Frank Panza was described thusly in 2014: “This Panza guy’s still a beautiful thing, though. Look at the hair, thick as a turf course. The smile, full of Italian Twinkle. And listen to his stories, gleaned from a half century as Santa Anita’s Damon Runyon.”
Santa Anita Park extends its heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the track’s all-time longest tenured bartender, Frank Panza, who passed away Wednesday evening at age 91 following a lengthy battle with cancer. A longtime resident of Laguna Niguel, Panza, who passed away at home with his sister Gloria by his side, negotiated a 65-mile daily commute to work at what he often described as a “dream job.”
Employed for some 59 years at Santa Anita and known to thousands of racegoers over the years as a tremendous mixologist and valued friend and confidant in the original Turf Club Chandelier Room and later, in the track’s main Club House bar, was the very definition of top-shelf customer service, as he greeted regulars and newcomers alike with a sunny disposition and unflagging attention to detail.
Panza, who was born May 28, 1930 in Ohio, first came to work at Santa Anita in December, 1961 and he served some of the biggest names in the worlds of entertainment and sports throughout an amazing career that ended due to a COVID related shutdown on March 8, 2020.
Retired LA Times columnist Chris Erskine described Panza thusly in a story written Oct. 29, 2014: “This Panza guy’s still a beautiful thing, though. Look at the hair, thick as a turf course. The smile, full of Italian Twinkle. And listen to his stories, gleaned from a half century as Santa Anita’s Damon Runyon.”
In the same story, Panza, who recounted 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, was asked about his experience.
“There’ll never be another bar like that,” he said in reference to the Chandelier Room. “I couldn’t wait to come to work. They would come in minks, dressed to the hilt. Elizabeth Montgomery used to bring me ties…I don’t think there’s a saloon in the world that had that kind of clientele. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
And later, Erskine asked Panza, who was himself a dues-paying SAG member and bit television and movie actor, who in all the years he worked, was his favorite customer.
“The greatest, Sinatra. He used to call me Frangi. My Italian nickname.”
Funeral services for Frank Panza will take place this coming week with a memorial to follow here at Santa Anita in February.
Rest in Peace, Frank, may you never be forgotten.
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