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How Fabian found peace (but not exactly quiet) in Fayette Count

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like Madonna or Prince, he's one of those folks who needs just one name.

Fabian and his wife, Andrea Patrick Forte, outside their Fayette County home. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

He has a couple of gold records and a string of movie credits with the likes of John Wayne and James Stewart. The legion of teens who used to scream and swoon in his pompadoured presence have remained loyal, packing the 40 concerts he gives each year.

But here last week was Fabian, in baseball cap, worn sneakers and sweat pants with half-a-dozen holes in the knees, sinking into an easy chair and shaking off the chill of an afternoon spent laboring in the Fayette County woods around his new Dunbar Township home.

"I just painted that fence," the heartthrob of the late '50s and early '60s said with a grin, pointing to the white rails that separate his yard from the acres of trees beyond. "How do you like it?"

Earlier this month, singer Fabian Forte, 57, and his wife, Fayette County native Andrea Patrick Forte, 39, moved into the spacious brick house with white columns, about five miles north of Uniontown.

Their move to the country was a drastic change from Los Angeles, where Forte had lived since his teens, and his wife -- a former Miss Pennsylvania and Miss West Virginia -- still owns a talent agency that represents speakers and models.

The couple that once could shop on Rodeo Drive now drives to Giant Eagle and Lowe's. Instead of hobnobbing with stars, they've spent their days planting vegetables or fishing in a pond stocked with bass.

Best known for his hits "I'm a Man," "Tiger" and "Turn Me Loose," Fabian no longer has the baby face and luxuriant upswept hair that marked the 14-year-old who, as legend has it, was spotted by talent scouts while sitting on the front steps of his family's house in South Philadelphia. Today, his reddish-brown hair is neatly parted on the side, but his trim waist and broad smile remain.

He still performs, appearing regularly in Atlantic City, N.J.; Las Vega; and other cities. As he is doing this weekend in Melbourne, Fla., he also entertains as one of the "Golden Boys" with fellow icons Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon.

Fabian plans to hang onto his house in Los Angeles, where his daughter and son from a previous marriage still live. But with his wife's parents within shouting distance and his two brothers and other relatives a half-day's drive away in or near Philadelphia, he and his wife are making their primary home on a windswept hill with a spectacular view.

"Everyone [in Los Angeles] said, 'Why are you moving back there? What's back there?' " Andrea said. "Everything's here -- family, old friends. This beautiful place is just such a joy for us."

Andrea's parents, Gladys and Richard Patrick, live next door, and her father owns a Chevrolet dealership in Dunbar Township. She graduated in 1979 from Laurel Highlands High School, where she was a featured baton twirler with the band. She won the Pennsylvania-Miss USA title in 1980.

She graduated in 1983 from West Virginia University and, a year later, represented West Virginia in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. Using pageant contacts, she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a model and actress before opening her agency in Toluca Lake, Calif.

Andrea and Fabian met in 1991 while she was jogging and he was walking his dog. After their wedding Sept. 19, 1998 -- his third, her first -- at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa in Farmington, they spent more and more time with their families in Pennsylvania and finally decided to build a home here.

"I wanted to be nearer to home. My family is everything to me," Andrea said. "At this point in our lives, we wanted a simpler, less stressful life. It was a natural progression to move back here after we'd been visiting."

Winking in her husband's direction, Andrea joked that he was happy to exchange the crowds and traffic of Los Angeles for "a place where he could hide and fish every day."

"I'm a very private guy," he agreed. "I've found a small-town atmosphere with nice people and lots of land. I'm very happy here."

Contractor troubles

But to their chagrin, their homecoming has been marred by conflicts with both the resort where they were married and with Connellsville builder Roy DeWitt Jr., who constructed their $355,000 home. Both of those disputes ended up this fall in Fayette County Common Pleas Court.

In court papers, Nemacolin Woodlands charged that the Fortes still owed $4,663 in unpaid bills from their wedding reception, plus interest. DeWitt, in his lawsuit, claims he's owed nearly $52,000 for construction work.

The Fortes fired back, charging in court papers that Nemacolin Woodlands inflated prices and padded their bill for the alcohol served at their 108-guest reception. Andrea also countersued DeWitt, maintaining that he missed construction deadlines and performed shoddy work.

DeWitt and his attorney, Michael J. Macko of Connellsville, did not return calls last week. The Fortes said the lawsuits came after months of conflict between them and DeWitt over what they maintain were unnecessary delays and poor construction.

The couple said DeWitt pledged to have the exterior walls and roof done by last December and the entire house done early this year. Displaying photographs and videotapes, Andrea contends the house's walls now are crooked, its basement is damp and its floors are warped because DeWitt had built just one exterior wall by the time snow began falling last December. Heavy rain followed in March.

Fabian said he began getting telephone calls last spring from building supply companies, demanding to know why he hadn't compensated DeWitt for supplies purchased for the house.

"I was mortified," he said, displaying checks written to pay DeWitt in installments. "People are thinking I don't pay my bills, and I've never had that reputation."

