By Jim Henaghan
Modern Screen
June 1950
Mario Lanza is a big, barrel-chested, vigorous American of Italian descent who is twenty-eight years old, married, and has an Italian-Irish daughter of two named Colleen.
Mario Lanza, some people will tell you, is a lunatic. Mario Lanza, some other people will tell you, is this country's first really great operatic tenor, an artist and musical find of such importance that no man since Caruso himself can equal his stature. And, Mario Lanza, movie-wise Hollywoodites will tell you, is the most exciting screen personality to trot onto a sound stage since the films began to talk.
Some, or all of these things, may be true. The family, of course, is a fact. The rest will be confirmed or denied by time. At any rate, your reporter's first meeting with him took place in the office of a business associate. Frankly, not being of a very cultural turn of mind musically speaking, I rather dreaded the interview. I had pictured a bulky stuffed shirt with a Latin leer for any but his own kind; a condescending artiste stewing in his own magnificence. I couldn't have been more wrong.
The door flew open and a very handsome, grinning young man made a Harpo Marx entrance as though he were walking on springs. He burst into a voluble, completely American monologue on the occurrences of the day directed toward his friend, while your reporter cringed in the corner of a settee expecting some part of the newcomer to fly loose and hit him in the face. When he simmered down to a state where introductions were possible, he shook my hand with a tight-fisted churning motion that rendered it (my hand) useless. Not easily charmed, I was charmed. Suddenly I found myself terribly excited by the silly inconsequentials he was shouting at the top of his voice, and I was deeply hopeful that everything was all right with him and his.
Don't laugh. When you meet Mario Lanza the same thing will happen to you.
We went across the street to a quiet Hungarian cafe which featured warm Italian red wine and a gypsy violinist, and we talked. He talked.
"I hate opera singers," Mario Lanza said. He shook a fist as big as a brace of plucked chickens under my nose and seemed about to spit out his front teeth. "Those fancy Italian opera singers. Every time I see one on the street I want to go up to him and punch him in the nose."
That off his chest, he grinned cheerfully.
"Who the hell do they think they are?" he roared, suddenly flipping back into his rage. "They sneer at good Americans because they don't think they love music or can sing. I'm a good one hundred percent American Philadelphia wop and I can sing better than any of them!"
He opened his mouth, his throat and his diaphragm and the beautiful high note that came out drowned out the violinist and every alien sound for several blocks around the cafe.
America, I love you...
The fiddle-player swung into a medley from That Midnight Kiss, Mario's first picture at MGM. Lanza smiled and began to rock back and forth in rhythm with the music.
"You see," he said, "everybody loves me. They want to make me happy. This artist, this violin virtuoso, is playing now just for me. I love him, too, and I've never even met him."
If you can hum with a voice the power of a ram-jet rocket, he began to hum, oblivious of the stir he was causing among the rest of the diners.
"I love my wife," he sighed. "I have an Irish wife and an Irish daughter. Every Italian should have an Irish wife and there would be less trouble in the world."
He changed pace again.
"I love MGM," he roared as though he expected an argument. "See this jacket? I stole it from MGM. It used to belong to Wardrobe. It was made for Van Johnson, but he didn't steal it, so I did. It's a beautiful jacket and I am a very lucky man to be allowed to steal such a thing. Only in America could such a thing happen. Only in America can an opera singer steal such a beautiful coat and tell people about it. In Europe, where every third guy is an opera singer, they would claim they bought it or found it or something. They stink."
It was at this point that your reporter began to side with the element that said Mario Lanza was a lunatic. Here was a very handsome young man, looking very much like the boy who might live next door, alternately exploding and weeping with love of people and America.
With a face as impish as Puck, and a tousled top-knot of curly black hair, looking for all the world like a football player on a bender, he could suddenly burst into song in a crowded restaurant in the middle of the afternoon and fill the room with beauty. The man and the situation were incongruous. He had to be crazy.
However, Mario Lanza is, actually, just as crazy as every warm-hearted, spirited, proud, hard-working young man in this country today. He may be more excitable, but no crazier.
He was born in New York City, but at a very early age, his father, a one-time athlete who had been very badly gassed in the first world war, moved to Philadelphia where Mario, then called Freddie Coccoza, was brought up. The particular section of the city in which the Coccozas lived was called South Philadelphia, a district so noted for its brutality that a few years ago one of the fact detective magazines said there were more murders in a square-mile portion of the district in a single year than in a similar area anywhere on earth.
South Philly had never been noted for its production of musical or any other artistic talent. In a quieter mood, Mario Lanza explained it.
"To the tough kids I palled around with anything artistic was sissy, and it was as much as a kid's life was worth to openly express even a mild interest in anything sissy."
