Now only twenty-four years old, Lanza
is just out of uniform, having spent almost three years in the army, most
of the time touring with the Army Air Forces' all-soldier musical revue
"On the Beam" and as a member of the "Winged Victory"
company. In the summer of 1942, just before joining the armed forces, Lanza
sang an audition for Arthur Judson who promised the young man that the
day he returned to civilian life a contract would be waiting for him.
Born on New York's East Side, January 31, 1921, brought up in South Philadelphia, Mario Lanza's story is a typically American one. His natural musical gifts, however, stem from a Latin heritage. His father is an Italian from Naples, his mother Spanish from Madrid.
His family was poor. His father, a six-day bicycle race champion, enlisted in the last war, went to France, fought six major battles, came home bedecked with medals but unable to walk...a cripple. The disabled war veteran, dependent on a small pension, won the love of young Spanish girl. They were married. When Mario was born his mother went to work as a seamstress to eke out the slender family income.
The boy was six when they moved to Philadelphia where his grandparents lived and where, they hoped, life would be easier. Their home was on Christian Street, a notoriously tough neighborhood. It bred gangsters but it also nourished artists. The Gianninis were next-door neighbors; the singer Dusolina Giannini a real friend of Mario's mother.
Dark, powerfully built, Mario Lanza was acknowedged "Boss" of the South Philadelphia High School. He played full back and half back on the football team and semi-pro after school until it got too rough. He did a little amateur boxing until stopped by the family. At the South Philadelphia Boys Weight-Lifting Club he was famous. He could lift 200 pounds.
But he never admitted to the other boys his growing passion for music. His parents scrimped and saved to give him the money to stand at opera performances. But he went alone. At home he listened to opera records by the hour. His favorite was Caruso's "Vesti la giubba" from "Pagliacci" which has first thrilled him as a boy of ten. That's the way he'd like to sing, he thought to himself. One day when he was 20, he put the record on again and started singing alng with it -- and a career was born.
Koussevitzky said: "It is truly a great voice" His first voice coach was Irene Williams. She realized at once that the young man not only had a naturally beautiful voice but that he instictively used it correctly. She started at once to build his repertoire, to coach him in the great Italian operatic roles.
During a lesson, unknown to Lanza, the Director of the Philadelphia Forum, William K. Huff, heard him. Impressed, he left Miss Williams' studio determined to help the young man get a start.
As Mario Lanza studied, he worked. He often helped his grandfather who had a wholesale grocery and a trucking business. One night, the husky youth was hauling a piano to the Academy of Music where the Boston Symphony was to play its annual concert on the Forum series. On his way back he parked his truck next to Wanamaker's where, on Wednesdays, free concerts were given in the Court. As he stood there, in his dirty workman's clothes, listening, Miss Williams rushed up. She knew his habits and had found him. "Mr. Huff has arranged it. You are to sing for Serge Koussevitzky. Tonight. Go home and get dressed."
By this time the symphony concert was over Mario Lanza was back at the hall, spick and span, excited nervous. Dr. Koussevitzky was in his dressing room, shirtless. Mr. Huff took Lanza to the artist's room across the corridor, told him to sing. The young tenor hesitated for a moment, then poured out his voice and heart in his "lucky aria", the impassioned tragic music he had first learned from the Caruso record -- the "Vesti la giubba". He finished. Serge Koussevitzky rushed in, still in undershirt, a towel around his shoulders. He put his arms around the young man. "You will come to work with me at the Bershires," he said. He turned to Huff: "It is truly a great voice."
Opera Debut at Tanglewood
A few days later Mario Lanza received railroad tickets and a notice to report at Tanglewood. It was the early summer of 1942. He worked hard. He coached with student-conductors Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss and with Felix Wolfes on the Metropolitan. He rehearsed under Metropolitan Stage Director Herbert Graf and Conductor Boris Goldovsky. And he had daily instruction from Dr. Koussevitzky himself. Serge Koussevitzky kept saying: "You will never be a singer until you learn solege."
On August 7, when Noel Straus, critic of The New York Times, travelled to the Berkshires to see the English presentation of Nicolai's "Merry Wives of Windsor", he reported a discovery: "Honors went to the Fenton of the cast, 21-year-old Mario Lanza, an extremely talented, if as yet completely routined student, whose superb natural voice has few equals among the tenors of the day in quality, warmth and power."
The news was out....When he came back to town Lanza was invited to sing an audition for Arthur Judson, President of Columbia Concerts. Four days later he was drafted but not before Mr. Judson had assured him that, when the war was over, Columbia Concerts would be waiting for him.
Sinatra Says He Swooned
After basic training at Miami Beach, Lanza was sent to Pecos County, Texas, as M.P. He had been there a few months when "On the Beam" came along. Maj. Frederick Brisson (husband of Rosalind Russell), who was touring with the show, had heard about the "singing M.P." He asked to hear Lanza but Lanza refused. The dust and the sand of the country were in his throat; he didn't feel up to an audition. Instead, he played Brisson a recording he had made of "E lucevan le stelle" from "Tosca". On the strength of that record, he was accepted. Orders came from Washington to release him for special services. Two days later he was on the train to Arizona where he picked up the company.
He sang with "On the Beam" for six months. During that time Moss Hart heard him (it was in Visalia - "A horse-trading center," says Lanza). When he was casting "Winged Victory" he remembered him and brought him to New York for rehearsals... September, 1943.
IT was during the long country-wide tour of "Winged Victory" that Mario Lanza found himself back in Hollywood on furlough. Wherever he went people asked him to sing. Overnight he became a local celebrity.
Sinatra, who loves grand opera and who owns a tremendous record collection, started the ball rolling. He heard Lanza and said: "The kid knocked a hole through me." In a syndicated interview by Inga Aryad he stated: "Talking about people swooning when I sing, the tables were turned the other day when a young chap came on my set and started to sing. There's no exaggeration in stating that for once in my life I really swooned. I immediately asked him if he wanted to be on my program but he was not able to accept any contracts. He happens to be in the army. His name is Mario Lanza." Sinatra and Lanza became good friends. They had more than music in common - they both liked Italian cooking. Nancy - Mrs. Sinatra - is a wonderful cook, says Mario Lanza. "She's right up there with my mom."
The actor Walter Pidgeon heard Lanza singing at a party. He exclaimed: "Mark my words, there's going to be the great tenor of the century."
Hedda Hopper wrote in her nationally syndicated "Looking at Hollywood" column - October 10, 1944: "Remember, I told you about Mario Lanza who had such a sensational voice - only one I'd heard who could double for Caruso - and was part of the "Winged Victory" troupe? Well he was so good Sinatra asked his manager to put him under contract... but the army intervened. He was shipped out. But don't worry. He'll be around after V-Day, and then watch the offers come in."
Sense vs. Sensation
But Mario Lanza's young head was not turned. He had sense enough to know that a great music career needed something more solid than sensatin on which to build. The war over, back in civilian clothes, he returned to New York.
With him was his bride, pretty petite dark-haired Betty Hicks. She had been working at the Santa Monica Douglas plant training applicants to handle C54's and A20 Havocs when she met Mario Lanza through her brother Bert, another member of the "Winged Victory" cast. It took only one more meeting and the "Vesti la giubba" to settle her fate. The "lucky aria" had worked once more!
Contracts with Columbia Concerts and RCA Victor signed, the tenor settled down to serious preparation for his first concert tour with his devoted friend and personal representative, Michael De Pace, at hand to help launch the young artist. Vocal lessons from Robert Woods, the Metropolitan Opera baritone, repertoire with Maestro Renato Bellini, English songs with Polly Robertson... he was laying a foundation for a bright future.