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Death Notice Guestbook

Canonsburg remembers Perry Como

Sunday, May 13, 2001

By Jonathan D. Silver and Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

In Canonsburg, the barbershop where Perry Como got his start was located in a building owned by Mike Pihakis that also housed a Greek coffee shop.

One day, when Como was still a teen-ager, he got a rude shock: the barber had died.

"He came to work the next day and my Dad said, 'Perry, this is your shop now. You're on your own,' " Mike Pihakis's son, Manuel, recalled last night just hours after the crooner's death.

Greek grooms who stopped in at the barbershop for a shave and haircut followed tradition and gave the young Como a gold coin.

"He got rich," Pihakis said. "He used to take the money home and his parents thought he was a millionaire."

It wasn't Como who got rich, though. It was his friends back home, all the people in Canonsburg he never forgot.

Years after leaving the barber's life, when Como's celebrity was soaring, he returned to Canonsburg in a limousine and called on Mike Pihakis.

"He picked him up for a ride, and he couldn't believe it," said Frank Sarris, the owner of Sarris Candies and a longtime friend of Como.

These days, everyone would believe it. Perry Como might have been an internationally acclaimed entertainer, but to his friends and family back home, he forever remained a down-to-earth, humble man who treated everyone with respect.

Canonsburg Mayor Anthony Colaizzo called Como an "ordinary guy" who never forgot his roots, even with his fame and stardom.

"He was Mr. Canonsburg himself because he never forgot where he came from. He gave inspiration to many people in Canonsburg," Colaizzo said.

"He never forgot Canonsburg. When people asked where he was from, he didn't say Pittsburgh. He said he was from Canonsburg."

Friends and family contacted last night repeated the same types of stories over and over, stories about a man who would publicly welcome old friends from Canonsburg when they caught one of his shows in Las Vegas or shoot the breeze about hometown happenings well into his twilight years or take relatives' children to Dairy Queen when he was in town.

"All you had to do was mention Canonsburg and he greeted you with open arms. He never forgot his roots," Pihakis said.

Como had been ailing for some time, but those close to him said he had never been the same since his wife of 65 years, Roselle, died in 1998. A short time later, Como suffered another blow when his sister, Venzie Jakubetz, passed away.

"We loved him very much. He was a good guy. He was very true to everybody. He missed his wife a lot," said Como's niece, Shirley Liapes, 67, of Canonsburg.

"I talked to his daughter tonight. He had asked for a glass of water and when they brought it to him he said he didn't want it and he died," Liapes continued. "She said it was very peaceful."

One McKeesport resident who got to know Como was Samuel R. LaRosa, who founded the LaRosa Boys and Girls Club of McKeesport with the singer's help.

LaRosa, 88, said he called Como out of the blue one day nearly 50 years ago to tell him that he liked the way he sang. It started a lifelong friendship.

When LaRosa put together a boxing show in 1956 to raise money for his club, Como lent his support by attending. LaRosa said his presence helped to increase attendance and to raise more money.

Como, he said, also sent two autographed photos to the head of the G.C. Murphy Co., whose financial support LaRosa needed for his club. While the help was nice, the thing LaRosa remembers most about Como was his way with people. He last talked to him about a year ago.

"He was like a next door neighbor. He was an easy-going fellow and very congenial. He made you feel as if -- well, to me, he made me feel like a relative, to tell you the truth," he said.

"Like I say, he was a good man. He was really a good buddy. I don't think they come like him anymore. That's how close he made you feel."

Victor Maffio, 78, also considered himself part of Como's family. He said his older brother and Como were inseparable growing up together. As a little boy, he idolized Como.

"He came and he ate in our home. He'd come into the house and have old-fashioned Italian dinners with us," Maffio said. "He'd wrap his arms around my neck and give me one of those knuckle rubs. I'd kick him in the shins."

When he grew up and went off to Europe to fight in World War II, Maffio said he looked for any opportunity to hear his friend Como on the radio.

"Anytime I got a chance to get to a canteen or a Red Cross setup, if I could catch Perry on the radio, I would," Maffio said. "I loved him. I just thought the world of him."

Around that time, recalled Madaline Mazza, another Como niece in Canonsburg, Como's father went to the movies to see his son act in either "Something for the Boys" or "Doll Face" -- she can't remember which.

"My grandfather saw Perry kiss the girl in the movie and he walked out. He said, 'Is that how he's making his money?' He just thought that was terrible. You see, Perry was married."

Como's father needn't have worried. Those close to the singer said his wife meant everything to him. The Rev. Ralph Volpe, 64, pastor of Central Assembly of God Church in Houston, Pa., believes Como never recovered from her death.

"His memory of his wife was so important. He was grieving. I think he never really did get over that," Volpe said. "His health faded very quickly since her death."

The last time Volpe saw Como was in November during a trip to visit his children. Volpe said he stayed in a mobile home about 300 yards from Como's home.

"Perry to me was quite a gentleman. He was never cocky or smart-alecky. He always had a deep respect for whoever he was talking to," Volpe said. "That's what we respected most about him. He was just a Canonsburg hometown guy all the time."

Volpe was one of a number of Canonsburg-area residents who worked to erect a life-size statue of Como in Canonsburg, which was unveiled May 15, 1999.

Como couldn't make the trip because of a bronchial ailment. He never saw the statue in person, but watched a videotape of the celebration. In the end, however, Como struggled even with the video.

"You could see that he would not remember much. We would show him the video of the dedication of the statue and he just would say humbly, 'My, oh my, they did that for me,' " Volpe said.

The statue wasn't the only honor Canonsburg bestowed upon Como. Third Street was renamed Perry Como Avenue on Aug. 24, 1977.

Ask anybody from Canonsburg, though, and they'll likely tell you that it was Como who bestowed honor on the town, not just by putting it on the map, but by merely being himself.

"He was just like an ordinary guy," said Colaizzo, the mayor. "He was a gentleman. His stardom never went to his head."

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