Born on January 31, 1921 at 636 Christian Street, Alfred Cocozza grew up in Little Italy in South Philadelphia, where he and his parents Antonio and Maria, lived for many years with Maria's family above the grocery store owned by her father. In 1930, Philadelphia's Italian population numbered more than 150,000, and as the decennial census figures enumerate, Lanza's native Italian neighbors on Christian and Seventh Streets were predominantly laborers—mechanics, chauffeurs, electricians, dressmakers, cashiers, and bricklayers—although a policeman, school teacher, and members of an orchestra were nearby. The 1930 census lists Lanza's father as a watchman, and his mother as the proprietor of a candy store. According to the census, the Cocozzas rented their home at 634 Christian Street, next door to Maria's parents and his mother's six siblings. (click on each image for a larger view)
(Excerpts, Courtesy of Susan Klee) Lanza shared his father Antonio's love of opera. When he was only seven years old, he begged his father to teach him to wind the family Victrola, and most notoriously on one occasion played Caruso's version of "Cielo e Mar" 27 times in succession. By the age of ten, he knew the plots and arias of 50 operas, and sat entranced as he saw his first live production, Verdi's Aida, at the age of 12. A few years later, Lanza announced that neither college nor the legal career that his mother envisioned were his choices. "I want to be a singer," he told them. His parents had not yet heard his voice, but when at last they did, the die was cast. Scribblings in a high school composition book show that Lanza already had begun to contemplate his musical future and a professional name, changing his mother's name, Maria, to the masculine form, Mario, and adding the maternal surname. (See page second from right) (click on each image for a larger view)
(Courtesy of Bob Dolfi) In 1942, Lanza's musical future seemed assured. His August operatic debut in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Tanglewood met with critical approval. Columbia Artists Management began grooming the young tenor for a future contract under the mentorship of baritone Robert Weede. Maria Margelli, secretary to bass Ezio Pinza (then at the Metropolitan Opera), took him under her wing. But in December, the government intervened, drafting Lanza for service in the U. S. Army.
Lanza's army physical reveals that at 21 years, he stood 5' 7 1/2", weighed 228 pounds with a 41-inch chest at exhalation. Lanza had hoped the extent of visual impairment in his left eye—measured at 20/2000—might keep him out of military service, but as World War II accelerated and manpower shortages grew, the Army thought otherwise and posted him to basic training in Miami; he was later assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. In 1945, Lanza received an honorable discharge on medical grounds for a recurring ear infection causing deafness and dizziness. (click on each image for a larger view)
(Courtesy of John Durso) Maria Margelli, secretary to Ezio Pinza and later to Jack Warner, encouraged Mario Lanza's career and became his friend and mentor. In this letter to Margelli, the young army draftee describes his emotional response to his military experience in Marfa, Texas, and the effect of the climate on his voice. [A transcription of the letter can be read here.] Later, Margelli arranged for Lanza to audition at Warner's studio. In 1955, Lanza would film Serenade at Warner studios, but at the time of this first audition (1944), Warner felt Lanza lacked star appeal, although he stated, "When [Lanza] started to sing...I could feel the chills run down my spine. The voice was so full and powerful that his high notes literally shook the chandelier..." (quoted in Armando Cesari, Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy, p. 26). (click on each image for a larger view)
(Courtesy of Bob Dolfi) On October 7, 1948 Alfred Arnold Cocozza and Elizabeth Janette Cocozza legally changed their surname to Lanza, and the court ordered, adjudged, and decreed that Alfred Arnold would henceforth be known as Mario. The scribblings in his high school notebook had become reality. In a chilling coincidence, Lanza would die eleven years to the day of his name change. (click on image for a larger view)
Lanza "brought music to the kids, the farms, the palaces, and the ghettos," famed baritone Lawrence Tibbett once remarked. The adult Lanza appeared in two operatic productions and performed more than 150 concerts throughout the world, giving sold-out performances to enthusiastic fans who crossed the spectrum of music lovers from opera singers themselves to people who simply loved music and Lanza's voice. These letters and programs hint at the scope of his material and his reception inside the music industry. (click on each image for a larger view)
(Autographed photo and musical score courtesy of Ms. Boh) (Research, courtesy of Lou Abada)
Mario Lanza and Gloria Boh both studied under Giacomo Spadoni. In 1955, one month before filming for the film Serenade began, Spadoni recommended his young student—not yet a professional—to sing with Lanza in the film as a fail-safe in the event contractual obligations prevented the participation of Licia Albanese.
Together, Ms. Boh and Lanza sang the duet "Dio Ti Giocondi" from Act III of Verdi's Otello.
Two days later, Lanza recorded a masterful rendition of "Dio! Mi Potevi Scagliar," the Otello monologue (see score below. Click on each image for a larger view). Ms. Boh neither appeared in the film nor has she seen it, but she recounts vivid memories of her audition experience and of Lanza in Firsthand Accounts of Working with Lanza: Gloria Boh with an audio file of their duet. The Operatic Discography cites existing reproductions of Lanza's "Dio! Mi Potevi Scagliar" and other operatic material featured in Serenade.
Philadelphia is a city of music and musicians, and Lanza her native son, but few, if any, of her singers are as publicly remembered as Lanza. From Mario Lanza Park to Mario Lanza Boulevard, from a commemorative plaque on Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts to the Mario Lanza Institute, his memory is vibrant. At the corner of Broad and Reed Streets, the Mario Lanza mural, painted by Diane Keller as part of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts program, covers the walls of two adjacent buildings. (click on each image for a larger view)
The Mario Lanza Institute, home of the Mario Lanza Museum and sponsor of a musical scholarship for young vocal artists, is housed in St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Roman Catholic Church, site of the first national Catholic parish in the US (1852). Lanza served there as an altar boy, returning in 1940 to sing the Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria." In 1961, Philadelphia's Mayor proclaimed October 7 as Mario Lanza Memorial Day, (the first of several over time), noting that Philadelphia "has sent a great number of musicians and entertainers to world-wide fame...Heralded among the greatest of musical artists was Alfredo Cocozza, known professionally as Mario Lanza." Anticipation ran high, particularly in Lanza's old neighborhood, and Billboard Magazine reported that among the commemorative events, Nick Petrella, South Philly's record king and later founder of the first Mario Lanza Museum, "converted the window of his record shop into a Mario Lanza display shrine to set the stage for the Mario Lanza Day ceremonies." (Billboard Magazine, September 11, 1961)