The Mario Lanza Story

By Rip Rense

(Original version of a story carried by the Philadelphia Inquirer the
week of 4-11-97. Used with permission.)

Mario Lanza is coming home to Philadelphia, courtesy of actor/writer/tenor Charles GaVoian. Charles who?
GaVoian is a Los Angeles entrepeneur and longtime Lanza-phile who will portray the late tenor in "The Mario Lanza Story," his self-penned play making its East Coast debut at the Society Hill Playhouse for a month-long run beginning April 17.
"It's a great honor to play in Philadelphia, seeing as it's Mario Lanza's home town," said GaVoian, an immigrant from Kiev for whom Philadelphia is also a home town (as a boy, he lived with his grandfather on the west side.) "I know the audience will include a lot of hard-core Lanza fans, and people who actually knew Mario. I want them to know this is a truthful interpretation of the ups and downs of the man---a real life story, not a story of a saint. He was a real man, and a tough guy, and had a lot of colors and lived an interesting life."
Lanza, of course, was the matinee idol with the skyrocket tenor who inspired the Three Tenors---Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and Placido Domingo---and who was crowned the "greatest voice of the century" by no less a figure than conductor Arturo Toscanini. He became a pop icon with films like "The Toast of New Orleans" and "Because You're Mine"---which propelled songs like "Be My Love" to the top of the charts---and also portrayed Enrico Caruso in MGM's 1951 feature, "The Great Caruso." The handsome, charismatic singer, the first to cross over from the opera to pop world, ultimately abandoned Hollywood (or vice-versa) after a stormy relationship with studio moguls. He died in Italy in 1959 at 38, either the victim of excessive lifestyle or mafia hit, depending on which account you believe.
"A lot of people claim he was murdered, including some Lanza family members and (Lanza's friend and biographer) Terry Robinson, author of åLanza: His Tragic Life'," said GaVoian."His butler and nurse disappeared when he died. That doesn't sound like coincidence to me. And it's known he had some heated arguments with mobsters. . ."
One such dispute, allegedly with Charles "Lucky" Luciano, is addressed in the play, along with other of the young tenor's troubles: drinking, weight gains, clashes with Hollywood moguls. The one-man show is not a whitewash or fawning tribute, says its author, who instead terms it "sympathetic, affectionate, but honest."
"The Mario Lanza Story" debuted in 1994 at the 100-seat Beverly Hills Playhouse in Beverly Hills, Calif., where it played to full houses for over a year, collecting critical accolades from the Los Angeles Times (which praised that actor's earnestness and"roof-rattling tenor"), Hollywood Daily Variety, Hollywood Reporter, and other local media. The show won Drama-Logue Magazine's award for Best Theatrical Presentation of 1995, and sold out theaters in Long Beach and Arizona.
GaVoian has also pleased arguably the toughest audience of all---Lanza's daughter, Colleen Maria Lanza, and son Damon, who have both seen and endorsed the work. So approving was Damon Lanza, that he co-hosted a "Mario Lanza Story" pre-performance trivia contest with longtime Lanza family friend Bob Dolfi. (They will appear at some of the Philadelphia performances.)
"Not only has Charles captured the many years of my father's turbulent life," declares Damon Lanza, who regularly visits organi- zations dedicated to his father's memory around the world, "but he has very masterfully presented it."
To answer a key question here---yes, GaVoian is an able singer. In the "flattering part" of his 40s, the man makes it clear that he does not presume to be spoken of in the same breath as Lanza. (His voice will be amplified in the Philadelphia run, partly to save wear and tear over five performances a week, Wednesday through Sunday.) But, he emphasizes, "This is a play---not a singing tribute."
The work finds Lanza in a dressing room in Rome during the last weeks of his life, reminiscing joyfully and bitterly about his career to an unseen reporter, whose voice is heard asking occasional questions. GaVoian ventures eleven songs and arias especially identified with Lanza, from the requisite "Be My Love" and "Because You're Mine" to "Vesti la Giubba," "E Lucevan le Stelle," "Ave Maria," and "Arrivederci, Roma."
Although the actor worked for years on a biographical Lanza movie script, it wasn't until the early 90s, at the suggestion of a friend, that he decided to adapt his script for stage, and take on the role himself. After about a year of research---including talks with Lanza's biographer and longtime personal trainer, Terry Robinson (coincidentally, a friend of GaVoian's since youth)---he finished a script in 1994. With a bit of polishing by writer Joe Fraley, "The Mario Lanza Story" debuted to what GaVoian called "curious" audiences:
"I thought people were coming to see who was this crazy person trying to play Mario Lanza!" GaVoian laughed, from his home in the L.A. suburb of Montebello. "A lot of people were Lanza fans, and that was a tough audience. Sometimes I would say to myself, 'why are you doing this?' I couldn't tell if they were enjoying it or not. But at the end of the night, they would all stand up and applaud."
Old Lanza acquaintances have actually helped fine-tune the play:
"I can't tell you how many people who knew Mario come to the play, and tell me stories about him that I've incorporated in the show. One guy who used to play baseball with Mario when they were kids in Philadelphia said Mario used to hit the ball so far, they never could find it. We added that story, and we're always looking for more."
There is an amusing parallel between GaVoian and Lanza that might make him at least poetically suited for the part: both were singing truck drivers---Lanza in the movie, "Because You're Mine," and GaVoian for real. After his father came down with lung cancer, GaVoian quit college and went to work as a trucker. He spent many an hour driving around L.A., singing "Che Gelida Manina" and "La Donne e Mobile," and dreaming of "ditching the truck for a career in opera."
Eventually he managed to do just that, dividing his time between running a trucking company and appearing in local operatic productions. He also studied at the renowned USC OperaWorkshop, before finding his full-time, mid-life calling as Lanza.
"I was first drawn to Mario because of his fantastic voice, and then in the movies, he played these really likeable, down-to-earth characters," said GaVoian. "I saw myself as this kind of blue-collar guy, like him. I just related to him---better than I could to a regular opera singer."
Over the decades, there have been myriad tribute concerts to Lanza---by fine tenors (including the celebrated Three) and pretenders---to say nothing of a parade of never-filmed movie scripts based on the man's tragic life. GaVoian's effort is the only theatrical Lanza venture to have seriously succeeded, and the actor is quick to credit his role: "I feel great that they're coming to see Mario. If it wasn't for him, no one would have known who I was!"
Lanza's appeal remains as big as his larynx. His recordings still sell healthy amounts (and new archival recordings have popped up); there are Lanza fan clubs all over the world, and the famous annual ball hosted by the Mario Lanza Society in Philadelphia. Carreras and Domingo, who acknowledge Lanza films as an early inspiration, have recorded CD and/or video tributes to the tenor (Domingo also narrates the video documentary, "Mario Lanza: the American Caruso.") And yes, there is an extensive Mario Lanza website, which can be accessed through
"The popularity is due to a lot of things," GaVoian said. "Certainly, there is that astonishing voice, and movie star quality. But he died so young---it's the same kind of thing you find with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. And Lanza not only influenced the Three Tenors, but a whole generation of singers. That name still stirs something in people. It still draws. "
What might Lanza think of "The Mario Lanza Story"?
"You know, I think he'd be happy, because I try to be truthful, but at the same time portray him in a positive light," said GaVoian. "People love the show, and I think that would have made him happy."