Walls of the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, located on the first floor of the Columbus House at 712 Montrose St., have slowly muted and dated.
However, some individuals are brushing dust off the memorabilia — and memory — of the prolific opera vocalist and film star.
In December, after the merged parish of St.Paul and St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi church announced the selling of its Montrose rectory, the institute and museum, which was established in 1962 as a scholarship program for promising vocalists, was forced to search for a fifth home since its inconception.
Around the same time, Pete Bilotti, owner of the Alexstone Marble & Granite Co., including its entire property on 12th and Reed streets, was looking for a new tenant to add to his assortment of resident businesses.
In the spring, Bilotti connected with Bill Ronayne, president, secretary and publicity director of the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, through real estate salesperson Michael A. Giangiordano II. Now, the men are working to raise close to $20,000 for renovations of the new location, which will occupy the first floor of the Reed Street building.
The institute, a 501 © (3) nonprofit organization comprised of volunteers, only has until the end of September to hand over the Montrose Street keys, as the museum hopes to move into Billotti’s location over the summer.
“I think it’s important just to get across how this institute needs funding,” Bilotti said. “To promote this basic involvement of people. … This could create more people you can get access from.”
The cornerstone of this access centers upon benefiting rising young classical musicians, as the institute, since it started, has financially supported more than 250 musicians from around the region — even reaching as far as Canada.
“(Lanza) knew, as a young singer, what it took to get a career going,” Ronayne said. “So it was his dream to give young singers a start through scholarships.”
Even though they’re modest prizes, the institute sees more than 45 applicants every year, as scholarships are awarded after an annual competition at Settlement Music School, which is later followed by a grand ball at the Doubletree Hotel in Center City.
Recipients of the Mario Lanza scholarship, which include students of the Academy of Vocal Arts, Curtis Institute for Music, and Juilliard School, have reached exceptional heights, including appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Along with private sponsors and donors, scholarships are also funded by the Coccia Foundation based in Northern New Jersey.
“It’s hard for (young musicians) … the kids need the money — even if it’s just for sheet music,” Ronayne said. “That’s what Lanza wanted to do, but time ran out.”
After Lanza died at the age of 38, an initial exhibition, composed of memorable items from the singer’s life and career, popped up in the back of Nick Petrella’s Record Shop on Snyder Avenue in the mid-1970s.
Following a brief period on Broad Street, the display found a new home on the third floor of Settlement Music School in Queen Village in the 1980s, where it remained through the early 2000s.
Finally, in 2002, the series of movies posters, costumes and other treasures found a home in its current location.
Ronayne, who commutes from Brooklyn to maintain the museum, discovered the institute sometime in the 2000s. An opera enthusiast, Ronayne recalls his earliest memories of Lanza. Reflecting on his parents’ records, the New Yorker feels even more enlivened about this cause.
“I’d hear him in the house,” he said. “When you watch him, he grabs you. The voice grabs you, but when you watch him, too, he has that magnetic personality. And that’s how it all started with me.”
Along with modernizing the museum, including installing TVs screening Lanza films, this move will resurrect Lanza’s legacy in a new way, as this relocation falls in the hub of Passyunk Square — one of several hamlets in South Philly experiencing major economic and cultural revamping.
Along with the common site of blooming condominiums, the immediate area will soon see even more renewal, as Columbus Square’s new construction project is set to break ground in September.
Even the institute itself will be an addition to other performance art spaces, as Bilotti’s property is also home to Ballroom Philadelphia.
“We’re reaching out to the community. Not just the Italian-American community but the community in general, because we want to be part of this area. … We want to make people aware of what’s going on. This community is being revitalized,” Ronayne said. “We thought this would be a nice fit for us.”
Serendipitously, the new space happens to be just down the block from the collosal Mario Lanza mural overlooking South Broad Street, but, also, Giangiordano says the new location has more visibility than the last location, which will improve foot traffic, and therefore awareness, about Lanza’s legacy.
“Me and Pete felt like we had an obligation to really help,” Giangiordano said. “It’s a collaborative effort. On my end and Pete’s end, and it was a moral obligation. We just had to do this to help (Ronayne) out, because (Lanza) is an important piece of South Philly history.”
Information Box: To contribute to the relocation and renovation of the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, please visit or visit www.mariolanzainstitute.org/.