By Jack Wade
Modern Screen
October 1951
They're beginning to throw knives at Mario Lanza. By this time you've probably noticed them in the form of gossip items like: "Success has swelled Mario Lanza way out of his normal hat size." Or, "Mario Lanza is the toughest star Metro has had to handle in years." Or, "Look for a breakup in the Lanza household. That tenor's getting awfully big for his britches."
When you read those items and hear other reports like his indignantly demanding a dressing-room of his own at MGM, and his swearing like a trouper when he fluffs a line, you're tempted to believe that he's one singing canary who can't handle success. After all, he worked his way up from less than nothing a week to an income (this year) of $600,000, and he worked pretty fast. It seems only natural that success should spoil him -- at least, that's what the knife-throwers would have you believe.
It isn't the truth.
Mario Lanza is not stepping out on his wife. He is not pulling the snob act on his old friends. He is not being difficult at the studio.
He is simply being Alfred Arnold Cocozza, the same earthy, honest guy he was before he left Philadelphia, his hometown, and before he starred in The Great Caruso. (The Great Caruso, incidentally, may yet gross 15 million dollars, which would make it the second most popular movie in motion picture history. The first is Gone With The Wind.)
Then how come, you may ask, the gossip columnists spread such stories about Lanza if they aren't true?
The answer is simple: The price of fame is gossip. And sudden success always generates a certain amount of envy.
A few weeks ago, a Hollywood crooner whose voice is nothing without a microphone, went to see Mario in The Great Caruso. Coming out of the theater, he turned to his date and said smugly, "The boy has power but no tone." This, mind you, about a voice which has been hailed by really fine judges of music as one of the great, is not the greatest, voices since Enrico Caruso.
"That's nothing," said the crooner's escort. "I hear he's been making a pass at every girl on the lot."
A month or so ago, Mario was seen striding out of the Thalberg Building, an imposing structure where the men who really run MGM have their offices.
An acquaintance ran into him. "What are you doing here? He asked.
Lanza flashed him a grin. "They just told me to be a gentleman and I'd go right to the top."
The next day, columnists carried the item, "Mario Lanza has been severely chastised by his studio for too many outbursts of temperament."
Actually, Lanza had stepped inside the building for a drink from the water cooler.
What then is Mario Lanza really like? The chances are you've heard him sing. Listen to him talk.
"I'm an emotional Italian from south Philadelphia," he says. "And I'm proud of it. Be more diplomatic,' they tell me. Be more tactful.' What am I? A diplomat or a singer? I'm a singer, an American singer. If I like something, I like it. If I don't like it, I say so.
"The studio sends me a script. I read it For a minute I think they're kidding. Then I find they're serious. A guy calls me up. ëLanza,' he says, ëwhat do you think of it?' ëIt stinks,' I say. ëSweetie,' he answers, ëstop kidding. Don't you think it's a knockout? It's going to be bigger than Caruso.'
"I repeat, ëIt's terrible.' Next thing I know they're calling me temperamental. Who's temperamental? Not me. When a script's no good, I got a perfect right to say so. My whole life I've spoken my mind, been honest and told the truth. I was brought up that way. My folks taught me that what you had in your soul was more important than what you had in your pocket.
"I remember when I first sang for Koussevitzky at the Berkshire Music Festival. He wanted to change my name. Said that Cocozza was impossible to pronounce. My old man almost blew his top. He said we'd make the name so famous that people wouldn't dare to mispronounce it. I finally settled it by taking my mother's maiden name, Maria Lanza, and changing the Maria to Mario.
"A man should stand up for what he believes is right, even in Hollywood. No one will ever say that Mario Lanza is a mouse. They may call me something that sounds like mouse. But that won't be the word."
And here is Mario in action: A few weeks ago after three rough hours of recording, the six-foot tenor walked out of a recording studio only to run up against a small army of teenagers.
"Please, sing a song for us, Mr. Lanza," pleaded a little blonde girl.
