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The Fiftieth Annual Mario Lanza Ball
From Sam Samuelian
On a beautiful if somewhat cold evening, my wife Anna and I left 4:15 for the Mario Lanza Ball. I had been thinking of the event all week and attending Mario's cousin's get together Friday night was the spark that kindled the flame even higher. There an assembly of 24 people (many out of towners) enjoyed an absolutely first rate Italian meal at La Viola on 16th Street near Latimer Street. It's the kind of meal I could just see Mario enjoying with relish! I'm still thinking about my veal which was so tender and thinly cut that you practically didn't have to chew it! Add to that a side order of spaghetti that I asked for specially (I never leave a new Italian restaurant without sampling the all important red sauce, or gravy as they say in South Philly). I enjoyed the incredible sauce so much that I told Carole and her brother Al Gagilardi to please let us know when they return. It's Carole's favorite restaurant. Incidentally Carole looked lovely there and just as beautiful at the Ball, where she was seen dancing and having fun. The menu also included salad and dessert which were excellent as well. Anna's salmon was so juicy and tasty that even I liked it. I rarely order salmon since I'm not much of a fan.
We walked into the Doubletree Hotel, the place where the Ball has been held for years, just as the affair started with a reception and cocktail hour right outside the banquet hall called The Overture. Many were in their overcoats since the girl to check them came late. We had our usual three apple martinis (hey when it's an open bar I take advantage!) and grabbed one of the very few tables after filling our plates with the varied and very tasty appetizers that were on two large tables and also butlered. I saw Elaine Malbin walk in and waved to her. Luckily she walked over and sat down. I told her how much I looked forward to seeing her each year and what a wonderful job she always does as mistress of ceremonies. I was delighted that she remained at our table practically the entire time along with affable tenor Vincent Ricciardi who had entertained the night before at the pre-Ball dinner held at the popular High Note Cafe. We unfortunately had to miss that event since we had to attend the 70th birthday surprise party for a close friend. I hope one of our friends reports on that event. Vincent is a friend of Aaron Caruso and like him has an excellent tenor voice.
I especially liked how Elaine speaks so glowingly of Mario and gives him credit for being such an inspirational and helpful force for starting the career of a novice of only nineteen. This is the very same gratitude we always hear famous singers like Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Al Martino, and more express and never forget to acknowledge throughout their careers. Elaine must have a painting stored in her attic because it seems she never ages or changes weight. The petite vocalist stands just under five feet and is vivacious and is a wonderful conversationalist with a great memory. Not bad for someone who is almost 80 years old! I told her I just ordered an example of the same microphone (world renown eight pound RCA 44BX which is still desired by musicians!) that she and Mario most likely used when they recorded the fine duet from La Traviata that will long outlive her. She touched my hand quite a few times and this only emphasized the warmth she exudes. Of all the guests I have met over the years at the Ball she stands out since she doesn't act like a diva who wants to merely sit at the dais. No, she is happy to be part of a group who loves Mario and it shows.
After grabbing four small glasses of Coke when it was five minutes to six (I know from experience that the bar switches to pay mode exactly at six avoided shelling out four dollars plus tip per glass!). We found our table and were happy to be seated directly in front of the dance floor and central to the dais. We were lucky to be at a table which was international and included guests from Japan, Ireland, France, and Canada. I especially enjoyed the fellow from Ireland whose name is Patrick. This was the first Ball for the youthful looking fan who first heard Mario in 1956 when he was only nine. Even at that tender age he knew enough to appreciate the tremendous Lanza talent and thanks to an opera loving father this appreciation was cultivated and developed into a lifetime love of him. Great to also see Lanza author Mr. Hayano, French archivist Marcel and his wife, and the delightful couple from Canada. The Tony Dee Orchestra started playing and upheld the happy mood all evening with choice numbers for listening and dancing. They included several songs associated with Mario as well.
This Ball was special since it commemorated not only the 50th anniversary of the event but also the 60th anniversary of "The Great Caruso". Because of that Bill Ronayne started the evening with the excellent video presentation he had prepared with included stills of our boy with his voice heard in the background to honor the film. Later he showed a second video that was composed of operatic excerpts from the movie. Both were very well received by the audience. It was especially gratifying to see everyone, including the scholarship winners and three tenors who sang later, sit in absolute awe of Mario's incomparable voice and magnetic charm.
Playing "I'll Walk With God" is a tradition and never fails to bring tears to my eyes as it reverberates throughout the hall. As Terry Robinson once wrote, "Mario, you can sing like a sonofabitch!" It is always followed by everyone standing to sing our National Anthem. Yes, it has a challenging range but I'm happy to say I can still hit the high note! Following the invocation, the four winners--three tenors and one baritone--started their show. It was excellent and included two pieces by each. It's unusual not to have any females perform, but these were the cream of the crop which were selected from about 80 contestants. All had strong voices which filled the room without any amplification and all were very fine. Anna put her fingers on my arm to quietly ndicate her rating of each from one to four.
We agreed that young tenor William Davenport had the best voice. He has the kind of voice that is naturally pleasing with quality, warmth, and ringing notes. Unfortunately he didn't place first, probably due to his final note on "Che gelida manina" where he didn't crack but had a quick and strange gap that interrupted it. Peter Scott Drackley sang the Lanza and Caruso favorite "Tu cha nun chiagne" with verve but disappointed by avoiding the final high note. His lyric voice showed passion and his range is consistent from top to bottom. Christopher Tiesi placed first. We placed him second but he took first place thanks to technical perfection, excitement, and his bright, open lyric voice. I had heard him sing in the Men's room earlier, where he apologized for filling the room with exciting high notes followed by scales. "No apology necessary" I said, give me more! Singer Christian Bowers presented his rich baritone in contrast to the tenors. Like yours truly always says, it's nice to hear a full low voice in contrast to the tenors. Hmmm, could that be because I am a baritone, lol?
Dinner was served after that and I must say it was one of the best I have tasted from the Doubletree kitchen. While disappointed that the soup course and pasta course were left out this year (likely a sign of the times), the filet mignon was superb--juicy and cooked to perfection and the salmon was excellent--flaky and coming close to what La Viola offered. At times in the past both dishes were not well coordinated, resulting in dry food which was hard to chew. Dessert is the traditional plate with "Mario" hand written in chocolate and accompanied by cheesecake and a chocolate covered strawberry with two blueberries in whipped cream. Yum! Another yummy occasion followed. It was an act resembling the Three Tenors with three fine voices doing three numbers. Amazingly the men were all last minute replacements since the three who were booked to sing had all cancelled! I don't know how this can happen but must say the performances were first rate and received loud applause. Kudos to them and to Bill for replacing them so quickly.
The evening ended with the presentation of awards to the scholarship winners. That was followed by everyone gathering in a large circle to sing "God Bless America" along with Kate Smith and ended with Mario doing the always appropriate Non ti scordar di me". No Mario, we won't ever forget you. And none who attended should forget the hard work done by Bill Ronayne, Jeanette Frese, and the other board members who donated so much of their time to ensure the success of this noteworthy (pun intended) Ball. I look forward to reading reports by others who were there. I don't want to end negatively but must close with a plea. We need to further Mario's memory and dream of promoting young vocal hopefuls by supporting this event better. There were only nine tables of eight each along with the eight seated at the dais. I know the economy is bad, but we can and MUST do better than that! See you next year?
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