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The 51st Annual Mario Lanza Ball

By Sam Samuelian


Okay, we'll cut through the suspense by saying right off the bat that Anna DID relent and come to the Ball proving that even money loss from Hurricane Sandy doesn't stop a Samuelian from supporting the Lanza cause. Interestingly one of the cuties who I "used" to convince her to come, Carole and Al's cousin Lauren sat next to Anna! And the other cutie Kathryn was to our left at the next table. I behaved and did not ask Lauren to dance, especially since she had a date who was pawing her all night, lol. The day started out with a bang for me as I stopped at Best Buy before going to our antiques mall to try and sell (gee, I moved one Mr. and Mrs. Santa dancing toy!). They had just gotten in the new iphone 5 in white, my color of choice. I had been bolstered reading the new Consumer Reports review of this phone that called it the best phone they have ever made. I concur after using it. The light weight, the bigger screen, panoramic photo capability, the best photos and movies on the market, and much more.

So, I was pretty happy when Al Gagliardi came over to get us. I showed him how to do simulated 3D on our LG 65 inch TV since he bought the 55 incher on my recommendation last year but was unaware of this fine feature. We left 4:10 and arrived at the hotel 4:45. Surprisingly we were admitted to the cocktail reception area 15 minutes early, a first. It was good for us since we grabbed one of the few available tables. I enjoyed being seated with Annalise from Germany (I made her face a bit red later--read on!), Roy and Joy from England, Brian B. adjacent to us. We were introduced to Mr. Cocozza by Carole. He was dressed in a stunning Army dress uniform and he stands very tall and proud in it. I was very thirsty from a salty cheesesteak I had for lunch so immediately started into drinking with my first two apple martinis. I have reported in other years that the bartender there makes the best appletinis ever and he was accompanied by a girl who is also a drink wizard. My third drink was  a Bay Breeze since I felt it would quench my thirst better. But then the bartender pulled one on my by offering me with a gleam in his eye "Wild Sex on the Beach". This concoction is made from "pineapple pickers" pineapple juice, grapefruit juice, grenadine, and vodka. Mmmmmm! Well, I became very sexy and a bit too happy after this fourth drink and then sex spread throughout our area as Brian got a few of these for other ladies. That's the point where I made Annalise blush with a sexy joke. Then she couldn't stop laughing. This lighthearted and fun attitude pervaded throughout the entire Ball and made it very special for us. Anna especially enjoys that sort of demeanor over stuffy and formal, which a classy Ball can easily be otherwise. Needless to say the cocktail hour moved quickly with everyone devouring the many fine and tasty appetizers which included mini cheesesteaks (making me more thirsty!), mini egg rolls, mini crab cakes, chicken fingers, lots of select cheese, and more. I made sure to order and take into the main ballroom three Cokes to last me through the night before the bar switched to pay mode, very expensive. Tony Dee and his band (reduced to only three men) started playing right at our entrance at 6:00. The number of attendees this year had dropped to a low of 83 people but with Anna, the guests and Bill it was more like 90. Where are the younger people who should be filling vacant seats? If we had been in England I'm sure we'd have many more people young or not.

Bill started right in with a presentation he put together of slides on video with Mario singing "Because You're Mine" because it is the 60th anniversary of the film's release. It also is the 50th anniversary of the Institute. The show was excellent as I've come to expect of Bill and his talent with editing. In fact let me say right here that Bill has become the glue that holds together our hope that the Ball tradition will continue and be upheld just like Mary Papola did before him. Jeanette Frese, vice president, also works hard toward that goal as do board members like Al Gagliardi and Joan Burns. 90 year old John Luciani, well known  Musuem tour guide does the same. And I noticed that at another table a couple were seated who were 90 and 92 respectively and were enjoying the festivities earnestly. The National Anthem followed and then Bill welcomed everyone and introduced the guests on the dias comprised of Elisa Coccia (her fund donates money for the scholarships), Peter Hilliard, our wonderful Elaine Malbin looking fantastic in a beautiful green gown, tenor Vincent Ricciardi, his fiancee Emily Wright, and Lisa Helmel Thomas. Incidentally I spoke to Emily at the reception and complimented her and her fiancee on their singing the night before. Then I was delighted that their vocal coach came over and complimented little old me on my singing last night. Coming from a person who teaches voice that was quite an honor.

The finalists this year numbered four, two men and two women. Their selections were quite exciting. Baritone Anthony Clark Evans started us off with a bang with his excellent rendition of "Pagliacci Prologue" showing off a marvelous voice with depth and power and quality. Next performer was soprano Marina COSTA Jackson (who should have won an honor just because she bore the name of Mario's faithful accompanist Callinicos!) and she filled the room vocally too in "Stridono lassu" which is also from "Pagliacci". Following her was mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky with "Ces lettres" by Massenet. I found it a bit dull but she too has a strong voice. Last was tenor Dominick Chenes. He did the Lanza favorite "Come un bel di di maggio" with yet another room filling voice. Elaine broke in to say that it was not going to be easy to pick a winner amongst this group of fine singers. I agreed for the most part but had two favorites and two somewhat lesser in mind based on what I had heard. This impression was consistent with their last four numbers which included respectively "Soliloquy" from "Carousel" (excellent), "Love Is Where You Find It"--a song which well captured the extreme vocal range of Ms. Jackson as she went to rich mezzo range and then jumped to nearly a coloratura range. "Someone to Watch Over Me" was next and "Be My Love" was last. I was somewhat disappointed with both of these. People expect an unwavering review from me so I will be frank. These two are excellent singers and will have careers ahead but I found both have what Anna calls "that bleating quality" to their voices. I call it having more training than solid natural voice. Mr. Chenes especially disappointed when he did not take the high note on Mario's most famous song. I am sure he "had" that note but it puzzles me why he did not use it unless he chickened out at the last minute. On the other hand tenor Vincent Ricciardi, who was featured performer has nothing but a natural voice with the natural sweetness any fan of Mario has come to expect. But I'm ahead of myself.

