Mario Lanza


About the following chapter titled "The Great Lanza"
from Joe Pasternak's autiobiography:
According to several who were there, Joe Pasternak, the prolific MGM producer who made Mario's Metro films, was a somewhat hypocritical figure. Others have a different view. Whatever the reality, there seems a consensus that had Mario linked up with Arthur Freed or Vincent Minelli instead of Pasternak, the overall quality of Mario's MGM films would have been better. A couple of notes before you read the following extracted chapter from Pasternak's autobiography "Easy The Hard Way"...
* Mario was never a truck driver. * Mario never chewed tobacco. * Mario never had a job...his mother worked, his father had a pension as a disabled WWI vet. * Koussevitsky didn't change Mario's name...Moss Hart suggested it. * MGM flattened out Mario's full head of hair (especially in "Midnight Kiss") because they wanted him to look like Gene Kelly but Mario held out and later combed his hair the way he wanted. Later, at Warner's for Serenade, his hair was changed again. * Terry Robinson got him down 25 lbs...not Pasternak!

"The Great Lanza"
No one knew what it was all about. The calls had come from L.B.'s office. All the producers, all the executives, and a number of directors were asked to meet on Stage One.
Why Stage One? That was the huge recording stage on the MGM lot. No one could figure that out either.
Mr. Mayer was waiting for us when we arrived, but it was his pleasure not to immediately divulge the reason for his summons. After a few moments, however, a magnificent singer thundered at us from a battery of speakers. I say thundered; the word may not be entirely right. The voice was rich, warm, sensuous, virile, capable of incredible highs and able to go down in register as deep as a baritone's. My spine tingled.
There were three records played in all. Then, Mr. Mayer stepped before us. "Gentlemen, you've heard the voice," he said. "Now, I want you to meet the singer."
A dark and bushy-haired young man, well-boned, heavy-chested, emerged. He was of medium height, not striking-looking perhaps, but I saw something in his face that was not unattractive. Meyer chatted with him for a moment before a microphone and then thanked him for his trouble.
When we were alone again, Mr. Mayer turned to us and declared that the studio was going to sign this young man to a contract. If any of the producers were interested, he suggested, they might stay on.
I could feel all eyes turn toward me. The explanation is simple enough. Music, opera-style pictures, or operetta - call it what you will - was my forte and naturally a singer such as we'd just heard was considered to be my sort of thing. I felt a sudden loneliness and the usual waves of doubt that hit you when you've got to make a decision all by yourself. The young man appeared to be attractive but, I wondered, had he enough personality to bear the heartless scrutiny of the camera lens? He was stocky. Always a problem with actors, I thought. And then his voice was an opera voice. Not since Lawrence Tibbett, a whole generation before, had a male opera star made a successful venture into pictures.
He would need grooming, I thought. Polish. Something would have to be done about his hair. But I had caught a glint in his eyes when he talked to Louis B. Mayer that I liked. And he was manly and strong. All my life I'd wanted to find a voice with a face. Could this be it?
I went up to the boss. "I like him," I said. "I like him very much." "All right, Joe," he replied. "He's all yours." Later that afternoon I met Mario Lanza. He was brought to my office by his manager, Sam Weiler. I found Mario to be completely charming. He appeared to be a little overweight but this was no insurmountable problem for us who'd dealt with it with glamour girls and their heroes. Seen across my desk, Mario had a strong face, an easy manner, and striking black eyes.
I told them about my search for a singing voice belonging to a face a camera could focus on unabashedly. I had a feeling this might be it, I said.
"What are we going to do?" Weiler asked. "Maybe we'll make an opera picture. Don't ask me what an opera picture is. It won't be an opera staged in front of the camera. I don't know whether it'll be an original, or a classic. Maybe we can't even call it opera. Apparently, the word is poison, even on Broadway where the audience is supposed to be a lot more worldly. But it's going to be a story with real music."
"Right away?" Mario asked. I smiled. "Heaven forbid. Nobody knows Mario Lanza. I told you what we were aiming for - some day."
That first meeting of ours took place in 1949. in the days, weeks, and months that followed, Mario and I became very friendly. Not since Deanna Durbin had I such a feeling of shaping, of creating a new theatrical personality. I told him that I though it would take perhaps ten pictures to establish him. (I do not believe this overnight star business. Overnight stars too often become overnight has-beens.) The first task would be to find out what Mario Lanza was really like.
