Caruso sings on ... and smokes on ... at a museum shrine

Thursday, July 20, 2000

By Verena Dobnik,   Associated Press

Opera star Enrico Caruso sings in a documentary film screened April 25, 2000, by Aldo Mancusi, left, in his Brooklyn, N.Y., home, which he has turned into a shrine to the great Italian tenor. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

"O Sole Mio" ends inside an antique jukebox where the dancers grace tiny lampshades. The needle drops to the next record.

The Italian tenor died nearly 80 years ago. But the music that fills the Enrico Caruso Museum in a small New York City house endures around the world, too and still stirs controversy.

In a recent CD set, "Caruso 2000," a remastered collection of his mega-selling hits, his voice was electronically removed from its original settings and added to a new background by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Purists were outraged. "Why not open the floodgates completely?" asks The New York Times. What's next, the paper added, "Yo Caruso! E.C. Gets Down With Puff Daddy"?

Such hoopla about a long-dead opera singer is proof of a vocal genius that has never been replicated since Caruso's death in 1921.

After a nickel is inserted, the voice rising from the jukebox still sends shivers up the spine with its raw yet refined emotion.

The jukebox made in Chicago by the Mills Novelty Co., which also made gambling machines now sits on the second floor of a modest brick rowhouse in Brooklyn.

The first floor is the home of Aldo Mancusi, a retired contractor who has built a shrine to Caruso on a street where some small front lawns are graced by Virgin Mary statues. The working-class neighborhood is miles from the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan, where Caruso delivered 861 performances; only Placido Domingo has sung more Met opening nights than Caruso by just one, a total of 18.

There isn't a corner of the house that's free of images of the great tenor even a kitchen sink, flanked by a can of "Enrico Caruso Olive Oil" that's manufactured in Italy as "The Oil That Sings."

Enrico Caruso sits at a desk behind a ubiquitous cloud of cigarette smoke in this undated photo released by Aldo Mancusi, who has turned his Brooklyn, N.Y., home into a shrine to the great Italian tenor. AP Photo

It was in this part of Brooklyn not far from the Coney Island boardwalk that Caruso sang at the Sheepshead Bay racetrack during World War I to raise money for Allied troops.

About a dozen years later, Mancusi was a boy listening to the family's collection of Caruso recordings. "I often wondered why my father would sit there and cry," he recalls. "Later, we had many crying sessions."

Caruso also had a roaring sense of humor, which he transformed into caricatures. No one is spared in the scathingly satiric profiles in the museum, which include those of conductor Arturo Toscanini and composer Giuseppe Verdi.

They're part of the Caruso collection Mancusi officially started 35 years with his father's 70 original Victor records of Caruso. Parts of it have traveled to Italy and have been featured in various exhibits and documentaries.

Mancusi, 70, is now seeking a Manhattan venue to house his museum and make it more accessible to visitors.

Also on display is the most unlikely staple of the great singer's life strong Egyptian cigarettes he smoked through an elegant, tortoise-shell holder.

"Caruso would not sign a contract with any opera house that didn't allow him to smoke when he performed," says Mancusi. "He said smoking made his voice what it was, adding to the rich texture."

At one fire-prone German house, there was a rule: The swarthy Neapolitan tenor could light up his usual "Egyptian Prettiest" brand cigarettes but only next to a firefighter with a bucket of water.

In Mancusi's black-and-white Caruso photographs, tall stacks of cigarette smoke rise from the cigarette in his hand.

Lest some aspiring Carusos try puffing to enrich their voice, the end of the singer's life might have been linked to nicotine. He broke a blood vessel in his throat while singing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1920. The performance was stopped.

Caruso performed only three times after that, at the Met. And he collapsed after his last performance of Jacques Halevy's "La Juive." A photograph shows his fiercely passionate, but world-weary face in the role of Eleazar.

A music stand at the museum holds a yellowed copy of The New York Herald announcing Caruso's death on Aug. 2, 1921, at the Vesuvius Hotel in Naples. He died of an abscess that brought on peritonitis, the paper said.

It was front-page news, along with the story announcing that some former Chicago White Sox players had been acquitted of alleged conspiracy to throw the World Series. In his heyday, Caruso was as popular as baseball.

The museum's 20-seat theater holds a piece of the old Metropolitan Opera that stood at 39th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and was demolished for the new uptown Met at Lincoln Center.

In the theater, Mancusi projects silent documentary footage of a swank Caruso, in tailored suit and wing-tip shoes, as he makes his way through a crowd of fans dying to touch him.

Caruso earned thousands of dollars per performance more than any singer at the time. And at one point, he became so wealthy that he was the target of armed extortionists.

After that, when he sang the role of Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's "Tosca," which ends with a firing squad, Caruso personally checked every rifle before the performance.

But the grand life was accompanied by great generosity.

When he saw an elderly man shivering in a winter bread line, Caruso took off his own coat and handed it to him. At Tiffany's, he would buy gold coins to give them away. And he started the Central Park free open-air concerts.

But this was no holier-than-thou artist. Caruso bore his own crosses, sinking them into the heart-ripping roles that made his career.

At the museum hang photographs of his first great love, Ada Giachetti, a divorced Italian woman with whom he lived for a decade. She bore him four children; two of them died young.

He would write her from around the world, including a card postmarked in Moscow on which he announces his homecoming in Italian, writing, "I'm coming to kiss you!"

But Giachetti walked out on him after a mysterious encounter between Caruso and her sister, Rina, to whom the great singer had earlier been attracted.

For the rest of his life, Caruso sent Ada Giachetti money. At one point, the mistress would receive the money from Caruso's wife, Dorothy Benjamin, whom he married in 1919. She bore him a daughter, Gloria.

At the museum, a 1906 Victor windup phonograph plays a 1910 Caruso recording of "Core 'ngrato" meaning ungrateful heart.

Amazingly, the giant golden horn that rises from the square wooden machine when one puts an ear to the fuzzy, crackling sound emits a voice that is uncannily true-to-life and still embodies the sound of heartbreak.

"I'm not a man at all," Caruso said late in life. "I'm just a money-making machine. It's not that they value me, Caruso, but only because of my throat which I have sold to managers as Faust sold to Mephistopheles."

The Enrico Caruso Museum of America is located at
1942 E. 19th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11229-3540
Please phone or email in advance to Cav. Uff. Aldo Mancusi at
(718)-368-3993 or

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A Scripps Howard newspaper.