45th Mario Lanza Institute
Anniversary Ball
By Sam Samuelian

Question: Can a Ball that isn't a Ball still be a Ball? Keep reading and you'll know the answer.
After a visit to the Lanza Museum around 1:30 to drool over the latest collectibles, to buy some I had to have, and to imagine their original golden bracelet (which has Mario Lana inscribed on the front) attached proudly to my wrist, we had to leave so hard working Jeanette Frese could clean up and prepare for the evening. We arrived late (due mostly to that big successful 80th birthday party the night before, where Anna and I as "Stardust" sang for a crowd of socialites and even Senator Arlen Specter...no, Sid Mark never got to hear me sing Sinatra and that's another story!). By the time we got there the cake and coffee had been totally wiped out by a surge of people! Never mind, we found a few cookies in the kitchen and headed for the concert to be given by past Lanza pre-ball performer Raffaella Lo Castro. It was held at the Church of the Holy Trinity, a gorgeous old church built in 1859 that stands at 19th and Walnut Sts. in Philadelphia. The church walls are lined with many fabulous stained glass scenes, gilded angels, vivid paintings on the  rounded walls, and intricate wood carvings...just the perfect setting for fine music. Raffaella made her entrance, smiling and lovely, and started her program displaying that rich mezzo-soprano voice that is sheer delight. She was dressed beautifully and not only treated us to a few costume changes, but was graced with her excellent accompanist Michele Scanlon. From the haunting "Samson and Delilah" to the delightful "Sound of Music", she captivated everyone in a showcase approaching near perfection that ran about an hour and fifteen minutes. The first half encompassed opera, while the second half featured Broadway music. Congratulations, Raffaella, for scoring another success and good luck at your upcoming debut in Japan. We retrieved our van from the parking lot and picked up Mr. T. Hayano of Japan and a few other Lanza people and headed for the Doubletree Inn only minutes away, arriving just in time for the 5:00 cocktail hour. Before moving the van, Anna and I changed to more formal garb inside the vehicle (it was raining outside and a bit dark, so no one was going to catch us removing our clothes!).
Just like last year, the cocktail hour was held in the Overture Room that leads right into the Symphony Room where the ball was held. Neat, huh? You have the overture before the symphony! Unfortunately the management believes that having only a few tables out encourages more mingling, and it does, but YOU try holding your drink, your napkin, your plate of appetizers, and shake hands with people. Uncomfortable to say the least! Well, about twenty percent of us could sit and talk and the rest just circulated. The bar was kept busy making those great Apple Martinis, Cosmopolitans (I found out they were the most requested drinks) and pouring wine. We had one male and one female bartender, both delightful and talented. Not too many appetizers are butlered anymore, so most people had to walk up to table to help themselves to the cheese assortment, the veggies with creamy dip, the crackers, and mostly the hot appetizers including the ever popular pigs in a blanket, fried meat dumplings, fried veggies, fried chicken strips, scallops wrapped in bacon, cheese and spinach puffs, and mini quiches. They were plentiful and this year we could eat without worry over saving room for dinner because dinner was scheduled for a considerably later time.
The cocktail hour allowed us to meet new people, hug old friends, delight in the wonderful and varied clothing worn by all (you just had to see the lady dressed in the smart black and white feathered outfit!), and talk about anything we wanted to while the alcohol took effect and made us happy. Exactly one minute after six, as I tried to get just one more Cosmo and was told it would now cost me plenty (even six ounce Cokes are three bucks!), the door opened to the Symphony Room and 130 people filed in to find their assigned tables. That number does not count invited guests and the performers. We spotted a local TV cameraman filming the event for news coverage and did not forget to congratulate Frank Briatico, board member who the night before was honored with a distinguished service award. We enjoyed watching many familiar faces walk by including Elaine Malbin, Licia Albanese, and Damon Lanza. Maybe some even enjoyed watching me in my black paisley jacket with red cummerbund and red bowtie. A few asked about the little embroidered mouse on the red areas, which was none other than Mickey Mouse. I would like to tell you that Mickey is a Lanza fan, too, but actually the Mickey garb goes back to our wedding sixteen years ago when our theme was Mickey and Minnie mouse for our cake top and our honeymoon was at Walt Disney World. Nice to brag that I can still fit into the outfit despite my passion for fine food and drink, but I won't tell you how many times I had to diet over the years. Hey, I do have a few things in common with Mario!
