A quest in the present can help us to access eras, events, and people who are meant to live on forever. My pilgrimage to the Mario Lanza Museum was such a quest, evoking memories of one of the greatest tenors of all time. It would include visiting the museum, the Mario Lanza mural, Lanza’s birthplace, the Italian Market, and St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church.
The most recent South Philadelphia location of the Mario Lanza Museum at 7th and Montrose Streets was sold to a developer. The new location at 12th and Reed Streets was scheduled to open during the late spring of 2019. My cousin lived across the street from the now “former” museum, and I called her and excitedly told her about my upcoming pilgrimage. She would join my husband Ken and I on our visit to the church.
A venture by car and by foot, my husband and I were grateful that our journey took place on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, the first day of Lent in the Roman Catholic Church. It was perfect timing. That meant the church would be open for the Lenten Service.
For parking, traffic, and optimal light, we chose to visit the mural first. The Mario Lanza mural was painted in 1997 with the approval of the Mario Lanza Institute. Conceived by Diane Keller, its design is a timeline – it’s one hundred feet long, and the height shifts to four stories as its canvas is a townhouse condominium. The working surface played well to Lanza, who truly was larger than life with a voice to match. People said when Mario Lanza sang, you could hear him a block away.
The focal point of the mural depicts Lanza in his early prime, clutching his temples as he sings the Othello Monologue from the 1956 movie Serenade, a role that was enough to make him immortal. Moving to the right is a Victrola turntable and Pagliacci the clown in an oval frame. At the apex of the off-centered centerpiece is Lanza as the greatest tenor of all time in The Great Caruso, his most famous film (1951).
Local talk has it that Keller placed a boombox on her scaffold as she painted the mural, and reawaked South Philadelphia to the resonating, profound notes of her subject. Those August to October days were as much an inspiration to her as it was to those who gathered to reminisce, and to those newly enlightened to this Titan of Tenors. Lanza’s face might have been four stories above my own, yet his gaze met mine. And that brought me back to a prior era of a long-buried memory.
Both sets of my grandparents lived within a mile of each other in South Philadelphia. The Lanza family lived on Christian Street, near my father’s house on Montrose Street. This area is known as Bella Vista. Lanza was an only child. He was four years older than my father. Our families didn’t know each other personally.
My maternal grandmother’s house was on tiny, one-way Fernon Street. It was situated in the area now named Southwark Eastern Neighborhood Enterprises, far too gentrified a term for such a modest environment. I do recall hearing it called “Southwark” when my grandparents were alive. A far more memorable comment regarding location came from mom, who often remarked that the part in my hair looked like Passyunk Avenue, an angled street that seems to appear and disappear at random.
Grandmom had a neighbor who was related to the Lanza family. The term “related” in that era was a “relative” term, connected perhaps by blood, marriage, or long-time friendship from the Old Country. There was a little girl named Nancy who would visit this neighbor on occasion. During those times, we would play together. On one of these afternoons, Nancy and I wandered into the living room. Her grandmother shushed us. Mario Lanza was asleep on the couch! We sat on the floor, petrified stones. The very idea of waking up the saint from South Philadelphia! We would be banished from ever playing together again. Mario Lanza’s barrel chest rose and fell, so quiet his breathing, a dormant powerhouse at the moment. We were mesmerized. We dared not move, but he did. He shifted his body; a wave of his dark hair fell over his half-open eyes. He opened his eyes wider, half groggy, half sitting on the sofa. He looked over at us and smiled. When he smiled, we were spellbound. His charisma illuminated the atmosphere. He nodded, his handsome face exactly the same as the face on the Mario Lanza albums my father collected. He rolled over and resumed his nap. Awed little girls beholding greatness, the two of us collapsed in silent giggling. His presence filled the small living room. His demeanor so kind! I wanted him to sing to us, certain his voice would be as handsome as he appeared in slumber, as handsome as he sounded on the albums that played in every house in the Italian Pocket of Philadelphia. I think I made the Sign of the Cross when Nancy’s grandmother shooed us outside.
Those months of mural work were months of song, tears, and laughter, for a man whose life played out like a Greek tragedy in his own Italian opera. Rumors spread that Lanza’s home was under the surveillance of a developer – another chapter in the gentrification of the Bella Vista section of South Philadelphia was waiting in the wings with a wrecking ball. As my cousin said, It’s all about money.
An historic marker now resides in front of one of the condominiums that proclaims his birthplace, demolished in July 2018:
Mario Lanza (1921-1959), the beloved tenor was born here as Alfredo Cocozza. Here as a boy he learned the arias of many operas. Became a radio, concert, record artist. After signing with MGM in 1947, he made seven films; he had the title role in The Great Caruso in 1951.
Let’s not forget that a century before, from 1880 to 1924, four million Italians migrated to the United States. Half of that population arrived between 1900 and 1910, termed The Great Migration of the early twentieth century. My maternal grandparents left the grinding poverty of Sicily, as Lanza’s parents also did from southern Italy. This huge influx of one ethnic group in a small area of Philadelphia created a “Little Italy,” the area known to include the 7th and Christian Street area. This area was second in size only to New York City’s Italian section in terms of physical geography. That’s what I learned from my family, and my neighbors. Children born and raised in this area grew up in an old world of skills, traditions, and religious practices. A faith-familiar environment where the streets were small, but hope was not.
