Modern Screen
September 1950
In the June issue of Modern Screen there was a story about Mario Lanza which seemed to antagonize many citizens of Philadelphia. Disturbed by their reaction, Mr. Lanza asked permission to write his own version of his life and times in that city. We are pleased to present it here. -- The Editors
I shouldn't be writing this at all. I'm a singer, an actor maybe, and putting a lot of words together on paper in a manner to make sense and express adequately what I have to say is hard for me. But, because of a situation brought about a few months ago in Modern Screen when a story about me set many of the people of Philadelphia against me, I've got to try to write this. Actually, time heals the gravest wounds; and what was written a few months ago is probably forgotten. But it hasn't been forgotten by me because Philadelphia is my home town.
Home town. It has a great sound, doesn't it? You can lose a good friend, get fired from a good job, have your favorite girl chase you off her porch swing for keeps, but you can't lose your home town. It's like a birthmark, or a cowlick or six toes on each foot if you've got them -- your home town stays with you as long as you're alive, and when you're dead, they mention it in your obituary. That's why you can't take any chances with alienating it from you. You belong to it, and if it ever abandons you, you're doomed to be a very lonely man for the rest of your life.
My neighborhood was South Philadelphia, a district sometimes referred to as the other side of the tracks. It's not quite that, however. It's not the Main Line. There are a lot of poor people there, minorities, working men, tired housewives and kids, lots of kids; but no matter where you figure the tracks, South Philadelphia is really on the right side.
No neighborhood in the United States is like South Philadelphia. Does that sound like maudlin pride?
Maybe it is. Maybe it's in the remembering. But South Philadelphia is the sort of American neighborhood that the authors write about when they say the big cities of this country are melting pots where the people of the world come to live and become Americans. It's the kind of neighborhood the song writers write about when they get sentimental or patriotic. You can live a life in that neighborhood, start as poor as a man can be and become great and famous and live in the finest house. And you never have to leave South Philadelphia for a minute.
Barney Samuel did it. He wants to be called Barney, the same as they used to call him when he went to school in that neighborhood. The president of the United States and some of the biggest people in the country call him the Honorable Bernard Samuel, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, but to South Philadelphia, he's Barney. He never moved away, never for a day, and he's all a man could wish to be in the way of success and fame.
When the circus comes to Philadelphia, a citizen of the city rounds up a couple of thousand orphans and treats them to the best seats -- and all the peanuts and pop they can consume. His name is Frank Palumbo, born, raised and became rich and famous in South Philadelphia. He still lives there. When an important person visits Philadelphia and ought to have a parade, Palumbo arranges it and probably pays for it. When the zoo needs an animal it can't afford, Palumbo buys it and gives it to the town.
There's Earl Denny. If you're not from Philadelphia you may never have heard about Earl Denny. He used to live near me on Mercy Street. My mother and father, like most of the Italian-American people in Mercy Street, opened the door with a key when they moved into the house and then threw the key away. There was no further use for it, because it was an open house from that minute onward. Earl Denny used to drop around at all hours of the day and night, whenever he felt like talking. We used to lounge around the kitchen or living room and talk about music. Any sort of success seemed a long way off, and real recognition seemed unobtainable and as far away as the moon.
Earl liked to talk about his orchestra, maybe like Paul Whiteman, maybe like one of the Dorseys, but anyway, he was going to have a fine band and all of South Philadelphia was going to dance to his music. Well, Earl is now the most popular society band leader in town. He makes a lot of money -- and he didn't have to leave Philadelphia to do it.
But if you do leave your town something can happen at almost any hour of the day to put you back in that neighborhood. Like what happened to me when I went back to Philadelphia not too long ago for the premiere of my first movie, That Midnight Kiss.
I had left Philadelphia a nothing, off to try my luck at singing, and nobody but my family saw me go. But here I was back again a few years later riding in a parade down the main street with Kathryn Grayson and Johnny Johnston. I was sitting up on top of the seat of a convertible and ahead of my car a half dozen motorcycle policemen cleared the way and kept cross street traffic from halting our progress. My name was a foot high on a banner tied to the car. Suddenly a coal truck drove into the street directly in front of the car and two of the grimiest guys I've ever seen leaped out of the front seat.
"Freddie!" they howled and we fell upon one another in the street, pounding backs and laughing while the parade came to a standstill. They were two fellows I went to school with who had gone into the coal business and were out on a delivery when they spotted me in the parade. I went on with the parade, but for a few minutes that day I was back fifteen years and my hands were black with coat dust to prove it.
