Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Marguerite Piazza, the New Orleans-born opera star, whose career included performances at the Metropolitan Opera, for Capitol Records and on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” died Thursday in Memphis. She was 86.
Mrs. Piazza had lived in Memphis since the 1970s, where she was a generous fundraiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, where an annual gala in her name raised millions for the cause, with performances from celebrities she had befriended during her career. She also raised funds for the American Cancer Society, a role she undertook in 1971, after her first of many bouts with the disease.
Born the daughter of Italian immigrants in New Orleans, Mrs. Piazza began performing at the age of two in a local dance revue. She graduated from Loyola University’s college of music and studied at LSU. She joined the New York City Opera in 1944 as its youngest member.
A few years later, she joined the cast of Sid Caesar’s NBC comedy classic “Your Show of Shows” in 1950, singing opera, musical numbers and ballads, and occasionally performing in skits. According to her obituary in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in recent years she had been gathering and restoring tapes of her performances on the program, donating copies to the University of Memphis’s music library.
After appearing with the New Orleans Opera Association, in 1950, Mrs. Piazza starred on Broadway in Happy as Larry with Burgess Meredith directing and starring in the title role. In 1951 she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Rosalinde von Eisenstein in "Die Fledermaus."
After her operatic career, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Mrs. Piazza was later a headliner in supper clubs for 18 years and performed at such places as the Coconut Grove and the Sands in Los Angeles, and the Plaza and the Waldorf in New York.
The diva endured the deaths of three of her four husbands and the suicide of one of her six children. Her health battles included suffering from melanoma on her face in the 1960s and uterine cancer in the 1970s. In 1971 she was honored by President Richard Nixon for her courage in fighting the disease.
She titled her autobiography “Pagliacci Has Nothing on Me,” referencing the clown who wears a smile though his heart is breaking, she said.
Even after relocating to Memphis, she returned to New Orleans to perform at the Roosevelt Hotel Blue Room and with the New Orleans Pops, and to receive honors from the city and local Italian-American groups. The ball gown she wore as the first queen of the Krewe of Virgilians, established by local Italian-Americans, is in the possession of the American Italian Cultural Center.
Funeral services will be held in Memphis. Visitation will be 5 to 7 p.m. Monday at Canale Funeral Directors, 2700 Union Ave. Extended. A funeral Mass will be 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Louis Catholic Church.