Eulogy for a 'music man': Johnstown's Filia remembered for talents, dedication to family, warm smile

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Jun. 10—Jazz musician Frank Filia was remembered as a man with "the heart of an artist and the philosophy of a gambler" during a memorial Mass at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church on Friday.

Born in 1935, Filia grew up in a Johnstown where he was surrounded by bookies, pool shooters and tough guys — as portrayed in "Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob," a book by his cousin Russell Shorto.

Filia played the standup bass and sang, eventually taking his talents to Las Vegas during its golden era.

He then returned to his hometown, becoming known for Thursday lunchtime shows, with his friend pianist John Pencola, at Harrigan's Cafe & Wine Deck at the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown.

Filia died on May 17 at age 86.

Friends and family members gathered at St. Clare, in the city's Woodvale neighborhood, to bid him farewell with prayer and song.

"I was going to write my own eulogy today, but when you have a renowned writer in the family, he can say it better than any one of us, so in Russell Shorto's own words, 'Frank had the heart of an artist and the philosophy of a gambler,' " his niece Maureen Barron said. "Those are two very different things, but he made them work together."

Another niece, Donamarie Wilfong, remembered Filia as a kind man who was loyal and loving to his family.

"We could always count on the man with a cane in his hand and a cap on his head walking through the front door," Wilfong said. "Most of the time — I should say 'always' — late, but always present and always with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He deeply loved and protected his family."

Barron and Wilfong often spoke with their uncle during his battle with cancer.

"In one of our last conversations, my uncle said to me, 'Dona, I'm dying. It's OK. You have to let go. I've lived my life,' " Wilfong said. "Through tears I questioned Uncle Frank, 'What's going to happen to all of us when you die?' And he bravely said, 'You're going to live.' "

Rev. Francis Balestino referred to Filia as "the music man of Johnstown."

Joey Del Signore Jr., a close friend, said Filia "prolonged the jazz music in this town," while Mark Pasquerilla, whose family owned the Holiday Inn for decades, called Filia a "legend" who "brought the American songbook to Johnstown."

During the service, Pencola played Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," while Wilfong spoke the lyrics:

"Smile, though your heart is aching

"Smile, even though it's breaking

"When there are clouds in the sky you'll get by

"If you smile through your fear and sorrow

"Smile and maybe tomorrow

"You'll see the sun come shining through for you"

The song was a staple of Filia's shows.

"I think the last song, 'Smile,' he would often close his sets at Harrigan's with that, the Charlie Chaplin song," Pasquerilla said. "It was kind of sad to hear it."