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'Melodic and powerful': Sacramento radio legend Lou Coppola dies at 92

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 5/4/2020 By Michael McGough, The Sacramento Bee

From calling action on the baseball diamond at Edmonds Field to a 40-year career in local broadcasting to hosting big band soirees well into his 80s, Lou Coppola’s smooth baritone voice must have soothed thousands across Sacramento over the course of six decades.

When the community learned that the radio man was nearing the end of his life, longtime neighbors on 8th Avenue in Land Park filled their front yards with American flags in his honor. First, one across the street. Then another, then another.

“My father was fervently patriotic,” said Chuck Coppola. “... To me, that simple tribute put a lump in my throat, more so almost than his passing.”

Days after the flags went up east of Land Park Drive, all around the same house he bought back in 1963, Coppola died in his sleep of natural causes at a local care home April 25, after years of declining health. He was 92.

For the baseball enthusiast and lover of swing-era sounds, his life voyage took him through two other continents and a pair of wars before he landed in Sacramento in the mid-1950s. He “lived for travel,” his son Chuck recalled, and never let go of his “hunger to see more of the world,” but his career and his family rooted his home in California’s capital for the bulk of his life.

Born Emo Luigi Fernando Coppola in 1927 in the northern Italian village of Uscio, Lou’s parents Rosa and Emilio Coppola brought him to America in 1930 as a toddler, fleeing from fascist rule under Benito Mussolini.

The Coppolas settled in the Bay Area city of Concord, where Lou graduated from Mt. Diablo High School in 1945. He spent the waning months of World War II with the U.S. Merchant Marine, escorting civilian ships across the Pacific Ocean.

Garage customer helped launch his radio career

When he returned, he played catcher on semi-professional baseball teams and worked with his younger brother, Mario, as an auto mechanic in the East Bay.

One day, a customer at Mario’s garage suggested Lou could make a living with his voice: a career in radio.

That plan went on hold as Coppola became Sgt. Coppola during the Korean War. Initially a forward observer, spotting ahead for artillery units, he ended up lending his voice to the Armed Forces Radio Service, boosting morale to troops by interviewing celebrities over the airwaves.

Coppola then went on to attend broadcast classes at San Francisco State College. An eager Coppola left before graduating for a job at KMOR in Oroville, where he met his future wife.

Lou and Betty Coppola married and moved to Sacramento in 1956. Betty gave birth to their son and only child, Chuck, in 1957. Lou is survived by both.

“I will just say this about Lou, he was a wonderful guy,” Betty said. “He was a wonderful provider. He never let us be hanging out on the line about anything.”

Lou Coppola worked in the late 1950s and 1960 as both a radio broadcaster and the ballpark announcer at Sacramento’s Edmonds Field, home of the Sacramento Solons, the city’s minor-league presence before the River Cats came to town in 2000.

Chuck still cherishes his childhood memory of the last-ever baseball game at Edmonds on April 12, 1964. Before it was razed, the field hosted an exhibition game between the San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians.

Future Hall of Famers and Giants all-time greats Willie Mays and Willie McCovey hit back-to-back home runs in that contest. Chuck watched from the announcing booth as his dad, next to him, called the action at the ballpark.

“Baseball was his sport,” Chuck said of Lou, whom he called an “unbridled enthusiast of just about everything.”

“I couldn’t believe how energetic he was, even into his 80s. He was a terrific father. He played catch any time you wanted, any time you asked ... He never lost the love of the game.”

Coppola continued his broadcast career with a long tenure at KCRA radio, which became known as KGNR in the late 1970s and has since been split off into what are today KIFM on the AM side and KYMX on FM radio under different ownership.

For more than 40 years, he broadcast a variety of live sports including his second favorite, college basketball; hosted a show centered on travel; and produced radio commercials for a number of local businesses. He’d go door-to-door, popping in on local businesses to sell ad time on KCRA and KGNR, Chuck remembers.

Outside of broadcast, Coppola served as a Little League president in the Land Park area, and kept playing slow-pitch softball in a seniors league until age 80. His connections selling adds also helped him became president of the Executives Association of Sacramento.

Champion of big band music

Chuck says his father was a “huge music lover” who didn’t play an instrument or have professional vocal training, but boasted a “beautiful” singing voice. He’d sing in church choirs, and in his later years, championed big band music at the local level, hosting dances and live performances inspired by the Great American Songbook. He’d also book concert and parade appearances for the Sacramento Youth Band.

“He had a great set of pipes,” said Lizette Martinez-Hopkins, a longtime local TV anchor who, like Lou, followed her passion for swing-era music and ballroom dance after leaving the broadcast business.

“Even at his later years he still was very smooth, deep. He could sing bass. Oh my gosh. Melodic and powerful.”

Lou was central to the NorCal Big Band Preservation Society, which Martinez-Hopkins says eventually faded out of existence as the older crowd it catered to began to pass away.

“He took this on as if he was the most responsible for it, keeping the big band sound alive,” she said.

Martinez-Hopkins hadn’t known that Coppola was in a senior care facility, and said she was “shocked” to find out last week that he had passed away. She knew Coppola through his work in the local big band community, and he later invited her to join the Sacramento Valley Broadcast Legends, a social club he started with friend and colleague Jim Drennan years after their broadcast careers ended.

“Don’t take our name too seriously,” the club’s website explains. “ ‘Legends’ is more of a joke than an ego stroke.”

Coppola also devoted a great amount of time and energy to volunteer work, his son said. Lou believed it was a person’s duty to give their “time, attention or expertise in whatever way they could,” Chuck Coppola said.

For years, Lou Coppola helped coordinate free bus rides home to help those celebrating New Year’s Eve in Sacramento get home safely. Coppola also helped former prison inmates put together resumes.

“He’d help them find jobs,” Chuck Coppola said. “I really do respect that, and I think it’s something that we should never forget and should try and keep going as much as possible.”

Lou had what his son and wife each called a classic radio broadcast voice, emblematic of the era during which he worked.

“My dad had a clear baritone that you could hear very far away,” Chuck said. “He had a voice that carried. He knew how to breathe like a singer, from the diaphragm. He always spoke to me about, ‘Project your voice, when you’re speaking publicly.’ ”

Betty Coppola added: “It was a broadcast-quality voice. In the past, people had to have good voices before they got on the radio. It was just very resonant.”

Lou Coppola sang in a choir in his hometown during his youth, and in his later years sang in the choir at Holy Spirit Church in Land Park. Betty said Lou sang “until he couldn’t anymore.”

Coppola is survived by Betty, his wife of 64 years; their son Chuck; as well as one sister-in-law, three nephews and a niece.

A memorial service for Lou Coppola will be held at a later date, yet to be determined.

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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