The people of South Philadelphia were pitifully poor, which was the only reason they lived there. Any education in any direction beyond grammar school was rare, and beyond high school completely unknown. A boy grew up and became a thief, a thug or a laborer according to his instincts. And the respect of his neighbors and contemporaries depended on his hewing strictly to this degenerate tradition. Freddie Coccoza's evolution from a child of the gutters to Mario Lanza, the greatest tenor since Caruso, is, then, a frightening as well as an inspiring miracle.
Music, Music, Music...
There is no corner of the earth that is not visited by music of some sort. It can be anything from the savage chants of aborigine natives of a jungle, the reedy whistles of the flutes of the oriental, the brassy jazz of Harlem to the ponderous, melancholy hymns of Wagner. There is music everywhere. And because South Philadelphia was mostly Italian, their music was the operas, played casually at home on a gramophone, or hummed to babies by their mothers.
RCA, the company which now considers Mario Lanza among its three top record makers, decided some twenty years ago to see if it couldn't stimulate the sales of its discs in that neighborhood where Mario lived as a boy. As part of their program, they installed a fine phonograph and an amplifier with a huge horn, along with a sizable stock of operatic records, in a small music shop across the street from the Coccoza Residence. The shopkeeper was advised that so long as he played the records good and loud all day, the equipment and records were his without cost.
"That was when I first knew I wanted to be a singer," Mario Lanza said. "I used to shoot agates with the kids in the street in front of the music shop, and whenever anyone sang a high note, I would break out in goose-pimples. I used to rub my arms so the other kids wouldn't see them. And sometimes when I couldn't stand it any more, and I had to sing with the voice on the record, I used to snatch up my aggies and run terrified that I would sing and disgrace myself."
No, South Philadelphia was no breeding ground for operatic tenors.
"The greatest thrill I have ever had in my life," Mario Lanza went on, "was when I knew I could sing. My old man had been sold a phonograph. He loved music, and he didn't have to make any excuses for it. He wasn't a kid. He used to go to the phonograph after dinner and slowly grind the handle of the winder. Then he would select a record very carefully, even though he knew them all by heart, and put it on the machine. He would then sit in a chair and he and my mother would close their eyes and listen. I used to stand in the hall and chill and flush with heat. I used to open my mouth and make the Italian words of the songs with my lips. I learned all Pop's records that way."
After aggies and the other restless games of the children of South Philadelphia paled in interest with the years, Freddie Coccoza moved on to more rugged sports. Toughened by years of fighting with his fists and other hoodlum athletics, he became an expert football player and boxer. His features settled into the collar ad structure of today, his voice changed, and he found himself faced with the job of selecting a trade. But he wanted to sing.
"I knew I could do it then," he said, "and I knew I had the guts. One day I waited until my father and mother went out and I turned on the phonograph. I put on a Caruso record. I sang with him. Now I know I sang badly, but that day I thought I sang it as well as he did. I went sort of crazy. I put on all of the records, one by one, and I sang with all of them. I sang at the top of my lungs until I was hoarse, and then I lay down on the floor and made up my mind for once and for all. I was going to be a singer and nothing in the world would stop me.
"Lessons were out of the question. I got them all from the phonograph. I'd save every penny I could get together and buy new records, and whenever the folks went out I would sing. I knew more songs than any other singer in the world. And then one day, when I'd just finished a song, I turned around -- and there was my father standing just inside the doorway. There were tears in his eyes and neither one of us said a word. We just walked toward one another and embraced - and we both cried. Pop, because he had always hoped I would someday be a singer and now he knew I would, and me -- because now it wasn't a secret I had to guard anymore."
It was then I decided that Mario Lanza wasn't a lunatic after all, but an artist, maybe the greatest tenor artiest since the late, great Caruso.
Mario Lanza, strong as a stevedore, healthy as an airedale, still had to make a living to pay for some classical music tuition, so he moved pianos for a few hard dollars a day. One day the route sheet on the truck read "Academy of Music." Just another day, another dollar, and another piano. Mario and his fellow workers moved the massive grand onto the stage while the musicians puttered about the auditorium. A small group of them, however, were in one corner of the stage running through an operatic aria. Mario couldn't help it. He cut loose with something special from the vocal zone, and he hit the right note and held it. From the back of the auditorium, a loud bellow was heard. "Quiet!" it ordered. Then, "Who did that? Who sang that note?"
The Discovery
Fifty fingers and a dozen violin bows pointed at the piano mover, William Huff, director of the Philadelphia Forum, strode down the aisle and onto the stage. He looked at Mario open-mouthed, then he took him by the arm and into the office. In a week, Mario was doing the same thing for Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony -- and a piano mover was on his way to operatic fame.
