- By Jim Newton
- Rex Cole, one of the few really conscientious business
managers in Hollywood, shuffled into Mario Lanza's home in Bel-Air a few
nights ago, his face crossed with lines of worry and care.
- Ever since Mario broke irrevocably from Sam Weiler, his
first personal manager who took from 10% to 20% of the tenor's tremendous
earnings in addition to working as the producer on Lanza's radio show,
Rex Cole has been trying to bring some order out of Lanza's financial chaos.
- On this particular night he had come to discuss Mario's
astronomical telephone bills. However, Mario was rehearsing -- he practices
anywhere from four to ten hours a day -- and Rex Cole knew better than
- Rex looked around, and he spied Mario's wife, Betty.
She caught the worry in his eyes, rose, and tip-toed from the room.
- I'm sorry to disturb you, Betty," Rex began, "but
these telephone bills puzzle me, especially the long distance tolls. They
run into thousands of dollars."
- Betty smiled, and her flashing brown eyes turned soft.
"I know," she said. And then with a friendly shoulder pat, "It's
all right, Rex. It's for the sick."
- Rex Cole shook his head in puzzlement. "I'm sorry,
Betty. I don't get it."
- "It's very simple," Betty Lanza explained.
"Mario sings over the telephone to sick people. If a man writes him,
say from Omaha, and tells him that he's going into the hospital for an
operation, and he'd love to hear his voice again, Mario can't help himself.
He serenades the guy via long distance.
- "Not only that. You've seen some of the doctors'
bills? Lots of times Mario insists upon flying a specialist to the patient's
bedside. Only a few days ago he had a cardiac specialist, a friend of his
in New York, examine one of his fans."
- Rex Cole has been a business manager in Hollywood for
27 years -- he's handled practically every big name you can think of; he's
accustomed to the unique and the unusual -- but this time he was really
- "I know about that Raphaela Fasana girl from New
Jersey," he said, "but do you mean to tell me that Mario does
this sort of thing regularly?"
- Betty nodded. "The more you're around him,"
she said proudly, "the more you'll see that his heart is as big as
- "All I can say," Cole muttered, "is that
the public really doesn't know Mario Lanza."
- What Cole meant was that a tremendous hiatus exists between
the Lanza that really is and the Lanza people read about.
- Here is a man who was not only unemployed, but deprived
from making a living from August 1952 to April 1953. He was not only suspended
by his studio but prevented from appearing on the Coca-Cola radio show
thus causing the cancellation of the program. In addition he was sued for
more than $5,000,000 and simultaneously informed by the crack accounting
firm of Haskins & Sells that despite having paid the Government $485,000
in taxes, he was still behind in his payments. Moreover, he was informed
that his financial records, whose upkeep he had entrusted to others, were
so incredibly confused that it would take months of detailed auditing to
determine just how deeply in the red he really was.
- With this sort of financial ruin hanging over his head,
with the realization that he had sung his heart out for ten years and money-wise
had nothing to show for it, Lanza still insisted upon answering each and
every fan letter, still insisted upon using the long distance phone to
encourage those who were ill or hurt, and to sing for anyone he might help
with his voice.
- No matter what the cost, he refused to break faith with
a public that had given him its confidence.
- Lanza, who is much more profound and philosophical than
most people think -- he is an omnivorous reader of catholic taste -- once
tried to explain how he felt about his talent and the public.
- "The voice I have," he pointed out, "it's
difficult for me to express myself about it exactly. I feel it belongs
to the public, that it was given to me to entertain people, to make life
a little brighter for them.
- "That's why I never abuse it. People who tell you
I do -- they just don't know. When I was a kid in New York I quit the Celanese
Hour because I knew the voice needed further training.
- "I don't want to sound pretentious, but the voice
is kind of like a sacred trust to me. If I don't use it wisely then I feel
I'm cheating the public, and that's one thing I'll never do. They can sue
me for fifty million dollars, a hundred million. I'll declare bankruptcy
before I compromise the voice."
- This is the man who six months ago was pilloried and
described as "an ungrateful ham, a real madman." The barrage
of insult has thinned down, but as a result of it, many people are still
convinced that Lanza is an unstable character of little-boy moods, a sybarite
who indulges himself in Farouk-like pleasures, or a bellowing bull who
sweeps everything before him.
