Mario Lanza Lives Big
Among the rumors you might have read about Mario Lanza, are the rumors about his home—stories that his handsome Bel Air house is equipped with gun turrets, secret trapdoors, a tremendous wine cellar, and a great, big gymnasium. All of this is interesting, if not true.
Mr. Lanza does enjoy large-scale living. But he expresses this in outsize livingroom and bedroom furniture—not in arsenals and playing fields.
The Lanza’s house is a tremendous, rambling, Mediterranean-style mansion that occupies a knoll overlooking Bel Air, the swankiest residential district in Los Angeles. It is a two-story job, well concealed by lush foliage. Years ago it cost $250,000 to build.
“Few people can afford to build homes like this any more,” Mario says. “The walls are at least two feet thick. We have a private patio paved with beautiful Spanish tiles. We have our own fountains, our own statuary. Really, it’s out of this world.”
With a housewifely shake of her head, Betty Lanza admits that her house is beautiful. “Only,” she adds, “the architect did some pretty funny and impractical things. Maybe he didn’t worry about mundane matters, but he forgot to provide sufficient space for hanging clothes. This house is built on a hillside, you know, and the only level spot we could find to hang our clotheslines is under the master bedroom. Also our dressing room closet—it’s only large enough for Mario’s wardrobe, so I’ve had to use the linen closet for my things. I took out the shelves and put in some portable racks. On the whole, however, the good features of the place certainly outweigh the bad ones.”
The Lanzas have had five homes since they first arrived in California, and this is the only one in which Mario has ever had a music studio where he could work without interruption. He rehearses at least two hours every day, usually from one in the afternoon to three. Many days, however, he will sing for five or six hours, then knock off, play some recordings, or watch TV. The Lanzas have three television sets in the house.
The most striking room in their house is the living room which is really a miniature concert hall. It is fifty feet long, forty feet wide, and thirty feet high. There is a dais at the far end. When the Lanzas entertain and Mario is asked to sing, he mounts this dais and gives out. Singing, of course, is the great passion of his life, and once he is sure the audience is with him, he’ll go through his amazing repertoire even if the party lasts until four in the morning.
At a recent Lanza shindig, Della Russell, Andy’s wife, asked Mario to sing “Song Of India.” By the time the tenor had finished it, Della was crying unashamedly. Mario repeated the song four times before his father insisted upon his doing an old Neapolitan tune.
When the Lanzas first moved into their new home last fall, there was no gate around it. One night they entertained at a buffet dinner, and afterwards Mario was asked to perform. He sang six numbers, the last of which was “Call Me Fool.”
Applause, bravos, shouts of “More. We want more. Don’t stop now,” began to emanate from outside. Betty went to the window. “You wouldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “People in cars going down the highway had heard Mario singing. The drivers had stopped. They had followed the sound of the music. They had parked their cars in our driveway, and a whole audience had formed outside our windows. Mario was giving a free concert, and these people didn’t want to miss a Single trick.
“Mario didn’t mind. He was pleased and flattered. Only the very next day, the word spread around. Soon we had coeds from the .university banging on the door, and that surprising woman who saves Mario’s old clothes (she wanted to know if he had anything to throw away) and all kinds | of salesmen and crackpots; so in self-defense there was only one thing to do. I ordered one of those photo electrically-controlled gates installed across the driveway. That was the first change we made in the house.”
Others followed. A complete inter-communications system was placed in the fourteen-room mansion. Betty insisted upon this very quickly. “I always want to know what’s going on in the nursery,” she says. “Besides, this house is so large that if I didn’t have an intercom I’d walk my feet off going from one room to another.” Betty also made sure that the garden fish pond was well-fenced. And a month after the Lanzas moved into the place, they found Ellisa climbing up the Chinese carved balustrade that adorns the living room balcony, whereupon the railing was backed with smooth plywood boards.
At about the-same time, there was a series of robberies in the neighborhood, so Mario had the house rigged with a complete burglar alarm system and then flooded the grounds each night with exterior lighting to keep the prowlers away.
