Guttenberg teacher/resident doing it his way
Sinatra contest winner hoping to achieve more success
by Joseph Passantino
Reporter staff writer
Jul 28, 2013 | 6637 views | 0 0 comments | 80 80 recommendations | email to a friend | print
DRESSED TO KILL – Mario Cruz as he looked the night of his contest victory: all decked out with gray suit, black tie and fedora.
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He did it his way. And his way wasn’t easy.

When Mario Cruz of Guttenberg, 61, won the “Sinatra Idol” contest in Hoboken last month, it was the culmination of nearly 20 years of singing, and specifically vocalizing the songs of the The Chairman of the Board. He bested 14 other Sinatra buffs at the seventh annual competition to come out on top.

More than 100 people attended the contest at the amphitheater in Sinatra Park and cheered when Cruz was crowned the winner. Five judges assigned numerical scores from one to five for each singer and gave a brief review after each performance. Cruz received a perfect score, garnering the top marks from each judge, and besting his runner-up by the slimmest of margins: only one point.

While Cruz was not 100 percent sure he would win, he was pretty hopeful. For a few years he was only a spectator.

“I knew there were a couple of guys who could pose a threat to me, but I was comfortable I could pull it off,” he said.

Dressed in a gray suit, black tie, and fedora, his rendition of “My Way” sealed the deal for him.

Cruz’s prizes included a trophy, author-autographed Frank Sinatra biography, and $1,000 worth of gift cards to restaurants and spas.
“I hope to build on this.” – Mario Cruz
Until now, the Zoni Language Center teacher’s musical career largely consisted of karaoke at a club at the Galaxy in Guttenberg and performing as the opening act for the summer concert series in the same town.

Cruz hopes to parlay his newfound notoriety into something more prolific. That road starts now.

“I hope to build on this,” he said.

He is being considered for a spot in the “2013 Sinatra Birthday Bash” at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on Dec. 6. The concert is held each year in honor of The Voice’s Dec. 12 entry into our world. Cruz sent an audition tape with two songs for consideration.

If he gets the Red Bank gig, it will set off a series of events from now to year’s end.

“I’ll have to go to rehearsals, then the dress rehearsal,” he said.

Cruz said he uses a Sinatra favorite, “That’s Life,” as his personal credo.

He almost did not make it to the United States, only doing so after political strike in his homeland of El Salvador in the 1980s forced his hand.

“I am the product of a civil war in my country,” he said. “I’m actually a war refugee. The place was a terrible place to live. There was death everywhere.”

But he is happy to be here for the last few decades, and enjoying all his adopted country has to offer, like musical performances and contests.

Cruz said that while he will keep on singing Sinatra songs, it will be to pay tribute to him, not imitate.

“I want to sing in his style, singing the music,” he said. “I don’t want to be an impersonator, because I think it’s disrespectful to the whole Sinatra aura. Who am I to try and imitate a genius?”

Cruz did admit to another goal he said is just a dream; singing with a live orchestra.

“That’s what I want to do,” he said. “When I see a man sing with a 30-piece orchestra, I get the chills. I feel like I should be there doing it.”

Having a winner from three miles away in Guttenberg was a bit ironic, as in the past contestants for “Sinatra Idol” have come from all across the United States and Canada.

This year’s competition had some star power, as reality TV show stars Albie and Chris Manzo from the “Real Housewives of New Jersey” were judges.

Since you can only win Sinatra Idol once, next year Cruz will do an exhibition performance, and then pass on the mantel to the 2014 winner.

The contest is run by Geri Fallo, the cultural affairs head in Hoboken.

Joseph Passantino may be reached at

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