My home town was pretty much like your home town I suppose. There were the neighborhood celebrities like the Palumbos and Barney Samuel. There were the rough guys and the softies. And there were the friends who, without actually knowing what they were doing, helped me to become a singer.
Opera was sissy stuff to most of the kids in my neighborhood. However, we were predominantly Italian, with the native Italian feeling for opera. The other kids, the Irish, English and such couldn't see it for sour apples. So, naturally, a group of the Italo-American kids got together to do some converting. Opera became a fighting word for us. There were Frank Guarerra, Vincent Bartolomeo and Eddie Lucente and other who were willing to stand with our backs against a wall of the school yard and spill blood (some of it ours) for dear old classical music. Frank is now a leading baritone with the Metropolitan Opera Company, Vince is a fine tenor, still studying in Philadelphia, and Eddie is a doctor, specializing in pediatrics, with a growing practice in South Philadelphia.
I was a fanatic on the subject, and, as a matter of fact, considered, even at ten or eleven years of age, something of an authority. This earned me an edge in the war for opera, as one of my teachers, a Mr. Maioriello, used to let me take his class for one period a week and drum some of the lore of the opera into my classmates' unwilling heads. They probably wanted to kill me for it, but the man, or boy, with the long ruler at the head of the class was boss -- so they listened to my childish prattlings.
One of my buddies in those days was Joe Siciliano. Joe and I were known as the laziest kids in the neighborhood. We used to sit on the curb and think about a thousand things we were going to do when we grew up. Joe loved music, too. I remember so well the times we'd go trotting off to Wildwood, New Jersey, take possession of a section of the boardwalk and, with Joe playing a guitar, give an open air concert for whatever profit our amused audiences deemed proper. When a man in a blue uniform approached, we'd take off like gazelles for another concert in a safer sector. It may have been illegal, but it didn't hurt anybody and the few brushes with the law we had were a very steadying influence on Joe. He grew up and became one of the best, and best-liked cops in Philadelphia.
My father's house in South Philadelphia was a gathering place for a lot of prominent people, prominent in the neighborhood, that is. But it never held a more inspiring visitor than Barney Samuels, the day of the parade. When we had passed through the main streets, Barney got in my car and asked me if he could go out and say hello to my folks with me. I was very pleased and, with a police escort, we drove to Mercy Street. The official occasion was over, so it became just a visit. Barney and I went inside the house and then the neighbors began piling in. Soon the living room and kitchen were full and the traffic through the front door was like a subway at rush hour.
I sat across the room and saw Barney greet my friends and it gave me a thrill I'll never forget. The Mayor of the third largest city in the land, lounging around our home and chatting with my friends.
We made another call that day, too, but it wasn't as cheering. There was a kid I used to play with who always seemed a little better at anything he tried than any of the rest of us. His name was Subby Ciani. He was very popular and quite an athlete. When I left the neighborhood, Subby went off to college and made a reputation for himself in sports at Villanova. Then the war came, interrupting his studies, and Subby went off with the army. He never came back. And it was with a heavy heart that I paid a visit to the Subby Ciani American Legion Post and looked at the citations of valor Subby had earned before he made the supreme sacrifice. Subby, I guess, made a bigger success than any of us.
There was another man from South Philadelphia who gave me an assist without actually knowing he was doing it. I was always interested in Italian. I wanted to know the language thoroughly in all its beauty. I met a man named Mario Pellizzon, a man born in Italy who had come here as an immigrant. He was, and is today, a scholar and has a splendid reputation as a good citizen in his adopted city. As a matter of fact, during the war when many foreign-born Italians were restricted by the government, Mr. Pellizzon was a member of the FBI.
When he found that I liked pure Italian, he took me under his wing and tutored me in the language until I became very proficient. Many of my Italian associates in operatic circles still insist I must have been born in the old country to have acquired such a true accent. Learning a language may not seem too important, but to a student of opera who plans to become a singer it is invaluable. Most students must go to Italy for this phase of their training, but I found it right at home in South Philly.
When I left South Philadelphia in 1942 to try my luck in the musical world, I went to the famous Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. It was a great opportunity for me, but it frightened me a lot. It was the first time I had been thrown among strangers and, coming from a neighborhood that is as clannish as the Yokums, I dreaded the thought of having to make new friends and acquaintances. But the first man I saw changed everything and dispelled all my fears. It was Al Cascarino, from home, and he was there for the same reason as me, to further his musical education. We had a fine summer and today Al is one of the most promising young composers in America.
In retrospect, a home town takes on a color that no other place on earth can have for a man. The summers seem gayer than they probably were. The winters longer. The springs more beautiful. And the friends warmer. There is no way to tell, really about any of these things but the friends. If they were closer than they are now, we must have been saccharin. But I've never been closer to any men than I was on the occasion of my first radio appearance in Philadelphia upon my return home after That Midnight Kiss.
