By Steve Cronin
Modern Screen
June 1952
One Sunday a few weeks ago, Mario Lanza was awakened at eight in the morning by an insistent hammering on his front door.
Half asleep, Mario struggled into his robe and shuffled downstairs.
He opened the door, and a telegraph messenger handed him an envelope which contained the following wire: DON'T KNOW IF YOU REMEMBER BUT WE WERE IN VARE JUNIOR HIGH TOGETHER STOP MY MOTHER DESPERATELY ILL PLEASE WIRE FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS TO BELOW ADDRESS.
Mario shook his head in disbelief. He couldn't for the life of him recall the identity of the sender.
Two days later, he received a special delivery letter from the same person which said in part, "I didn't want to believe all those stories about your growing snobbish and swell-headed, but since you haven't sent the money after my fervent plea, what else can I believe?"
The fellow who sent that letter was a perfect stranger to Mario, who has an excellent memory. "Yet," says Betty Lanza, "you'd be surprised by the number of similar requests we get from people we've never heard of. As soon as the newspapers carried the story that Mario made a million dollars last year, he became the target for every crackpot, beggar and confidence man in the country. It's gotten so bad we've had to hire someone to separate the legitimate requests from the loony ones."
Six years ago, when Mario Lanza was a concert singer with the Bel Canto Trio, he dreamed of being rich and famous, of owning two cars, providing his parents with luxuries, and taking pretty good care of himself.
"Now I know," he says, "that success is a snare and a delusion. It means work and worry, responsibility and duty. It's a treadmill. Once you get on, you can't just get off. You've got contracts and obligations. The expectancy of success is a good deal more than the actuality."
By nature, Mario is a plain, generous, easy-going man. He likes to relax, loaf, travel, talk all night with his friends.
Ever since success came to him, he's been able to do none of these things.
A few weeks ago, when Al Hall, the director of Mario's latest picture, Because You're Mine, was hit by the flu, the film shooting came to a halt. Mario had a week off.
"I feel sorry for Al," he told Betty that night, "but just think of it! I've got seven days off. Where would you like to go?"
Betty thought for a moment. "Why don't we go to Las Vegas?" she suggested. "Andy opens there next week." Andy is Andy Russell, the crooner who is one of Mario's closest friends.
So the Lanzas flew to Las Vegas. On the night of their arrival Mario and Betty sat down at a table in the hotel dining room. Within three minutes at least a dozen guests had recognized Lanza. They crowded around his table asking him to sign autographs. Mario smiled and scribbled his signature across the menus. Then two girls came over and uninvited, pulled up some chairs. "We're from Philadelphia, Mario," they said. "Do you mind if we join you?"
Mario grinned wanly.
"But we're expecting other guests," Betty said.
"That's okay," the girls said. "We'll leave when they get here."
The Lanzas tried to order some dinner, and eventually they did -- but they never got to eat it. Word spread throughout the hotel that Mario Lanza was in the dining room, and an estimated 80 people flocked in for autographs.
From that point on the Lanzas had to take all their meals in their room. They couldn't eat in restaurants, clubs or hotels. Everywhere he went, Mario was mobbed.
One morning, Mario received a long distance call from Los Angeles. "Don't forget," his secretary warned. "You have to fly in by noon today. You've got your radio show to do."
So Mario flew back to Hollywood and sang his heart out. Then he caught the midnight plane back to Las Vegas. When he arrived he was dead tired, and went to sleep almost immediately.
They woke him at eight the next morning. The sun was very bright, and the photographer from the studio publicity department wanted to get some good color stuff.
It was a great seven-day vacation. Mario did absolutely none of the things he wanted to do.
"Now that I have a few bucks," Mario says, "I don't even have the time to spend it. I get $25 a week spending money from my business manager. The other day I put my hand in my watch pocket and I found three weeks' allowances."
"That's nothing," his wife says. "Tell about the time we went to Honolulu. We thought we would have a wonderful vacation. After all, Hawaii is such a beautiful resort spot. Well, Mario was talked into doing one concert for Freddie Matsuo, a great guy. Only the one concert turned into four, and Mario didn't even set foot on Waikiki Beach. He came back home more tired than when he left."
Every now and then, Mario entertains the idea of quitting motion pictures, and restricting his activities to making a few records and perhaps one concert tour a year.
But this is an impossibility, because Mario's career gives employment to at least 100 people, and he's the kind of man who thinks of others before considering himself.
If Mario misses one recording date, 65 musicians receive no salary that week. If he gives up one radio show, another 20 musicians go without pay.
No one knows exactly how many people Mario Lanza is supporting out of his income. When you ask him, he says modestly, "Who cares? I believe money should be spent. The man with money is the man with headaches."
Mario not only supports his wife, two children, three in help and two secretaries, but also his parents.
When Mario first signed at MGM, he was earning $750 a week. He sent for his parents at once and rented a home for them on South Crescent Drive. He then ordered his business manager to see that they got almost half of his monthly movie salary.
While at Metro, Mario met a man in the research department named Felix Wayne. When Metro let Felix out, Mario put him on his personal payroll as an executive.
When Coca-Cola began to dicker with Mario for a radio show, he was willing to listen. "Fine," said the men from the advertising agency. "Your musical conductor will be Percy Faith."
