Thursday, August 25, 2011

Julius La Rosa: The singer Arthur Godfey fired on air

Let's go back to the era of live television.  In the early 1950s, Arthur Godfrey was arguably the most powerful man on television.  He was a ubiquitous presence on the airwaves.  His face was everywhere and he had three television programs.  At the same time, an up-and-coming young singer, one of Godfrey's proteges, had become increasingly popular.  His name was Julius La Rosa.

Julius La Rosa, a Brooklyn boy, was born on January 2, 1930.  He grew up listening to the music of fellow Italian-American, Frank Sinatra.  After finishing high school, La Rosa joined the United States Navy.  He was discovered by Arthur Godfrey in 1950 while singing at at a serviceman's club in Pensacola, Florida.  Godfrey, who himself was a Naval Reserve officer, encouraged La Rosa to come to New York and promised him a job as soon as he was discharged from duty.

In 1951, La Rosa became a regular performer on two of Arthur's CBS shows.  He appeared on Arthur Godfrey Time in the morning and on the hugely popular series Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on Wednesday nights.  The "friends" included the McGuire Sisters, Marion Marlowe and Godfrey's orchestra leader, Archie Bleyer.

In 1952, Archie Bleyer formed Cadence Records.  Julius La Rosa was the first performer to sign a contract with the fledgling company.  Cadence Records' premier recording was La Rosa's first single, "Anywhere I Wander."  By 1953, La Rosa's career had really begun to take off.  His third recording, "Eh, Cumpari!" became a runaway hit.  The novelty tune, adapted from a traditional Italian song by La Rosa and Archie Bleyer, reached #2 on the Billboard chart. 

Click on the link below to listen to Julius La Rosa singing "Eh Cumpari!"

In May of 1953,, Arthur Godfrey underwent hip surgery.  When he returned to work, tensions started to arise between him and 23-year-old Julius La Rosa.  The singer gradually began to lose favour with Godfrey and the conflict eventually reached its peak on the fateful morning of October 19, 1953.  That was the day that Arthur Godfrey fired Julius La Rosa live on air (in a segment of the show broadcast on radio only).  La Rosa had just finished singing "Manhattan" on Arthur Godfrey Time when Godfrey announced, "That was Julie's swan song with us." 

There was such a public outcry over La Rosa's firing that Arthur Godfrey was compelled to hold a press conference to explain his actions.  Godfrey declared that Julius had lost his humility.  His use of the term "humility" only made matters worse for Arthur.  Comedians soon began incorporating "no humility" into their acts.  Singer Ruth Wallis recorded "Dear Mr. Godfrey," a saucy satire of the incident.  The lyrics were as follows:

Dear Mr. Godfrey, listen to my plea
Hire me and fire me and make a star of me
I will be so grateful if it can just be done
Hire me and fire me
Ed Sullivan, here I come

Although lack of humility was the stated reason for La Rosa's firing, there were other real reasons why Julius had lost favour with Godfrey.  Firstly, La Rosa's popularity had surpassed Godfrey's to the point where he received more fan mail than his boss.  Secondly, Arthur was not at all pleased that Julius had hired his own agent and manager, Tommy Rockwell.  In Godrey's eyes, that was a big no-no.  He preferred to have his own staff negotiate for La Rosa. La Rosa's third and final trangression was that he missed a dance class, a requirement for all of Arthur's "friends" who were known as the "Little Godfreys."  Arthur felt that ballet lessons would help them appear more graceful before the camera.

Arthur Godfrey never seemed to recover from the La Rosa debacle.  He lost his groove and much of his popularity.  By the 1960s, his career had declined to the point that he was reduced to hosting the occasional television special.  He remained active, however, until his passing in New York City on March 16, 1983 at the age of 79.  The cause of his death was emphysema resulting from radiation treatments for lung cancer.   

Of his feelings concerning Arthur Godfrey, Julius La Rosa stated: "The man was literally the father of my career and I'll always be grateful to him.  But it turned out he wasn't a very nice man."

Arthur Godfrey

After his firing, Julius La Rosa continued on with his career.  Ed Sullivan signed him for appearances on his CBS variety show Toast of the Town.  In the summer of 1955, La Rosa hosted his own thrice weekly live music show.  He spent the next two summers filling in for the vacationing Perry Como.  During the summer 1956, La Rosa, Patti Page and Tony Bennett shared hosting duties for a month each.  In 1957, however, La Rosa was the sole headliner and was backed up by Como's regular dancers  and orchestra.

On April 7, 1956, Julius La Rosa married Rosemary (Rory) Meyer, Perry Como's secretary.  The wedding took place in the bride's home state of Wisconsin.  It's interesting to note that In the early 1950s, the raven-haired Meyer won a national contest as actress Ava Gardner's closest lookalike. 

Through the years, La Rosa appeared on myriad television shows from The Jackie Gleason Show (also known as The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes) in 1953 to Laverne and Shirley in 1980.  On the Gleason show, he guest starred as himself.  He also played himself in an episode of Laverne and Shirley titled "Separate Tables." 

In 1980, Julius La Rosa earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor Daytme Emmy for his performance in a recurring role on the soap opera Another World.  He portrayed a happy-go-lucky waiter named Reynaldo.

Julius La Rosa continues to record music and perform at clubs and cultural events.  Now 81 years old, he has lived in Westchester County, New York for years.  He and his wife raised a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Maria, there.  Neither of the La Rosa offspring is a professional musician, although the son plays guitar.  La Rosa once stated : "Being born and raised in Brooklyn, I was always walking on concrete.  When I walked on grass, it was like I moved to the country, which is what I wanted to do.  Now with all the building (in the area), I call it Times Square North."

I checked La Rosa's official website and noticed that his schedule has not been updated since 2008.  At that time, he was scheduled to perform at several Italian festivals. 

To watch a segment from A&E's Biography on Arthur Godfrey, click on the link below.

To watch a video of Julius La Rosa singing "This is Heaven" on Aurthur Godfrey and Friends, click on the link below.    

EDITOR'S UPDATE (January 25. 2017): Julius La Rosa died on May 12, 2016 at the age of 86.  He passed away at his home in Crivitz, Wisconsin, where he and his wife, Rory, had been living since November 2015.  They relocated to Crivitz after residing in Irvington, New York for over 40 years.

- Joanne

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