In the best meaning of the words, he was a tough guy. Born January 31, 1921, in Philadelphia, he had worked his way through school in a variety of jobs. He was studying voice and working as a piano mover when he got his first break. The story he told me he later related to Hedda Hopper, who took it down so well that I can do no better than to use his words as she reported them:
"One day we had to haul a couple of pianos to the Academy of Music. When we entered the building the Boston Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing. "As we rolled one of the pianos across the stage, I heard my name called, turned around, and saw William K. Huff. (Huff was a Philadelphia concert manager whom the lad had once sung for and who had been impressed by his voice).
"There I stood with a red kerchief around my neck and my jaw filled with chewing tobacco. 'What are you doing here?' he asked. 'Moving pianos,' I answered. Shaking his head he said, 'With a voice like yours you ought to be ashamed. You should be studying.' 'On what?' I asked. 'My family has no money and somebody's got to work.'
"Huff took me to a dressing room in which stood an upright piano. I spit the tobacco out of my mouth and began to sing.
"The old man who'd been conducting the orchestra rehearsal entered the dressing rooms across the hall from us, removed his sweat shirt and began drying himself with a towel....then he crossed the hall and came into the room. Still with the towel in his hand, he stood within three feet of me, gazing into my face as I sang.
"When I ended he kissed me on both cheeks and said, 'You will come with me to the Berkshires.' I had no idea what he meant, since I'd never heard of the famous Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood." The "old man" was the late Serge Koussevitzky, the peerless maestro of the Boston Symphony.
Koussevitzky said on that occasion, "Here is truly a great voice." On another he said flatly: "There is no question of it. This IS the greatest natural tenor since Caruso."
It was Koussevitzky who had changed the youth's name. Christened Alfred Arnold Cocozza, he was called Freddie by everyone. The great conductor felt the name would prove a professional liability. They both searched for a new name and decided on the masculine version of his mother's maiden name: Maria Lanza.
I was delighted in learning all I could about my young friend's life. I had private reasons, as I have said, for burying myself in what, after all, is work for a producer: the creation of a public personality. But there was also a measure of dramatic coincidence between my life and that of the young man's that gave me an added incentive. I felt that in the career of Mario Lanza another typically American story was working out. Do you realize that he has born in Philadelphia just a few short weeks before that same city became my first home in the new world? Like myself, he had come up the hard way. He was a maverick who broke all the rules. Great tenors were not supposed to be self-taught. He learned to sing from listening to Caruso records on the phonograph. He had to work to earn his way, fight his way up from the bottom. He had actually started to study professionally just a year or two before Koussevitzky had heard him when he was nineteen.
Lanza never made a pretense of being a "good boy," or being easy to get along with. He had Dietrich's ability to think outside of himself, with detachment. "Mario, you sing like a sonofabeech!" he would say after hearing a playback of himself that delighted him. He could be equally rough on himself when he didn't like what he did to a song. Even when he was in the army he'd gone his own way. He didn't like military life and he didn't care who knew it. Coming after Tanglewood and being with Leonard Bernstein, one of the great Koussevitzky's pet proteges, his reaction to the army is entirely understandable. He would have rather sung with the Boston Symphony and who can blame him?
He found himself, at length, singing in the chorus of Moss Hart's Army Air Forces show "Winged Victory." A small group of people had already been stunned by Corporal Freddie Cocozza's voice, notably his Captain, Fred Brisson, the husband of Rosalind Russell, who had been an agent before joining the service of his country. When "Winged Victory" was brought before the cameras, Freddie Coccoza came to Hollywood. One evening a group of the boys were invited to Irene Manning's house. Among the guests were Ida Koverman, for many years, Louis B. Mayer's invaluable assistant, and a brilliant judge of talent and personality in her own right, Frank Sinatra, Hedda Hopper, and Walter Pidgeon. "Pidge" played the piano. Freddie sang. He started at eleven. They did not let him go until seven the next morning, and, what is more, his voice held up. If ever a man was born to sing and loved it, this was the man.
