They say - those who know him best and have been closest to him - that Mario Lanza, the greatest tenor of our generation, is throwing away a million dollar future. They say that he is obsessed with the idea of self destruction.
Some of them - the directors and business managers and Hollywood moguls - go even farther. They will tell you that the sensational young singer - since that time when he played the part of The Great Caruso- has come to believe that he is the reincarnation of the fabulous Italian singer who died in the same year in which Lanza was born, 1921.
Like the great Caruso (shown above), Lanza has always been devoted to his wife and his children.
There are still others, writers and directors, the intellectual cream of the entertainment world, who go even further. They maintain that Mario is in the throes of an emotional depression resulting from his discovery of the fact that hs voice will never develop beyond the caliber of a third-rate opera tenor.
This writer, however, believes they are wrong; that they have fallen for one of the most subtle and clever pieces of hammering of all time.
I have known Mario Lanza from the old days - from the time when he was still taking singing lessons and hoping to make a couple of sides for a record company which might be willing to toss out a few dollars on an unknown and obscure music student.
It is my firm conviction, that in spite of the fantastic way in which he has been acting these last two years - since the time when MGM sued him for $13,500,000 for breach of contract - that Maria Lanza is pulling one of the cleverest and subtlest pieces of career maneuvering in theatrical history!
To me the answer seems simple.
A man, young, handsome, successful, still in his early thirties, makes a million dollars in a single year. He is suddenly recognized as the greatest living artist in his field. He is a top movie actor; could be, if he wished, a great classic artist.
He has obtained, within a couple or more years, the rewards for which most of the greats have spent a life time in working. So where is he to go from there?
There is no staying put - standing still - at the top. You either go up or you go down. But from the top, there is no up.
Just about every top columnist and Hollywood writer in the country is convinced that Mario is headed down. And certainly the facts would seem to bear them out.
There's just one thing wrong with this sort of reasoning. The downward path, in Mario's case, is just a little too spectacularly steep. Too dramatic and violent to be quite true.
Let us look at the facts.
In 1950, Mario Lanza made $125,000. And then, in 1951, he hit his peak - he netted more than a million dollars. His income from that point on, plunged downward.
In 1952 he made less than half a million. The following years his total take dropped to under $50,000 and this sum was represented almost exclusively by royalties from his album sales.
This year - well this year no one knows quite what he has made, but it is a simple guess that his baby sitter has done better than he has. Why?
Lanza still pays $2,000 a month rental on a fabulous mansion out in exclusive Bel Air - but US Internal Revenue agents are haunting him in an effort to collect $160,000 in back taxes.
His once trim, although stocky, figure has spread and filled out until he now weighs a gross 285 pounds. His jowls sag and his stomach protrudes. His black curly hair is long and untrimmed and he no longer sees anyone but the immediate members of his family.
He has become almost a complete recluse, and periodically he uses the telephone to call up some former friend or business associate with either complaints or abuse.
Note resemblance between Caruso, and Lanza.
Some friends say that Lanza thinks he IS Caruso.
On those few and rare occasions when Lanza has been seen in public, he wears a soft grey homburg hat, fur-collared coat, striped silk shirt, double-breasted white vest and cloth top shoes the same costume he wore in making The Great Caruso. He even goes so far as to effect the heavy gold chain across his expanding stomach. And of course there is the usual white gardenia.
Lanza effects the same imperial gestures used by the late opera singer and people who encounter him, say that Mario, to all intents and purposes, is not only emulating Caruso, but actually thinks that he IS the reincarnation of that great tenor.
At MGM, however, the studio which made Lanza's fabulously prosperous pictures, there is a different attitude.
"A great singer," they will tell you, "but a man who was unable to cope with his own fantastic success. "The voice was greater than the man," MGM has released Lanza's latest picture. The Student Prince, but the studio has released it without Mario in the stellar role.
After he had already cut the music for the picture, Lanza refused to act in it, and the studio was forced to call in a substitute, dubbing in Lanza's voice for the hautingly beautiful songs. As a result, when Lanza failed to show up for the shooting of the picture, MGM sued him for the $13,500,000.
That's what the studio estimated it would lose by not having him in the epic! At the last minute, a compromise was reached when Lanza agreed to permit the producer to use his recordings.
To this day, the only explanation which Lanza has offered is that he disapproved of the way the role was to be cast. He didn't want to appear as an arrogant Prussian officer, although that was the character which the part called for.
