- 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
- 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?