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”No Other Life” continued

 

When I was a boy, old Italian peddlers still delivered milk by horse-drawn carts, and there was still a great deal of Italian spoken among the older residents, although the kids resisted the language mightily and few could speak it, although many understood it. The most famous person who was ever a member of this church—St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi—and who went to the elementary school where my mother was the crossing guard was a singer named Mario Lanza.
    The house where Lanza was born and grew up, 636 Christian Street, is now a historic landmark. For a long time, during my boyhood, whenever I passed the house, in the front window was a huge picture of Lanza with a lighted candle on either side of it. He was born Alfred Cocozza, and I remember whenever I heard his grandfather, or a man I was told was his grandfather but it could have been his father, refer to him, he always called him Freddy. He was willing to talk about Lanza to anyone who was willing to listen, even his black newspaper boy. He told me Lanza was the greatest tenor since Caruso. He claimed he had heard Caruso and that Freddy was better. Who was I to dispute that claim? After all, by the time I was 12 years old and delivering the Philadelphia Inquirer to Lanza’s relatives who were still living in the house, I had seen Lanza’s most celebrated film, The Great Caruso, made in 1951, about three times, and was convinced that he was the greatest singer I had ever heard. He certainly made opera appealing, even sexy, a form of music I would normally not have listened to at all. I loved The Great Caruso and nearly cried at the end when Caruso dies, thinking, probably because I saw the film several years after Lanza died, that it was the story of his life rather than Caruso’s. Emotionally, I was sure that Lanza himself died at the end of the film, although intellectually, I knew better. But it was accepted in the neighborhood that Lanza was the American Caruso. Every Saturday, for many years, at Lanza’s family home, his records would always be playing, sometimes serenading the block. (Some people, naturally, preferred Caruso and played his records, but these were in the minority.) In this way, I associated opera with the Italians I grew up with in much the way I associated them with homemade wine when the block smelled of fermenting grapes every Friday and Saturday. I made this association even though nearly all of the Italian kids I knew hated opera, did not like Mario Lanza, and were ashamed that their parents made wine in their basements. I found all of this a comfort.
    Lanza attracted a great deal of attention from the beginning. Everyone who knew opera and those who thought they did thought he had an exceptional voice. What struck many people was its natural, melodramatic quality, its over-emotional sensibility. These very elements struck audiences about Caruso’s voice, with his trademark sighs and cries that became tricks on evenings when he couldn’t feel the music or wasn’t up to performing. In other words, even during his student days, there was something about Lanza as a “natural singer,” as someone wrapped in the quaintness of his ethnicity, that captured the fancy of those around him. This image was to dog him his entire career, particularly as a central part of the criticism that he was not truly an opera singer at all. After all, the criticism went, if he were he would be singing in operas on stage. And there was more than a bit of the barrel-chested machismo of the inner-city ethnic in him. As he confided once to his close friend and personal trainer, Terry Robinson, “It’s all sex, Terry. When I’m singing, I’m scoring. That’s me. It comes right out of my balls.”
    He was discovered in the army by Peter Lind Hayes, who was looking for singers for a production the army was putting on for the troops called “On the Beam.” Lanza did concerts for the rest of the war. One might say he sang his way through the conflict, much better than fighting one’s way through. Immediately after the war, he was signed by RCA Red Seal, the prestigious classical label, and eventually became its biggest selling artist by far. In 1947, he became a member of the Bel Canto Trio, an operatic group that earned huge popularity. It was at a Bel Canto Trio concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 that Lanza was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, an opera buff and head of the MGM studio. Lanza was not only never to become a true opera star; for some, he was never to be a true opera singer again. He permitted himself to be sucked into the vat of popular culture, always claiming he was doing more for opera in this way than if he were actually to perform in operas: a self-serving, dubious, but not altogether dismissive claim. Lanza was, unquestionably, an integrative figure, an integrative symbol. This was his power and his significance. His undoing was that what he unified was a set of commercialized fantasies which unraveled him both as an image and a person (much the same happened to Elvis Presley, with whom Lanza shares some fascinating similarities.) Two other things should be noted about Lanza by the time he signed with MGM: he married an Irish woman, which annoyed his mother greatly, and he did not want to return to Philadelphia, or Little Italy. While he always remained an ethnic, he felt he had outgrown the old neighborhood.
