Mesa Musings: 'Loveliest Night' becomes a 6-year-old's anthem

I'm a reluctant extrovert.

I'm not withdrawn or reticent — after all, I majored in drama for a time in college — but neither am I entirely unfettered in public settings.

I like being with people, but I also relish my alone time.

During my 37-year career, I was required to give lots of public presentations and, though I became adept at it, I never truly liked it. For me, being in front of an audience is stressful.

I suspect that my experience in public relations is nearly universal, and only a narcissist — or dim-bulb — chooses to live life wholly in the public eye. It's unnatural.

But, do you recall a time when you laid aside inhibitions for a season and chose to experience unbridled gregariousness?

I do. It occurred in 1951, when I was 6.

My family lived at the time in an apartment behind my grandparents' Balboa Island home.

My father was a huge opera and classical music fan. He had a particular fondness for American-born tenor Mario Lanza. Lanza had appeared that year in the title role of director Richard Thorpe's film "The Great Caruso." It was the top-grossing film of the year.

We saw the movie at the Lido Theatre in Newport Beach, and I was smitten by Lanza and opera.

My dad bought Lanza's 78 rpm recording of the featured song of the film, "The Loveliest Night of the Year." The recording sold more than a million copies.

Lanza, who, tragically, died young, has been rated by critics as one of the great voices of the 20th century, and some called him the "new Caruso." Lanza was Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras before Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.

Domingo, in fact, has stated that he owes his love for opera to early exposure to Lanza.

As a 6-year-old, Lanza mesmerized me. I wore out Dad's recording, playing it over and over and over again. I memorized every note, every syllable, every nuance.

I began singing "The Loveliest Night of the Year" in my just-acquired "opera voice." My mom became so annoyed with my Alfalfa-esque screeching that she banished me to the outdoors.

I'd stand on a landing, midway down the stairs leading from my parents' apartment to the back patio of my grandparents' house, cinch up my diaphragm and belt out a full-throated, vibrato-drenched version of "The Loveliest Night." In the empty patio below sat my imaginary La Scala audience.

They listened, transfixed.

In short order I felt ready for prime time. I took my masterpiece to our front patio that abutted Balboa Island's Marine Avenue.

There, for several weeks that summer, I'd come out at twilight, stand on the middle rail of the low fence that surrounded our yard — wave my arms for effect — and let my voice fly with "The Loveliest Night of the Year" to my audience of neighbors and sidewalk strollers.

"When you are in love
/ It's the loveliest night of the year
/ Stars twinkle above
/ And you almost can touch them from here. Words fall into rhyme
/ Any time you are holding me near
/ When you are in love
/ It's the loveliest night of the year."

An elderly couple, who lived across the street sat on their porch swing at dusk, listened intently to my every performance.

"Bravo, Jimmy!" they'd yell back after I hit my final note. "Encore!"

I'd comply.

I soon discovered that I loved performing. My career was set. I was to be an opera star. At 6, I had no fear of public embarrassment.

Oh, to have been able to carry that uber-confidence into adulthood, or even the seventh grade. But, alas, life caught up with me. It began telling me what I couldn't do.

By the time I was a third-grader, I realized I was no Lanza. By the sixth grade, I was no Mantle. By freshman year, I was no Elvis.

I entered college searching for Jim.

But, it warmed my heart the other day to rediscover — for the first time in 50 years — Mario Lanza's "The Loveliest Night of the Year."

Ah, what might have been.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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