Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate

During an era when the gulf between pop culture and fine art was much more easily bridged, Marguerite Piazza was something that is almost unfathomable today: an opera-singing pop superstar. Equipped with an abundance of both beauty and talent, Piazza captured the country’s imagination for decades as a star of the stage, radio, and television before fully committing herself to philanthropy later in life.

Destined for Stardom

Destined for Stardom

Born Marguerite Claire Luft in 1926, Piazza grew up in the musical hotbed of New Orleans and seemed destined for stardom. She began publicly performing at the age of two and quickly fell in love with the limelight. "I realized that I wanted to be a singer very early, because practicing the piano and practicing the violin was not appealing to me at all. But when I started to sing? Ah, the world opened up to me. It's what I was born to do," she said. Displaying a true commitment toward honing her craft, Piazza received fine arts degrees from both Loyola University's College of Music and Louisiana State University, where she first discovered her love of opera.

Following graduation, the singer moved to New York City under her mother's maiden name, believing that the Italian name Piazza would give her some added gravitas in the world of opera. In 1944 at the age of 18, Piazza became the youngest member of the New York City Opera, making her debut in the role of Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. In subsequent seasons she sang soprano in productions of La Bohème (as Musetta), Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), Amelia al Ballo (as Amelia), and The Gypsy Baron. Each performance was met with rave reviews. In 1945, Piazza returned home and made her debut with the New Orleans Opera, starring in the title role of Flotow's "Martha."

Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate
Marguerite Piazza
Sings Torch
Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Marguerite Piazza Sings Torch
" But when I started to sing? Ah, the world opened up to me. It's what I was born to do."
Under the Bright Lights

Under the Bright Lights

Piazza continued to perform with the New Orleans Opera for the next several years before returning to New York City to make her Broadway debut in "Happy as Larry." In 1951, Ms. Piazza made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Rosalinde von Einstein in Die Feldermaus, an honor only bestowed upon the greatest talents in the world. Having signed a record deal with Capitol Records during this period, Piazza also released the critically acclaimed albums "Memorable Moments with Marguerite Piazza" and "Marguerite Piazza Sings Torch." These records showed a more sultry and contemporary side of Piazza, foreshadowing her later career as a popular night club singer.

Sings Torch
Body and Soul
Marguerite Piazza Sings Torch
Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate
Marguerite Piazza
" Everything you see on the television today is a copy of Your Show of Shows."
Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate

Recognizing her soaring soprano voice and her undeniable charisma, NBC offered Piazza a role on the television program Your Show of Shows, an influential variety show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Your Show of Shows was a huge hit for the network and Piazza became a beloved figure, performing opera and pop tunes and even participating in skits. "We did so many inventive things. And everything you see on the television today is a copy of Your Show of Shows," she told an interviewer in 2010. After a strong five year run, the show was canceled in 1954, but not before Piazza had established herself as one of the nation's first television stars.

Your Show of Shows, November 18, 1950.
Excerpts from The Merry Widow

Your Show of Shows, September 30, 1950.
"Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"

" I needed to do something else spectacular..."
Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate

Determined to keep the momentum of her pop culture success rolling, Piazza quickly returned to the drawing board to plot her next move. "When Your Show of Shows quit, I needed to do something else spectacular….we decided we would do a supper club act and we said we would go for broke!" And go for broke she did.

Beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing for the better part of the next two decades, Marguerite Piazza became a headliner in many of the country's finest supper clubs from the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles to the Waldorf in New York City. She also performed in the nightclubs of a pre-Castro Havana. As one might expect from such a versatile performer, Piazza's shows were renowned for their wide range of musical styles and for Piazza's grace, talents, and poise. Her celebrity had reached such heights that fellow legends like Louis Armstrong and Joey Bishop served as her opening acts.

" The talent and poise that young lady had – it was stunning!"
The Third Act

The Third Act

In the 1960s, tragedy struck Piazza as she endured three melanoma-related operations. She was also treated for uterine cancer just a few short years later. During a time when few celebrities wanted to be associated with the disease, Ms. Piazza bravely chose to become an advocate for the eradication of cancer. In 1971, she became the national crusade chairman for the American Cancer Society and that same year was honored by President Nixon in recognition for her work. Ms. Piazza continued to travel the country performing her act, but was now additionally motivated by her goal of raising money and awareness to benefit cancer research.

Despite her struggles with the illness, Piazza continued to perform throughout much of the 1970s. Piazza was one of the halftime performers at Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, alongside other Big Easy legends like Al Hirt and Lionel Hampton. She also produced and recorded "The Marguerite Piazza Christmas Sing-a-Long" during this time, which has remained a holiday season standard.

Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate
Marguerite Piazza
Marguerite Piazza

In 1975, Piazza began the Marguerite Piazza Gala for the benefit of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in partnership with her friend Danny Thomas. The gala proved to be a major success and continued annually under her name for 35 years. Ms. Piazza attended the gala every year and was a frequent performer, along with the likes of Nancy Wilson and The Fifth Dimension. Over the years, the Marguerite Piazza Gala helped to raise millions of dollars for the historic children's hospital, which may ultimately be her greatest legacy.

Christmas at Home
Cantique de Noel (O, Holy Night)
Christmas at Home with Marguerite Piazza
" She sang for whoever asked her."
Diva Soprano Icon

Diva Soprano Icon

A Memphian for nearly 50 years, Piazza was heavily active in local charities and served as a patron for the arts. Throughout her life, Piazza's philanthropic and civic endeavors supported local institutions like Opera Memphis, the Memphis Symphony League, The Salvation Army, The English Speaking Union, and, of course, St. Jude. In 2006, Piazza was honored as the LSU School of Music Alumnae of the Year and also received honorary degrees from Loyola University in Chicago and Christian Brothers University in Memphis. The following year, she published her memoir "Pagliacci Has Nothing on Me," which detailed an extraordinary and complicated life. Marguerite Piazza died in 2012, leaving behind a legacy of unbelievable artistic excellence and selfless philanthropic generosity.

Marguerite Piazza Photo Credit: Marguerite Piazza Estate

Your Show of Shows, September 30, 1950.
"Pagliacci Excerpt"

The End

Be the first to add your voice.

Add Your Voice