“Oh, he was,” breathes Ruthie. Jeanette points out Lanza, flexing Herculean chest muscles, as a young teen in Atlantic City — “He was built like a fireplug. He looked 35 when he was 13 years old,” she observes — and in a class picture from Vare Junior High, dated 1935.
“One of his schoolmates is another famous Philadelphian,” Jeanette says, “standing in the same row as Mario. You’ll recognize him,” she tells Dorothy, the Cherry Hiller, who leans in to peer at the old image of the dark-haired kid near Mario. The other boy does look familiar, and rather intimidating for a 13-year-old.
“That’s Frank Rizzo!” shouts Dorothy, and Jeanette nods, pleased.
MARIO LANZA, the pride of Christian Street, was indeed a looker, in a strapping, pompadoured, ’50s way. Being an Italian guy from Philly, he had a likeable everyman quality, until he opened his mouth and a fantastically rich tenor voice poured out. In the heyday of big musicals, he performed both pop ballads (“Be My Love” was his cheesy standard) and serious arias (“La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto), sold millions of records, and played to standing-room-only crowds at the Hollywood Bowl and Covent Garden. These were the pre-Elvis-and-Beatles days, when hammy but vocally gifted stars like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were idols, so the conditions were right for Lanza to become, oddly, an opera-singing movie star whose signature film, the biopic The Great Caruso, was one of the top-grossing films of 1951. His death at age 38 cemented his iconic status, but also dimmed his legacy, since he’d only made those seven movies. At the museum, there’s a photo of him with all the MGM stars of his day (Katharine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Ava Gardner et al).
“Esther Williams and Spencer Tracy!” Ruthie exclaims, peering at the group photo, temporarily 14 again and in the throes of her first movie-star crush. The girls were so in love with Lanza, they tell me, that their dad once cut a picture of him out of a teen mag and pasted it into a photo so that he appeared to be standing next to them. Sixty years later, it seems that Lanza’s premature death has forever suspended him, and the sisters, in a giddy haze of teenage emotion.
You could read all about Lanza online, of course, and see choice Lanza performances on YouTube, but there’s nothing like being here in South Philly where it all began, surrounded by his costumes, scripts and a life-size bust of him sculpted by an obsessed fan in Hungary. And you’d never get the full Mario effect if you didn’t have a volunteer guide to describe in wry detail Lanza’s massive weight gains, yo-yo dieting and 100-pound loss over three months (which might have contributed to his two heart attacks).