The Italian Market still thrives in this Bella Vista section of the city, vibrant, and far more diverse than the preceding three generations. Our families walked these streets and continue to support these establishments. I still hear the creaking of the two-wheeled shopping carts, the hucksters hawking their produce. The butcher shops, with the dry smell of sawdust that absorbed the slight trickles of blood, seeped from slain animals, cut and ready for sale. The sawdust, sprinkled, laid down to respect those last specks of life, floor shining still in the aftermath, their altar. This, a “bella vista” of family-owned businesses, a way of life; a time that was not easy but spiritual and mostly loving. Traditions and trades brought from far away, a comfort. For Mario Lanza and my family then, for me later, a place of peace and caring, a lingering devotion from a different time. For Mario Lanza and my family then, for me later, extraordinarily little change wherever there is a sense of immaculate Italian pride.
St. Mary Magdalen De Pazzi Church was the first parish and baptismal site of Mario Lanza, as well as my father’s family. It is also the oldest Italian Catholic church in the United States. It’s located in the middle of the block on Montrose Street, an architectural wonder in a relatively small worship space.
On the day of my pilgrimage, I gazed up at the artistry that surrounded us. My last visit there was when my aunt died in May 2012. Inspiration struck at that moment. Mario Lanza made his first singing informal debut in this very place. I glanced up at the two choir lofts overhead, one loft on top of the other. My cousin’s suggestion to venture upstairs pulled me out of the pew. Ken’s You can’t go up there! ignored, I crept up the stairs. There was no sign preventing me; I stopped at the first loft, pitched higher than I perceived from floor level. I prayed as I inched myself along the stairway to the second loft. The brass organ pipes a mile high, increasing and decreasing in size, dwarfed my height. The slight curve of the rail was the most likely place for Lanza to perform. That Christmas morning, in 1940, was the first time the world heard him sing. The Bach-Gounod version of “Ave, Maria,” sung by a nineteen-year-old, sung from a precarious sacred space, each note caressing the narrow, high vaulted ceiling, floating angelically to the worshippers below. This young man wasn’t just talented. He was gifted.
The little Italian ladies swore he was infused with the spirit and the voice of Enrico Caruso, who died in 1921, eight months after Lanza was born. It never took much diligence for these wonderful elder women, indoctrinated in the folklore of old wives’ tales, to connect the dots of fate.
Late one October afternoon in 1959, my playing outside was interrupted by the sight of white floral arrangements draped in black crepe ribbon posted beside the doorbells of neighbors’ houses. In the days before funeral parlors, people in the area would hang these floral pieces outside their houses to identify where mourners could pay their respects. This became the origin of the archaic phrase, “crepe hanger.” These were the mourning signals, attached with reverence, increasing as the minutes passed. This puzzled me; something was out of place. It was too soon for Halloween decorations. Then, the sound of crying, I hear windows flung open, in spite of the autumn weather, to let the music out. Mario Lanza music.
I did not grasp the endless sight of black and white that afternoon. The neighbor who told me Mario Lanza died looked at my front door without the funereal draping and told me to tell my mother right away. Houses on both sides of the street with floral soldiers at the door made my own look disrespectful. I still couldn’t understand it – how could Mr. Lanza be dead when I could hear him singing? Why were my parents and everyone else shocked beyond words? My six-and-a-half-year-old mind could only absorb a South Philadelphia plunged into darkness.
Mario Lanza died in Rome at the age of thirty-eight. A heart attack, someone wailed. Phlebitis, someone else cried out. His phenomenal achievement and his crushing downfall. His temperament and his talent, an entanglement in the entertainment industry. His artistry at odds with MGM management. The demands of the silver screen, the yo-yo dieting to keep up appearances without compromising his voice, led to binge drinking. His generous heart was preyed upon by the unscrupulous, financial difficulties deepened. He was driven by two speeds, fast and reckless. Five months later, his wife died of a respiratory ailment. Everyone said she died of a broken heart. The singing, once said to be heard a block away, diminished to eternal silence.
We had much to discuss during lunch with my cousin. Her block at the moment remains immune from developers. She is certain that upon her demise, her house, a corner property, will be knocked down and replaced by townhouses. Just like Mario Lanza’s. Her house, where my father and his siblings were born.
Those who might claim Mario Lanza as a second-rate talent should heed the three tenors of the 1990’s who attribute their success to him: the renown trio of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras.
And from this little girl whose fascination for the Three Wise Men was set alight from Mario Lanza’s version of “We Three Kings,” his voice will always remain in my heart. Cent Anni, Alfredo Cocuzzo. Rest in Peace.
This essay was first published on the 100th anniversary of Mario Lanza’s birthday, 1/31/2021. This essay commemorates the 100th anniversary of the greatest tenor voice to rise from South Philadelphia.
Linda Romanowski, a resident of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, traces her roots to South and Northwest Philadelphia. Linda obtained her BA from Rosemont in Psychology and Elementary Education. She is currently enrolled in Rosemont’s MFA Creative Non-Fiction Program. Her primary focus is portraying her Italian heritage experience.
Since 2017, Linda has served as a reviewer for “Rathalla” magazine. Her essay, “Pot It’s Not,” was published in City Key in 2018. This year, she is a poetry reviewer for “Philadelphia Stories” for the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize. Linda’s poem, Empty Venue/Full House was published in the City Key in 2020.
In 2019, Linda and her husband, Ken, participated in the Rosemont College Global Studies Program at the Sant’ Anna Institute in Sorrento, Italy. Her blog appeared on Rosemont’s Facebook page and was published in RoCo, Rosemont’s online publication.
In 2015, Linda received the Bonnie Hilferty Freney ’64 Memorial Award for volunteer service to Rosemont and currently serves as president of the college’s alumni board.