- Actually he is a kind, hyper-sensitive, super-generous
artist with a great love of people and an abiding sense of humility.
- He may stalk his living room, shouting at one of the
help, "I'm a tiger, Johnny. Don't mess around with the tiger!"
But these exclamations are manifestations of his sense of humor.
- Johnny Mobley, the cook who works for the Lanzas, says,
"You can judge a man by the way he treats his help. I can tell you
Mr. Lanza treats us all fine. Everytime I bake some cookies, he says, ëThe
best, Johnny. The best.' I never serve him but what he's extremely grateful.
And he treats everyone the same, makes no difference, white or colored,
big star or newspaper boy. He loves people, and he loves to sing for ëem.
I'm tellin' you. He's as nice a man as I've ever worked for. Fact of the
matter is he's so nice you think maybe he comes from my home state of Arkansas."
- Pages could be filled with similar glowing quotations;
but they would all point up the same two facts: Mario Lanza is kind, and
Mario Lanza is so trusting that he's frequently taken to the cleaners by
the very ones he's been kindest to.
- Here's an example. A few years ago, Mario was approached
by a man who'd just been fired from MGM. The fellow was on in years, he'd
seen a lot, and Mario without any fuss, put him on the payroll as a general
assistant. A few months later, this same individual turned up at the studio
and offered his services as a spy in the Lanza household.
- Mario was told about this but he refused to believe it.
Month after month he carried the guy on the payroll. Finally when it was
no longer financially possible, he let the man go. You should have heard
the vituperation, the slander, the insults.
- This case can be multiplied half a dozen times, and the
wonder of it all is that Lanza still retains his basic faith in the essential
goodness of people.
- However he has learned one lesson. Now before he hires
new personnel, he is doing a bit of preliminary investigating. He's kissed
off his former press agent, his old business manager, his old lawyer and
surrounded himself with men of proven competence.
- It is no secret that Lanza refused to continue with The
Student Prince last August because he could not see eye to eye with
the studio on the way the production was being handled.
- Mario felt that his fans as well as himself were entitled
to the best not only in music but in musically experienced directorial
- He just did not want to go through all the agony he had
experienced in Because You're Mine, a picture he did not want to
- People told him that he was being difficult, that he
should "stop making it a Federal case," that he should "walk
through" The Student Prince and not take it too seriously.
- "What do you care about the director or even the
assistant director?" he was asked. "Why eat your heart out about
the script? The songs are great and that's all that counts."
- Not in Lanza's book. He felt somehow that in Because
You're Mine he had let his fans down, especially since Because
was the film which followed The Great Caruso and he was determined
to make The Student Prince as great as it could be. Lanza knows
more about his type of music, his type of singing, more about opera than
probably any other man at MGM. When his suggestions were discounted, when
his requests were dismissed, when he felt he had been treated like a wayward
little boy who chronically had to be chastised, he declined to continue
with the picture.
- That is the story, pure and simple.
- He didn't go crazy. He didn't suffer a nervous breakdown.
He didn't leave his wife. He didn't go to a sanitarium. He didn't do any
of the ridiculous things ascribed to him.
- He thought over his course of action, and on the day
his first son and third child was born, December 12th, 1952, he decided
that he was right. There would be no compromise. The picture would be done
extremely well, or he wouldn't do it at all.
- While the columnists reported that he was racing "all
over Hollywood like a chicken with his head cut off," Mario spent
the first three months of this year down at Palm Springs.
- "It was wonder for Damon," he recalls -- that's
what the Lanzas christened their son." We had him sleeping outdoors
every day, and I honestly feel the fresh air and the warm desert sun really
built him up. You know, he's not one year old but still we have to dress
him in one-year-old clothes. He's really a bruiser. That boy of mine when
he grows up -- well, you'll see. He's going to be a big one. A man of integrity
- While they were down at the Springs, Betty and Mario
tried eating out one night. Lanza was mobbed by hundreds of fans, many
of whom kept clamoring, "What happened, Mario? Why are you and the
- After that, Mario remained on the Francis Ryan estate
which he had rented for $1,500 a month. At midnight when the village was
asleep he and Betty would ride around town.
