26 June 2017

Alberto Rabagliati - singer and actor

Performer found fame through radio

Alberto Rabagliati won a contest as  a Rudolph Valentino lookalike
Alberto Rabagliati won a contest as
a Rudolph Valentino lookalike
The singer and movie actor Alberto Rabagliati, who became one of the stars of Italian radio in the 1930s and 40s, was born on this day in 1906 in Milan.

His movie career reached a peak in the post-War years, when he had roles in the Humphrey Bogart-Ava Gardner hit Barefoot Contessa and in Montecarlo, starring Marlene Dietrich.

The son of parents who had moved to Milan from the village of Casorzo, near Asti, in Piedmont, Rabagliati’s career in the entertainment business began when he entered a competition in 1927 to find a Rudolph Valentino lookalike.

To his astonishment he won.  The prize was to be taken to Hollywood to audition, so his life changed overnight.  Later he recalled his own wide-eyed incredulity as he sailed across the Atlantic, bound for a new life.  "For someone like me, who had never been beyond Lake Como or Monza Cathedral, finding myself on board a luxury steamer with three cases full of clothes, a few rolls of dollars, gran-duchesses and countesses flirting with me was something extraordinary".

He lived in America for the next four years but never achieved more than modest success and decided to return to Italy. During his time in America, however, he took the opportunity to get to know some new musical genres such as jazz, swing, and ‘scat’ singing, in which the vocalist uses his or her voice to make sounds rather than words, such as the ‘doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah’ lines repeated in It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.

On coming home he was determined he would make a success as a singer and he realised his ambition in some style.

Rabagliati recording one of his radio shows in the 1940s
Rabagliati recording one of his radio shows in the 1940s
After joining a popular band called the Lecuona Cuban Boys, in which he performed with his face painted black, he met the songwriter Giovanni D'Anzi who arranged for him to have an audition with the Italian state radio station, EIAR, in Rome.

Rabagliati soon became a star and by 1941 had his own show, Canta Rabagliati ("Rabagliati sings"). It spurned a string of hits, including Ma l'amore no, Mattinata fiorentina, and Bambina innamorata.  He developed a huge following, mainly among women, and when he appeared on stage he would have hundreds of roses thrown at his feet.

He owned a large American car, which the Italian authorities at one time threatened to confiscate, because the Fascist regime banned all manifestations of foreign culture.

The Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, however, sensed he could use Rabagliati’s popularity to his own advantage and personally intervened to ensure the singer kept his car.  Mussolini persuaded Rabagliati to lend one of his songs to the government’s campaign to persuade Italians to buy into his vision of Fascist family life, adopting Sposi (c'è una casetta piccina) as an anthem for the campaign, celebrating newlyweds in their own "little house".

Rabagliati was lined up to work alongside Raffaella Carrà in a new TV show
Rabagliati was lined up to work alongside
Raffaella Carrà in a new TV show
It is said that Mussolini privately despised Rabagliati’s music, with its heavy American influences, and reputedly flew into a rage one day when he discovered his mistress, Clara Petacci, listening to one of his records, dragging it off the turntable and smashing it.

Rabagliati used his fame as a singer to kick-start his film career and appeared in more than 20 films between 1940 and the mid-1960s, including Barefoot Contessa, Montecarlo, Il vedova (The Widow) and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, in which he played Santa Claus.

He began to act on stage too, landing many parts in musical revues and comedies.  It seemed he was about to break into television in a big way, too, making a guest appearance on a new show Milleluci, presented by Mina Mazzini and Rafaella Carrà.

He was so impressive that Mina wanted him to be on the show regularly and he was about to agree a deal on becoming a co-host in March 1974 when he collapsed and died from a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 67.

Rabagliati, who had married Maria Antonietta Tonnini in 1954, was buried at the Cimitero Flaminio in Rome, next to his mother.

The impressive Baroque cathedral at Asti
The impressive Baroque cathedral at Asti
Travel tip:

Asti is one of the most important cities in Piedmont in terms of art and literature, notably as the birthplace of Vittorio Alfieri, the famous 18th century poet and dramatist. The town's historic centre, is charmingly quaint, the highlight of which is the triangular Piazza Alfieri, where the town’s famous Palio horse race is staged.   It has a wealth of palaces, towers and ancient churches, and a magnificent Gothic cathedral.

Travel tip:

The Cimitero Flaminio is in the Rome suburb of Prima Porta, which is so called because of an arch under an aqueduct carrying water across the Via Flaminia, which was considered a gateway into Rome from the north.  The Via Flaminia, which effectively begins at Piazza del Popolo in the centre of Rome, stretches all the way across the Apennines to what is now Rimini on the Adriatic coast.


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