The death of Julius LaRosa on May 12 was prominently reported in the New York Times and other media.
Surprisingly so. His fame crested in 1953 and had been ebbing ever since. But the media coverage of his passing showed he was still remembered by millions of baby boomers and their parents.
Twenty-two years ago, LaRosa was one of the few celebrity interviews I did as a reporter for the Pottstown Mercury. I was the oldest reporter on the staff, and when Editor Walt Herring shouted, “Anyone here ever hear of Julius LaRosa?” I was the first to raise my hand.
LaRosa was appearing at the grand opening of Boscov’s, a local department store, and Herring thought his presence was worth covering.
As it turned out, I spoke too soon. I had also heard of Anna Maria Alberghetti, who was also appearing at Boscov’s. I had a crush on her in the 1950s, but – despite my eager pleas – Walt assigned a younger reporter to cover her.
Be that as it may, LaRosa was a charmer, and I realized my late mother would have swooned at the chance to meet him. I couldn’t help but admire the way he would grasp an elderly woman’s hand and gaze intently at her. “I can tell you are a wonderful person,” he’d say. “I can see it in your eyes.”
LaRosa was generous with his time when we retired to a backroom for an interview. He crossed his legs and pulled out a packet of metholated cigarettes. “Please don’t mention this,” he said, holding a cigarette in the air. He lit up, inhaled deeply, and the interview commenced.
I kept his little cigarette secret all these years. But if it contributed in any way to his passing, perhaps now is time to let it be known.
Here’s the story I wrote:
LaRosa takes crowd back to the 1950s
By Philip E. Jenks
Mercury Staff Writer
NORTH COVENTRY, October 12, 1994 – It will have been 41 years next week but the memory still takes the crinkle out of Julius LaRosa’s smile.
Mention the name Arthur Godfrey, and the grin tightens across his teeth.
“He made the foolish statement about my having lost my humility,” LaRosa said Tuesday in his resonant baritone. “My humility is between me and God—not between me and another man.”
You have to be nearing 50 to know what LaRosa is talking about, but the event was – after the Army-McCarthy hearings – one of the most dramatic confrontations of television’s infancy.
LaRosa, a handsome singer from Brooklyn and a regular on Godfrey’s popular TV program, was nationally famous at 23. He became even more celebrated on October 19, 1953, when Godfrey fired him on the air.
LaRosa, 64, has had a long career as a cabaret and nightclub singer since then, but the Godfrey incident was a defining moment. It dogs him wherever he goes – even to Bocov’s this week where he is doing free shows at 2 and 7 p.m. through Saturday.
He defuses questions by mentioning the incident himself.
“By the way,” he told his audience between songs Tuesday, “it pleases me to tell you that Mr. Godfrey and I are on very good terms.”
The crowd, realizing Godfrey has been dead since 1983, laughed.
“And I have to go to confession every time I say that,” LaRosa added, driving the point home.
Backstage, LaRosa was pleased to report his side of the incident. Relaxing in a gray sweater and dark slacks, he sank into a well-padded Boscov’s easy chair following his afternoon performance.
“I was getting 5,000 to 6,000 letters a day. Mr. Godfrey was getting 4,000 to 5,000,” he said, gesturing for emphasis.
“I was dating one of the girls on the show and it was his unwritten law that you don’t fraternize with the staff.”
But the final straw came when LaRosa declared his independence from Godfrey by hiring his own agent.
“He had every right to fire me,” LaRosa said. “His mistake was the manner in which he did it.”
The incident made national headlines for weeks, and some of LaRosa’s fans took it personally.
“Just yesterday a woman came up to me and said, ‘My son was born the day you were fired,’” he said, marveling. “She said, ‘The first two things I remember hearing are, “It’s a boy” and “Arthur fired Julius!”’”
LaRosa is appearing before standing-room-only crowds in Boscov’s auditorium this week. Most of his Pottstown area fans are women in their mid-60s who like to sing along when he croons the old standards.
LaRosa, who stands 5 feet, 5 inches tall, seemed taller on Godfrey’s program – probably because his robust voice belts out the songs with authority and style.
Dressed in a neatly tailored sports jacket when he is on stage, LaRosa beams a high-wattage charm. He puts so much energy into his smile that his brown eyes seem to be swallowed up by hooded slits beneath his dark brows.
And after four decades in the business, he knows how to work a crowd.
Stepping off the 2 ½ foot high stage, he grunted as his feet touched the floor. “It used to be a lot easier than this,” he said. A woman giggled and he turned the full glare of his smile on her.
“That’s not funny,” he scolded teasingly.
“I know how you feel,” another woman told him.
Microphone in hand, LaRosa crooned his way up the aisle, gazing into women’s eyes and reaching out to take their hands.
“He’s coming, Myrtle,” a woman on the second row shouted, nudging a friend.
LaRosa’s repertoire Tuesday included, “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Any More,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” and “Bye-Bye, Blues.”
He also delivered a rich interpretation of “As Time Goes By,” which he said was the third-most popular song ever written.
LaRosa, who lives near the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City, performs in studios, ballparks, bars, fairs, nightclubs, high school auditoriums, cruise ship, theaters, arenas, and tents.
But LaRosa acknowledged Tuesday that his success depends on the support of a graying generation. “The young people – they’ve never heard of me,” he said.
His aging fans, however, will never forget him.
“It was the birth of television,” he said. “It reached its peak with the incident. LaRosa and Godfrey were on the front pages in New York for 15 days in a row. The impact of what happened to me only proves the impact and power of television.”