November 2, 2021
By Neil D. Garguilo
Christmas, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1965. The voice came up through the stairway into my tiny room as I lay in bed as a youth of 12 years old. The voice had strength unheard of to my naïve ears. The high notes were exceptional and hard to believe. There was such “timbre” to his voice. The songs were so wonderful. The album so unique. The most wonderful carols ever like Silent Night, The First Noel, Joy to the World and a very unusual song called Guardian Angels sung with such vocal beauty. This last song is so moving and haunting. To this day, I just love it! Who was this singer? This unique voice? This unbelievable voice belonged to Mario Lanza.
My father loved all the great Italian singers of that era and had many of their LPs. Such talented singers included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jimmy Roselli, and Perry Como. He also played the great operatic star Enrico Caruso from a prior time period. But Mario stood out. He stuck in my mind. To this day I hear his voice and beautiful songs over and over again. There is something about the “greatest” that I am drawn to whether in sports, film or singing. And in my opinion he had the greatest voice of all time. He was “The Voice…”
Mario Lanza was born in Philadelphia, PA on January 31, 1921 to Italian immigrants. That same year his idol, Enrico Caruso, died. Mario Lanza was not his real name but a feminized version of his mother’s name, Maria Lanza. His real name was Alfredo (Freddie) Arnold Cocozza. It is good they changed his last name since Cocozza in Italian means “pumpkin.”
His mercurial rise to stardom was marked by such high notes and, sadly, a swift demise. He, too, was drawn to the family’s Victrola early in his youth. His favorite singer was the great Caruso himself. In his teens he was well versed in operatic arias and plots. His mother who was quit a singer herself noticed her son’s voice and started him on voice lessons with a well know local teacher named Irene Williams. Then, fate shined on him. The famous conductor Serge Koussevitzky was in Philadelphia when he hears Freddy (Mario) sing. He was dumbstruck at the wonderful voice emanating from this young man.
In 1942, the maestro made immediate plans for Mario to sing at Tanglewood, the famous music venue in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. He sang the role of Fenton in Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Alas, a world war was raging and Mario was soon drafted. While in the army he sang and appeared in two Army productions, Frank Loesser’s On the Beam and the acclaimed Moss Hart’s Winged Victory. At the end of the war he met the love of his life, Betty Hicks and married. This marriage produced 4 beautiful children: Colleen, Ellisa, Damon, and Marc.
Following the war, more training took place with Enrico Rosati, a very famous vocal teacher. This study must have paid off since he signed a contract with Columbia Artists and toured as the tenor in the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and the baritone George London. Again, fate turned its illusive eyes towards him. While singing at the Hollywood Bowl with Frances he was noticed by the great movie producer Louis B. Mayer of MGM.
His life from this point on was forever altered.
The star was rising very fast and so was the stress. In addition to his MGM contract, he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. Then, on April 8, 1948 and April 10, 1948 he performed in the tenor role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for the New Orleans Opera Association. Faster and faster his career shot up. His first motion picture was released in 1949 called That Midnight Kiss. It was a smash hit making Mario Lanza a screen star overnight.
But the stress started to build and its outlet was in the form of heavy drinking, excessive eating and extreme dieting. These last two issues plagued him since he would shoot up in weight during filming. He was only 5’ 7” and would start out at 170 pounds and then rapidly climb up to 260 pounds. It was noticeable on film causing editors issues on how to fix. They did the best they could. This rapid weight gain also led him to strange dieting. For instance, he flew to Italy and entered Rome’s Valle Giulia clinic for the purpose of losing weight for an upcoming film. While in the clinic, he underwent a controversial weight loss program called “the twilight sleep treatment” which required its patients to be kept immobile and sedated for prolonged periods. His excesses caused him to have heart problems.
His star was on the ascent. In 1950 the Toast of New Orleans was released. Then, in 1951, Mario fulfilled a dream come true by playing his idol Enrico Caruso in the film The Great Caruso. This was a major success in every way and brought Mario’s star to its apex. This film was the most profitable one for MGM in 1951 and set a record gross at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, grossing $1,390,943 in ten weeks. In addition, the film’s soundtrack issued by RCA Victor became the first operatic LP to sell one million copies. All of this great success was followed in 1952 with Because You’re Mine—popular at the box office but not a critical success.