After several heated discussions with DeWitt over the pace of construction and the calls from suppliers, Andrea and Fabian said things came to a head in September, when DeWitt demanded the final payment of $48,000. The couple had a list of more than 60 tasks that remained unfinished, so they gave him $26,000.

Fabian said DeWitt confronted him Sept. 11 and demanded the balance. But Fabian said he refused to pay any more until DeWitt had completed or fixed everything in the house.

The couple then went shopping at the Uniontown Kmart. When they returned a couple of hours later, DeWitt had changed the locks on the doors, deactivated the electronic garage door and left a note taped to a window that said: "House is locked. Call me."

Andrea and Fabian went to her parents' home and called their attorney. Later that night, Fabian said, he had a nasty confrontation with DeWitt's sons in the driveway in which he said they threatened to kill him and tried to reach into his car to grab him by the throat.

State police in Uniontown confirmed that the Fortes filed a report about that incident. No charges were filed, but the Fortes' attorney, Joseph George of Uniontown, sent a series of letters advising Roy DeWitt that the Fortes intended to nullify their contract if he did not complete the house.

Instead, DeWitt sued, prompting the Fortes' countersuit. Andrea and Fabian moved into the house last month and hired other workers to complete the work and fix things that they say DeWitt did incorrectly. Already, they said they've spent $600 to try to fix two furnaces that failed to heat the house.

Other flaws and incomplete tasks were evident during a visit last week. The white double doors in the front entry hung crookedly and had no trim or framing between them and the brick walls. Another firm repaired them Wednesday.

Toilets backed up when flushed. Neither of the two whirlpool bathtubs held water because the drain stoppers didn't seal. Globs of paint marred roughly sanded walls. Plywood covered a hole in the master bedroom floor.

Humidifiers and fans hummed in an effort to remove the whiff of dampness from the basement. In the airy, open kitchen/great room, the dishwasher could be pulled nearly all the way out from between the antique oak cabinets that surround it, and the fan on the commercial range failed to draw off cooking smoke.

The Fortes said they also were dealing with gutters and vents that leaked, mold growing in and under the basement, and cracks in the ceilings. At the same time, they were fuming over the lawsuit filed by Nemacolin Woodlands.

Based on the $5-per-drink price and the five-drink-per-person estimate she said she was quoted when she scheduled the wedding at Nemacolin, Andrea said she expected to receive a liquor bill of about $2,500. Instead, she said the bill was $9,100 for mixed drinks as well as champagne served for one wedding toast.

"Some of my relatives don't drink, so we're talking anywhere from 12 to 19 drinks per person here," she said. "People wouldn't have been able to stand up. "

Andrea said she and Fabian believed the bill had been padded and, after raising their concerns, offered to split the disputed amount with the resort.

Nicholas Krawec, an attorney for the resort, said he did not know about any offer to settle the matter before he was instructed to file suit, but said he expected the dispute to be resolved through arbitration.

"I wanted to come back home, get reacquainted with old friends and find some way to give back to my community," Andrea said. "To have this happen instead has been very disappointing."

Both Andrea and Fabian said they were troubled to think that people who've read about the lawsuits might think less of them.

"That's what I don't like about this -- people hear something bad and accept it. In a small town, it's even worse because everyone knows you," Fabian said. "I've never had [a deadbeat] reputation, and I'm proud of that fact. But this is Andrea's home -- I hate to see her so upset."

Those worries may be unfounded. Bill Alexander, program director of Uniontown radio station WMBS-AM who often plays oldies music on his evening talk show, said he had heard nothing but sympathy and good wishes for the Fortes from callers to his program.

Giant Eagle serenades

"From what I'm hearing, the public doesn't feel that way. What I'm getting is that the public feels that businesses think they can take advantage because [Fabian] is famous and has money," Alexander said. "[Callers] are saying, 'This man is in our area trying to have a life, and we don't need to be picking on him.'

And any time Fabian ducks into the Uniontown Giant Eagle for a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, he can't escape without being serenaded with renditions of his own tunes, courtesy of a group of fans who work in the bakery. On one occasion, they even warbled his hit "Turn Me Loose" over the store's loudspeaker while he stood blushing in his gardening clothes.

"People my age know who he is, and they walk up and talk to him when he's been in here," said bakery worker Bev Sabatula, 50. "When I was young and growing up, I saw every movie he ever made. So I couldn't believe it when he was first in here.

"He's no uppity person. When the ladies started singing to him, he was singing right along with them."

The Fortes are gratified by those responses, saying they're tickled when people recognize and approach him. People generally are warm, Fabian said.

But the greatest joy for the Fortes these days is to get back to settling into the new house, to work side by side in their home office or to dig in the dirt outside. A garden still holds the withered remains of their summer crop of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, and Fabian's winter project will be to cut brush away from hiking trails in their wooded area.

"It'll get better. I know it," Andrea said. "Just to be here in our home and to be with my parents for the holidays is wonderful. Nothing and no one can take that away."

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