TAMPA — Mamie Suszynski always dressed for the occasions built around her performances — full-length sequined gowns or slacks, always with matching jewelry.
Microphone in hand, she belted out torch songs like Blue Moon, Little Things Mean a Lot, and Crazy. Some in her audience remembered Ms. Suszynski's voice from 50 years earlier, live on WFLA radio.
"She was the Auntie Mame and the Perle Mesta of our community," said Gilda Capitano of the Italian Club, referring to the Broadway musical and the famous socialite.
Ms. Suszynski had her own name for Capitano and others close to her: "Dahling."
An Ybor City native, the former Domenica Ferlita took voice lessons early and dreamed of being a musical star. She sang on WFLA, and had dropped her first name for the more stagey "Mamie."
She dropped the last one after meeting John Suszynski, a piano player who accompanied her while both were performing for troops at the now-defunct Drew Field.
They moved to the Pittsburgh area, until John Suszynski died of a heart attack in 1966, and Ms. Suszynski moved back to Tampa four years later.
In 1972, she met a building inspector named Sal, who asked her to a dance at the Coliseum. They married, divorced and stayed together anyway while living apart.
"Both of us are Leos, both of us are strong-headed and both of us loved each other so much we couldn't do without each other," Sal Scalfani, 88, said. "But we couldn't do with each other."
A 1994 luncheon brought Ms. Suszynski among two dozen of her old radio fans.
"They recognized her and fawned all over her," said son John Suszynski, 58. "She was a star."
Inspired, Ms. Suszynski founded the Ybor City Seniors, a monthly luncheon circuit at places like the Colombia, Valencia Gardens or, occasionally, the Yacht StarShip. She sang, and invited other performers for 14 years, through September 2008.
If too few guests showed up to cover expenses, she made up the difference herself as if she really were Perle Mesta. She drew the money from her Social Security check, half of which was already going to pay the mortgage.
"I don't want to say she died a pauper, but basically she died with nothing," her son said.
A routine doctor's visit late in September revealed late-stage pancreatic cancer. Ms. Suszynski died on Saturday under hospice care. She was 86.
"She never went overboard on her own behalf," her son said, "but she always went overboard for other people."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.