Film Preview: Burbank-based filmmaker captures history of famed Café 322

Until a few years ago, Anne Davis O'Neal had never given much thought to the opera. She had a long history in theater and television production, and was just beginning a new career as a documentary filmmaker when a friend mentioned the scene at Café 322 in Sierra Madre, where multiple generations of opera singers gathered to perform every Sunday.

What O'Neal eventually found there were singers in their 20s newly dedicated to the ancient musical form, sharing the stage with veteran performers in their 70s, 80s and 90s. "One of the singers had had a few strokes so he couldn't really speak anymore," O'Neal says, "but he could still sing."

The Burbank-based filmmaker recognized the depth of music, family and tradition unfolding at Café 322 and began work on a documentary, "Sing Your Own Song: An Opera Love Story." The three-year project was self-funded and resulted in a 60-minute film that premieres on PBS SoCal Plus (KOCE) this Sunday at 9 p.m. (with a rebroadcast July 9 at 7 p.m., and July 10 at 6 p.m.)

"They welcomed me like a new member of the family from the very first day," O'Neal says now of the core group of 50 singers and fans. "They were just really happy to share their music."

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The documentary begins at the weekly gathering at Café 322, a 100-capacity club and restaurant. It was part of a tradition begun by the late Mario Lalli Sr., a committed performer, restaurateur and fan of opera who made live music a central ingredient throughout his life. His son, Mario Jr., continued that commitment at Café 322, where the elder Lalli continued to sing tenor well into his 80s.

Mario Sr. is a central figure in the film. "He shone with the love of opera. He could be a little intimidating," O'Neal says with a laugh. "He did not suffer fools gladly. But if someone could sing, he wanted to move heaven and earth to make sure they got heard. He personally helped some of the younger singers get their careers going."

In the 1950s, he studied at the Julliard School and for a time was a singer in the New York City Opera. The Lalli family later found success in the music and dining business when Mario Sr. opened his first restaurant in Aspen, Colo., followed by others in the Southern California desert and finally in the old plaza shared with the historic Pasadena Playhouse. At every location, Mario's Italiano Ristorante operated under the motto: "Where they sing while you dine."

At Café 322, bookcases were filled with binders labeled with titles from the opera and musical theater: "La Traviata," "Tosca," "Pirates of Penzance," "Kiss Me Kate." Against one wall was a gleaming white piano, and the room was covered with reproductions of Toulouse Lautrec paintings and old jazz posters celebrating Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

The club was owned by Mario Jr., also active as a guitarist leading his desert rock band Fatso Jetson and as a frequent collaborator with the acclaimed modern hard rock act Queens of the Stone Age. But when it came to opera, it was the elder Lalli who took charge.

While other nights of the week featured a variety of musical genres, and microphones and amplification were allowed, singers on Sunday opera night were powered only by their own voices.

"He goes, 'Anne, it saves me a lot of grief. Anybody who sees there's no microphone is not going to get up unless they really know how to sing,'" O'Neal recalls. "I thought that was a goof insight into his personality. He was nice but he was concerned with putting on a good show."

Café 322 closed in April 2012, and Mario Sr. died last year at age 92. The documentary watches as the tight-knit gathering of singers goes from finding enrichment and each other onstage to facing the looming closure of Café 322.

O'Neal and her camera followed as the opera group searched for a new home. "Nothing could get these people down and stop them," she says. "They were so resilient and supportive of one another."

"Sing Your Own Song: An Opera Love Story," 9 p.m. Sunday, PBS SoCal Plus (KOCE). More info at anneonealfilms.com.

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Steve Appleford, steve.appleford@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveAppleford

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