A Brief Biography
Mario Lanza was born in South Philadelphia, Pa. as Alfredo Arnold Cocozza on January 31,1921. Antonio Cocozza, Mario's father, was born in Filignano, Italy and emigrated to the U.S. when he was just 16 years old. He later served in the US Army Infantry and was severely wounded in the battle of the Meuse-Argonne Forest.
Mario's mother, Maria Lanza, emigrated to America at the tender age of 6 months from a town not far from Filignano called Tocco da Casauria, in the Abruzzi region. This is how Mario decided on his name 'Mario Lanza', by taking the masculine form of his mother's maiden name. Maria and Tony met in South Philadelphia in 1919 and after a brief courtship they were married. They moved into the Lanza family home at 636 Christian Street, South Philadelphia where two years later "Freddie" was born.
The family later moved to 2040 Mercy Street, also in South Philadelphia, where Mario received his first piano (which still sits in his son Damon's home), a surprise gift from his mother and father. Mario attended several schools but Southern High School is where he was most known. His teachers claimed that he would much rather sing than study.
Freddie Becomes Mario
Mario, then known as 'Freddie', was raised in an atmosphere of opera and Caruso recordings which were played mostly by his father on a daily basis at home. He eventually began to sing along with these records and the more he listened, the more he sang. Eventually his father and mother took him to a voice teacher named Antonio Scarduzzo, a baritone, who helped Mario nurture his voice. After studying with Scarduzzo for a year and a half, Mario then studied with another teacher named Irene Williams who took a personal interest in him. Voice lessons were expensive so Mario's mother worked at two jobs in order to pay for them since Antonio's war injury to his right hand prevented him from working.
A little while later William K. Huff, concert manager at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, arranged for an audition for Mario with the famed Serge Koussevitsky. Koussevitsky was so impressed that he immediately invited Mario to Tanglewood in the Berkshires where he had a music school for promising singers and musicians. As Mario later reflected in an interview, "I didn't even know what the Berkshires were or even where they were." This is where Mario sang his first student opera in the role of Fenton in Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Mario received great reviews from the Metropolitan Opera people as well as from the music critics. Unfortunately, Mario was soon drafted into the United States Army but due to a bad eye, he was not sent overseas or put on the front lines. While in the army Mario auditioned for Peter Lind Hayes and was immediately accepted into his troupe that gave concerts at many army bases in the country. It was during this time that Mario joined the cast of "Winged Victory", a musical put on by Moss Hart, which ran until May 1944.
In January 1945, Mario received a medical release from Walla Walla hospital, Washington. Mario returned to California and his sweetheart, Betty Lyhan (not Hicks, as many believe) and they were married in Beverly Hills, California barely 3 months later. Mario and Betty then moved to New York so Mario could further his studies.
On His Way
It was while studying with Polly Robinson that Mario met his soon-to-be manager Sam Weiler, (whom he later sued for misappropriation of his money). Weiler funded the Lanza's living expenses and Mario's voice studies with the understanding that he would receive a percentage of all Mario's future earnings. Through Weiler, Mario began to study with the famed Enrico Rosati who had earlier coached the famous Gigli. It has been said that upon hearing Mario's voice, Rosati looked up to the heavens and exclaimed, "I have been waiting for this voice to come along for many, many years." Mario studied with Rosati for about a year and a half and then joined Agnes Davis for a tour of Canada. After this tour Mario was slated to start a tour with the Bel-Canto Trio with soprano Francis Yeend and baritone George London which would take them to Canada, Mexico, Newfoundland and of course, America.
While performing with Francis Yeend at the Hollywood Bowl on 28th August 1947, Mario impressed Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM motion picture studio, who was in the audience with Kathryn Grayson. It was with Ms.Grayson that Mario would later make his first two films. Mario sang to a thunderous ovation. The best was yet to come.
An MGM screen test was set up for Mario at once so that all the producers, directors and sound engineers could see and hear Mr. Mayer's 'newest find.' After singing several arias and duets with Kathryn Grayson, they signed him to a contract with a $10,000 bonus and $750.00 weekly salary for 6 months until his first movie could be arranged. The other 6 months of the year Mario was free to pursue other interests such as concerts, radio etc.
Mario made his first movie, "That Midnight Kiss" in 1949, with an already well-established star, Ms. Kathryn Grayson. Soon thereafter, Mario made his professional New Orleans opera debut as Pinkerton in "Madam Butterfly" with soprano Tomiko Kanazawa. The critics were astounded by Mario's voice which lead them to write such things as, "Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic tenor" and "His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably." Mario sang two performances of this opera but sadly, this was to be the last full opera Mario would ever sing. Mario went on to make 5 more movies namely "Toast of New Orleans"1950, "The Great Caruso" (Mario's favorite) 1951, "Because You're Mine" 1952, "The Student Prince" (featuring his singing only due to a dispute with MGM) 1954, "Serenade" 1956, "Seven Hills of Rome" 1958 and his last picture,"For The First Time" 1959. In Mario's short but productive career, he managed to do many concerts and radio shows such as "Life With Luigi", "Great Moments in Music", replacing Jan Peerce in 1945, the famous "Coca-Cola Shows" 1951-52 and several more. The one elusive concert that no book has ever mentioned, due to lack of knowledge about it, was the one in San Rafael, California in 1948 with the famed opera diva, Rise Stevens.
- Bob Dolfi