    By 1955, when my mother began her career as a school crossing guard at his former elementary school, Lanza’s Hollywood career had already peaked, but between 1949 and 1953, he was MGM’s biggest box-office attraction. His first three films—That Midnight Kiss, The Toast of New Orleans and The Great Caruso— were among the top-grossing movies of the years of their release. The Caruso bio is now probably his most remembered film. It is certainly the most popular film about opera ever made in America. It is, of course, now a rather complex period piece about the time of Caruso as well as its own time, although it is not a good film, being much in the same vein as other biopics of the era like Houdini with Tony Curtis and The Benny Goodman Story with Steve Allen. These films ideologically were meant, in the 1950s, to symbolize something about American plenitude and the American Dream. The formula was struggling artist eventually makes good because talent will out in the end, marries some WASP woman, or some very WASP-ish looking woman, the biggest social prize the United States can offer a successful ethnic man, dies tragically if the life requires it or lives goldenly if the subject is still living at the time the film is made.
    The Great Caruso does not seem to be about opera as much as it is a kind of technologically inventive opera in its own right about ethnic assimilation in the United States, mystifying the Italian-Catholic ethnic as magnificent divo who is not cultured himself but through whom high culture can be expressed and preserved. Lanza simply had to wear tight-fitting, opulent clothes that accentuated his barrel chest, look suitably cute as an ethnic, emote a great deal when singing, and try not to forget his accent too often. In effect, as Caruso, Lanza could personify desire while deflecting the audience from thinking about the nature of desire in general or Caruso’s desires specifically. Lanza was not a gifted actor, but he was a considerable presence, which, in the end, was all Hollywood hired him to be.
    The very thing that made Lanza attractive to Hollywood was the source of his undoing in another way: he was a handsome young man who could make operatic singing sexy. Unfortunately for Lanza, he was a big man, weighing normally over 200 pounds. Photography is not kind to heavy people, and Hollywood seemed to have no other way of conceiving someone as sexy except as being relatively thin. When he would go on eating binges, which he did especially as temper tantrums, he could balloon up to as much as 250 pounds or more. Four weeks before the actual filming would begin, Lanza would record the soundtracks of his films. He would then be very heavy, as he, MGM, and the knowing ones of opera were all convinced that opera singers sang better, had better resonance, when they were heavy. But as soon as the recording of the soundtrack was completed, Lanza would have a few weeks in which to lose as much as 50 pounds in order to have the stereotyped appearance of a romantic lead. Lanza’s mad fluctuations in weight played havoc on both his appearance and his health. Toward the end of his career, he suffered from gout, phlebitis and hypertension. Despite rumors about Lanza having been murdered by Lucky Luciano because of a snub, it would seem more likely, until definitive evidence says otherwise, that Lanza died of a heart attack or heart failure as a result of intense dieting.
    His death in the fall of 1959 sent Little Italy, Philadelphia, into spasms of grief that bewildered and frightened me as a boy. (Much as Caruso’s death at the age of 48 in 1921 sent the Little Italys of the world into anguish.) The white pop radio stations played nothing but Lanza records. The black stations we listened to most of the time ignored Lanza’s death like he never existed. They simply announced it on their news broadcasts without any commentary. This was my first vague lesson in how to measure the degrees of separation that existed between the worlds of each race. But it did not clearly register with me quite how racial difference worked, and I felt very bad for the bereaved Italians and did not clearly understand why all the blacks I knew did not feel bad themselves or bad for the Italians, too. The banner headline in the October 7, 1959, Philadelphia Daily News that announced Lanza’s death stunned me so much that I was afraid to even touch the paper, let alone look at the comics, which was all I could do with a daily paper at the age of seven. (The huge headline which, along with a picture of Lanza, took up the entire front page, read: MARIO LANZA DIES IN ROME; HEART ATTACK.) This death snapped the sense of stability, of serenity, of my world. Lanza’s death was as surreal and dislocating to me at that age as hearing about a child being raped or murdered, the news stories that most shocked and disturbed me in my childhood. Men and women were literally crying in the streets. Some women actually dressed in mourning. Although Lanza’s improperly embalmed, badly decomposed, bloated, stinking body was buried in Los Angeles, California, St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi held a memorial service for him, perhaps at the request of some of his relatives in the neighborhood. The place was packed. There were so many long black cars and women and men dressed in black that I thought Lanza was being buried in Philadelphia. Nuns and parents openly expressed their sense of loss to my mother, who felt much saddened by it all, too, not because she was necessarily a fan of Lanza’s, but because these people she had come to know were taking his death very hard. Shortly after, the picture of Lanza and the two lighted candles were placed in the window at 636 Christian Street. I remember that more clearly than any other memorial or monument I saw while growing up in Philadelphia. As I told my wife, who was surprised by that assertion, I saw Lanza’s picture nearly every day for many years of my life. I saw the Liberty Bell only twice.


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