- For a while Betty used to say, "You know, Mario,
maybe you should make a statement. Maybe you should explain your side.
They're saying so many awful things about you." But Mario would shake
his head and say, "No, Betty. Recrimination is a boomerang. Name-calling
is childish. Let them call me anything they want to. I'm going to remain
quiet. Eventually we'll get everything worked out. Then there'll be no
- Lanza who is supposed to have no public relations sense
but has more than any other singer with the possible exception of Bing
Crosby, proved that he was right.
- Early in March he drove up to MGM and had a small conference
with Eddie Mannix, the genial general manager. Mannix was surprised. "I've
never seen you look so well," he spouted joyfully. "You look
like a 16-year-old kid."
- Mario said nothing about the fact that for weeks he'd
been in crack physical and vocal shape, nothing about the fact that he
had brought his own musical conductor, Constantine Colonicos, down to the
desert, that together they had rehearsed 175 arias in 12 weeks. He said
nothing about the fact that he had memorized The Student Prince
script word by word and knew it letter perfect.
- Mannix was so pleased at seeing Mario in such wonderful
shape that he called to his secretary, "Get everyone in here,"
he said, "I want them to see Lanza."
- Dore Schary came into the office and all the rest of
the big boys. Everyone shook hands and it was agreed to let bygones by
bygones. The Student Prince would start with a clean slate. There
would be one or two more conferences between the legal beagles, and Mario
would go back on salary as of April 1st.
- Everyone agreed that under the circumstances The Student
Prince would have to be made with infinite care, and that whatever
errors were committed in the past would not be re-made.
- If, at this reading, Lanza is not working on The Student
Prince, and there is a very good chance that he might not, the reason
will be that Mario wants any musically experienced director, while the
studio insists on one director and one director alone, who great forte
is not music. Mario's representatives have advised him against accepting
a certain director, and Mario will follow their advice even if it results
in a long legal hassle and subsequent bankruptcy. His actions are always
motivated by "what is best for the voice, and what is best for the
- When Lanza returned to Palm Springs a day after that
reconciliation conference, he was riding on cloud 69.
- "Where's Damon?" he shouted, as soon as he
rushed into the house. "Where's my son? He's got to hear the good
news, too." Miss Brown, the nurse, brought little dark-haired Damon
into the family conclave. Mario explained to his wife and three children
-- he was very guarded about this -- that his chances of singing for the
public again were very good. If the studio would just give an inch, he
would give a mile. All he wanted to do was sing.
- That's all Mario Lanza has ever wanted to do. He loves
to entertain, and he was born to sing, and if he can't use his voice for
the public, a terrible frustration seizes him and he plunges into despair.
- There are many actors and actresses in Hollywood who
genuinely hate to act -- no names please -- and they perform for only one
reason, money. They take the money and buy television stations, motions
picture theaters, oil wells, and magnesium mines. Their hearts are not
in their work; they're in the loot their talent brings.
- With Lanza it's different. He's not interested in money.
If he had been, the state of his finances would not be in their current,
sorry condition. His primary interest is in singing, in bringing good music
to the world, in popularizing the classical and semi-classical. And fortunately
for him, he has a wife who agrees with his viewpoint. She wants security
for her children -- what mother doesn't? -- but under no circumstances
will she permit Mario to jeopardize his voice or his career for "an
- Friends tell the Lanzas they're crazy. "Look at
Ezio Pinza" one agent told Mario. "He's getting 10, 15 grand
a week. Maybe you won't believe this, but I can get you $30,000 a week
to sing at Las Vegas."
- "I know," Mario said. "They've already
called and made an offer, an even higher offer. I told them no. I just
don't think the public would like it, not the people in Vegas, but music-lovers
- The booking agent was incredulous. "You got rocks
in your head," he said flatly. "Nothin' but rocks."
- Mario Lanza is one man who knows what he wants; and it
just doesn't happen to be money.
- He wants the public's friendship and respect and following;
and he knows he has earned that only through the proper use of his voice.
- To mis-use that voice for the grasping of "the easy
buck" either in gambling casino's or Grade B pot-boilers -- well,
as he says, "I'd sooner go bankrupt."
- That's the attitude that makes Mario Lanza more than
a rare talent -- it makes him a rare human being.