“MARIO WOULD HAVE BEEN 89 THIS YEAR,” says Jeanette Frese, the treasurer and volunteer tour guide at the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in late fall. The first floor of the neat brick onetime parish house of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church in South Philadelphia, where the institute is located, is clean and well-maintained, with its vintage ’60s knotty-pine paneling, and the rooms are bursting with CDs, books, press clippings, Lanza movie posters, framed fan-magazine stories, telegrams and photos of the burly opera star. It’s Lanza-palooza in here, a shrine to the singer who was born about one block away and died at the height of his fame in 1959, at age 38, from heart disease and pneumonia.
It seems a bit sad that Jeanette, a good-natured 72-year-old who spends five (unpaid) days a week at the institute, is about to give her lone visitor the full Lanza tour, which can last a good two and a half hours — all that effort for one guest. Obviously, no one else is going to spend a gorgeous fall day in a tiny Montrose Street museum devoted to a guy who only made seven movies …
BRRRINGGG! screams the door buzzer, and three perky 70-something women in jeans and sneakers burst into the room, all talking at once.
“We are huge Mario fans!” says one of the women, rushing over to examine the film stills covering every inch of the paneling, while Jeanette smiles benevolently at them. She’s seen this kind of mild hysteria before.
“My sister met Mario in Scranton, where we all grew up,” another, named Ruthie, tells us proudly, gesturing toward Woman Number One. (Lanza fans tend to refer to him as just “Mario.”)
“I was in high school when I met him,” nods the first sister, whose name is Beth. The third woman is Dorothy, the youngest sister, who now lives in Cherry Hill, where Ruthie and Beth are visiting her this week.
All the sisters wear matching orange-maroon-and-pink-plaid shirts and are quite serious about their amour de Lanza. It’s as if one has been plunged into a modernist production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, minus the unhappiness and obsession with Moscow.
“It was maybe 1950 when Mario toured?” adds Beth, trying to recall the exact Year She Met Mario.
“That would have been ’51,” says Jeanette, the tour guide, who’s businesslike in a neat black pantsuit, and who speaks with authority, since she’s committed Lanza’s tours, albums, movie facts and timelines to memory. “Mario did a publicity tour for The Great Caruso in 1951,” she clarifies. “That was his third film, and by then, the first two movies had cemented him as a performer and a heartthrob.”