Stan Zabka, who worked with Hollywood and late night giants, lives in Grass Valley
Special to The Union
Stan Zabka was not only part of the golden age of television, he helped shape it.
Zabka was a director of NBC’s Tonight Show for 22 years with three different hosts: Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, and finally Johnny Carson.
He co-wrote one of the most popular Christmas songs in history.
He’s a war veteran who made movies with the most famous film stars in the world.
This is the story of a 94-year-old Super Senior who hit the big time in New York and Hollywood, then settled in Grass Valley.
Zabka grew up in the Midwest in a close-knit family with seven brothers and three sisters. In 1943, at age 19, he enlisted in the army. All eight Zabka brothers served during World War II.
At war’s end, Zabka attended Indiana’s DePauw University and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in music and speech in 1949. He had been director of the college radio station, so he hoped an illustrious career in broadcasting awaited him.
“The night of graduation, I got on a train to New York City,” recalled Zabka, who applied at NBC. “I ended up working as a page boy for $35 a week, taking people on studio tours.”
When he wasn’t leading tours, Zabka composed music.
“I peddled my songs to Broadway publishers for nearly two years,” he said.
One of the songs Zabka co-wrote with another page boy became an international hit: “Christmas Eve in My Home Town.”
At last count, there were 17 commercial recordings of the song, including renditions by Kate Smith, Bobby Vinton, Jim Nabors and Eddie Fisher. Readers Digest included the song in seven of its holiday CD packages.
Global turmoil interrupted Stan’s career a second time.
During the Korean War, Stan was assigned to the psychological warfare unit of Broadcasting and Leaflet Group 301st stationed in Germany. Zabka regularly listened to the American Forces Network (AFN), and thought his Christmas song was a natural for the network. He grabbed a 78 RPM recording and drove to AFN Headquarters at a castle in Hoescht. He not only convinced AFN to play his song for the troops, Zabka was offered the job of Military News Chief.
“I had come to AFN to get a record played, and two days later I was living and working in the castle as the news chief,” Zabka said with an impish grin.
When Zabka returned stateside in 1954, NBC was rehiring military veterans. But Zabka was reluctant.
“I’d been in uniform for two wars, and I didn’t want to put back on that page boy uniform!” he said.
Instead, Zabka spent three months on a tour bus singing one night stands with the Johnny Long Orchestra.
“By the time Johnny Long realized I was singing off key, the WNBC Station Manager called and offered me two jobs,” said Zabka. “He said the associate director job paid more, so I became an associate director.”
While working on the Tonight Show, Zabka met the love of his life.
Nancy, commercial coordinator for the Merv Griffin show, moved to the Tonight Show as a production assistant.
“Nancy worked with me in the control room of the Tonight Show,” Zabka said. “I sat next to her five days a week for quite a while. Finally I asked her if she’d like to have dinner, she said ‘yes,’ and nine months later we were married.”
As a special wedding gift from Johnny Carson, Zabka was invited to make a guest appearance on the Tonight Show. Stan premiered his first album, “The Paris Strings Play Zabka’s Themes from Television,” Sept. 1, 1964.
On the show, Zabka played the piano, directed the orchestra, sang and recited from memory a love song he’d written for his wife. Carson declared the album was “…like discovering a good wine.”
After leaving the Tonight Show, Zabka fulfilled a variety of assignments at NBC: producing and directing news, sports, and special events.
On to LA
Eventually, Zabka and his wife moved to Los Angeles. His goal was to write music for movies, but he achieved even greater success as a major player behind the scenes.
He worked with General Chuck Yeager on the movie “Red Flag.” One afternoon, the two found themselves doing laundry together on the studio lot.
Zabka helped direct hits such as “Love Boat” and “Streets of LA.” He worked alongside Clint Eastwood on “Bronco Billy” and “Any Which Way You Can.”
He worked on films with Shirley MacLean, Robert DeNiro and Joanne Woodward. He was associate director of the daytime serial “The Doctors,” for which Zabka won an Emmy. He earned three awards as composer for television specials and “Chimes,” the original Tonight Show and NBC Network Sports themes.
Details of those triumphs are included in Zabka’s memoir, “Razz Ma Tazz: (Beating the Odds) My Life in Music, Television, & Film.”
In 1995, Zabka and his wife moved to Grass Valley. They love living in the Gold Country, and chapter 21 of Zabka’s book is a salute to Nevada County.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Nancy said. “Stan’s a man of good character, and a loving father and husband. We’ve had a great life.”
The couple’s 55th wedding anniversary was Aug. 2. They have a close family with two sons, a daughter, and eight grandchildren.
This Super Senior maintains an active role in his music publishing company. Until recently, he visited Nevada County retirement homes to entertain residents.
“Practice before each performance and the physical workout of performing was a big commitment,” said Zabka, who has had two surgeries and will be 95 in November. “Parts of me are breaking off and they don’t make those parts anymore.”
Zabka attributes his success to his work ethic and faith.
“Anyone who knows anything about the Great Depression understands my generation and our sense of commitment and respect for our country,” said Zabka. “I’m dedicating the rest of my life to my family and enjoying time with them.”
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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