Mario marched the whole army of Lanza fans back into the studio and, with Ray Sinatra at the piano, sang to them for another hour.
He does that sort of thing all the time. Recently, his office received this letter: "Dear Mr. Lanza, during my last semester at college, while I was majoring in social work, I took several field trips. One of these trips was to the Madonna House in south Philadelphia. One of the children there led me to the television set and said, ëThis set was given to us by Mario Lanza.' Other children then swarmed around and spoke of you in terms of gratitude and reverence. I thought you might like to know that. I think you are a very thoughtful and good man."
When Lanza was first signed to a contract at MGM -- Ida Koverman, L.B. Mayer's secretary, had heard him sing in the Hollywood Bowl and had raved about him -- the fan magazine photographers wouldn't give him a break. They didn't know whether he'd turn out to be a flash-in-the-pan or the real McCoy. But one photographer named Joe Shere shot some pictures of Mario and his wife, Betty. Shere made a few extra prints and sent them to Lanza. Mario never forgot his thoughtfulness. Last Spring when Lanza was singing in Baltimore, the photographer's sister tried to buy tickets for the concert. No luck. The concert was a sell-out. Tickets were being hawked about for $50 a pair. The girl couldn't afford that price and wrote to her brother, who in turn phoned Mario.
Lanza immediately contacted his manager, Sam Weiler, and told him, "Insofar as I'm concerned the most important thing in that Baltimore concert is to see that little Joe Shere's sister gets two tickets." Little Joe's sister got them all right.
When the Lanza tour arrived in Philadelphia, Mario learned that a shut-in, an 80-year-old fan of his from Germantown, Pa., had also been unable to buy a ticket for his appearance.
Promptly, he took a ticket away from Manny Sachs, vice president in charge of recording for NBC. He then drove out to Germantown, put the delighted lady in his car and drove her to the concert.
A few months ago, just before Lanza went on the air for the Coca-Cola Company, there was a big hassle about the musical director on the program. "I like Ray Sinatra," Mario told the big boys. "We get along well. He knows his business and I'm sure we'll turn out a fine program for you."
The Coca-Cola men were certain of Sinatra's ability, only they leaned towards Percy Faith. "Mr. Faith," they pointed out, "is a musical conductor of great reputation and very extensive background."
Lanza said, "Of course, he is. He's one of the best, only I'd like Ray Sinatra. If I don't get Ray, I'd just as soon not have the radio show."
Sinatra went to Lanza and told him not to be silly; not to jeopardize his own position.
Lanza refused to budge. And today Ray Sinatra is the musical conductor on the Mario Lanza airshow for Coca-Cola.
Last December, Mario became the proud father for the second time of a baby daughter, a cute, dark-haired girl they christened Elissa. One of the nurses at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood where the child was born, said, "I've seen a lot of actors call on their wives. But I've never seen a man more in love with his wife than Mario Lanza. He wanted us to do every possible thing to make her comfortable. ëWe're doing everything we can now,' I told him. ëThat's nothing,' he said. ëTry and out-do yourselves.'"
Lanza, his wife, and their two children live in a rented house on the fringe of Beverly Hills. When MGM gave Lanza a $25,000 bonus so that he could buy a house and feel more secure, Lanza took that money and bought a home in California for his parents. His father, an Italian immigrant, fought for America in World War I and was the first American soldier to take a German prisoner. He was gassed during the conflict and totally disabled. But he managed to raise Mario and take care of his wife on a government pension.
Lanza didn't forget his parents when he hit the big time. Neither did he forget Nicky Brodzky, the talented Hungarian composer who wrote "Be My Love" for The Toast of New Orleans. After he finished the score of that film Brodzky was given his walking papers.
Before "By My Love" began to catch on with the public, Brodzky was broke and out of a job. Lanza borrowed $1,250 which he promptly handed to Nicky.