Mario’s favorite room is, of course, his studio, which he also uses as a den and office. It is a large room, equipped with sliding glass doors and furnished in contemporary style. It contains all his recording equipment, his vast record library, his books, and his scripts.
The furniture is oversized and covered with a green and white worsted to match the draperies. There is a green leather easy chair and a small upright piano. There are no rugs in the room because of the acoustics. The studio has its own private patio, and Lanza usually has his lunch there. Two hard-boiled eggs and coffee.
The house is built in the form of a large “H” with the enormous living room as the center line. Running parallel to the living room is a glass-enclosed sun porch, one end of which Betty Lanza uses as her office. She has four in help plus Mario and three children. to look after, and this takes quite a bit of careful planning. Betty works at a large-top desk with a telephone at one elbow and a filing cabinet at the other. Near her desk, as a memento of Mario’s childhood, she keeps the phonograph which his family bought for him when he was a boy of ten.
The sun porch is done in nile green. It boasts a brick floor and contains in addition to some solid oak furniture, another television set, a radio, a fireplace which backs up the one in the living room, and an octagonal table good for card-playing.
The eating rooms are downstairs, the nursery and sleeping quarters upstairs. The children’s bedrooms are grouped around one large playroom with Colleen and Ellisa sharing the nursery, and Damon, eight months old, coming in once in a while for his bit of fun with his sisters. The nursery is decorated in pink and equipped with quantities of toys.
“We don’t believe in spoiling our children,” Mario says, “but childhood is the time for fun, and Betty and I just live for the smiles on those little faces. When I see Ellisa and Colleen and that Damon—that boy is really a bruiser—when I see them all playing together in that nursery, I just want to sing until the rafters shake.”
There used to be two nurses for the three Lanza children, but now there is one nurse who looks after Damon while Betty supervises the two girls.
The Lanzas have two rather small dining rooms, small, that is, for a family that rarely dines out. The breakfast room is bright and gay, and exactly right for the children, who take their meals there. The dining room, on the other hand, with its well-cushioned wrought-iron furniture and its $1000 tea service, is a mite too small for the large dinner parties Mario likes. Of late, however, the Lanza family has limited its guests to ten or twelve and gone in for barbecues. Thick charcoal-broiled steaks are the main dish. This Christmas, as usual, Mario plans to have open house with brunch served from noon until midnight. Ordinarily, from two hundred to five hundred people show up at these festivities. Sometimes the activity gets so hectic at this affair that Mario and Betty go upstairs, lock themselves in the master bedroom, and toast each other with pink champagne.
The master bedroom is dominated by one of the largest beds in the entire film colony. In Betty’s own words, “It stretches from here to eternity.” The room, however, is extremely large and the oversize bed is therefore in proportion. It cost $1800, handmade bedspread included.
“The reason we like a big bed,” Mario says, “is because the children come in every morning and climb all over us and we like to rough-house with them. Betty screams when they jump up and down on the mattress, but I don’t mind. It’s much better than their jumping up and down on my chest.”
Green and red are the dominant colors of the room, and there’s a balcony which looks out on the garden. The room also contains a small desk at which Betty does some of her work. All the furniture is modern and utilitarian, with no period pieces whatever.
The Lanza house is a happy home, and stories to the effect that Mario and Betty are constantly quarreling simply amuse them.
“For years,” Betty says, “those rumors used to upset me. Now, we realize that they’re just an integral part of the Hollywood grapevine, and we don’t pay them any attention. A few weeks ago Mario bought two of the cutest boxer puppies for Colleen and Ellisa. He built a play pen for the dogs, and the girls have just been having the greatest time with them. There’s one columnist in town, however, who insists that our puppies are really ferocious Great Danes, guarding the property.”
In a home where people sing and children smile, happiness must play the major role. The size of the Lanza estate, the Cadillacs, the equipment, the gadgets, the physical property—all these are nothing compared to the light in Colleen’s eyes, the smile on Damon’s lips, the clapping of Ellisa’s hands, and the beating of Betty’s heart when Mario comes into his house, looks around that tremendous living room of his, and at the top of his lungs, shouts, “How’s my family today?”
—BY MARVA PETERSON
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1953