Bill Ronayne was just 7 when he became a fan of Mario Lanza, the tenor who was born in South Philadelphia in 1921 and made the cover of Time in 1951, when he starred in “The Great Caruso.”
That fandom continues – even more so – today, with Ronayne semiretired and devoted to Lanza as president of the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum in Philadelphia, which looks forward in supporting the education of young opera singers and looks backward in maintaining the legacy of the singer.
“He’s still a force to be reckoned with. His star is shining bright,” Ronayne said of Lanza, who died in Italy in 1959. He influenced singers from Roy Orbison to Elvis Presley (“Elvis was a major-league fan, and if you go into the Graceland media room, you’ll see the last record that he ever listened to was a Mario Lanza record, still on the turntable, with the jacket propped up: ‘I’ll Walk With God: Songs of Devotion and Love.’ ”) and from opera star Renee Fleming to future winners of institute scholarships.
Ronayne is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, with his Italian heritage hidden by his surname. His mother was Italian, tracing her roots to the Naples area. His father was Neapolitan and Irish.
His youth was very typical: a family-oriented childhood, and “food everywhere” after Sunday Mass. His cooking style today “is like a true Italian – a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
He developed his love of Lanza and opera by listening to his father’s records and learned some Italian by reading the libretti. He’s never been to Italy, but classic destinations like Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice are on his bucket list. Since 2021 he has also led the American Italian Cultural Roundtable in New York, which sponsors events that promotes Italian culture.
His home features a small Lanza museum, plus Lanza recording in multiple media. “I don’t listen to Lanza every day” – he’s interested in a wide range of music – “but sometimes when you don’t feel good, you put on one of his records, and he cheers you up.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York and worked for the Girl Scouts for more than two decades. In 2001, he established a firm that handles public relations, event planning, fundraising and vocal consulting. Today he focuses on lectures and presentations, with over 140 readily available to be given and a good half on Italian music and personalities, including, of course, “Mario Lanza: The Man and His Music.”
After attending the 1999 Mario Lanza Ball in Philadelphia, he decided to start the Mario Lanza Society of New York, using his career skills for the fan club’s newsletter and events. In 2001, he was asked to join the institute board, and that led to becoming president in 2010.
Along the way, he published two reference works about Lanza: one on all 66 episodes of his radio series and another on his films (seven where he acted and sung, and one more where he just sung).
The institute was formed in the 1960s by family members and friends to perpetuate Lanza’s legacy and nurture the careers of young opera singers. The institute and museum schedule special events throughout the year, including the ball weekend in the fall (with scholarship winners performing) a birthday party in January.
Lanza “is a quintessential Philadelphia native who came from a very ordinary family who lived in South Philly,” Moylan Mills, a humanities professor at Penn State Abington, told the South Philly Review in 2007. “He never forgot his roots; he always thought of himself as a South Philly kid.”
The museum has moved over the years and today fills 1,000 square feet of a former garage with all things Lanza. Artifacts include publicity and candid photos, gold records, clothing (on loan from his daughter), autographed programs, paintings, boxing gloves and the cross from his funeral. “It tells the story of his life and career,” Ronayne said. “It’s pretty much a shrine to his memory.”
“He possessed a God-given voice of immense beauty and power that encompassed many genres of music from opera to the Great American Songbook and was a larger-than-life personality.” he told WeTheItalians.com in 2021. “He became an inspiration to many and a hero and role model to Italian Americans as someone who came from modest means and through his talent rose to great heights in a celebrated international and all-too-brief career.”
Ronayne added this character insight in his interview with the Herald: “He was outgoing and generous, sometimes to a fault,” he said. “He was a fun-loving guy.”
The Mario Lanza Museum is at 1214 Reed St. (the block has also been known as Mario Lanza Way since 2020), Philadelphia, and is open 1-4 p.m. most Saturdays and by appointment. Admission is $10. Details: www.mariolanzainstitute.org.