owns Cypress Gardens, as well as a PR guy from Cypress Gardens. Carson sat in front of me on the passenger side in the front seat. I sat in the back. That was just a really incredible treat. How many people get to do that? At the time, he’d only been on the air six years. And now, he’s been off the air for decades. His first replacement was on for 22 years, and now his other replacement has been on for about three years. Do I feel old? Yeah, I do.
ATB: On that trip, the police pulled the car over. Tell us about that.
TZ: Robert Kennedy found out Carson was in Florida, and he had called the Florida Highway Patrol to pull him over. He wanted Carson to call him. The highway patrol was all over the interstate looking for the car. They had the license number and everything. Finally they found us, pulled us over. Robert was afraid he was losing California. It was in June of ’68. And the primary was in another week and a half, and he wanted to get on the Carson show. Carson couldn’t believe he did that. They weren’t that buddy-buddy. Right near Plant City is where it happened. I was so amused. I mean, like, how many people are riding with Johnny Carson, when the highway patrol pulls them over, to give them a message to call Robert Kennedy? A lot of these people think they can just call in and get on the show. I don’t know if he got on or not. I think he probably did. There were so many things that happened to me when I was young that were from another world. If the president came into town today, I wouldn’t even care. I don’t know what I would feel about Kennedy now. But then, I couldn’t think of anyone in the world I’d rather meet or interact with. And when he came, I absolutely had no idea any of this would ever happen, these encounters, that I would have pictures this good, or that they’d live for 50 years, or that I would have a book. Copies of these pictures have been published in 10 or 12 books over the years.
ATB: Tell us how you ended up meeting Colonel Sanders.
TZ: I was as big a fan as anyone. I can’t believe that people are so interested in him. Today they have a bunch of fake ones, but nobody can beat the real guy. He was in the forming area for the Gasparilla Parade in 1967. He was in the parade. He was just standing over there by himself. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to talk to him?” He was absolutely the nicest man in the world. Along came a friend of mine, Art Thomas, who was a photographer for the Tribune, and I asked him to take a picture of us. Of all the famous people I’ve had pictures with, people are most interested in that one. I’ve forgotten almost everything we talked about, but I remember we did talk about Kentucky Fried Chicken. He was just a really nice guy. Wish I could have been his good buddy. The most inquiries I get are about that photo. They want to know about the colonel. I get the most likes and responses on Facebook from that photo. Kennedy? Whatever. People are mostly impressed with Colonel Sanders.
ATB: What’s your advice to a young photographer?
TZ: Shoot what’s there. And today is different. In the old days, you used to have to get down on the ground and shoot up, or climb something and shoot down. Now it’s all about simple shots. But think about what will tell the story. If you go to an accident, look around. Maybe you’ll see a shoe laying there, with the car wreck in the background. Try to get some emotion into it. The sad part about it is newspapers have stopped running feature pictures. That’s sad. That’s why they’re failing. Newspapers are doing things the consultants are telling them to do. Well, the consultants can go to hell. People love the feature pictures. I would say that I’m extremely jealous of people taking pictures now. For my first 25 or 30 years, I had to shoot film. I had to wait for the film to be processed, and I had to look at the negatives. Now, not only can you tell in a second if it’s good or not, but you can transmit it to the paper immediately, and go on to your next assignment.
ATB: You’ve met all these famous people. Who was the most memorable person you’ve ever met?
TZ: Tim Conway and Jimmy Dean were on the noon show on Pulse Plus (WTVT Channel 13). He was back there waiting to go on. I started talking to him. We just joked around. He was hilarious. I joked back with him. We were like an act. I just really liked him and connected with him. A lot of times you don’t connect with people. These guys meet people all the time.
ATB: You also met Patty Duke.
TZ: Did you see her eyes, the way she’s looking at me in that picture? It looked like she was in love with me. Damn. I missed my chance.
ATB: Tell us about how Carol Lawrence ended up in your lap.
TZ: Well, I was meeting with Merv Griffin. He seemed genuinely interested in me. He talked to me about Tampa, about what I did, where I went to school. I really liked him. He was up on the fourth floor of the Little Theater. Now it’s the Helen Hayes Theater. I called him Mr. Griffin. I said, “Mr. Griffin, I’d like to see the show.” He took me himself and put me in a seat in the front row. He said, “You stay here.” On that show, there was Virginia Graham, Rodney Dangerfield, Carol Lawrence, and a few others. Remember, talk shows were 90 minutes long. They started taping at 4:30, and at 5:15, Carol Lawrence came out and started to sing. And you know what? I really think I’m psychic, because my heart started beating, and I got nervous as hell. She started walking. She didn’t look at me. While she was singing, she went down the stairs, and then she started walking towards me. Then she looked at me. I said, “Oh (expletive),” because — let me tell you something — I had no reason to believe she was going to do what she did. This is on tape somewhere. But she sat in my lap and sang the rest of the song. I wish I could remember what song it was. I was turning black and blue and green and purple and red. Everybody in the audience was just laughing. When I watched it on tape — it was broadcast in Tampa about two weeks later; it was a syndicated show —Merv Griffin said, “Carol, it looks like you’ve got a new leading man.”
At the Columbia restaurant in Ybor City, Tony visits with Greg C. Truax, AliveTampaBay publisher and filmmaker.