Mario Lanza: The Toast of South Philadelphia

The remarkable power of the tenor voice possessed by this native Philadelphian guaranteed him a meteoric arc across the pop culture of post-WWII America and an appreciation that has endured over the half-century since his very premature passing. In 1921, the same year that Enrico Caruso died, Alfredo Arnold Coccoza was born to Italian immigrant parents who both nurtured affection for classical opera, and had exposed him to recordings of Caruso from his early childhood. Soon, young Freddie was able to discuss every facet of opera, including arias and plotlines, with authority, and by the time he reached his teens, his natural gifts were apparent.

The Coccozas delightedly backed him in his desire to become a professional singer by hiring his first teacher, Irene Williams, and it didn’t take long for the young singer to be noticed. It was during a local production in Philly that the young Coccoza caught the attention of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who arranged a full scholarship with the Berkshire Music Center. He made his debut there in a 1942 production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and paid tribute to his mother by adopting his stage nomenclature from the masculine of her first name (Maria) and her maiden name, Lanza. Though the reviews were enthusiastic, Mario Lanza would almost immediately thereafter have to put his ambitions on hold, as his number came up for service in World War II.

Lanza found himself assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and his skills were put into use entertaining the troops, as he appeared in the morale-boosting stage productions “On the Beam” and “Winged Victory.” After his discharge, he married the sister of one of his army buddies and was determined to get his career back on track. He’d make a string of radio appearances on NBC’s “Great Moments in Music”; however, deeming himself unprepared in terms of technique for either a recording contract or a central stage role, Mario threw himself into months of study with Enrico Rosati. His skills strengthened, he engaged in a nationwide tour as part of the “Bel Canto Trio.” It was during a stint at the Hollywood Bowl that MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer was impressed enough to tender a seven-year contract to the handsome, barrel-chested prodigy.

While his MGM deal gave Lanza the leeway to continue his stage career–he’d make two appearances as Pinkerton for a 1948 New Orleans Opera Association production “Madame Butterfly”–his energies would thereafter be directed to filmmaking and his newly-minted recording pact with RCA Victor. The studio would find swift success with his first tailored vehicle, the semi-autobiographical That Midnight Kiss (1949), in which truck driver Lanza gets a chance to perform when a temperamental tenor walks out on an opera during rehearsal. His co-stars in his film debut were MGM favorites Kathryn Grayson, Jose Iturbi and Ethel Barrymore and included some of his signature songs, “Santa Lucia” and “Celeste Aida.”

For his follow-up in 1950, The Toast of New Orleans, MGM secured songs that would include his first million-selling recording, “Be My Love,” and paired him again with Grayson, along with David Niven and young starlet Rita Moreno, as he played a Louisiana fisherman who rises from the docks to stardom on the stage.

He’d thereafter reach a professional pinnacle, making the most of his opportunity to portray his boyhood idol in the lush biopic The Great Caruso (1951) opposite Ann Blyth, and with a soundtrack that boasted his second million-seller, “The Loveliest Night of the Year” plus a host of operatic classics. While riding a remarkable crest of popularity, the mercurial and boisterous performer soon proved unable to keep either his ego or his waistline in check. He had initially balked at the army-set scenario for his next MGM project, Because You’re Mine (1952); the film’s title track would nevertheless become another million-seller.

Lanza was developing a reputation in Tinseltown even during his early film career, succumbing to overeating as well as drinking too much (which both had effects on his health), plus some well-publicized spouts with those around him. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, who felt Lanza was “rebellious, tough, and ambitious,” stated that “his smile, which was as big as his voice, was matched with the habits of a tiger cub, impossible to housebreak.”

Matters came to a head with his subsequent screen assignment, the Sigmund Romberg operetta The Student Prince. Clashing with original director Curtis Bernhardt during principal photography in the summer of 1952 over his vocal performances (which had been recorded previously), an indignant Lanza wound up walking off the set. MGM got an injunction against Lanza that would keep him off the stage and radio for the remaining 15 months of his contract with the studio. A settlement was eventually reached that let MGM retain the recordings of Mario’s completed vocals, which were ultimately lip-synched to by replacement lead Edmund Purdom, and The Student Prince was finally released in 1954. While the recordings would become the first ever million-selling soundtrack album, Lanza was through with Metro, and he’d spend the following year in virtual seclusion.

By 1956, Lanza was mounting a comeback, resuming his recording career and putting in appearances on radio and TV; he’d make the opera-themed melodrama Serenade in 1956, cast opposite Joan Fontaine for Warner Brothers, and while his vocal efforts there were strong, it didn’t equal his box-office successes for MGM.

He thereafter took his family to his ancestral homeland, and while based in Rome, he’d continue to tour Europe with concert performances, and would mount two final film projects overseas, Seven Hills of Rome (1957), which includes his ultimate rendition of “Arrivederci Roma” and his last film in 1959, For the First Time.

By then, hard living and yo-yo dieting were taking their toll on the performer’s health, as he strived to cope with hypertension and phlebitis. He was only 38 when a pulmonary embolism stilled his magnificent voice in October of 1959. When he passed away, Hopper concluded, “there had never been anyone like Mario, and I doubt whether we shall ever see his like again” and also offering that he was the “last of the great romantic performers.”

Years later, author Eleonora Kimmel said, “he was still the most famous tenor in the world,” and went on with what so many of his devoted fans already knew about Lanza: “he blazed like a meteor whose light lasts a brief moment in time.”

José Carreras, the celebrated tenor paid a great tribute to Lanza in 1994 when he confided, “If I’m an opera singer, it’s thanks to Mario Lanza.” Plácido Domingo, a colleague of Carreras’, said in a 2009 interview, “Lanza’s passion and the way his voice sounds are what made me sing opera. I actually owe my love for opera thanks to a kid from Philadelphia.” It was Lanza’s appearance in The Great Caruso that seemed to be the influence of so many future stars, Carreras, Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti included. Noted opera historian Clyde McCants summed it very nicely when he wrote, “Of all the Hollywood singers who performed operatic music… the one who made the greatest impact was Mario Lanza.”