I was being interviewed in one of the large broadcast rooms of WCAU, and reminiscing, trying to recall the faces and the nicknames of the kids I'd grown up with, and trying to find out what had happened to them all. Of course, they were a rag-tag bunch in my memory, reluctant to wash behind the ears as I was, dressed in the torn and rumpled uniform of the small boy. They paraded before my mind's eye one by one -- and then the door to the broadcast room opened and a number of very fine gentlemen marched in. And in each of those men I saw a boy I used to know.
There were the Capones. Dick, now an eye specialist and rather formal in manner, his brother Eddie, very proper and handsome. The Graziano boys, now big business men, owners of the King Laundry. Vince Bartolomeo, Dr. Eddie Lucente, the kindly baby doctor, Tony Di Simone and a lot of others. One by one we shook hands, men now, all of us, and we grinned in memory of the pranks we played and the mischief we shared.
Each hand was warm with welcome and friendship, and no words have been more musical to my ears than the "Hello, Freddie" I got from each of them. Gone were the years between as we grinned at one another, a little self-consciously at first, and later during the bull session we indulged in and told each other everything that had happened to us since last we'd met. We finished up in South Philadelphia, treading the same streets we'd raced on many years ago.
No boyhood in this country is complete without sand lot baseball. We had ours, but because the city streets were a little too confining for our energetic type of playing, we used to go to Wildwood, New Jersey and carry on our contests on the beach. My chums were great ball players, but the champions of our little group were the young Graziano twins, Carmen and Tony.
They were whizzes, so good in fact that they were continually getting us into hock and hot water with their prowess as sluggers. The baseball story I remember most vividly is the one we played against another neighborhood team on the beach at Wildwood. The score, of course, was tied and, of course, there were two of our men on base and, of course, Carmen Graziano came to bat.
Naturally, with two strikes against him, Carmen belted a ball into what seemed like the next county. It was hit so far that he didn't even start to run and with the rest of us he watched the beautiful flight of that ball. It curved into the sky beautifully, then began its drop, still going for distance. Suddenly our grins turned to panic as the ball headed for a nice old man sitting in the sun reading a paper. To our horror, it struck him right between the eyes, a lot of its power gone to be sure, but with still enough force to shatter his eyeglasses into a thousand pieces.
Well, we took off like frightened deer in every direction, finally meeting half a mile away where we were sure we could still hear the old man's angry roars. We held a council of war. Keep running, or go back and face the music. One of the lads pointed out that maybe the man was poor and couldn't buy another pair of glasses. That decided it. Back we went and stood like a row of saucy puppies taking a scolding while the man told us what he thought of us individually and collectively. He calmed down somewhat when he learned that we intended to pay for the damage we'd done. And, although the odd jobs we had to perform to earn the money practically ruined us as a ball-playing organization that summer, we bought the man the best pair of fancy eyeglasses his oculist could dig up.
It's the things like that, the team we were, the fraternity, the little lessons in life we learned together and the comradeship we developed that anchors a man's home town to his heart.
And, if a man's lucky, the good things that come to him in life will build up to one big moment in his home town, too. Acting in motion pictures brings a lot of personal adulation to a man, maybe more than he deserves. An entertainer eventually becomes rather used to being in that public eye and, while the honors that are bestowed on him never become boring, they do become somewhat commonplace.
But no matter what ever happens to me in my life, no matter if I ever do become a really good singer or a big star in motion pictures and people beat my door down to shake my hand, I will never have a bigger thrill than I got in my home town during the American Legion convention last year. I was not the guest of honor at the banquet at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, but I had been asked to attend and sing. The guest of honor was a big man, the biggest. I was excited and anxious to sing and impress everyone, particularly him. But something happened to the programming. The Guest of Honor was to make a nation-wide radio address, and the entertainment ran so long that it was soon obvious that I wasn't going to be called on to sing. Somewhere a technician signalled the guest he was to go on the air in a minute or so. He stood up and the whole room became quiet. He looked at me, saw, maybe, that I was disappointed, and spoke.
The President of the United States looked at me, now Mario Lanza, once Freddie Cocozza, and in my home town, before all my friends he said, "I want to apologize to Mario Lanza for asking him here and then not allowing enough time for him to sing."
That happened to me in Philadelphia. Maybe, as they say, South Philadelphia is on the wrong side of the tracks. But the President apologized to a kid from over there, so there can't be too much wrong with it. But no matter what, good, bad, great or unimportant, it's my neighborhood and my home town. I hope we love one another forever.