Department: Mario Lanza Isn’t Dead Yet

Well, technically, he is — and has been for more than 50 years now. 
But his legacy lives on in a tiny South Philly museum, thanks to a handful of devoted 
fans still searching for the next great singing sensation

 

Here at the Lanza Institute, you’re standing 10 feet from the location of the singer’s funeral mass at St. Mary Magdalen Church in 1959. (One elderly woman was so devastated that she expired, too, upon seeing Lanza’s corpse at the nearby funeral home.) Plus, you have the best of South Philly literally around the corner on 9th Street: Di Bruno’s and Lorenzo’s Pizza and that butcher shop with the unskinned rabbits and pigs’ heads hanging from hooks.

Then, of course, there’s Jeanette, tour guide and committed volunteer, who commutes by train and bus from Northeast Philly, since she doesn’t drive. How Jeanette came to run the day-to-day operations of the institute was a combination of luck, timing and perhaps divine intervention: She always liked Mario Lanza, but her real passions up until the late ’90s were the Phillies, the ballet and the racehorse Secretariat.

“I worked for the Naval Department at the Naval Base for 38 years,” she explains. “I was a disbursing officer, and I could retire with a pension.” Jeanette lived with her mother in South Philly all her life until the late ’80s, when the two of them moved up to Mayfair to be closer to Jeanette’s brother. Her mother died 13 years ago, and right around that time, Jeanette read in the Inquirer that a CD of Mario Lanza’s greatest hits for MGM had been issued.

“When I was at South Philly High, there was Nick Petrella’s record shop near Broad and Snyder,” she says, “so I went there to find the CD, but the shop had closed.” Petrella, a friend of Lanza’s, had co-founded the institute in 1962 in his shop; the Lanza group and his memorabilia moved to Settlement Music School in the ’90s.

So upon learning this, Jeanette walked down to Settlement that day, went upstairs to the Lanza collection, and met its then-president, Mary Papola. “Mary took me home for dinner, and that was it,” recalls Jeanette with a smile. Mary was elderly and needed the help. Jeanette, being Jeanette, responsible and kindly, stepped in and somehow ended up doing everything, including supervising the institute’s move eight years ago, when Settlement could no longer accommodate the collection. Today, she talks about Lanza with the easy, protective familiarity of a friend — fitting, as she’s spent virtually all her days since her mother’s death with him, memorizing his life, carefully guarding his legacy.

There are a few other volunteers to help Jeanette, like Joan Burns, a shy, attractive woman in her 60s who does everything from lead tours to vacuum the museum, and John Luciani, a slight man in his 80s with a permanent smile wreathing his face, who has always been a Lanza fan and knew Lanza’s family. “I was at the viewing!” Luciani, a retired engineer, tells me of the famous 1959 service at the church next door. “Saw the casket and everything.” His dedication to Lanza is such that twice a week, he takes the train in from Northeast Philly; he’ll often walk the mile from the station at 8th and Market to the institute.
It may seem a strange bond, the fandom that pulls these people together, but to those who carry the torch, the Lanza Institute is about more than simply preserving the memory of a popular singer: One can’t underestimate the pride of South Philly in one of its successful sons, or the work ethic of a former Naval disbursing officer with an über-developed sense of responsibility. Things are changing — who’d have ever thought the sleek Laurentius Salon or the modern bistro James would plant themselves in the old neighborhood? — but the Lanza Institute that they cherish is South Philly, to its core.

Sure, she could use a paying job, Jeanette says, smiling, “but who’s going to give me one at 72?”

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