What was it like, living in Belgium when Hitler’s army swept through your village? What was it like to be a nine-year-old boy, lying in a ditch, watching German and Allied war planes in dog-fights overhead, and stumbling over a pilot’s boot from a downed aircraft….with the foot still in the boot? Most of all, I wanted to know what it was like to be a European star transitioning to American audiences with an American singing partner.
My husband had told me so much of his friendship with Tony. Now I was walking into a hotel to meet Tony and his wife, Mimi. They were waiting for us in the lobby. Tony stood up as I approached, all 6’3″ of him. I was struck by his strong, youthful appearance and his amazing blue eyes. He spoke with a European accent; I was captivated by his charm. I wondered if others in the hotel recognized this man and his voice….they were probably too young.
Tony is still performing. One week, he sings before throngs of concert-goers. The next week, he gives residents of retirement homes a complimentary taste of elegance, with beautiful music.
Raised in Flanders, Belgium, Tony became an American citizen in 1971. Since his service in the Belgian Air Force, he has been a professional entertainer. He is a Renaissance Man, an internationally acclaimed singer and performer who has delighted audiences from New York City to Paris, from Las Vegas to London. Tony’s fluency in five languages makes his performances educational as well as entertaining.
I was first introduced to Tony Sandler while watching the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960′s. I loved his music then, but I never dreamed that I would meet him one day. So, here was Tony, facing me, the man whose life’s saga includes survival, perseverance, determination, hard work, and success. A storybook figure, he was real.
After we visited at the hotel, Tony and Mimi accompanied us to spend the week-end at our riverside home in rural Maryland. The personal stories from his life were stunning. When he was just a boy, Tony’s world changed in 1939. He witnessed fear in his father’s eyes as his family found itself in the midst of World War II. When the Germans invaded his village, Tony’s father gathered his family and some of their belongings. They fled with some neighbors as artillery fire lite up the sky. The family circled about aimlessly, and encountered the Germans. A German officer, seeing seven children with their parents, guided the family to a barn, where they hid. After hiding for a week, the exhausted family returned home to find their house’s windows blown out and its front punctured with shrapnel from artillery shells.
Tony recalled it was a time of survival for all of them. The Germans took most of their crops; the family kept what was left. “We had no leather shoes. We all wore wooden shoes. They made great weapons when playing with my brothers or the other boys, or even defending ourselves when necessary. The fight for life brought our family together; a strength developed from it.”
Years later, in 1963, Tony was performing on the Italian Riviera at the world-famous Café Roma. There, he was recruited by an American producer to be part of a French musical extravaganza at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. This led to his forming a partnership with Ralph Young, an American singer: they discovered that their voices melded perfectly, and recorded with Capitol Records with millions sold. For eighteen glorious years, Sandler and Young performed throughout the United States and Europe.
In 1971, Tony was sworn in as an American citizen. Now, at our home, Tony shared with us, “Knowing that the United States is the most fantastic country in the world, as an immigrant I felt I had contributed in this society, and it had welcomed me. I am very grateful. I’d had a successful career in Europe, but I chose to live in America and bring my family here. There was so much love and warmth from the audiences, and I welcomed that gift.”
After Ralph Young retired in 1981, Tony resumed his solo career, performing as he had in Europe. Tony’s idol, Maurice Chevalier, had written a book, “My Paris.” That material provided a basis for Tony’s forming an elegant stage production titled “Maurice and Me,” a one-man show where Tony recreates the music and the life of the quintessential Frenchman.
“The impact of ‘Maurice and Me’ on audiences has been astounding,” said Tony. “It’s uplifting. That’s new and old-fashioned, largely because I recreate the life and music of a man from a different era. There are no special effects, because that would be inappropriate. And there are no spectacular chorus numbers, because I want this show to be accessible and affordable for every theater.
“This show touches people at different levels, depending on their own experiences, and they leave the theater changed. I think it is the fallible humanness of Chevalier that they feel, and the hope and love that springs from that. Men who have been dragged to the theater by their wives will come backstage, after the show, with tears in their eyes. Maurice’s odyssey strikes a universal chord.”
Tony became reflective as he reminisced about his life. “When I look back, some things come to mind. During my sixty-year career, I was always busy doing something, always a project, an aspiration, even today. I was always self employed, and always had three hobbies. In fact, I never considered any of them to be a job. First, as a performer, I was ready at any time to walk before an audience, as well prepared as possible. Second, because I love nature, I love gardening – it’s hard work, but very rewarding and colorful. And third, woodworking. I love the smell of wood, and the craftsmanship involved.”
Strong men and women might be jaded by the pressures of modern life, but Tony has held onto the values he learned as a boy in Flanders, values that sustain him as an adult. At age 78, he is happy with Mimi, his wife of more than 50 years. Tony continues today to record music, and captivate audiences with his infectious charm, wit and personal magnetism. He finds and presents the very heart of every song he sings. His optimism and vision for life are insistent and infectious for those able to be with him.
When we asked Tony why he is still performing, he replied, “I am a simple man who has had an extraordinary life. I am strictly a professional entertainer, and my only desire is to keep my audiences entertained at the highest possible level. I am not finished yet.”
People who meet and come to know Tony Sandler find that their lives have changed, for the better. I am fortunate to be one of them.