Many stars feel that everything should revolve around them. No different with Mario. At one of his greatest moments—working for MGM—he had artistic deputes and was replaced as the star of The Student Prince in RCA. You really have to follow what the studio says or wants. However, his voice was used on the soundtrack for the movie and RCA Victor released the LP which became the first million-seller soundtrack album.
From this point, Mario left MGM, made several recordings and appeared in radio and television shows until 1956 when he stared in Warner Brother’s movie Serenade. In May 1957, Mario and his family left for Italy. While in Europe, he performed for the Queen of England in several sell-out recitals, and made his final two films, The Seven Hills of Rome in 1957 and For the First Time in 1959.
The end came swiftly and, for me, it is hard to believe such a man, a star dying so young. In October 1959, he developed a severe case of advanced phlebitis. Then, he suffered a fatal heart attack on October 7 and could not be revived. His family and the world were shocked and brokenhearted. To make matters worse, a scant 5 months later, on March 11, 1960, his beloved wife Betty died and joined him in eternal bliss. Mario could be at rest with his love and have no further pressures to perform and to be a star. He was 38 years old.
A man with such a voice had enormous pressure and responsibility to perform at “his peak” each and every time. A story of his idol is recounted that while he was backstage prior to opening, Caruso appeared nervous. Someone asked him: “Why are you nervous–you are the great Caruso.” He apparently answered and I paraphrase: “I do not have to be 100% but 150% each time I go out to perform.” Unique personalities, unheard of talent, unbridled magnetism, and enormous success only can add to the need to perform at the “peak” all the time and, hence, tremendous pressure. I do not envy them…
Lanza was the first RCA Victor Red Seal artist to win a gold disc and the first artist to sell two and a half million albums. The Red Seal is a classical music label whose origin dates back to 1902 and represents “premium-priced records made by top-tier artists. In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on The Palm Springs, California, Walk of Fame was dedicated to him. Further, he was awarded two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: a Star for Recording at 1751 Vine Street, and a Star at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard for Motion Pictures. Mario’s short career spanned popular music, opera, radio, TV and motion pictures. It is unbelievable. His legacy lives on in the influence he has played in the 3 Tenors lives: Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and countless others throughout the last 62 years since his death. His recordings and films are available on CD and video and are still earning money to this day.
I have come full circle with my idol. I fulfilled a bucket list item when my wife and I along with friends, Joanne and Frank, visited his museum in Philadelphia on October 2, 2021. The museum is located at 1214 Reed Street. It was a wonderful day to be with all his memorabilia and to hear a great presentation by the curator and president, Bill Ronayne. Then, our friends introduced us to The Victor’s Café where we enjoyed wonderful food served by employees singing opera. What a day to remember Mario with!!
Mario put his whole heart and soul into his singing. He himself stated: “I sing each word as though it were my last on earth.” So true that his idol’s son, Enrico Caruso, Jr. said of him: “Mario Lanza was born with one of the dozen or so great tenor voices of the century, with a natural voice placement, an unmistakable and very pleasing timbre, and a nearly infallible musical instinct. His diction was flawless, matched only by the superb Giuseppe Di Stefano. His delivery was impassioned, his phrasing manly and his tempi instinctively right. All are qualities that few singers are born with and others can never attain.” He was “The Voice!” Mario Lanza was “Caruso Reborn,” in the opinion of many music aficionados.
Dad, thank you for playing Mario Lanza’s songs as I was growing up. It connects us even though you are not with me. Long live Mario Lanza and my Dad who introduced me to him.
Facts and data credited to The Mario Lanza Museum and Wikipedia.
About the Author:
Neil D. Garguilo is a retired business manager and leader. He is retired but currently writes for the Italian Sons and Daughter of America newspaper, La Nostra Voce. He also authors a blog to be found at Neil G. – Medium, Crusaders for America.