“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends- It gives a lovely light!” — Edna St. Vincent Millay: First Fig, (1920)
My clearest memories growing up of my father was of him being a workaholic. He had spent the first 17 years of his life living in Italy helping his mother and older brothers try to eke out a living on the family farm. His father immigrated to America and found work with the railroads. As happened to many of our people, he spent most of his time here while sending money back to help the family. In addition, he saved up his money to help pay for the passage of his sons to follow him.
You see, while all this was going on, Benito Mussolini was busy pursuing his dreams of building a “fourth shore” (i.e. establish a second Roman Empire under his command). Towards this end he allied himself with Adolf Hitler, another winner, and together they ignited another European conflagration.
The result was peoples in Italy were forced to live under severe rationing and oppressive taxation for the duration of the war. At its end many areas, especially rural ones, were at famine or near famine conditions. It was under these circumstances my father was raised in and finally left when his father sent for him in 1946 to join him in America.
Unless one grew up in this country during the Great Depression, one could not possibly fathom life under such destitute and perilous circumstances. Though he eventually became a prominent local businessman, the memory of his childhood haunted him throughout his life. He worked 12 hours a day six to seven days a week to avoid the poverty he endured as a child. He made sure we grew up with a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and plenty of food in our bellies. I am forever grateful to him for that, though admittedly I wish I had seen more of him growing up.
It was largely my mother’s influence that shaped me as I grew to manhood. It was she who instilled in me my love of everything good: good wine, good food and good song. It was she who nurtured in me the realization that I was not an “Italian” but in fact a Sicilian! It was she who made me realize that as a Southern Italian I was not only different from other Americans but other Italians, as well.
All this she was able to do while I was bombarded at school, at church and from the television with the tacit message that to be a Southern Italian, especially a Sicilian, was something shameful. My mother was proof education begins in the home! Yes, Mr. Roosevelt, I am a hyphenated American and I am proud of it!
Part of my education at my mother’s knee was her sharing with me her love of music and cinema. My mother didn’t care much for the popular culture of my era, naturally preferring that of her youth. I grew up in both worlds, gaining an appreciation of both. When I was with my friends I would listen to the music of groups like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac. When I was home with my mother I would listen to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, etc.
So it was likewise with movies. With my friends I saw movies by actors such as Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Clint Eastwood, etc. At home many times I’d sit in front of the TV with my mom and watch classical Hollywood cinema with actors like Clark Gable, John Wayne, Bette Davis and the like. Many my age would have said I was crazy (or worse) for doing such things, but fortunately I was not like them.
Of all the entertainers my mother loved, one of her favorites was the actor/singer Mario Lanza. For those of you reading this that may not be familiar with him, he was a major Hollywood movie star of the late 1940s and 1950s. His stupendous tenor, coupled with his Mediterranean good looks and superior acting talents, gave him a charisma that made him an overnight sensation! Yet sadly he joined the ranks of so many other stars that died way before their time. Though he has been gone over 52 years my mom still listens to his songs (she has all his albums).
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, yes, he was a Southerner; the son of Abruzzese-Molisan parents, to be exact. For that, and for his enduring legacy in the world of music, especially opera, he deserves an honored place among other Titans of the South. I also know my mom would love to read about him.
Alfredo Arnold Cocozza was born on January 31st, 1921 in South Philadelphia. His father, Antonio Cocozza, was born in the town of Filignano in the region of Molise, Italy. Antonio immigrated to the United States when he was just 16 years old. He later joined the U.S. Army and fought in the First World War, being badly wounded in his right hand during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (September 26th – November 11th, 1918). Alfredo’s mother, Maria (née Lanza) was born in the town of Tocco da Casauria (Abruzzi region), not far from Filignano. Her family immigrated to America when she was just six months old.
Antonio and Maria met in South Philadelphia for the first time in 1919. After a brief courtship they married and moved into her parents’ home at 636 Christian Street in South Philadelphia. Two years later Alfredo was born. Shortly after this the family moved to 2040 Mercy Street, also in South Philadelphia, where at the age of two “Freddie” was surprised by his parents with the gift of a piano. Never one to do well in school, his teachers later recalled that he would much rather sing than study.
Antonio Cocozza was an avid music lover, especially of opera. Freddie grew up listening to his father’s recordings, and often sang along with them. By the time he reached the age of 16 it was apparent to his parents the boy had real talent and potential. They took the teen to a baritone named Antonio Scarduzzo who recognized Freddie’s gift and agreed to teach him for 18 months. After this he studied under another music teacher named Irene Williams who took a personal interest in him and worked to get him into the music world.
Not too long after this he came to the attention of William K. Huff, concert manager at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Huff in turn arranged for Freddie to have an audition with famed conductor and composer Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky was so impressed with the young man’s talents he invited him to attend (with full scholarship) the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.
It was at Berkshire that Freddie had his (student) opera debut on August 7th, 1942 playing the role of Fenton in the Nicolai/Mosenthal opera The Merry Wives of Windsor. His performances received rave reviews from representatives of the Metropolitan Opera as well as other music critics. It was during this time “Freddie” Cocozza took to going by the stage name Mario Lanza, taking the masculine form of his mother’s maiden name.
His future as an opera star was recognized at this time. Opera producer Herbert Graf, writing of Lanza in the Opera News on October 5th, 1942 said “He would have no difficulty one day being asked to join the Metropolitan Opera.”
Unfortunately for young Mario, his nascent career in the world of opera was cut short by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, plunging America into World War II. Drafted into the U.S. Army, he was spared being sent overseas due to his having a bad eye. Instead he was put into the troupe of entertainer Peter Lind Hayes, traveling with him across the country putting on concerts at army bases. He also appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory. Military publications dubbed him “the Service Caruso.”
