At 96, Tony Martin still crooning

When Tony Martin sings Cole Porter classics like “Begin the Beguine,” he has an unfair advantage over other crooners: He actually knew Cole Porter.

“I met him at MGM Studios,” Martin remembers. “He was doing a musical and they took me on stage. I sang a couple of his songs for him.”

Memories of Old Hollywood come naturally to Martin, for decades a big star in the entertainment business and fit as a fiddle today at age 96. So fit he’s still performing live, accompanied by a pianist. He plays Friday, Jan. 9 and Saturday, Jan. 10 at the Rrazz Room in San Francisco.

“I do all the good standards,” he says. “People don’t have to guess about it.”

The local dates are a true homecoming for Martin, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland. Though this may come as a surprise to his fans, Martin is Jewish, born Alvin Morris to Polish immigrants.

“I went to Sunday school and was bar mitzvahed,” Martin says from his Los Angeles home. “I tried to learn Yiddish, but I wasn’t home enough.”

That’s because he caught the performing bug early on as a member of the jazz band at Oakland Technical High School. He played saxophone while future bandleader Woody Herman sat next to him in the woodwind section.

His parents wanted their son to become a lawyer, sending him to St. Mary’s College in Moraga. But Martin had stars, not torts, in his eyes, and he headed for Hollywood the first chance he got.

Among his most impressive credits, he was a featured performer with George Burns and Gracie Allen on their radio show in the 1930s. Allen, he says, was “an adorable lady and always funny.” Martin also co-starred with the Marx Brothers in one of their later films, “The Big Store.” His favorite memory: hanging out on the set jamming with Harpo.

He was in more than 30 films — mostly musicals — alongside stars like Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland and Lana Turner. “They’re all gone now,” he says wistfully, “but I think of them all and I thank God for them.”

However his favorite leading lady was dancer Cyd Charrise. After his short-lived marriage to actress Alice Faye, he and Charrise married in 1948, staying together 60 years until her death last year.

“We had a very happy existence,” Martin adds. “We had an admiration society: I thought she was a fantastic dancer, and she loved the way I sang.”

So did a lot of other people. Martin had several big hits, including “To Each His Own,” “Domino” and “I Hear a Rhapsody.”

He may be the last of his generation still working. How does he stay in shape? “My drinking is a minimum,” he says. “I don’t take drugs and listen: I love to play cards. That’s fun.”

Though in remarkably good health, Martin doesn’t go on extended tours anymore. As he describes it, when he feels like being active, he does a show or two. But once he’s on that stage, the years seem to magically melt away.

“It’s a whole new existence when I go to work,” Martin says. “I love audiences. I enjoy singing for people.”

Tony Martin performs 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9 and Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Hotel Nikko’s Rrazz Room, 222 Mason St., S.F. Tickets: $50. Information: (415) 866-468-3399 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.