Vivian DellaChiesa, who won a national singing contest at age 16 with her full-timbre lyric soprano voice and went on to star in opera, radio, television and nightclubs, died Tuesday at the Hillaire Nursing Home in Huntington. She was 94.
A native of Chicago's South Side, DellaChiesa won against 3,800 other singers who entered the WBBM radio contest in Chicago; its final segment was aired nationally on CBS radio. She was awarded a $100-a-week contract and appeared on various radio programs.
Radio led to her opera debut as Mimi in "La Bohème" at the Chicago Lyric Opera in the late 1930s. She toured internationally and became a protege of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini.
"She was Toscanini's favorite soprano," said DellaChiesa's niece, Barbara Wolin of Las Vegas.
DellaChiesa starred in the first television broadcast of an opera, singing the garden scene from "Faust." She was a guest on Steve Allen's "Tonight Show" and "The Milton Berle Show."
During her heyday in the 1950s, DellaChiesa moved to Huntington, bringing her widowed mother from Chicago to live with her. Wolin said her mother - DellaChiesa's sister - and father were building a house in Huntington. Then Wolin's father died.
The opera singer "insisted that we come and stay with them. My mother, a widow, my brother and I lived there for a number of years. It was a wonderful thing, a wonderful time," Wolin said.
In the 1960s, DellaChiesa began singing popular songs in supper clubs, debuting at the Empire Room at the Waldorf- Astoria and then at major nightclubs around the country, Wolin said.
"She was able to bridge that gap between opera and pop singing because she had a great style and a great voice," Wolin said.
DellaChiesa also hosted her own daily television show on WLW in Cincinnati during the 1960s. Her announcer and sidekick was Nick Clooney, brother of singer Rosemary Clooney and father of actor George Clooney.
"She was a very positive person. She never let anything defeat her. That's the way she was in her whole life," Wolin said. "She had a wonderful sense of humor. Her laugh was infectious."
DellaChiesa retired from nightclubs in the late 1980s and began teaching voice at a ranch home she moved to in Greenlawn.
"Vivian was the grande dame. She was loving, very very aware of the students she was working with," said friend and student Ron Meizsell of Northport.
Wolin said DellaChiesa's third husband, Alfred Re, died more than a decade ago. Besides Wolin, DellaChiesa is survived by her nephew, Barry Thompson of upstate New York. Services were Friday at the Church of St. Patrick in Huntington, followed by interment at St. Patrick Cemetery.