It was now 7:30 and dinner was served. The first course was not very good as the salad had a sour tasting dressing. The main course was much better and excellent, the "usual" juicy filet mignon and moist salmon we enjoy every year accompanied by creamy scalloped potatoes. Dessert was a nice surprise as a special anniversary cake was served alongside the usual vanilla mousse in chocolate cup on plates that the chef had hand decorated with "50th, Mario". Always nice to see. The hotel gave us gratis champagne in honor of the occasion. The bread and butter was not to my taste with sourdough bread that was too sour. I missed the pasta course which was cut to keep within budget.

In between all this eating we had stimulating conversation at our table highlighted by the wisdom and suave of radio show host Ron Della Chiesa who sat right next to me with his lovely wife across the table. He has quite a way with words and is very knowledgeable about Mario but I took pleasure in correcting some of his data like the fact that FTFT and not SHOR was his last film. He got up to speak later and it is clear why he is a successful radio host as it pours out of him very naturally and he commands the stage.

A very special time for me occurred. Bill came up with $190.00 for the 50-50, an amount I wish my wife had won with the $5.00 contribution she had made as you'll know why. You see there was an auction for two items that were on easels along with the wonderful tribute put to paper by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (you can see it reproduced in the Ball program which, by the way, was as excellent as always. This one was chock full of photos and posters from BYM along with ads by patrons, tributes by members, and articles written by Bill. It is a collectors' item that overflows with photos that are to be cherished including some extemporaneous ones like Mario sitting and chatting with Bobby Van on the set.) Well, I saw my "lighthouse friends" looking at the wonderful and hard to find in this country photo book published years ago by our own Derek Mannering as well as a large and striking color piece of Mario and Kathryn from the finale of "That Midnight Kiss". I told them I would be bidding on that one. Well, that was an understatement as I started overbidding on it. My first competitor was my ride home but he stopped at $100.00. I was hoping for a $200.00 win but Mary and Bill were unrelenting. Okay, so am I and I stood for some of my bids and even increased them by more than the standard five dollar increments in a very loud voice. Must have had some remnant of my earlier alcohol consumption too because I cracked a few jokes. When bidding reached 300.00 my wife tried to put on the brakes but I was going to walk home with this piece, especially dear to me since I learned it had come right from Mary Papola's home. The lighthouse beacon dimmed at $320.00 and I was handed my win. Some asked for photos of my standing by it, which reminded me of a radio collector's auction last month where I was applauded after winning two choice vintage console radios. Later many attendees took photos of the piece that Carole Shea had had beautifully framed. I wish you could see it but you have an idea if you own the "Love Is Mine" CD which was introduced by Kathryn Grayson years before at the Doubletree Inn. The image is the same as the one partly displayed on the CD cover. I didn't have enough cash to pay for my prize but after a bit of discussion I was allowed to take it home and owe the final third which I have put in the mail already.  

Vincent sang three songs that delighted all, especially since all three were Lanza favorites. He didn't shy away from any high notes and I must say he surpassed the finalists in my opinion because his is a sweet voice with no covering. Anna said she could listen to him all night! The one thing I would suggest to him though is that he use a microphone. He had no problem being heard but those ringing high notes would penetrate much more excitingly since his power is only around the medium level. I'm sure fiancee Emily has to tone is down when they perform duets. Sometimes my wife has to do the same when we sing together. Of course a soprano voice will always pervade over a tenor voice due to range. If Frank Tenaglia is reading, let me add that no scholarship finalist has ever surpassed him in all these years to my knowledge. His is a great voice with the natural sweetness and high notes that come closer to Mario's voice than any other.

Much more dancing followed with Tony Dee picking very appropriate and loved song choices. Finally it was time for Bill to announce the winners. Fourth place went to our mezzo, third to our tenor, second to our soprano, and first to the enthusiastic baritone. I was not unhappy with that order but would have switched the soprano and baritone and mezzo and tenor's order. Despite anything I have stated, this group entertained delightfully and were as good or better as any heard in past years. Then Bill put on the projector to show his clips from "Because You're Mine", all song favorites like "Granada", "Lee Ah Loo", and the final and very reverent and exciting"The Lord's Prayer". The volume reverberating was ample and "chills ran up and down my spine and Aladdin's lamp was mine"! After one more set of dancing and with some departing early, "God Bless America" was sung by all and you could hear the most powerful voices, including Elaine's, ringing clear. Mario always has the last word, or note, at the Ball with "Non ti scordar di me"--a song you don't really want to hear because then it's all over until next year. This was definitely a Ball not to miss and I hope more of you will plan on attending in the future. We need you!!





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