Nicholas Petrella, 70, one of the original incorporaters of the Mario Lanza Institute And Museum and President for 30 years, died of cancer July 3rd, 1994. He was survived by brother Daniel, sister Marie, sister-in-laws Anne and Betty, nephews Louis and Thomas, and nieces, Elizabeth Plum and Margaret Skotnicki. Also his fiancée of 20 years, Frances Zirilli.
After 35 years as “South Philly’s Record King,” Nick Petrella retired his record business in 1985 and devoted his full time as President of the non-profit Institute to perpetuate the memory of world-famed tenor/actor Mario Lanza and award Lanza Scholarship grants to young talented singers.
Even though he was born handicapped (use of his left arm), it didn’t deter his fight for life. A graduate of South Phila., High School, he opened a record shop in 1946 on the corner of 19th and Mercy Streets. A few doors down, 2040 Mercy, lived a handsome young man named Alfredo Cocozza who changed Nick Petrella’s life forever. That young man changed his name to Mario Lanza and startled the world with his magnificent voice.
A well-known and respected Community member with friends far and near, Petrella won many laurels including the “Mario Lanza Award” in 1967 and the “Christopher Columbus Award” in 1992.
In his early years, Nick became a promoter and his friends included the greats of show business: Al Martino, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Buddy Greco. Jimmy Darren, even the Beatles, promoting their records and personal appearances at his record shop. His “Wall Of Fame” included photos of him with all the stars including Mario Lanza, of course, and even Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
But the photo of him and Lanza was the most treasured. After moving his shop to Broad & Snyder, he opened a back room as a Mario Lanza Museum. In 1976, Mayor Frank Rizzo cut the ribbon in the opening ceremony.
His greatest memory came in 1949 when Mario Lanza returned to Philadelphia after making his first movie, “That Midnight Kiss.” Excited Philadelphia’s prepared to welcome home one of their hometown heroes. Mercy Street was decorated for the parade and Nick displayed Lanza’s photos on his front window. He bought all the albums he could of Mario’s first record. A warm-hearted Mario took time to visit his shop and shake Petrella’s hand that day.
Nick was young and only in business for three years then, but he sold 4,000 of Mario’s albums. He never saw so much money. He told me he and his mother bounced all that money on the kitchen table with joy.
Then came October 7th, 1959, Mario Lanza died at the age of 38. It stunned the world.
Nick Petrella promises his grieving mother, Maria, he’d do everything possible to keep her son’s name alive.
In 1962, Attorney John Papola, a classmate of Mario, incorporated The Mario Lanza Institute to raise funds to help young singers to further their musical education. Petrella, one of the five originators, became President two years later.
Over 170 Scholarships grants have been awarded thus far with funds raised from the annual Mario Lanza Ball. Award winners now perform in many opera companies. The most successful is tenor Lando Bartolini, who sings at the Met and leading opera houses in the world.
From that small back-room in Petrella’s Record Shop, the Mario Lanza Museum is now Beautifully housed in the Settlement Music School, at 416 Queen Street, attracting visitors worldwide.
Under Nick Petrella’s presidentship along with the Board and Members, Mario Lanza now enjoys renewed stardom and loving remembrance. His records, movie videos and memorabilia are purchased gleefully from fans who have not forgotten.
And Mario’s friend, Nick Petrella, likewise will never be forgotten. This caring, gentle, religious man, who’s parting words were always: “GOD BLESS YOU,” has enriched our lives. His large and pleasant presence will be missed. Always a gentleman, and truly a gentle man, Nick now walks with God. What can we say after we’ve said, “WE LOVE YOU, NICK?”