Sometimes the related "side bar" of a story can be more entertaining than the story itself, even when it’s a major story.
Unlike Andrea Bocelli, the first great superstar operatic-pop singer scheduled to play Las Vegas, Mario Lanza, didn’t fulfill his commitment to perform here.
That story, in and of itself, is quite amusing. But what happened to a dear friend, who was covering that story for a local daily newspaper, is even more amusing. The friend, Ralph Pearl, used to proudly tell it whenever Lanza’s name was mentioned. He told it more than once in print. It was sort of a journalistic faux pas badge of honor for Ralphie.
Lanza was booked to play Vegas for the first (and only) time at the Last Frontier in 1957.
There are several "theories" as to why Lanza never took the stage, including personal stage fright, partying too much just before the show, insulting treatment from the local media the day before, and unsatisfactory accommodations for the Lanza party at the Last Frontier. With the help of several sources, including Lanza’s bodyguard (and later, executor of his estate), the story of what really happened is now clear, but we’ll cover that in another column.
It’s at this point that we flashback to enter the showroom of the Last Frontier on opening night to join our columnist friend. (Ralph’s entertainment column "Las Vegas Is My Beat" ran in the Las Vegas Sun for decades until his death over a decade ago. He also authored a book by the same name.)
As Ralph used to tell it, representatives of the hotel, as well as Lanza’s opening act, comedian Larry Storch, kept coming out with excuses as to why Lanza was late for his scheduled 8 p.m. performance.
The time ticked away and it neared 8:30. Ralph’s deadline to get his review of the show to the paper so it could appear on the front page the next day, was fast approaching. He was getting nervous. At the time, this was the biggest opening in Vegas ever””tantamount to Barbra Streisand’s return for the millennium celebration.
Figuring that since Lanza was one of the world’s greatest and most beloved performers and his show would doubtlessly be great, as Ralph used to tell it: "I went ahead and wrote a glowing review based on the song lineup and the fact that, well, he was Lanza! I mentioned that he sang ”˜Be My Love’ and a few others, and that everyone loved his performance."
Ralph then excused himself from the showroom and ran to a house phone (no cell phones in those days), where he called in the review to his editors at the paper so it would make it into print on time for the next morning’s edition. The review, full of raves for Lanza, his voice and his performance, appeared on the front page the next day.
Unfortunately, Lanza never sang a note of "Be My Love" or any other song that night or any night thereafter in Vegas.
Shortly after 9 p.m., it was announced that Lanza’s performance was canceled and some other Strip performers, including Jimmy Durante, would fill in for him. Ralph subsequently blamed his pearly (pardon the pun) white hair on the moment he returned to his booth in the showroom and heard the announcement. He unsuccessfully raced back to the house phone to try to stop the story. But, praying, pleading and begging couldn’t stop presses that had already rolled.
A wonderfully self-effacing gentleman with a great sense of humor, he always ended the story with: "And the so and so (Lanza) never even called to thank me for the great review!"