America’s first successful network television variety show host, Ed Sullivan, gave a pat on the back to an Amsterdam native who was starting to make it big in show business in 1962.
Sullivan wrote in his “Little Old New York” newspaper column in the New York Daily News that vocalist Arlene Fontana was doing well in the Las Vegas production of the musical “Flower Drum Song” where she would ultimately play the character Linda Low 1,972 times.
Sullivan wrote, “To my delight I learned that Miss Fontana comes from Amsterdam where my mother and dad lived.”
Sullivan’s parents were Peter and Elizabeth Smith Sullivan, both from Amsterdam. They moved to New York City the day they were married in 1896. Peter had secured a job there as a customs inspector.
Born in 1936, Arlene Fontana was the only child of Marty and Palmera Masson Fontana. Marty Fontana came to Amsterdam as a child from Genoa, Italy. Both parents worked at Mohawk Carpet Mills. Later a salesman for WCSS radio, Marty Fontana played trombone and violin in his own band, the Knights of Rhythm.
Young Arlene Fontana studied piano and took tap, toe and ballet lessons at age 10. She performed song and dance numbers in variety shows directed by local drama teacher Bert DeRose.
In 1949, she attracted a regional following by appearing on Tommy Sternfeld’s pioneer WRGB television amateur talent program Teenage Barn. Fontana sang with WRGB performers Gary Stevens and Earle Pudney, toured with Teenage Barn and did summer stock at the Malden Bridge Playhouse.
When Fontana graduated from Wilbur H. Lynch High School in 1954, former Amsterdamian and family friend Joe Miller offered her a contract to sing at Miller’s Shell Room Lounge in Miami, Florida. Fontana and her parents moved to Miami.
Over the years she played nightclubs in New York, Chicago, London and Miami. Her television appearances included the Tonight and Ed Sullivan shows.
Her 1958 recording of “Everyone” was described as “hit material” in the music trades and received airplay in New York City and on Paul Flanagan’s radio show on WPTR in Albany. Her recording of “Easy” did well in England, getting her club dates there.
Fontana appeared in the Broadway productions of “No, No Nanette” and “The Ritz” and in the early 1960s was auditioned by Richard Rodgers himself for the role of Linda Low in the national touring company of “Flower Drum Song.”
Over a thousand of those shows were done at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas where Fontana met her future husband, Carmen LaVia, originally from Newark, New Jersey. They married at St. Michael’s Church in Amsterdam in 1965.
The couple lived in Manhattan, where LaVia worked as an actor’s and writer’s agent for the Fifi Oscard Agency. He became Fontana’s agent in 1972.
As a birthday present for her father, Fontana played a concert in 1971 at the then Coliseum Theatre in Latham. There were standing ovations at the start and conclusion of the event. Marty Fontana died in 1974.
Ten years later, Arlene Fontana was diagnosed with breast cancer. By 1987, she was well enough to perform again and was in her last stage show in 1988. Cancer returned and she died of a stroke at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in 1990. Her mother, Palmera, survived her daughter by more than a decade.
“Her greatest appeal was her energy and appearance on stage,” said LaVia, adding that she wore grand costumes, was a “powerful singer” and was always “well prepared.” Hers was a “sophisticated act,” LaVia said, with “international songs translated from Italian and French.”
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