Amsterdam

Cudmore: Amsterdam native was theater, TV and night club star

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Arlene Fontana, an Amsterdam native, performed on Broadway and appeared almost 2 thousand times in the national company of “Flower Drum Song.”  In a show business career that spanned four decades, Fontana sang on numerous TV programs, including Ed Sullivan, and played nightclubs in New York, Chicago, London and Miami.

“Her greatest appeal was her energy and her appearance on stage,” said Fontana’s husband and theatrical agent Carmen LaVia.

Born in 1936, Arlene was the only child of Marty and Palmera Masson Fontana. Marty Fontana came to Amsterdam as a young child from Genoa, Italy.  A salesman for WCSS radio and other companies, Marty played trombone and violin in his own band, the Knights of Rhythm.

Arlene began taking tap, toe and ballet lessons at age 10.  She also studied piano. When she was 14, she did song and dance numbers in variety shows directed by drama coach and later high school principal Bert DeRose.

In 1949, she attracted a regional following by appearing on the WRGB television program Teenage Barn.  At the time, television was a rapidly growing medium and there were several local music shows.  Fontana sang with WRGB performers Gary Stevens and Earle Pudney, toured New York, Massachusetts and Vermont with Teenage Barn and did summer stock at the Malden Bridge Playhouse.

In high school, she won an essay contest on the dangers of Communism and worked on a WCSS radio theater series directed by speech teacher Grace Rutherford.

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.  Fontana and her parents moved to Miami.

For a year, she sang in Miami nightclubs then secured bookings in Pittsburgh, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Las Vegas.  She was a favorite on Television Nacional in pre-Castro Cuba.  Her recording of “Easy” backed with “I’m In Love” on a 45 record in the late 1950s did well in England, getting her club dates in London.

Fontana appeared in the Broadway productions of “No, No Nanette” and “The Ritz” and in the early 60s was auditioned by Richard Rodgers for the part of Linda Low in the national touring company of “Flower Drum Song.”  She played that role with its signature song, “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” a record 1,972 times.

Over 1,000 of those shows were done at the Thunderbird in Las Vegas where Fontana met her future husband.  She and Carmen LaVia married at St. Michael’s Church in Amsterdam in 1965.  The couple lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where LaVia worked as an agent for actors and writers with the Fifi Oscard Agency.  He became Fontana’s agent in 1972 and she continued to perform.

On television, she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, Merv Griffin, Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas Show.  She acted in soap operas, including “Another World” and “Loving.”

As a birthday present for her father, Fontana played a concert in 1971 at the then Coliseum Theatre in Latham.  Marty Fontana died in 1974.

In 1984, Arlene Fontana was diagnosed with breast cancer.  By 1987, she was well enough to perform again on a cruise ship and other locations and was in her last stage show – “This Joint Is Jumpin'” – in 1988.  Cancer returned and she died of a stroke at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in May 1990. Her mother, Palmera, survived her daughter by more than a decade.  Palmera died in Amsterdam in 2001.  Fontana’s husband Carmen LaVia died in 2017 in New York City. 

Contact Bob Cudmore at [email protected]. His history podcasts are at www.bobcudmore.com.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

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