When Bill Ronayne first glimpsed a cluttered East Passyunk storage garage in 2018, he saw through the dust to envision a shrine worthy of a South Philly legend — a tenor blessed with a golden voice.
So he got to work. And by early 2020, the garage had been made to gleam, the gold records had been polished, the film memorabilia curated, and the busts perched upon their pedestals — and the curtain set to rise on the latest home of the Mario Lanza Institute & Museum.
But before the needle could drop on “Be My Love,” came a twist so tragic that Lanza, the husky kid from Christian Street considered one of the greatest tenors in the world when he died at 38 in 1959, could have captured it in song: COVID-19.
As life paused, the famed songster’s museum, which has bounded around South Philly like a singer on the circuit for more than half a century, was once again shuttered.
After opening its door last year, the charming little museum, tucked behind a garage front on a leafy street in the heart of changing South Philadelphia, is now finding its voice with steady Saturday hours and a dedicated cast of volunteers. On Saturday, Feb. 5, the museum will host a party to celebrate Lanza’s 101st birthday. (Alas, the museum’s planned centennial festivities were mostly postponed or moved online.)
What’s more, there’s hope the spruced-up space could become a more permanent draw for the nonprofit institute founded in 1961 to fund scholarships for young singers in Lanza’s memory.
“It has a wow factor,” said Ronayne, of the new spot at 12th and Reed, just across from the Columbus Square Dog Park. “You’re not expecting what you find.”
He’s right. Even with the sign above the door, and on a street last year renamed Mario Lanza Way, it’s easy to miss the place. (The museum got the city to change the street’s name in honor of Lanza’s 100th birthday). But then you step inside, and that rich, singular tenor booms back to a bygone South Philly, when Lanza’s songs served as a soundtrack, his box office hits sold out movie houses, and his triumphant South Philly homecomings brought fevered fans rushing into Broad Street.
“The guy still has a lot of pull,” said Ronayne, who fell in love with Lanza’s music as a 7-year-old watching movies like That Midnight Kiss. That was Lanza’s first film, the one where he plays a Philly truck driver who uses his heavenly pipes to serenade Kathryn Grayson and find a spot in an opera.
“It’s the special quality of his voice that just grabs people and becomes part of their life,” said Ronayne, a retired assistant supervisor for the Girl Scouts, who joined the institute in 2001 and then became president in 2010. “Like Elvis or Sinatra. He used to say he sings every time like it was his last time. It’s just very emotional.”
The museum is a labor of love for Ronayne, a lifelong Brooklynite, who sends out newsletters and happily makes the trek down to South Philly most Saturdays to offer tours and luncheons and lectures.
While digging through the museum’s boxed-up collections, Ronayne unearthed countless Lanza photos, ephemera, artifacts, and personal items — and, with a fan’s careful consideration, tried to find a home on the walls for so much of it.
Here is a movie poster for The Great Caruso, in which Lanza plays his idol, Enrico Caruso, the star of the gramophone and the greatest of all tenors. There is a painting made by a fan in Oklahoma who had seen Lanza’s image in a dream. Here is a portrait made of beads sent by a fan from Russia. And, there under the lights, the crown jewel: a terra-cotta bust sculpted by a fan in Hungary and smuggled out from the Iron Curtain five years after Lanza’s death.
But it’s the personal items that bring Lanza — born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza above his grandfather’s grocery at 636 Christian St. in 1921 — most to life. The overstuffed boxing gloves from his hardscrabble youth. The beefcake photo of a teenage Lanza posing on the beach at Wildwood. A handwritten letter he had written to Raphaela Fasano, a 10-year-old New Jersey girl dying from Hodgkin’s disease, after he had flown the girl and her mother to Hollywood to mingle with stars.
“To my wonderful sweetheart,” he wrote, “I’m looking forward to your next visit. … All of my love always, Mario Lanza.”
There’s the crucifix that lay with Lanza in his coffin at Leonetti’s Funeral Home, after he died in Rome of a heart attack, only 10 years after skyrocketing to fame.
“I said, ‘You can’t leave that in a drawer,’ ” Ronayne said. “They’ll kill for that.”
Joan Forte, a volunteer who grew up at 13th and Wharton, when Lanza’s voice reigned supreme, said she comes to the museum for the music, but also for the “memories of her childhood.” Her grandparents playing Lanza’s 78 rpm records, night and day. Her father at the piano serenading the family with yet another Mario Lanza tune. And, of course, that dreadful day in junior high when she and her girlfriends stood, with what seemed like all of South Philly, outside Leonetti’s, where their idol lay in state. Mourners filed through well after midnight. One woman, a 71-year-old family friend of Lanza’s, collapsed and died after passing the casket.
“The whole neighborhood just loved him,” Forte said.
From then on, tragedy followed the Lanza family. His heartbroken wife, Betty, died months later from an accidental drug overdose. Three of his four children died before the age of 55, including his son, Marc, who died of a heart attack when he was 37 — a year younger than his father. Lanza’s cousin, Carole Shea, who lives in Ocean City, N.J., said she is thrilled that the museum honoring the gracious man she called Freddy has found new life. She said Freddy would be joyed to know his name was still helping young singers pursue their own dreams.
“The museum is the best it’s ever been,” she said.
The museum first opened as “The Lanza Corner” in the back of Nick Petrella’s Record Shop near Broad and Snyder in the early ‘60s. Petrella, a friend of Lanza’s and the first president of the institute, made the smuggled bust the centerpiece of his makeshift monument. In 1976, Mayor Frank Rizzo stopped by to officially dedicate the record store shrine. Lanza’s sons, Damon and Marc, toddlers when their father died, would stop by the museum and recall how Lanza used to sing them to sleep with an old Marx Brothers song. By 1989, Petrella moved the institute and museum onto a third-floor space at the Settlement Music School in Queen Village, where Lanza studied violin and piano as a boy. When school renovations forced another move in 2002, space was made in the old rectory of the St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi Church on Montrose Street, where plans were also in the works for an Italian American Cultural Museum. When the museum lost its lease in 2018, the institute and museum were back out on the curb. That’s when a fellow institute member tipped off Ronayne about the garage.
When tackling the garage, Ronayne raised over $35,000 in donations for renovations. And the building landlord, Peter Bilotti, donated all the marble and granite work, plus a flat-screen so guests could watch Lanza’s films.
Fans are coming, enough so that Ronayne has taught his volunteers how to tell the “live ones” from the merely curious. They’re ones whose eyes light up and jaws hit the floor when they wander into the garage.
“If they tear up, then you really got a live one,” he said.
Of course, in a neighborhood thriving with new life and old, some neighbors are still catching up on this Mario Lanza guy.
“We pass it by every day,” said Erin Morrisey, 29, with a guilty smile. She and her boyfriend, Tom Antoniak, 29, were at the dog park on a recent Saturday, with their golden retriever, Coconut. “I’m not familiar with who Mario Lanza is, but if I talked to my mom and dad, they would definitely know.”
Perhaps, she said, they all will pay a visit soon, to hear the music.
Museum info: 1214 Reed Street, 215-238-9691, www.mariolanzainstitute.org