Wonderful & Exciting Tribute
To Mario At Lincoln Center

By Sam Samuelian
January 15, 2005
Anna and I left 1 PM in the van and almost thought we weren't going to make it because we saw smoke coming out of our car at a rest stop. Turned out we are leaking transmission fluid, but not enough to stop us! We also went in the easy pass lane at Lincoln Tunnel, so now will be fined. And our directions were incorrect, so we had to call the Holiday Inn. Outside of that, the ride up was perfect and we listened to Lanza, Sinatra, and even Brenda Lee (for Anna!). By 4:45, our group met in the lobby and took a cab to "Il Violino" for dinner. Along with us were Mary, Jeanette, Stephanie, Rita, Muriel, and Evelyn. We sat with Bill Ronayne and his sister Rosemary and had an excellent dinner in a cozy little spot only three blocks from Alice Tully Hall. Ron Sarbo popped in and we met him for the first time. By 7:10 we were standing outside Lincoln Center and the very first person we met walking in was Elissa Lanza Bregman, a beautiful and warm girl who we unfortunately don't see often enough. Most of us had great seats in the orchestra section.
The show started promptly at 7:30 with Mario singing "Loveliest Night of the Year" while stills on the big screen of him and his co-stars, friends, and family appeared. The picture was very large and the sound quality was excellent. Mario's big voice sounded even greater in his venue. As often as I have heard this song from "The Great Caruso", it thrilled me as never before.
Immediately after that host F. Paul Driscoll from Opera News Magazine came out and started speaking about Mario and his background. He obviously did his homework because his comments were accurate and entertaining. He even dispelled the truck driver myth by explaining to everyone that MGM cooked that up as part of Mario's early biography. The program was timed impeccably and everything spoken matched up exactly with what was showing on the screen. The images were sharp and clear although I have seen better color on his films, which may have been the fault of the projection system used. Each of Mario's films was highlighted and edited down from opening to end titles with musical excerpts in between. The choices were excellent and the singing marvelous. I was disappointed that "Because You're Mine" was not included except in a brief comedy segment that followed later. I understand why "Student Prince" was left out (except in discussion).
More than 1,100 people were in attendance and the affair was sold out. People outside were begging to find tickets. The crowd (obviously composed of many fans and admirers) cheered and clapped heartily after each Lanza song. The film show paused while Moderator Brian Kellow of Opera News was introduced and he brought to the stage (in this order) Elaine Malbin, Lucine Amara, Jane Powell, and Ann Blyth. These fine ladies are approximately 74, 79, 77, and 76 respectively but none looked their age. If fact, they looked amazing. We all know how good Elaine looks from having seen her at the Balls, Lucine is hefty but looks well, Jane Powell is tiny at five feet tall, but slender and spry, Ann Blyth captivated me as if time stood still with her slender figure and charming smile. I wish she would find time to attend a Lanza Ball, as she would make a perfect guest there, and I told her that later!
Brian asked good questions and the ladies responded succinctly. When he asked Lucine about recording arias for "The Great Caruso", I held my breath for fear she was going to say something as was quoted in the recent Opera News article about the engineers turning up the sound so Mario could be heard better. She shocked us by saying just the opposite...that Mario had am amazing and big voice and that his singing thrilled her! Obviously, she was misquoted in the Opera News article and I am glad this was corrected.
Elaine spoke of her luck in being at the right place at the right time for the success in her career. Jane told stories of Louis B. Mayer and how he was like a father to so many. She was only fourteen when she started there. Ann spoke very warmly about Mario, how kind he was to her, and how well the filming went. She did mention that he had to lose 80 pounds before shooting started, but I think that is an exaggeration. I was impressed that at no time during this tribute was anything negative mentioned about Mario's lifestyle except this one bad habit of overeating.
At 8:45 there was an intermission and the show resumed shortly after 9. Damon and Elissa were introduced and interviewed by Brian. They both spoke sincerely and with great love for their father. Damon told about his fondness for hearing Mario sing "Guardian Angels" at bedtime. He joked that they were unusual kids who looked forward to going to bed for that reason. Elissa reminisced about life in Rome and visits to film sets. She is another person I would love to see attend the Lanza Balls. She is delightful and lovely. A fun compilation of clips was shown that focused on dialoge in Mario's movies that pertained to the art of singing. The film presentation ended with highlights from "Serenade", "Seven Hills of Rome", and "For the First Time". The only one that was given abrupt treatment was SHOR, since only one song ("Arrividerci Roma")was shown. I thought that at the very least the imitation sequence from that film would have been appropriate to show another side of the Lanza talent.
The show ended with Metropolitan Opera tenor Richard Leech singing with a wonderful accompanist on the Steinway grand piano. Leech tours the country doing Lanza tributes and it was apparent he was quoting from his act with his talk about Mario. His recital consisted of Lanza music from "Because You're Mine" to "E Lucevan le Stelle" to "I'll Be Seeing You". He has a powerful voice and ringing high notes, though I heard an unusual warble at times in his mid range. By the way, Licia Albanese (now 92!) was introduced in the audience, as was Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. By 10:15 the program ended with cheers and applause from the audience.
The two hundred or more people who chose to pay another fifty dollars for the champagne and dessert reception that followed in the hall crowded into the roped off area and pretty much mobbed the guests with requests for photos and autographs. I felt that a reception line would have worked better. The champage was ice cold and decent, but the desserts were merely store bought cookies and even though tasty were well below expectations for the price charged. However, this was an excellent opportunity to talk to the stars, reunite with Lanza friends like Dominic Mantuano and Carrie, Paul Velda all the way from England, and many more. By 11:15, the crowd was thinning and we were in a cab at 11:30 and home in Media by 2:15. Today we are quite tired, but are reliving the many great moments at this well executed, though long overdue affair. No one attending could have any doubt of Mario's importance and greatness to the world of opera and music. I hope others who attended will also post and comment about their experiences!
Rita from Houston just reminded me that Rafaela Fasano's mother was in the audience at the Gala. She was announced and stood up, a very warm moment. Also, Mario's two handsome grandsons (two of Elissa's children) were there and acknowledged. There was so much to this evening and more will surface as the mind remembers. For instance, Bill Ronayne realized that Jane Powell's husband there was none other than child star (Our Gang films, etc.) Dickie Moore!
Anna and I were so busy autograph hunting and handing out flyers for Bill Ronayne's NY Lanza Society group that we didn't get to talk to many people afterwards, but I did hear quite a few say how pleased they were with the program. It was evident in the applause and the excitement in the air. Lucine Amara, upon finding out that we are Armenian by heritage, spoke a few words in Armenian that translated to "I am glad you came here tonight"! Aaron and others: Next time we should wear name tags so we can meet each other. Tough singling out people you have never seen before. Glad you got to talk to Leech. You can tell he is a true fan. My biggest regret is not meeting Albanese in person. She left the reception early. So glad everyone enjoyed this review!