When "Be My Love" started to sell like the proverbial pile of hotcakes, Brodzky was hired back by Metro, but it was Lanza who took care of him during the dark days.
That's the true Lanza. Anything to the contrary is bad propaganda.
Is he feuding with his studio? MGM gave Mario $75,000 in bonuses last year. Does that sound like feuding?
Is he stepping out on his wife? "Why should I step out on her?" Mario asks. "She's everything I want."
Is he temperamental? "I just like to be treated with a little consideration!"
Does he weigh in at 250 pounds -- too much for a movie? "The most I've ever weighed is 224. Right now, I'm down to 200. My best weight is 197."
Is he losing his voice? "I've never sung better in my life."
Here is the true fact sheet on Mario Lanza. He was born in New York City 30 years ago, and was raised in south Philadelphia.
He didn't try to sing until he was 20 years old. It was his father who discovered him and urged him to study. Mario went to see a voice coach who brought him to the attention of William Huff of the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
Nothing came of it so Mario took a job as a furniture mover in his grandfather's trucking company.
One day he was moving a piano into the music auditorium when Mr. Huff caught sight of him. "What are you doing in that uniform?" he said.
"Moving pianos," said Lanza.
"Come with me," ordered Huff. He pushed Lanza into a dressing room opposite one occupied by Serge Koussevitzky, longtime director of the Boston Philharmonic. "Start singing," he commanded.
Mario sang "Vesti La Giubba."
Koussevitzky rushed out of his dressing room, saw Mario, ran to him and began kissing him in continental style on both cheeks. "You must sing at the Berkshire Festival in Tanglewood," he told the surprised young man.
Lanza was so great at the Festival that half a dozen recording companies and concert managers tried to sign him.
Uncle Sam beat all of them. He signed Lanza to a four-year stint with the Air Forces during which time Mario served as an M.P., a private, and a singer in the official Air Forces show, Winged Victory.
When Mario left the Army in 1945, he and his wife of a few months, Betty Hicks -- her brother had been with Mario in Winged Victory -- came to New York. Mario began taking voice lessons with Enrico Rosati, the 76-year-old teacher of Benjamino Gigli.
The Lanzas had very little money. Mario and Betty lived in a cold water flat on the West Side. Despite his financial embarrassment, he consistently turned down offers to appear on radio programs or in concert halls. "I just felt," he says, "that I wasn't ready."
Fortunately for Lanza, a patron came along when he and Betty were flat broke. Sam Weiler, a partner in the New York real estate firm of Swig & Weiler, himself a frustrated opera singer, insisted upon giving Mario all the money he needed until such time as Lanza felt his voice would be acceptable to the public.
Today, Sam Weiler is Lanza's manager and at Lanza's insistence receives 20% of his gross earnings. Actually, Weiler receives only 10%, since he is paying 10% to the Music Corporation of America to act as Lanza's agent.
In 1947, Frank Sinatra, who had heard Mario sing in Winged Victory, asked the tenor to visit him in Hollywood. The Lanzas stayed with Frank for three weeks. During that time Mario sang at several parties, and Walter Pidgeon, a frustrated opera singer, called him "the great tenor of the century."
After appearing in the Hollywood Bowl where he brought the house down, Lanza was invited to MGM by L.B. Mayer. Mr. Mayer, then in charge of the studio, ordered 55 of his top executives to gather on one sound stage and asked Lanza to sing for them.
MGM gave him $10,000 for signing a contract which calls for Lanza to work at the studio only six months a year. His salary at MGM is currently $1,500 a week.
Most of his income, however, is derived from recordings and concert appearances. This year he will make $300,000 on recordings, another $200,000 on personal concert appearances, another $100,000 on radio and allied activities.
His ambition is to sing in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The Met has been offering him a contract every year since 1946, but he's refused each of them because, he says, "I'm not ready yet."
Actually his is the most stirring, beautiful, and powerful voice ever placed on a Hollywood sound track. And he has a personality to match.
So critics, please note.