The man who would gain fame as Tony Fontane began life as Anthony Joseph Trankina on September 18, 1925, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the second child of Joseph V. and Raphaela Trankina. His father, a railroad foreman for the Michigan Central Railroad, became a minister and, in 1935, answered a call to move to North Dakota for home missionary work and to witness to Indians on the reservations. In 1942, the family moved to Grand Forks, N.D., where the Rev. Trankina and his wife established the Grand Forks Rescue Mission and Service Center.
“Dad,” Fontane wrote in a 1968 issue of Guideposts, “decided that this was where God wanted him to be.”
It was not, however, where Trankina’s second son wanted to be. He deplored the grinding poverty of life at the mission and deeply resented having to deal on a daily basis with drunks, vagrants and outcasts. More than that, he hated the God that had placed him in such surroundings. His one goal was to get out, and he saw music as his way to do it.
From an early age Tony showed an interest in singing. He became so accomplished at it that he frequently sang in church services at the mission and, while still in high school, won the Dakota State Achievement award in a vocal contest. He was offered a musical scholarship with the state university, but Tony – exhibiting the powerful urge to escape his surroundings – ran off with a dance band wearing a mascara mustache to disguise his age. Six weeks after a statewide alarm was issued, the youth was returned home.
Fontane was allowed to move to Chicago to live with an aunt, and it was here that he tried unsuccessfully to break into show business while still in high school. But World War II beckoned, and at 17 Fontane lied about his age to join the Coast Guard. After the war, he hit the streets of New York looking for work as a singer, but success was slow in coming and the young man nearly starved. Persistence, and his soaring, lyric tenor voice, snagged him a spot on the Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour, which he handily won. Fontane became an instant sensation and was one of only two performers on the Amateur Hour to ever be called back for an encore – the first being Frank Sinatra.
Tony Fontane sings in an early television appearance.
Moving once more to Chicago, Fontane enjoyed great success on television shows such as “Teen Town,” “The Tony Fontane Show” and “Top Tunes With Trendler.” He appeared on the shows of Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Paul Whiteman and Eddie Bracken, and became a sought-after nightclub and Las Vegas act. A recording contract with Mercury Records led to a number of respectable hits, including “Cold, Cold, Heart” in 1950, which sold 1.3 million disks.
Fontane married actress Kerry Vaughn on May 2, 1950 and, snagging a lead role in the British comedy "Zip Goes A Million," toured with his new wife in Australia and Europe. Vaughn, a golden-haired beauty who once performed as a stand-in for Lana Turner and appeared in the now cult classic “Prehistoric Women,” became known in Europe as a second Marilyn Monroe. She and Fontane were enormously popular abroad, and appeared on the covers of such magazines as “Woman’s Day,” “Look” and “Life.” The couple had a daughter, Char’ae, in January of 1952.
Years later, Fontane admitted that although he seemingly had everything – fame, money, a beautiful wife and child – he was anything but happy. His hatred for religion in general and the God of his parents in particular left him spiritually unfulfilled and very nearly a practicing atheist.
On the afternoon of September 3, 1957, Fontane finished a rehearsal for a television special and was driving to his Canoga Park, California, home when another motorist ran a red light and plowed into the driver’s side of Fontane’s sports car. It took rescue workers more than 2 ½ hours to extricate the singer from his vehicle; one person on the scene took his pulse and declared that he was dead. But he was alive – just barely – and was rushed to the hospital where he hovered in a coma, on the brink of death, for 30 days. When doctors saw that he was slipping away, they called his wife and told her that the end was near. Kerry Fontane rushed to the hospital and did something she had never done before. She knelt and prayed, not only for her dying husband, but for herself, as well.
Three and a half hours later, Fontane suddenly opened his eyes, fully awake, and began talking. He told his wife that he had had a vision -- that God had offered him a second chance if he, Fontane, would turn his life over to Christ. He did, and from that moment on, so did Kerry.
Although the crisis wasn’t over – Fontane had a crushed chest, suffered raging migraines and had lost the ability to sing – at least he was alive. But his newfound Christianity was severely tested, and he frequently wondered aloud why he had been allowed to live if he couldn’t sing. It was then that Fontane made his famous promise to God: “If you let me sing again, I’ll sing only for you.”
Tony and Kerry Fontane in a scene from "The Tony Fontane Story."
Slowly, his voice came back, and Fontane was as good as his word. Turning his back on his lucrative popular career, he was sued by the William Morris Agency for breach of contract and lost everything. Now in dire poverty for the second time in his life, Fontane began casting about for work as a gospel singer. At first no one wanted him, but in 1958 evangelist Phil Kerr wrote Fontane a letter asking him to sing at a church meeting at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. In September of 1958, one year after his near-fatal accident, Tony Fontane performed publicly for the first time as a gospel singer.
His success in this new-found field rapidly gained momentum. By the early 1960s, Fontane was one of the most sought-after gospel singers in the world, and he traveled relentlessly to perform in concert halls, churches, civic auditoriums, schools – anywhere he could share his clear, operatic tenor voice and the message of what God had done for him. In 1962, Fontane, Kerry and their daughter, Char’ae, starred in the Gospel Films production of “The Tony Fontane Story,” which was shown in churches globally and won a number of Christian media awards.
Publicity shot, mid 1960s
Fontane continued his brutal performance schedule throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, even traveling several times to Vietnam to sing for American troops stationed there. But everything began to unravel in 1973 when Fontane was diagnosed with prostate cancer and given only a year to live. Despite undergoing several unsuccessful operations and enduring untold agony, he continued to sing. Four days before his death, he was taken from his hospital room to a local church where two men – one on each side of him – helped stand him up for his last concert.
He sang “Just As I Am.”
On June 30, 1974, Fontane died in a Canoga Park hospital at the age of 48. His funeral at Forest Lawn Memorial Park was attended by upwards of 10,000 people.
Today, Fontane’s popular and gospel recordings can be found in used record shops and on Internet sites.
Fontane's wife, Kerry, fully recovered from a bout with cancer that was depicted in "The Tony Fontane Story." After Tony's death, she applied herself to several business ventures and, once, even traveled to Australia to live with her daughter, Char'ae. Kerry Vaughn Fontane died in 1996, losing a second battle with cancer. Char Fontane enjoyed a busy stage, television and motion picture career. She died of cancer on April 1, 2007, in Marietta, Georgia.