"No," Mario said. "My musical conductor will be Ray Sinatra."
"Who ever heard of Ray Sinatra?" the agency boys asked. "Percy Faith is a conductor of stature, an orchestra leader of renown. We have him all signed up."
"That's great," said Mario. "But you don't have Lanza."
The agency boys went around to see Betty. "Why is your husband so insistent about having Ray Sinatra?" they asked.
Betty smiled. "I guess," she explained, "Mario thinks he can use the work."
A year or so ago, a Hungarian composer named Nicky Brodsky, was stranded in New York. Brodsky, who had composed some of the finest operetta music in the Balkans, wanted desperately to come to Hollywood. But no one in Hollywood had a spot for him. Mario not only brought Nick Brodsky out to Hollywood but paid his expenses, and soon Brodsky got into Metro where he composed "Be My Love" for his young sponsor.
Mario also sends his mother-in-law a weekly allowance. Practically no other motion picture star can make this claim. Betty's mother works as an interior decorator in Marshall Fields Department Store in Chicago. She is 56 years old and has three daughters to support, and Mario thinks it only fair that she have a little extra spending money.
Only recently, Mario lent his name to his uncle Arnold for use on a brand of supplies to be known as Lanza Groceries. Any profits from this business will go to the Lanza relatives.
During his Oregon workout last year, a workout in which he cut his weight from 240 lbs. to 180, Mario met Dale Goodman, an ex-GI who had parted with a lung on Iwo Jima. Mario learned that Dale had always dreamed of owning a chicken ranch. Mario purchased such a ranch and went into partnership with Dale.
One evening last October, Dale phoned Mario. "I hate to bother you with this, Mario," Dale said, "but our new baby is suffering brain hemorrhages. The doctors around here don't know what to do. Is there anything you can suggest?"
"Try not to worry," Mario pleaded. Mario got on the phone, and in a couple of hours, two top Chicago specialists were flying to Rogue River.
Ask Mario how much that little bill came to, and he grins, "Two ninety-eight," he says.
A month before this incident, Betty's aunt May from McKeesport, Pa., sent the Lanzas some newspaper clippings. The clippings told the story of a one-day-old infant who had been abandoned in an apartment house vestibule. The baby had been sent to the Pittsburgh Hospital where, because of his lusty cries, the nurses had nicknamed him, Mario Lanza.
Mario was proud as a peacock to think that strong, lusty volume was almost synonymous with his name. That night he said to Betty, "Is it okay with you if I send that little baby in Pittsburgh $500?"
Betty answered with a kiss.
When no one claimed the foundling at the Pittsburgh Hospital, he and his $500 were sent to the Roselia Foundling Home where he was named Mario Lanza II. As soon as this item hit the press, the Mother Seton Sisters of Charity who run the Home, were swamped with adoption offers. Hundreds of couples wanted little Mario for their very own.
By the time you read this article that blond little blue-eyed baby will be living comfortably with his new parents in a healthy decent home. What counts, too, is the fact that the Mario Lanza Fund is now established at Roselia, and Mario will add to it each year.
One more illustration of where the Lanza money goes and why Mario can't quit. Remember 11-year-old Raphaela Fasano, the little girl from Newark who lapsed into a coma last September because of the supposedly incurable Hodgkins Disease?
Well, Raphaela has improved so much that she is now attending fifth grade at the Dayton Street public school. She attributes her miraculous recuperation to Mario Lanza. It was he who not only sang to her on the phone from California but paid all her expenses to Hollywood. He supplied her with the best medical care and imbued her with the will to improve. Mario still phones Raphaela whenever he gets a chance.
I don't mind the responsibility that comes with success," Mario explains, "because after all that's a man's role in the world -- the acceptance of responsibility. The thing that gets me about success is the way you become a target for every Tom, Dick, and Harry. As soon as you're in the public eye, people begin taking potshots at you. You ask for a little favor, and all of a sudden they accuse you of being temperamental. You don't hear what one guy is saying and right away you're a snob. You have 103 temperature and the doctor orders you to bed, and right away they say you're a baby, and 'My, doesn't he take care of himself.' You make an innocent statement like 'I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Kathryn Grayson because she was in my first two pictures,' and overnight the newspapers are building up a big Grayson-Lanza feud.
"When you're married to someone like my Betty, feuds are impossible, anyway. As soon as someone gets angry with me, Betty rings him up. She believes in clearing the air at once. She tells everyone how I'm really such an angel and how hard I work. They don't fall for that angel routine, but they realize that I work pretty hard and that constant work will keep anyone pretty tense."
What can Mario Lanza do about his work schedule? Friends predict that eventually it will cost him his health and his voice. "He cannot make pictures," one voice coach recently pointed out, "and also do radio shows, recordings, concert tours, and study opera. Not even Caruso would dare tax his voice that much."
Mario's answer is, "I can't help it. I'm a man who likes to sing. I sing for pleasure not for money. Money has given me a lot of headaches and fame has taken some of the fun out of life. But when I sing a song and people's eyes light up, that's worth all the bother, all the responsibility, all the headaches. As to how long I can go on singing -- that's in God's hands."