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- born: Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in South Philadelphia on January 31, 1921 to Maria Lanza and Antonio Cocozza (It is often noted that 1921 was also the year of Enrico Caruso's death.)
- loved opera even as a boy, received first voice lessons while in high school
- 1942: adopted the stage name Mario Lanza, trained briefly with Maestro Serge Koussevitzky at Tanglewood, sang his first opera role in The Merry Wives of Windsor
- 1943 to 1945: served in the US Army as a singer in the Special Services unit, sang in the show Winged Victory which took him to Hollywood, signed a 5-year contract with RCA Victor
- 1945: married Betty Hicks in Beverly Hills, started a family and a career which first took him back to New York and more lessons to train and fine-tune the voice
SNAP SHOTS of the EARLY YEARS
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JUST A FEW LITTLE DETAILS
GROWING UP: He grew up an only child in a middle-class Italian family. As a little boy, he found school boring and showed interest in only two things: athletics and opera. Could a boy of 7 really be so in love with opera he listened to Enrico Caruso's records over and over again - as legend has it, 27 times in one sitting? Little Freddie Cocozza loved opera like no other boy did! His parents nurtured his love of singing, and when in his senior year in high school he declared his ambition to be a singer, they sent him to a teacher for voice lessons. It took only the first lesson to convince them that Freddie indeed had an exceptionally beautiful voice.
From then on, Maria Lanza, whose secret dream was to be an opera singer, focused like a laser on Freddie's future singing career. Realizing that her husband's income as a disabled WWI veteran was not enough, she worked two jobs so that Freddie could have the best language and voice lessons the family could afford. They chose Irene Williams, a teacher who also had connections to the Academy of Music and Philadephia's high society. It was around this time that Freddie chose his stage name - MARIO LANZA, the male version of his mother's name. The name Alfredo Cocozza, or variations thereof, just did not have a star-quality ring to it.
HIS FIRST BREAK - TO TANGLEWOOD with SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY (1942):One day the legendary Maestro came to the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Mario was helping a group of boys move a piano upstairs when the Academy's impressario, who knew Mario through his teacher, arranged for him to come backstage after the evening's performance so the Maestro could hear him sing. That evening, Mario waited in the room where they had moved the piano earlier in the day, he began singing his favorite aria Vesti la giubba (from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci). The Maestro on hearing the aria was impressed and followed the music to the room where Mario was waiting. Right there and then he offered Mario a scholarship at his Berkshire Music Festival (today known as the Tanglewood Music Festival) in Tanglewood, Massachusetts. On August 7, he sang the role of Fenton in the Festival's production of Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor - his first performance on the operatic stage.
His mother saved enough money so he could live in New York after the summer at Tanglewood. Feeling depressed and so alone, he reached a point of giving up but then met Maria Margelli, the Italian bass Ezio Pinza's secretary, who offered to be his patron, paying for his music lessons and living expense, arranging for recital performances and introductions to the right people. Everything seemed to be going his way. Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera would be his next home?
A STINT IN THE ARMY, A TASTE OF HOLLYWOOD and LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: But it was not to be. It was wartime and he got drafted into the Army - inspite of a bad left eye sustained from a childhood injury. He was sent to Military Police duty in Texas but was reassigned to Special Services as a singer when it was discovered he had a background in music. And so he traveled as an entertainer with the army, singing in a show called On the Beam. He was then invited to join the New York cast of Moss Hart's Winged Victoryas a chorus member. When Warner Brothers decided to film the show, he went to Hollywood with the cast. He attended rounds of parties where he showed off his singing skills. Impressed, the "right" people soon began to take notice. Without a formal audition, RCA Victor gave him a $3000 advance for a 5-year recording contract.
While in Hollywood, Mario was introduced by his Army buddy Bert Hicks to his sister Betty (born Elizabeth Jeannette Lyhan) who lived in Beverly Hills. "It was love at first sight!" In 1945 after being discharged from the Army, he was summoned by RCA to New York for test recordings.
He complied, but first he married Betty.
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