A hackneyed motion picture title card of 1920 fits in here -- Then Came The War!
Private Mario Lanza was a pretty good soldier. He forgot everything but the war. He appeared in the Air Forces show, This is The Army, but only in a minor capacity. War and careers didn't mix well with him. But when he got out, he looked up his new musical friends and started in singing again. He signed a contract with Victor, he got a big time radio program, but he was not getting where he should vocally and he knew it was his lack of professional training that was responsible. He was at his lowest ebb, mentally, when he met Sam Weiler.
Sam Weiler was a real estate man who had made a lot of money and who was a patron of the arts. He heard Mario singing in Carnegie Hall and came back and introduced himself. He had an offer to make. He wasn't interested in making money, and he knew enough about music to know that he had heard a great voice that needed training. He offered to stake Mario to all the tuition he needed if he would stop singing publicly until he was ready. Mario leaped at the chance.
For the next fifteen months, Mario Lanza learned about music and voice. He was married now, but all of his expenses were taken care of by Sam Weiler. Mario had nothing else to worry about.
Then one day Sam Weiler said he was ready, and he booked Mario into the famed Hollywood Bowl for a concert. At the conclusion of that evening, the Bowl audience gave Mario the greatest ovation any artist appearing there ever got. They stood on their feet in the Hollywood Bowl that night and cheered for fifteen minutes for the kid from South Philadelphia who got goose pimples at the sound of music.
Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM studios, saw it from a box down front and sans agent, sans talent scouts, Mario Lanza got a contract. The studio engaged Maestro Spadoni, Caruso's coach, to work with him -- and he was on his way at last.
Two pictures at MGM have resulted in the belief that Lanza is the screen's most exciting personality today. There are, of course, two schools of thought on that, but then that's inevitable. One thing is sure, the charm of the lad's personality is as contagious as laughter.
At home, Mario Lanza is part peasant and part Lord of the Manor. I went to his home to meet his wife and parents. As I had anticipated, it was a huge, sprawling semi-castle in Beverly Hills looking as though the furniture had been looted, instead of purchased, piece by piece. Mario howled a greeting to everyone and commanded his wife to present herself. Before he shut the door he had turned on the phonograph.
His mother and father, who live with him, sat quietly and listened to him talk. His wife, a pretty, charming girl, shut her eyes and listened to him sing on the records, almost as though she had never heard them before.
"These are the things a man loves," Mario told me later. "A home for Mama and Papa. My wife whom I love. My baby, Colleen. A swimming pool. A fine car. And to sing without fear. But none of these things would be mine without the patronage of a man like him." He pointed to Sam Weiler who had joined us and who sat happily in a corner gazing softly at the wonders he had helped create.
"There could be no artists without these patrons. There could be no music without music stores that played music for nothing, so that kids could learn to love it. There are so many things to be grateful for."
"But I am no sissy," he bellowed, his fists raised in fury. "I can still lick any kid on my street -- and any of those fancy Italian opera singers with the high noses. The next one I see, I'll punch right in the nose!"
The family paid no attention to the outburst. Sam Weiler still gazed as softly, and Mrs. Lanza's eyes were still closed.
"But I love everyone," Mario said calmly, "and everyone loves me."
This man is indeed a lunatic, I thought. A wonderful lunatic. The most exciting personality in years, and without a doubt the greatest voice since, well, anybody.
And that's the way it is. He's yours to figure out.
There's always the topper, though. The final story. It took place one day when Mario had been at MGM a year. He was called into the front office of the studio on that day and was seated before a very distinguished group. Among the top brass of the studio, sat Jesse Lasky, a pioneer film-maker.
Song In His Heart
"Mr. Lanza," said a studio executive, "We have just concluded a deal with Mr. Lasky for him to make a picture with this company. He owns the rights to a story we want, and he has searched the world for five years to find a player capable of doing the role. He has come to us saying you are the only man who can do it. Would you agree to sing and play the life of Enrico Caruso?"
Mario Lanza just sat and nodded his head. Soon, he got to his feet and stumbled from the room. Down a long corridor he walked, and he couldn't see -- because he was crying. Joyful and bitter tears. Tears that came from childhood and standing in a dingy hall silently learning to sing. Tears that came from singing alone in a darkened room while his mother and father were away at the movies. Tears that came from gratitude because he could steal a jacket that had been made for Van Johnson, and get away with it.
Mario Lanza, big barrel-chested, vigorous American of Italian descent who is twenty-eight years old, married and has an Italian-Irish daughter of two named Colleen. That's him.