Frank Panza was described in 2014 like this: “This Panza man is still a beautiful thing. Look at the hair, as thick as a turf. The smile, full of Italian twinkle. And listen to his stories, collected from half a century as Damon Runyon from Santa Anita.”
Santa Anita Park extends its sincere condolences to the family and friends of Frank Panza, the longest-serving bartender of all time, who passed away Wednesday night at the age of 91 after a long battle with cancer. A longtime resident of Laguna Niguel, Panza, who died at home with his sister Gloria by his side, negotiated a 65-mile daily commute to work in what he often described as a “dream job.”
Worked in Santa Anita for some 59 years and over the years was known to thousands of race goers as a great mixologist and valued friend and confidant in the original Turf Club Chandelier Room and later, at the track’s main Club House bar, was the definition of top-shelf customer service as he greeted both regulars and newcomers with a sunny disposition and unwavering attention to detail.
Born May 28, 1930 in Ohio, Panza first came to work in Santa Anita in December 1961 and he served some of the biggest names in the world of entertainment and sports during a stellar career that ended due to a COVID-related shutdown. on March 8, 2020.
Retired LA Times columnist Chris Erskine thus described Panza in a story written on October 29, 2014: “However, this Panza man is still a beautiful thing. Look at the hair, thick as a turf. The smile, full of Italian Twinkle. And listen to his stories, collected from half a century as Santa Anita’s Damon Runyon.”
In the same story, Panza, who told of serving countless sports and entertainment icons such as Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin Jackie Gleason and Walter Matheau, were asked about his experience.
“There will never be a bar like this again,” he said, referring to the Chandelier Room. “I couldn’t wait to come to work. They would come in mink, dressed to the extreme. Elizabeth Montgomery used to bring me ties… I don’t think there is a saloon in the world that had such a clientele. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
And later, Erskine asked Panza, who was himself a dues-paying SAG member and a bit of television and film actor, who had been his favorite client in all his years of work.
“The best, Sinatra. He always called me Frangi. My Italian nickname.”
Funeral services for Frank Panza will take place this week with a memorial service to follow here in Santa Anita in February.
Rest in peace Frank, may you never be forgotten.
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