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Remember Café 322 in Sierra Madre?    

This was an Italian restaurant that, in addition to an eclectic variety of entertainment offered during the week, was the place where patrons of all ages and walks of life gathered on Sunday nights to sing opera. Yes, that’s right, opera. 

Mario Lalli sang with the New York City Opera in the 1940s. He opened his first restaurant in Aspen, Colorado in 1952, which he modeled after an Italian restaurant in New York City that offered live opera. 

The business moved to Denver for 14 years and eventually to various locations in the Palm Springs area. During its time in the Coachella Valley, his son, Mario Lalli Jr, utilized the venue further by putting on a series of outdoors concerts. 

The family business relocated to the Playhouse District in Pasadena in 2002, and finally to Sierra Madre in 2005, with an established reputation of serving great food with every kind of music imaginable. However, in 2012, Café 322 could no longer survive the recession and ended up closing its doors for good.

In 2010, filmmaker Anne Davis O’Neal of Burbank began documenting the happenings at the café. O’Neal, who was not necessarily a lover of opera at the time, had been looking to make the transition into documentary filmmaking, so she followed a lead about the scene that was going on Sunday nights in Sierra Madre.

What she found at Café 322 was an inspiring group of loyal opera fans, the youngest being 19. Some of the group had been singing together for 50 years, going back to the days of Sarno’s Caffe dell’Opera on Vermont Avenue in Hollywood, which closed in 1991. O’Neal learned that she was not as estranged to opera as she had originally thought. She found herself recognizing many of the tunes that she had been exposed to in other mediums yet never fathoming that their origins were in opera. 

“It was a very heartwarming experience for me,” recalls O’Neal, “I was especially impressed with the audience who were so engaged and invested and would sing all the choral responses back.”  

O’Neal, a firm believer that art is not a luxury but rather a necessity, had found an ideal project to illustrate how art enriches people’s lives. She felt that the project would appeal to a broader audience, that there were people like her out there who might actually enjoy opera. 

“I was faced with the decision to either go to film school or make a movie,” says O’Neal. “I chose to make a movie.” 

Also in 2010, Sarah Davis, O’Neal’s mother and a former teacher, was 92. Anne explains, “I had been looking for something personal that we could share together.” So began a three year labor of love, a self-funded documentary, “Sing Your Own Song: An Opera Love Story.”

“My mother and I would plan and look at what I had shot together. She never got to see the finished film.”

Mario Lalli, who sang tenor well into his 80s and might be perceived a little intimidating at first, is an integral figure in the film. 

“He would hear broadcasts of past Metropolitan Operas and tell stories that he remembered being in the audience for that performance. When he spoke of opera his face became young again,” shares O’Neal.

The film follows the characters outside of the cafe and into their own individual life circumstances. 

“In addition to their talent and mutual support, I was moved by this group’s resilience in the face of life’s challenges,” says O’Neal, who is responsible for both the camera work and the editing. 

She held several test screenings for small groups along the way and is extremely grateful to all of her editor friends who took the time to give feedback on the various cuts. It was very important to O’Neal that the characters in the film get to see the finished product in a real movie theater. 

Mario Lalli passed away in 2015. He lived long enough to see a screening of the one-hour documentary at the Valley Film Festival in North Hollywood in 2014. The film was also broadcast times on PBS SoCal (KOCE) in July. 

“Sing Your Own Song: An Opera Love Story” will screen again at 7 p.m. tonight, Nov. 17,  at the Barth Community Room of the Crowell Public Library, 1890 Huntington Drive, San Marino. A Q&A session follows. The event is free.

For more information, call (626) 300-0777 or visit crowellpubliclibrary.org.