While Mario sang the traditional starting song, "I'll Walk With God", I looked around through uncontrollable tears since that recording never fails to move us emotionally. Knowing we are together thanks to Mario, however, makes for warm feelings. Dominic Mantuano led the National Anthem in a key too high for non-tenors (!) and Mary Papola welcomed everyone before introducing the Mistress of Ceremonies. The dais was filled completely and emcee Elaine Malbin highlighted each person. The line up included three judges, who were Josephine Guido (soprano), Paul Robinson (tenor), and Doris Calmer (pianist), Cav. Off and Mrs. Joseph Cocoa, Jr., Mary Papola, Elaine Malbin herself, Damon Lanza, Bob Dolfi, Marlene D'Attanasio, and Joseph Mancuso. We missed the ailing Frank Guarrera, but he was there in spirit as was Enrico Di Giuseppe who was surely looking down from heaven. His wife was seated in the audience and took a bow. Elaine spoke clearly into the mike and started her always captivating moderating with a few quips. She informed us that there were 90 singing contestants this year and shortly thereafter, without missing a beat, accompanist Luke Housner played the grand piano and started the formal concert, an innovation this year and major improvement over simply having the scholarship winners sing one song each as in previous years. Now they showcase themselves in several songs and entertain us while we burped (scuse me!) and made room for the dinner to follow.
The finalists included Joyce El-Khoury, soprano, Justin Hopkins, bass-baritone, Eun Sun Kuk, soprano, and Ariya Sawadivong, soprano. Sorry tenor lovers, there were none this year and I can't explain why. One by one they performed on the stage using no microphone and standing near a large photo of Mario sitting on a pedestal. Ms. Kuk started with "Ombre leggere" from "Dinorah". Dressed in a lovely turquoise gown, her manner was friendly as she displayed a fine coloratura voice of pleasing clarity with florid runs singing the aria we are all familiar with since Kathryn Grayson sang it in one of Mario's first two movies. She was followed by Ms. Sawadivong doing "Son pochi fiori" from "L'Amico Fritz". In her plum colored gown, this pretty girl posses a fine voice and had ample power. Ms. El-Khoury was next with the popular "Ah Forse...Sempre Libre" from "La Traviata". Wearing a stylish bronze colored gown, this buxom and ravishing girl displayed her rich voice while showing off her level of control as she wove between the soft and loud passages, the latter boasting plenty of power. Mr. Hopkins was last to appear. He is a black man who was dressed in a smart looking black tuxedo. His voice sounded well trained and more toward the timbre of baritone than bass. He sang "Quand la flamme" from "Le Jolie Fille de Perth". My wife spoke to him later and found him most genteel.
From that point each finalist reappeared and sang their second and third numbers consecutively until the end of the concert, when Mr. Hopkins finished with a rousing "Old Man River". Before that we also enjoyed other popular songs like "Italian Street Song" and "One Kiss", examples of lighter fare. Ms. El-Khoury's low cut gown prompted one man at our table to remark "I didn't hear a note she sang!" during one particularly animated number when I would say the visual experience was as exciting as the aural experience to most of the men. Delighted to say that our table consisted of a particularly fun loving group, including three people from our home town of Media, our own Stephanie Weiss (who sat on my left while Anna sat on my right, providing me with a most enjoyable seating arrangement), and two other friendly and lovely women. Ten people per each round table at the ball.
The concert ran the promised hour from 6:30 to 7:30 and then Dominic sang from the dais into the microphone along with the background track he had of "Be My Love", a hit for Mario and a hit for him. He sang expressively and looked lovingly at Elaine from time to time, but his lady Carrie didn't mind. Mary Papola announced that people were in attendance from Holland, England, Japan, and Ireland as well as from the United States. Then Joe Mancuso revealed to everyone's satisfaction the welcome news about the Mario Lanza movie biography project now under development at the Suzanne DeLaurentiis studio (no relation to the famous Dino De Laurentiis). You could hear much buzzing around the room about his comments like "who will play Mario?" and "will Mario's own voice be used?", etc. Time will answer all questions.
Dinner was served while Mario Lanza recordings played in the background. I heard "Tina Lina", "Lee Ah Loo", and many others. Now let's talk about that dinner, with a menu that has rarely changed over the years. First course was Italian wedding soup, way too salty and some people got no meatballs while others got one or two in tasty but lukewarm broth. Rolls and butter were in abundance, but overly hard. While trying to chew on one, I heard Dominic invite people to dance as he played some thirties and forties selections including Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong and big band music. You see, this year the traditional Carmen Dee Orchestra was not hired. It was deemed they were too costly and didn't play long enough in the past. No one danced, but continued eating as the pasta course arrived. It was tasty stuffed manicotti (there were two and the dish was ample), but not hot enough and the tomato sauce was sparse. Fresh grated parmesan cheese added a bit of zest. We were offered a choice of either a glass of chardonnay or merlot wine. After the wine was served, we heard a crash and saw that several platters had fallen to the floor prompting the remark that "those lucky people won't have to eat this cold food"!
