Homeless man, found slain, had a zest for stage

2013-09-29T12:30:00Z 2013-09-29T17:03:20Z Homeless man, found slain, had a zest for stageBy Kimberly Matas Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Christopher Mazzarella found his greatest success on the Tucson stage as a “delightful leprechaun” in the musical Finian’s Rainbow, but his all-too-short real life was more Shakespearean tragedy than light opera.

Mazzarella, 47, who struggled with alcoholism and mental illness throughout his adult life, was murdered and buried in a shallow grave at the now-closed DeAnza Drive-in theater near 22nd Street and Alvernon Way.

Construction workers unearthed Mazzarella’s remains in May 2012. He was identified earlier this month through DNA his mother, Judy Cook, provided to a national registry for families of the missing. He’s believed to have died in late 2009 and she reported his disappearance in early 2010.

Mazzarella died not far from his childhood home.

He was born in California and spent his early years living in Ohio. Cook, a single-mother, moved to Tucson with her son when he was 10. They lived in a trailer park near the DeAnza, close enough to see the movies play across the giant outdoor screens.

“From their back window you could look out and see the theater screens … and there were times we’d sit there and watch the movies,” said friend Dan Tremblay. “I found it really ironic that’s where they found him.”

Tremblay met Mazzarella when they were teens cast in productions of the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company (SALOC). He and others from the company are gathering Sunday afternoon to remember Mazzarella.

Saturday morning, Cook, who planned to attend the memorial, flipped through the many scrapbooks that hold reminders of her son’s accomplishments.

“He was the happiest baby you could ever imagine,” she said.

The ephemera she saved, includes the “crib card” from the Santa Monica hospital where Mazzarella was born, a blue ribbon he won at a regional putt-putt golf tournament in 1974, team pictures from little league and football and his membership card from the Junior National Honor Society at Naylor Middle School.

She also saved a copy of the $75 check Mazzarella earned for winning a 1975 city-wide talent show, and every program from every school concert and production of SALOC in which he appeared.

Always pragmatic, yet hopeful her son would get his life back on track, Cook even saved the 1990 letter from the U.S. Army informing her Mazzarella was AWOL from his Colorado base, and the certificate he received in 2007 from the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration hospital upon his completion of a substance abuse treatment program.

She also has photos of her only grandchild, now 19. Mazzarella’s own father, who also died in 2009, had little interest in his son; a trait he passed on, Cook said. She has one photo from 1993 of Mazzarella holding his newborn.

Mazzarella was 13 or 14 when he was cast in his first light opera production by the company’s founder, Hal Hundley.

“When he got on that stage he was wonderful, Hundley said. “He was always there on time and learned his lines, his numbers, and just really worked like a real pro.

“Whatever role I wanted him to do, if it was just in the chorus or a principal part, he would take it and run with it and do a good job. He was a delight on the stage and the cast loved him.”

Harriett Cowhey was the musical director for SALOC when Mazzarella performed with the group.

“The best thing he did was in Man of La Mancha when he was the barber,” she said. “Any character that he was asked to do, it just came through. He became the character. He was a real jewel.”

The most memorable of Mazzarella’s 17-or-so SALOC performances was his 1980 portrayal of the leprechaun, Og, in Finian’s Rainbow. It was a role suited to his stature and personality. Mazzarella was a lean, strawberry blond teen whose grand stage presence belied his lean, 5-foot-7-inch frame.

“He did a really good job in that performance,” Tremblay said. “Everybody loved him in that. He had a personality that didn’t quit.”

Reviews from the Tucson Citizen, called Mazzarella’s performance “delightful” and “ingratiating.”

His leading lady in the show also found Mazzarella delightful. The pair began dating and, when Mazzarella returned to Tucson from a season of summerstock on the East Coast, they wed. In 1983, the newlyweds moved to California to pursue theater work.

For a while they shared an apartment in Hollywood with another SALOC member, John Colorado, and his wife.

“The young man I knew was so vibrant and full of life and energetic and enthusiastic,” Colorado said. “He took everything in life by the horns. If he committed to something, it was 100 percent. Whether it was theater or friendship or golf or his marriage, he was fully committed.

“He had such a wonderful spirit. It’s really hard for me to reconcile the photos of him with the Christopher I knew,” Colorado said of the aged-beyond-his-years photo of Mazzarella that police released when his remains were identified earlier this month. “The vacant eyes the lifeless vacancy I saw on his face that’s not the Christopher I loved and adored and grew up with.

“In retrospect, in all the time we spent with him, we could see a shift to some sort mental illness and he used alcohol as some sort of medication for that,” Colorado said. “He obviously was suffering from something. There were some days he would come over and he was ready to take over the world. Sometimes it was grandiose and I had to talk him down. He would take off on these Quixotian adventures sometimes, then there was the crash.”

Drinking took over his enthusiasm for theater, and within a couple of years, his alcoholism got the better of his marriage, too.

“He was very much the romantic. He always thought his ex-wife might forgive him and come back to him,” said Marlowe Weisman, a friend from SALOC, who rented a Hermosa Beach guesthouse with Mazzarella after he divorced.

In California, Mazzarella traded his enthusiasm for theater into a passion for golf. He got a job at a pro shop, gave lessons and had hopes of joining the pro circuit.

“He was very fascinated with golf; maybe because it allowed him to pontificate or dissect it. He was a complex thinker,” Weisman said. “Golf seemed to exploit that philosopher in Chris. He could turn any subject into a philosophical one. Golf … appealed to him as being something he could work very hard at and conquer.”

Mazzarella’s interest in golf pre-dated his move to California. He turned Tremblay onto the game when they were teens.

“The putter that I use in my bag right now is one he gave me. It’s been in my bag for 30 years,” Tremblay said.

The friends used to hit the greens from time to time, but once the alcoholism and mental illness took hold, Mazzarella lost touch with his golf buddy.

Tremblay last saw Mazzarella in 2009.

“He’d call me once in a while out of the blue,” Tremblay said. “I knew he had been living on the streets, he had been homeless. He had issues with alcoholism. He had a lot of health issues he was dealing with (but) I didn’t even recognize him he looked so different.”

“He stayed sober as long as he thought he could,” Cook said of her son, who began drinking again less than a year after completing the VA program. “He was on the street because that’s what he wanted to do. He was an alcoholic and he didn’t want to live any other life.

“You wonder how people who have so much talent can end up where he ended up.”

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