As soon as he got out of the Army, someone at RCA Victor gave him a $3,000 bonus for signing with them. Victor did not know whether he was ready to record at that time, but they knew that one day he would be a great recording star and they wanted him under contract. His manager had found him in New York where, armed with Victor's token of confidence in his future, he had gone for study. Weiler financed further study. Then Mario started singing summer concerts with symphony orchestras in the outdoor programs usually during the hot season. When he sang in the Hollywood Bowl, his eminent friends saw to it he got the attention he richly deserved. The audition on MGM's Stage One followed, as I remember, almost immediately.
Mario from the beginning was something of a problem to me. There was a wild, unpredictable streak in his nature. But that didn't trouble me too much as a producer. Temperamental displays were not entirely new to me in my career. I tried to be even more tolerant. Just then I was no stranger, either, to emotional problems outside the studio; I couldn't presume to understand myself, so I would not judge Mario Lanza.
I hammered away at getting him physically onto the screen. His first screen test proved so shocking that for a day or two there was private talk of forgetting about making a picture with him. He was dressed badly - he ran to loose-fitting shirts with long stemmed collars - and his hair looked like a horsehair mattress that had burst it's seams. I insisted we make another test. I begged him to lay off the carbohydrates for a couple of weeks, got the barber to chop his hair with a will, and I had him put into suits that emphasized height rather than width.
He was everything I'd dreamed about. The voice with the face. He was handsome, virile, charming. He looked so great he didn't need a voice. We started to work in earnest. Our first picture was called "That Midnight Kiss". We had no title, and, I think, after we started work on the script, some justification for it was found. The plot? Remember how the piano mover was discovered by Koussevitzky? We also worked in a love story with Kathryn Grayson and used Jose Iturbi as a symphony conductor. Mario was an instant success. Now, it seems to me, the measure of a man is proved by how he stands up under two things: failure and success. Mario had borne up nobly with the former. I would now see how well he would do with success. We had no sooner finished the picture than he was demanding top billing over Miss Grayson. In fact, he said I had promised it to him. Since the business of billing - whose name stands above whose and in what size type, and so on - is a complicated one, hedged about with all sorts of technicalities, legalisms, and contractual obligations, it is a matter I have always steered clear of. The charge was embarrassing, but I let it go, explaining it away as an indication such as one might commit on taking his first drink. And success is a very heady wine, as almost everybody knows.
I assigned Nicky Brodszky to write some songs for Mario, feeling that their musical styles were harmonious. The hunch paid off in Mario's second picture, "The Toast of New Orleans", in which I carried his development as a screen personality along to the next step. Nicky and lyricist Sammy Cahn wrote "Be My Love" for that picture. By the time the picture played the neighborhood houses, the song was one of the most phenomenally successful songs of the postwar period. Mario's bel canto rendition of it was heard on juke boxes and disc jockey shows all day long; he was soon to have his own radio show for Coca-Cola and use it as his theme. We were ready, I felt, to make our first essay with the great new film personality in a picture involving opera. We decided to make "The Great Caruso".
By this time, I was having avoirdupois trouble with Mario. His weight was something to stagger you. He put on fifty pounds as easily and quickly as most people add an ounce or two. He could also take it off when he had a will to. Sometimes I began to believe he was inflatable and deflatable, like a balloon. We begged him, played games with him; there was nothing that simply cutting down on the volume of grub wouldn't help.
But when Lanza was of a mind to eat, the Secret Service itself couldn't keep this trencherman in bounds. Once, for example, I saw a waiter head for the stage with a mountainously laden tray over one shoulder. "Where are you bringing that?" I asked him. He said J. Carroll Naish had ordered lunch in his dressing room. Something made me suspicious. Lanza was then on a "no lunch" kick. One meal a day was all he needed, he assured me - a round, substantial dinner, nothing else. He was taking naps during the noon hour break. I followed the waiter. He did in fact go into Carrol Naish's dressing room but when I opened the door, I found my star attacking triple helpings of potato salad, huge slabs of ham, roast beef, generously buttered rye bread, and heaven knows what else.
When "Caruso" came out, Mario was grossing, according to reports, a million dollars a year from films, records, radio, and concerts. Variety, that tough-minded almanac of show business, reported on what he did in concert:
...It was one of the most unusual as well as successful tours since Nelson Eddy's heyday a decade ago. In some instances Lanza's share for an evening hit over $6,000. In Milwaukee it was $6,750; in Omaha, $6,180; in New Orleans, $6,025.