By this time, of course, he had long since made The Great Caruso - which incidently has grossed more than TWENTY MILLION DOLLARS.
Mario felt that in view of the fact his pictures up to that point had grossed over $40,000,000, that he is the ony living classical singer to sell more than a million copies of a record and the only singer, classic or pop, to sell better than a million albums, that he probably had a slightly better idea of what he should play and how he should plat it, than the Hollywood picture executives.
I have talked with him and I think I know what the real story is behind the enigma of Mario Lanza.
He went too far too fast. It wasn't that his phenomenal success went to his head, that he became too temperamental to work. It was simply that he had reached a peak and there was nowhere else to go.
So Lanza has decided to take a couple of years out and let a legend build itself up. When the proper time comes, he will once more step back into the music and entertainment world. When he does there will certainly be a spot waiting for him.
Right now, his records are more in demand than ever. Thousands and millions of people around the globe are waiting to see him in a new picture.
I am convinced that Mario realizes this and that he has carefully nurtured the legend of his capriciousness and insanity. He has been sitting by, biding his time.
Las Vegas offered him a fabulous amount to play the night spots - $25,000 for six nights with a total of fifteen minutes of singing a night. He turned it down.
His manager was given the offer and he was able to reach Lanza's home and tell Betty, Mario's wife about it. She informed him that Mario would call back, and let him know, Lanza never called.
A business firm in the Midwest came through with $50,000 offer for a one week radio show. Lanza never answered the firm's letter.
By vountarily going into eclipse at the very peak of his career, Lanza has aroused and maintained public interest. He has them sitting on the edges of their seats waiting to see what is going to happen.
It's a great piece of showmanship - so great that it has not only fooled the Hollywood writers and public relation experts, but has also fooled the producers themselves.
Nicky Brodszky, a one time close friend and the man who composed Lanza's top hit tunes - tunes such as "Be My Love,""Because You're Mine,""The Loveliest Night of the Year," and others, probably feels sadder than anyone else about the so-called decline and fall of the great voice.
"A tragedy," he will tell you, "He was at the peak - at the top of the world. Not only in this country, but all over Europe. The people idolized him. They loved him. Everywhere they ask me about him. Want more of his recordings; want to know when he will again make a picture. But he does nothing. Nothing."
Even Lanza's employees are helping to spread the new legend.
A former servant in the house says that the singer spends most of his time alone in his vaulted study, playing and replaying his old records from the albums he made for RCA.
"He sits and plays the records, he eats, he drinks, he sleeps. That is all, except now and then he will play with his two lovely daughters and his little boy or perhaps look in on the new baby and his wife Betty. He has become a hermit," the former servant says. "Perhaps it is the wine, perhaps something even worse."
Perhaps something even worse. Such a suggestion has often been made by idolizing biographers of bygone geniuses, in order to romanticize their storied lives. It's worked before - why not with Lanza?
It is probably the business of being a genius - and attempting to act like one - which is the most confusing factor in Mario Lanza's strange career.
It is certainly true that his idol, Enrico Caruso, was a legitimate genius. It is equally true that he acted the part to the hilt.
In his later years, Caruso was a notorious bibbler and he developed strange habits such as sneaking up behind unknown women and pinching their posteriors. Few of his victims appreciated this type of caprice, and more often than not, Caruso found himself in difficulty.
Caruso also was a famous gourmet who loved his native Italian wines and the champagnes from France. Mario hasn't, so far, developed a desire to pinch strange women - in fact he is more or less of a model husband and no domestic scandal has been connected with his name.
But his actions in a business sense have been even more temperamental than those of Caruso. And there is one other great difference, Caruso never stopped singing; never stopped performing.
Mario has stopped. He refuses to work.
Sheilah Graham, a movie columnist, recently visited Betty, Mario's lovely wife, who was in the hospital having her fourth child. Sheilah wrote that Betty told her that Mario was really all right and was just marking time, waiting for the right spot before making his comeback.
Then she went on to say - that is, Sheilah went on to say - that in her own opinion Betty was kidding herself and that Lanza was just about all washed up.
Nevertheless, Mario Lanza, who may be fooling everyone else, is not fooling the most important person of them all. He's not fooling himself. He knows what he is doing.
It is a great act, but when the cards are dealt out, you can stake your last kopeck on one thing. Lanza will be back singing and he'll be back in a new and great picture. He's about as insane as a smart fox.THE END