Sunday, May 15, 2016

Obituary: Julius La Rosa

Singer Julius La Rosa, known not only for his voice but also as being the victim of one of the most outrageous incidents in the history of broadcasting, has died. He was 86 years old. His daughter confirmed the death yesterday.

While in the Navy, he auditioned for Arthur Godfrey's radio/television program. Godfrey liked him and hired him for both the radio and television versions of Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, the name highly ironic considering subsequent events. La Rosa was a nice guy, quite modest, but he was a huge success with all kinds of record deals and received piles of fan letters. He was arguably more popular in the early 1950s than his frankly limited-talent mentor and boss. Godfrey, a jealous man, didn't like this, but even worse was the fact La Rosa got himself an agent.

Getting an agent was a major sin in the eyes of Godfrey. He did not like to deal with agents because he believed that if he allowed one of his cast members to get an agent it would open the floodgates, with him dealing with them all the time at the expense of putting on multiple programs.

Godfrey had little discernable talent, but he was a legendary workaholic and wildly popular with the public. He had something like three programs he was doing simultaneously in the 1950s. He was perhaps the hardest working individual on television/radio. He was able to do this despite being in pain a great deal of the time thanks to having been in a serious car wreck in the early 1930s.

So I could understand his attitude about agents. What I couldn't understand is how his moods would change to the point he would publicly humiliate another person.

Julius La Rosa was the most famous victim of Godfrey's wrath. On the October 19, 1953, television/radio broadcast (the program was on both at the same time) of Arthur Godfrey Time, La Rosa was scheduled to sing a song called "Manhattan," I think it was, and according to La Rosa in an interview for the Biography episode on the life and career of Arthur Godfrey, Godfrey strung La Rosa's appearance out until the very end of the program, actually after the television broadcast went off the air that day while the radio broadcast continued. La Rosa sang his heart out, and then, all of a sudden, Godfrey praised La Rosa by calling La Rosa's appearance his "swan song." With that the episode signed off.

After the broadcast, La Rosa went backstage. As Andy Rooney recalled in the same Biography program, La Rosa, shocked, asked if he had been fired.

Indeed he had. Godfrey supposedly fired him because of his "lack of humility," but Godfrey fired him because Godfrey was a mercurial asshole.

Although La Rosa continued to have success as a singer, the on-the-air firing marked the beginning of the end of Arthur Godfrey's career. There was a massive outcry from the public over La Rosa's firing, and they would not let up at all. Godfrey gradually went into obscurity. In his later years he could be seen on television peddling insurance for older people and was involved in some environmental causes. However, he was done as a major mover and shaker in broadcasting.

Here is a clip from that Biography telecast. Somebody should put the whole thing online. Arthur Godfrey was one of the most interesting individuals in television history, and this documentary was very good. It was a favorite of mine:

The New York Times weighs in:

The dismissal stunned Mr. La Rosa and the Godfrey audiences, whose reaction was largely negative. Most media critics also chastised Mr. Godfrey, whose avuncular image began to crumble. Far from being a death knell for Mr. La Rosa’s career, however, it opened new doors.

Ed Sullivan signed him, at triple his old salary, for a dozen appearances on his national television variety show, “Toast of the Town.” Soon, Mr. La Rosa recorded “Eh, Cumpari,” the biggest hit of his career, and “Domani.” He went on a national tour, appearing with Perry Como, Patti Page, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan. By 1955, “The Julius La Rosa Show” was on summer television three times a week.

He also appeared in scores of other television shows, including those of Dinah Shore, Steve Allen, Peggy Lee, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Polly Bergen, Mr. Como and Pat Boone. In 1957 he made a film, “Let’s Rock.”

In 1958 he married Rosemary Meyer, who was Mr. Como’s secretary. Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Maria Smith; a son, Chris; a sister, Sadie; and one grandson.

Over the ensuing decades, as tastes in television and music changed, Mr. La Rosa was seen in mostly regional musicals and stage productions, including “Kiss Me Kate,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “Stalag 17” and “The Realist,” often receiving excellent reviews.

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