No single concert artist this season has come anywhere near this box office record. The tour take has only been matched by such big groups as the Sadler's Wells Ballet and the Royal Philharmonic, or the Toscanini-NBC Symphony tour of a year ago.
"The Great Caruso" did phenomenal business, too. In ten weeks at the Radio City Music Hall, it brought in $1,500.000. One theater in one city, mind you.
By now Lanza had made it. But I didn't want him set in the public consciousness as an opera star, no matter how great. I wanted him to be taken also as a man. I planned to next make "Because You're Mine", a story about a singer who is drafted into the Army, doesn't like it, and finally is a better person for learning to be a human being like everybody else. After that, a romantic period musical was in the works: "The Student Prince". Beyond that, still nebulous but gaining shape, was the big opera picture. That was my dream, my ambition. It lay before me like a challenge, a dare.
But Mario, riding high, was writing a new definition of the word 'temperament'. I think you would have to search far and wide in the annals of the theatre and musical world to match the great Lanza. Did an assistant director call him in front of the cameras too abruptly? "Fire him," Mario demanded. "Mario," I pleaded, "the man's only doing his job. Besides, he's worked for me for twelve years and he's got a wife and children." The great star loved practical jokes, each on a successively more infantile level. He ate mountains of food and berated the cameraman for making him look fat. He was stormingly proud one moment, contrite as a schoolboy the next. He did; he didn't; he was hot; he was cold. He didn't approve of Doretta Morrow, whom I'd brought from New York to sing with him. Nothing personal. He wanted to make the picture with Lana Turner. But the part called for a singer, I assured him. No matter. He still didn't want to do the picture. Then, the next day, he thought Doretta was just fine. I wondered if even back in the wonderfully crazy days of Swanson and Negri if a player with but three pictures to his credit could throw such thunderbolts from on high.
I tried every trick of appealing to Mario. "I gotta talk to that boy for you, Joe," Jimmy Durante offered. "Him and me, we're Eyetalians. He'll listen to me." If Lanza did listen to one of the sweetest men in show business, he gave me no sign. Lillian Burns, who is God's gift to new talent, and to whom Mario had often generously (and deservedly) praised to me, saying he owed her more than anyone realized, did her best. To little avail.
Finally, after midnight meetings, tense conferences, agreements, disagreements, more meetings and still more meetings - Mario decided to do "Because You're Mine". But he had put on about fifty pounds, I'd guess, and we had to postpone shooting for six weeks.
He did reduce. He looked better and he sang better than ever in his life. "Because You're Mine" was chosen for the Royal Command Performance. Mario was full of assurances that he had wronged me grievously and had learned to trust my judgement. What was to be our next picture? "The Student Prince"? Great. He went to work at once recording his songs.
On the first day's shooting we were doing one of those scenes that called for a huge number of extras. Where was Mario? No one knew. At the end of the day, he was found. He was sorry, he was contrite. Tomorrow he'd show up for sure. Next day, no Lanza. Again: sorry. Is anything wrong, son? No, no, I'm all right. Is it anything we did that's bothering you? Oh, no, no.
This went on for days. Even his agent, Lew Wasserman, a top-chop character, couldn't get to talk to THIS client. The studio was actually well over a million dollars in the hole, representing money paid out, not mere bookkeeper's charges, when the storm broke. After Mario had broken written engagements, the picture was abandoned and the studio sued Lanza for its costs and damages.
The incident was in many ways the most upsetting I had ever known. I had been - as this record shows - harsh with Mario, but always con amore, with love, as a father is harsh to a son whose inner fineness he will never doubt. To the end, I thought well of him. I would always think of him as a friend, even though his stubborn refusal to work in a picture in which I was so deeply committed seemed to me to be unfair, to say the least. It wasn't easy to give up my dream of an opera picture. A venture into the cinematic unknown such as I envisioned required a lucky meeting in time, space, and spirit. With Lanza I had felt a beginning was possible. He was the foundation stone. I wished him well, as I say. I wrote the unhappy ending of our relationship down to one of those things: the unfortunate circumstances that so often dog our endeavors in show business.
(The chapter goes on to address the personal issues of Pasternak's marital problems at this point.)