Historical Markers
Mario Lanza Historical Marker
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Mario Lanza

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
634-36 Christian St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
November 7, 1993

Behind the Marker

Mario Lanza.
Promotional photograph of South Philadelphia's Mario Lanza in the early 1950s.
He is at once the delight of bobby-soxers, housewives and ordinary song-lovers, and the despair of musical highbrows who believe that a great singer's goal should be the Metropolitan, not Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

That was Time magazine in its 1951 cover story on Mario Lanza, his meteoric rise as a movie and recording star, and his extraordinary voice. Where exactly did Lanza belong? In the opera house or on the movie screen? Was he a high-brow talent sidetracked by low-brow cravings, or a complex, troubled personality at odds with his own middle-brow appeal? Biographers still wrestle with those questions.

Image of Mario with his lawyer sitting in a court of law.
Mario Lanza in Hollywood Superior Court, July 29, 1955.
This much is undeniable: Mario Lanza grew up in a South Philadelphia home filled with beautiful music. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born Alfredo Arnoldo Cocozza in 1921, the same year the great tenor Enrico Caruso died, a coincidence Lanza - professionally, he adopted his mother's maiden name and adapted her given name, Maria - later interpreted as a sign that his idol's spirit was looking after him. His father, a wholesale grocer, loved opera and played it constantly on the family Victrola to the delight of his only child, who enjoyed singing along. When young Freddy's voice changed - at sixteen - into a clear and powerful instrument, his father encouraged him to nurture it. He did. Always a physical kid - he boxed and lifted weights in high school - Lanza helped pay for his training by moving pianos.

His voice so moved Serge Koussevitsky that the famed conductor offered Lanza, then twenty-one, a prestigious scholarship for study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home at Tanglewood, and cast him in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," his operatic debut, at the Berkshire Summer Festival. The production's director promptly dubbed Lanza "the find of the season." He wasn't alone. In 1942, the young star signed a concert contract, but World War II intervened.
American Tenor Mario Lanza Lying in State.
Mario Lanza lying in state, Rome Italy, October 1959.

After three years in the army - most of it singing for the troops - Lanza continued to study and perform in classical venues. He toured as part of the Bel Canto Trio with soprano Francis Yeend and bass baritone George London; they were a hit wherever they sang. So were Lanza's solo ventures. Audiences were charmed by his onstage package; he was handsome, charismatic, and possessed a gift the legendary Toscannini hailed him as "the greatest natural voice of the twentieth century." Everything was in place for a crossover breakout.

Enter Hollywood. MGM signed Lanza to a seven-year contract in 1947 following a sold-out appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, hoping to raise the curtain on the movies' next big musical star. For Lanza, though, the move to the screen marked the beginning of his final act: a decade-long spiral of unfulfilled promise and unrealized dreams.

Lanza had, at best, a complicated - some would say self-destructive - relationship to movies and fame. In the midst of filming his first picture, The Midnight Kiss, he left the set to sing two performances of Pinkerton in "Madame Butterfly," then never sang opera again. His next picture, The Toast of New Orleans, is best remembered solely for the song, "Be My Love," Lanza's first million-selling hit single.

Movie Poster
Film Poster for Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, 1951.
His subsequent role as The Great Caruso put him psychologically toe-to-toe with the ghost of his idol. Before the picture was even released, an album of Caruso's operatic standards sung by Lanza had gone gold. "If I could sing like that," said Frank Sinatra, a pretty good singer himself, "I would put a bird cage around my head and wouldn't let anyone near my voice."

Lanza should have heeded the suggestion - or at least taken better care of himself. He had begun drinking and eating to such excess that he'd regularly put on - and be forced to lose - more than fifty pounds between films. He was prone to erratic behavior and temperamental outbursts. Within a year of his Caruso triumph, Lanza began bottoming out. Citing artistic differences, he walked off the set of The Student Prince. MGM sued him for five million dollars, but pulled back when Lanza agreed to dub the voice of his onscreen replacement. Ironically, critics consider the soundtrack Lanza's best.
"Suggesting a page in a fan's scrapbook, the Mario Lanza Mural at Broad and Reed Streets fuses a variety of images and artifacts to capture this south Philadelphia Natives versatile career as a singer, movie idol, and classical performer."
Mario Lanza Mural, Broad and Reed streets, Philadelphia, PA., circa 2000.

By 1954, Lanza's movie career was essentially over, and, with a wife and four children to support, he fell into debt - and despair. At one point, Mafia boss Thomas Lucchese agreed to bail out his finances in exchange for some personal appearances, but Lanza, to his credit, refused.

In 1957, he moved the family to Rome. There he made two final forgettable films - one included Lanza's introduction of the hit song "Arrivederci, Roma" - and gave concerts throughout Europe. But his heavy drinking and gorging continued, and his health quickly deteriorated.

In September of 1959, Lanza agreed to sing in a Naples' charity concert as a favor to his friend, deported gangster Lucky Luciano. Lanza never showed up. Instead, he checked into a hospital, and though the cause of his death, on Oct. 7 at age thirty-eight, was officially reported as a heart attack, rumors - neither fully debunked nor substantiated - persist that he was murdered for failing to appear.

The rumors only added to Lanza's legend, the tragic star who, like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, died young. One of the biggest pop presences of the pre-rock and roll late 1940s and early 1950s, Lanza experienced a popular resurgence on the eve of the twenty-first century. His unmistakably ripe voice began appearing in television commercials, and his legion of recordings - both pop and classical - were resurrected on CD, his rich tenor again alive for a new generation of devoted fans.
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