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Mario Lanza – Hollywood’s ‘Great Caruso’

Posted in Cinema, Historical articles, Music, Theatre on Wednesday, 28 September 2011

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This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 826 published on 12 November 1977.

Caruso, picture, image, illustration

Mario Lanza portrayed the world’s most famous tenor in The Great Caruso, by Ralph Bruce

It was midnight and Mario Lanza, the enormous Hollywood singer, was feeling peckish. There was nothing unusual in this as Lanza could eat almost continuously all day, every day.

On this occasion however, the enormous larder in his Hollywood mansion was empty and none of his favourite restaurants in Los Angeles had a free table. After telling a friend he would “die” if he could not have a meal – his sixth that day – he decided to take matters into his own hands.

He drove speedily to a well-known delicatessen on Sunset Boulevard and knocked anxiously on the door, but no-one answered. The staff had already left and there did not seem to be a nightwatchman in the shop, which was patronised by some of Hollywood’s most famous film stars.

With hunger gnawing at him, Lanza, who weighed a massive 125 kilos, strode out into the road. He turned to face the door and, hunching his shoulders and clenching his fists, charged at it. He crashed through the door as if it were made of balsa wood, and a friend who had gone with him heard him banging about inside.

Suddenly however there was a louder and more ominous noise. His forced entry had weakened part of the roof, which crashed into the shop, burying the huge singer. His friend thought he had been injured, or even killed, by the cave-in, and was about to send for an ambulance when Lanza made a dramatic reappearance. His hair and silk suit were covered with plaster and he looked as if he had been in a fight, but he was happy. He was triumphantly holding a joint of roast beef, and he immediately sank his teeth into it. “That’s better,” he declared between mouthfuls. “Now I can go to sleep on a full stomach.”

His midnight “snack” later cost him $1,000 in damages, but Lanza felt it was “a fair price” to pay for getting on friendly terms with his stomach again.

At the time, the 32-year-old singer was one of the most famous film stars in Hollywood. His films included such box-office hits as The Toast of New Orleans, That Midnight Kiss and The Great Caruso, and he was already being hailed by many people as the world’s finest operatic tenor since his idol. Enrico Caruso, whom he portrayed in The Great Caruso.

His film studio bosses had many more singing roles lined up for him, and his latest film. Because You’re Mine, had been chosen for the 1953 Royal Command Film Performance to be screened in London before the Queen.

However there was a condition attached to the promotion of his career. Lanza was notorious for his love of food, and his manager, his producer, his wife and his doctor urged him to go on a reasonable diet of only three meals a day. Reluctantly, Lanza said he would try, but everything was against him, even his underprivileged childhood.

He was born Alfred Cocozza in Philadephia, Pennsylvania, in 1921, the son of an Italian immigrant and casual worker. Mr Coccozza was an opera lover and Alfred grew up in a home filled with the recorded voice of Caruso. He later described the part of the city in which they lived as “a slum for foreigners”, and recalled: “It seemed as if we lived on spaghetti and ravioli. It was all we could afford and we had it for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner – which was fine by me!”

He was no scholar and left school at fourteen to take a job as a furniture remover. One day, while pushing a piano across the stage at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music he burst into song and was overheard by the renowned conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, who was in the building. Koussevitsky encouraged the hefty teenager to take singing lessons. Years of practice and concert and festival appearances passed before Alfred, then aged twenty-two, thrilled an audience at the Hollywood Bowl with arias by Verdi and Puccini.

He was serving in the U.S. Forces at the time, and when he was discharged at the end of the Second World War, he was given a valuable recording contract. He made his full operatic debut as Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in New Orleans in 1948. However, despite his success, he found opera too arduous and time-consuming and looked for an easier way to fame and riches.

He found it in Hollywood, where film studios eagerly signed him up and turned him into one of the biggest film stars in the 1940s and 50s. However, despite his growing popularity, his producers found that in Mario Lanza – as he was renamed – they had a large problem on their hands. The singer was not happy unless he was eating – and he loved to be happy!

As the money rolled in, he began throwing gigantic banquets at his new Hollywood mansion, which sometimes lasted for three or four days. While those around him ate two lamb chops or one medium-sized steak, he gnawed his way through twenty chops and a dozen or more steaks.

He also enjoyed fried chicken and consumed thirty legs or pieces of breast at one marathon sitting. He sometimes ate a whole ham and a mountain of potato salad for breakfast, and throughout the day drank beer and Coca-Cola. By the end of 1952 he claimed that he was unable to stop eating. In a desperate effort to trim him down and keep him working, his studio, MGM, hired two muscular medical students to make sure he did not over-eat.

However, on more than one occasion he wrestled or knocked them to the ground and made his escape. On these occasions, he headed straight for the nearest luxury restaurant, where he proceeded to down as many as fifty Cokes at a lunchtime session. The next morning, at breakfast, he would compromise by having a piece of lean steak. But, if his white-jacketed guards were not watching, he would top the meat with up to twenty eggs.

Meanwhile, MGM installed a $10,000 gymnasium for him to exercise in, and employed a skilled masseur literally to slap him into shape. But although Lanza could sometimes fool his bosses and his employees, he found it much more difficult to fool the public. He caused a nationwide scandal by appearing on television, looking grossly overweight and obviously miming to one of his records.

The following year, 1955, he accepted $100,000 to appear in cabaret at a Las Vegas nightclub. However, his desire for spaghetti got the better (or the worse) of him and he was unable to stand up to go out and face the first-night audience. Comedian Jimmy Durante apologized for him, stating that the singer had a sore throat.

After this, his fans deserted him and his subsequent, and inferior, films played to half-empty cinemas. Hollywood no longer wanted him, so he sold his mansion with its eight bedrooms and 100-seater cinema, and moved with his wife and family to Rome. A year later he was stricken with a serious attack of pneumonia and taken to a clinic.

He spent a week lying in bed, singing for his own entertainment and that of the nurses. He was crooning the title song from his final film, For The First Time, at noon on October 7, 1959, when he had a heart attack and died.

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