Some of us were already getting pretty filled up, but then the main courses arrived. To me, this was the culinary highlight with tender filet mignon and exceptionally tender stuffed chicken Florentine, all over good mashed potatoes and surrounded by carrots and asparagus cooked just right. Dessert followed and was the now traditional plate with MARIO written in chocolate. The plate that collectors like me wished could be taken home for a souvenir held a nice chocolate ganache cake with a side of whipped cream and strawberry. (Note: My wife Anna got to take home about two pounds of meat, all donated from overstuffed diners at our table so that our doggies Nipper and Zena would have many gourmet dinners this week!)
Dominic fired up the video projector and the huge ten foot screen was soon filled with Bill Ronayne's excellent presentation of Mario Lanza film song excerpts. From "The Great Caruso" we enjoyed the rousing "Vesti la giubba". From "Because You're Mine" we delighted to the animated and wonderful "Granada". Finally, from "Serenade" we marveled at the powerful "O Paradiso" and found ourselves moved by the tender "Ave Maria". The voice of the great one rang throughout the large room vibrantly. As much as I love hearing the finalists, and being at an affair geared to following Mario's dream of funding up and coming singers, I can't deny that I like attending to honor Mario while in the company of other people who want to do the same. Watching him perform for us is indeed a joy and a highlight. For my money, Bill could have run many more clips like this! I also would have liked seeing a clip of Licia Albanese singing, especially since she was there in person. Any chance we have to further Mario's legacy and attract new devotees should be used to best advantage at the ball, on the internet, and in our daily lives. We must especially concentrate on the young to keep the dream alive. I was introduced to Mario when I was only 24 years old, for example, and introduced my niece and nephew to him when they were much younger. The power of Mario's voice and personality transcends time...but let us get back to this evening.
Next the judges' decision was read by Elaine in this order: 4th place to Ms. Kuk, 3rd place to Ms. Sawadivong, 2nd place to Mr. Hopkins, and 1st place to Ms. El-Khoury. Stephanie and I were chortling in delight, as this was exactly how we would have placed them. Nice to know our opinions were on a par with the experts. More Lanza music followed and the dance floor was still empty. Dominic got our attention and led the entire room standing and singing "God Bless America", while yours truly ran up to stand at the dais and added his baritone voice to the stentorian vocalists proudly singing out loud and clear. Elaine gave me (or the voice) an approving look, which made my day! After some mingling, and as is the tradition, Mario ended the evening and sang the last notes with his moving "Non ti scordar di me". Many people wanted to stay longer and still expressed a desire to dance, but instead just posed for photos, sought autographs, and then started saying their good-byes as early as 9:30. Some took home the lovely floral centerpieces and made sure not to leave anything behind. Without even waiting for the room to clear, the hotel staff began breaking down and cleaning up (someone had to pick up many black feathers from that sexy lady's dress!!). We carried home the always delightful souvenir program booklets, full of fine photos of Mario, advertisements, and information. Makes for great reading on the way home and a wonderful keepsake. Another ball became history, but I am not done yet....
Have you discovered the answer to my question at the beginning of this long review (written in the wee small hours of the morning)? The fact that I couldn't sleep and am writing at this ungodly hour should give you a clue. We had a great time and so did everyone else I talked to, proving you can have a ball at a ball that isn't a ball. You see, Webster's Dictionary defines a ball as "a large formal gathering for social dancing". Many wanted to dance. It is fun, it is romantic, and it goes along with dressing in your finest and feeling special. Surely, this will be corrected next year as there are many ways to have live dance music without straining an already strained budget. Our hard working Institute people will surely meet and come up with the solution. Incidentally, kudos to Bill Ronayne and Dominic Mantuano for working so hard with their noticeably serious intent to have everything running as smoothly as it did.
Note that I do not have any information on the Victor Cafe night, although I heard that the food was good and that the singers were good as well...both possibly better than last year.
I also do not have much information on the pre-ball dinner but heard the buffet menu was mostly the same and tasty. The program went very well and was entertaining, especially the young ladies Mr. Hayano brought along from Japan who performed an entire scene from "Madame Butterfly". Bob Dolfi was so moved that he felt it will go down in history as one of the finest pre-ball segments. Also, the replica Bob had made of the Lanza 45 gold record was auctioned off and brought an impressive four hundred dollars. Dominic was the only male singer and sang as well as being emcee, although a late arriving male sang near the end. I understand that his novelty number went over quite well, when he sang "Its Now or Never" like Elvis and then turned to sing "O Sole Mio" (which is the same tune) like Mario! Each person took home with them a custom made Mario Lanza souvenir, too!
I sincerely hope you have enjoyed this cyber trip to the Mario Lanza Ball and that you can join us next year in person for what is called "The Loveliest Night of the Year"!




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