In January, 1945 Lanza received a medical release from Walla Walla General Hospital in Washington. Shortly after this he moved to California to be with his girlfriend Betty Lyhan; they married three months later. They then moved to New York where Mario continued his studies.
He returned to a singing career performing in a concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Atlantic City in September, 1945. It was here he met and performed under conductor Peter Herman Adler, who later agreed to mentor him.
Lanza then studied with noted teacher Enrico Rosati, who upon first hearing him sing was said to have looked up to the heavens and exclaim “I have been waiting for this voice to come along for many, many years!” After studying with Rosati for about 15 months Lanza joined soprano Agnes Davis for a tour of Canada. After this he was set to begin a tour of Mexico, America and Canada as part of the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Frances Yeend and baritone George London.
While performing with Ms. Yeend at the Hollywood Bowl on August 28, 1947 Mario caught the attention of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios, was attending the concert with actress Kathryn Grayson, with whom Lanza would later make his first two motion pictures. Mayer convinced Lanza to take a screen test and subsequently signed him up to a seven-year contract with the studio. As those close to him would later relate, Mario would come to regret that decision.
His first movie with MGM was That Midnight Kiss (1949) which was a commercial success. This was followed with another commercial success the next year, The Toast of New Orleans. It was on the soundtrack of this movie that Lanza sang “Be My Love”, the first of three million-selling singles that would make Lanza wildly popular. The song was also nominated for an Academy Award.
Yet ironically, Mario Lanza’s sudden fame and fortune made him feel all the more insecure, for he now realized the mistake he had made pursuing a career in Hollywood before establishing himself as a tenor in the opera world. Had he done the latter first, he would have had a firm base for himself in the event his movie career fizzled out.
His next movie, The Great Caruso, was made in 1951. It co-starred Ann Blyth. For Lanza this movie represented the pinnacle of his success in Hollywood. It was also the fulfillment of a dream, for the legendary Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso was a boyhood idol of his. The movie, a largely fictionalized account of Caruso’s life, drew barbs from a number of critics, but it was a resounding commercial success! One person who gave it two thumbs up was Caruso’s son Enrico Jr., a tenor in his own right. Years after it was made he was quoted as saying “I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography."
Lanza was now an idol in his own right. Unfortunately, like the idol of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, he had feet of clay. He was scheduled to complete a film in 1952 called The Student Prince, but was dismissed by MGM after walking off the set due to a disagreement with the director, Curtis Bernhardt, over one of the songs in the film’s soundtrack. In what could only be called a spiteful act, the studio then leaked to the press that it was problems with Lanza’s weight that led to his dismissal, even though his weight was clearly normal at the beginning of production.
As a result of this, Lanza’s insecurity came to the fore. He became a recluse who went on alcoholic binges. He remained in this depressed state for more than year.
By 1955 he was able to come out of his shell and returned to pursuing an active movie career. He starred in the 1956 film Serenade co-starring Joan Fontaine. The movie did not do nearly as well at the box office as his previous endeavors. He subsequently was sent by MGM to Italy where he then worked on the film Seven Hills of Rome (Italian title: Arrivederci Roma) a 1958 film co-starring Marisa Allasio. The movie was nominated for a Laurel Award (1959) by Motion Picture Exhibitor Magazine.
After completing Seven Hills of Rome he went on an extended singing tour of the British Isles and mainland Europe. It was around this time that Lanza’s physical health began to deteriorate. His frequent alcoholic binges, coupled with his habit of overeating and crash-dieting, no doubt hastened his decline, but there is evidence from his family history a genetic factor may have also been involved.
In late 1958 Mario Lanza would make his final movie For the First Time (1959). It would receive special praise from critics, especially for Lanza’s rendition of the tenor aria “Vesti la giubba” from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s immortal opera Pagliacci.
In April, 1959 he would suffer a mild heart attack, followed by a bout of double pneumonia in August of that same year. Two months later, dogged by recurring weight gain due to his habit of overeating, he unwisely checked into a hospital in Rome to begin a controversial weight loss program known as “the twilight sleep treatment”. This involved keeping the patient immobile and sedated for long periods of time to induce weight loss (not a very good thing to do to a heart patient). On October 7th, 1959 he developed a pulmonary embolism and died. He was only 38 years old.
Death continued to work its maleficient magic on his family even after he was gone. Within five months of his demise his widow Betty would die of a respiratory ailment for which she had been receiving treatment. She was only 37. Their younger son Marc would die of a heart attack in 1991, also at the age of 37. Their elder daughter Colleen was struck and killed by two passing vehicles on a highway in 1997. She was only 48. Damon, their eldest son, died of a heart attack in 2008 at the age of 55.
As often happens when an iconic figure dies prematurely, Mario Lanza’s death spawned a conspiracy theory. According to this one, Lanza was “iced” by none other than Carlo “Lucky” Luciano for reneging on a promise to perform for the mob boss, making him look bad. The pulmonary embolism Lanza suffered in the hospital was induced, so they say. That there is no record of Lanza ever having any communication with Luciano and that his history of heart disease is well established matters little to the purveyors of this nonsense.
Though his life and career were tragically cut short, his impact on the world of music, especially opera, speaks for itself. A number of later tenors, including José Carreras, Plàcido Domingo and the great Luciano Pavarotti, to name a few, claim to have been inspired by him. Whatever one may think of his personal shortcomings, he is still fondly remembered by those in the world of film and music. His position in the history books is secured and he is truly deserving of being numbered among the greats as a Titan of the South!
1) Armando Cesare: Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (Great Voices 7); Baskerville Publishers, 2004