A Reporter Remembers Mario

By Fredda Dudley Balling
In 1958, Marie Stuttard (then Bennett) was a reporter for the daily newspaper, the Belfast Newsletter (est. 1737!) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. One of her assignments was to attend a press conference for Mario Lanza, then on his concert tour of the region. She went on to have a highly successful career in journalism, including the authoring of ten books, & is now a lecturer in speech & communication in Auckland, New Zealand, where Lindsay Perigo asked her what she could remember of her encounter with Mario.
MS: I can remember going in to the Grand Hotel & waiting & waiting for him, & when he finally did come, I think he'd been a bit hassled. He was alternately a bit sharp with people & then charming. The thing that impressed me was the incredible power of the man. I remember that so clearly after all these years. The breadth of his shoulders. The strength that came out of him. The obvious lung power. The resonant speaking voice. The star quality.
Some of the reporters asked him a few silly questions, but the one I remember most was, "Why isn't your wife with you?" He shot back, "Because she's at home with a bun in the oven!" It took us all by surprise because in those days even stars didn't say things like that! But when he got a little bit calmer he was lovely. He just chatted away about his background & things. I can't remember the details, & unfortunately I definitely was not at his concert. I assume that a much more senior person than me snaffled the tickets! If I had seen him I would never have forgotten, because I was a great fan of his. My memory, forty years later, really is just of that "power man." And that beautiful speaking voice. Because people with such resonant singing voices usually speak beautifully as well. And you can see from watching his performances how he fine-tunes the lyrics, makes them as beautiful as the music itself - and this has always been my passion, to hear words spoken & sung so well.
LP: So he was articulate?!
MS: Oh absolutely, very articulate. But he didn't go over the top. By the way, you know, in Ireland in those days, before all the troubles, to have someone like him coming was really a BIG event. And he certainly measured up!
LP: When you talk about the "power" of the man, it was not just physical ...
MS: Oh, no, no! It was presence! The moment he walked in, everybody felt it. There was no doubt about that star quality - it was VERY strong. The man was simply an exceptional person. We were all blown away.
LP: And you also had the impression that he was not to be trifled with?
MS: Oh, absolutely. No, he was not to be trifled with. No way. And even with his manager, he called the shots. "When I'm ready I'll go!" sort of thing. Mario was the boss. He made it very plain that he would answer the questions he wanted to answer, & what he didn't want to answer he would not answer! Very strong & confident.
LP: Were his humour & mischief very evident?
MS: There was humour there, but not to any great extent, because he was answering relatively serious questions. The "bun in the oven" thing was sort of like a slip of the tongue. As I said, he was very pleasant, but once or twice he did answer a bit abruptly. He looked as if he had been round it all, thousands of times before.
LP: Did he look ill at all?
MS: No. He seemed fine. I wouldn't say good-looking exactly, but striking. Quite a dramatic cast of features, including his whole body. He certainly wasn't anybody you'd pass over!