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"I can't get over what just happened," said Bennett, who turned 90 earlier this month. "That's the most beautiful statue I have ever seen. It will live in my heart forever. Thank you for being so wonderful to me. I'll never forget this day."
Bennett looked sharp in a blue suit but said only a few words and didn't sing. That was OK with the crowd; they were just happy to see him.
"He's San Francisco," said Marty Jewett, standing in the front row with her friend, also a huge Bennett fan. "I think he keeps all the generations within his repertoire. I love his voice and his longevity."
Jewett and friend Margaret Baker arrived early Friday to get a front row position in the crowd.
"I think Tony Bennett represents the best in Italian-American entertainment going back for generations," Baker said.
For as long as anyone can remember, the New Yorker has been giving to San Francisco. Now, the city has paid him back, with Mayor Ed Lee declaring Aug. 19 to be Tony Bennett Day.
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"Tony Bennett, you've helped us share the magic of San Francisco around the world," Lee said.
The celebration will continue at AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants will honor Bennett in a pregame ceremony and throughout the game. Bennett also will perform "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" for fans.
"Tony, you are royalty," said Larry Baer, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco Giants. "We look forward to tonight at the ballpark when we'll have a small group of 41,000 people singing Happy Birthday to you."
The theme of the day was how Bennett has always been there for the city by the Bay.
"When the cable cars broke down and were closed down for two years and we brought them back, he came," said Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, the chief of protocol for San Francisco and the state of California. "When we had the earthquake and we put the Bay Bridge back together, he came. He's always here for us so we thought, 'What can we do for him?' And we thought of the statue."
In addition to the fanfare Friday and a gala dinner Saturday, Bennett is getting his own ice cream flavor. Created by the city's Humphry Slocombe ice cream shop, the flavor "Duet" will feature vanilla ice cream swirled with limoncello sorbet and fennel biscotti to honor Bennett's Italian heritage.
But the centerpiece of the celebration was the statue, which San Francisco Bay Area sculptor Bruce Leslie Wolfe began creating a few months ago after the singer sat for him for three days. During that time, Wolfe said they laughed, played music and Bennett sketched his likeness, giving him a new appreciation for the crooner.
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"Tony Bennett is probably the best vocal singer that I've ever heard. He can do anything with words," Wolfe said. "He's just like a poet, he's just good."
Paul Tormey, regional vice president and general manager of the Fairmont San Francisco, agrees.
"He's the godfather of the city. He has always been there in times of need and always been there as a good friend," Tormey said. "He's been absolutely wonderful to the city."