Born July 22, 1904, in Rochester, New York, Anthony (“Tony”) Morelli grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. His father took him to Italy in 1914 to be educated, first briefly at Milan?s San Celso Military Academy and then, the Royal Conservatories of Music in Milan and Parma. Returning to the United States in 1925, Morelli traveled the country as a pianist, promoted vaudeville acts, wrote music and arrangements for theater productions including several Radio City Music Hall productions, and conducted theater and civic orchestras around the country throughout the 1930s and 1940s. When he married Helen Collins in 1935, he was the orchestra leader for the newly opened RKO Palace Theater in Albany, New York. She was secretary to Harry Rogers, a New York producer and advertising agent. Morelli first visited Las Vegas in 1953 with the Olsen and Johnson comedy team. When he accepted Sand?s president and impresario Jack Entratter?s offer to become the new hotel?s musical director the following year, Morelli stepped into a newly minted realm of entertainment where he became known as “Antonio” Morelli. Entratter, who had known Morelli from the Copacabana Club in New York City, believed that Morelli?s reputation as a classically trained musician with his elegant courtly image would bring a polish that would attract a wealthy, educated audience of high rolling gamblers who would be drawn to the Sands to see performances by the biggest stars of the day. He was correct. Though never a major headliner in Las Vegas show business and always in the background with the orchestra behind them, Morelli characterized the professional personnel who helped turn Las Vegas into a smoothly functioning, highly polished, widely popular entertainment venue. The big stars would usually bring their own musical directors for their acts, but Morelli wrote arrangements and rehearsed and fronted the eighteen-member regular orchestra, reportedly the largest on the Strip. The billing on the great Sands sign read “Antonio Morelli and his Orchestra.” He worked with Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Danny Thomas, Jerry Lewis, Florence Henderson, Red Skelton, Dean Martin, and others. He also played a role in one of the most memorable scenes in twentieth century American popular culture: the Rat Pack appearances of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford at the Sands in 1960. In films of the performances, Morelli can be glimpsed as the tall, smiling, elegantly mustachioed bandleader behind the Rat Pack?s antics.
Today only traces of Morelli?s work as a musician remain in recordings. In his lifetime he saw himself in the role of a solid citizen bringing high culture to the rough western city he helped develop into the “entertainment capital of the world”. He produced and conducted free Las Vegas Pops concerts, called “Shirt Sleeve Symphonies”, virtually from his arrival in the city. He composed and conducted special religious liturgical services for the public as well as those for civic holiday events. With a lead gift $5000, Morelli initiated the Antonio Morelli Friends of Music Scholarships for young musicians at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
A devout Catholic, he commissioned several stained glass windows for the Diocese and the Guardian Angel Catholic Church. In an article on his death in 1974, Helen Morelli is quoted as saying, “Las Vegas has lost a good and dear friend in the musical field. He brought it free to this community, went into his own pocket thousands of dollars to bring music to the people he loved, and they loved him.”