Mario Lanza on Turner Classic Movies, September 18

Turner Classic Movies presents an all Mario Lanza festival with the films of Mario Lanza, on Wednesday, September 18. Check local listings

The singing truck driver stereotype was invented by Alfredo Albert Cocozza, a nice boy known as Freddy, who as born in Philadelphia in 1921. He died young, at 38. For the last 15 years of his life he was known all over the world as Mario Lanza. To family and friends he was always Freddy.

Mario Lanza used to be a guilty pleasure for me. There is no denying the splendor of his tenor voice. Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo all said that Mario Lanza’s movies and singing made them want to sing.

He sang the old Italian hit arias splendidly. His voice just poured out. There was nothing manufactured or careful about the sound. It was large, it was macho and at the same time it was sweet. He was a good-looking man and just seemed to know how to sing. Yet he was a mess at his death in 1959. What happened?

I’m convinced that Lanza would be alive today if he had a proper mentor to direct him into the opera house, or the concert hall, where his great talent belonged. Contrary to rumor, there’s no time in opera for tantrums, parties or anything but a very regimented life. Boris Goldovsky sneered at the young Lanza in one of his memoirs. Mario had landed a scholarship to Tanglewood. He couldn’t read music. He had no idea what he was singing about. Goldovsky would have been better served by kicking young Mario in the fanny and putting him to serious study. If a maestro had to strand over Lanza and teach him solfeggio, so what?  Proper training could have given the world a long and magnificent career. Instead we got ten years, mostly in lousy movies. To be fair, many of them were good box office and there’s no doubt they are good shows. Still, a tenor who should have had Renata Tebaldi as his leading lady wound up with Zza Zza Gabor. Yes, I am a snob.

Mario is no acting talent in the picture that made his fame, The Great Caruso. It highly fictionalized, but it’s filled with great singing and is a jolly good show. It was his first and only distinguished picture. The Student Prince could have been splendid. By the time the Romberg show got to the cameras Lanza weighed 300 pounds and could not be photographed. Edmund Purdom acted to Mario’s sensational voice tracks.

Lanza sang in opera scenes at Tanglewood as a kid. his only full length opera performance was in Madama Butterfly in New Orleans.  Diva Anna Moffo did some concerts with Lanza. She told this writer that Lanza’s voice was “Sex, dear. Pure sex.” Serenade a Technicolor party from 1955 has Lanza in extended scenes from Verdi’s Otello with Licia Albanese and they are both thrilling.

Mario Lanza died in a Rome clinic in 1959. Rumors about the cause of death proliferate. He owed money to the mafia, people said and they did away with  him. He was taking a weight loss cure and his heart gave out. He was on the skids professionally, taken seriously no where. I suspect the great voice remained, but the heart that voice needed was long gone. The tenor Richard Tucker and his wife had reached out to help Lanza, who they dearly loved, to no avail.

Lanza and his wife Betty had four children. Betty, herself in her thirties survived her husband by less than a year. Three of the kids died young. Elissa Lanza Bergmann is left. She came to Columbus a few years ago. She’s a charming, wonderful lady, well aware of her distinguished legacy, a legacy that could have been great.

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