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Epilogue | Manuel "Manny" Furia

Accordion player gave Bern's its own soundtrack

Manny Furia used to stroll through Bern’s with his accordion, but in later years he’d linger at the piano in the dessert room. 

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Manny Furia used to stroll through Bern’s with his accordion, but in later years he’d linger at the piano in the dessert room. 

TAMPA — For 41 years, dinner and dessert at Bern's Steak House had its own soundtrack. Manny Furia made the music, squeezing show tunes from a shiny accordion and tickling a piano into the night.

"Manny would stroll into the dining room, and I'd be making a Caesar salad, and I'd chop anchovies to his beat," said Bern's server Jamal Hussamy.

"He'd play faster, and I'd chop faster."

Mr. Furia, 77, had survived years of lugging around a 25-pound accordion. He endured the endless requests for New York. Without protest, he found the notes for In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida. But after a battle with cancer, his liver failed. He died Monday.

For some, dessert may never again be so sweet.

"Just as Bern's is a fixture in Tampa, Manny was a fixture at Bern's," said owner David Laxer. "He had quite a following."

Though he was always more than an opening act, Mr. Furia did not, by most accounts, mind deferring to food as the headliner.

"The stars are the steak and wine, not Manny and his music," he said modestly in 2006.

When he started at Bern's, he performed in a lounge downstairs. Later he strolled the dining rooms playing accordion, his main instrument. In recent years he lingered at the piano at Bern's dessert room.

He was still playing at Bern's as recently as last month.

"Hearing that he passed away was shocking," Laxer said. "I just saw him not that long ago, and he looked good. He was still able to work, and to perform, and to be Manny."

Bern's musically inclined patrons would often join Mr. Furia in song. One — builder and amateur singer Tony Ekonomou, 81 — became a close friend.

"He had more of an audience when he was downstairs, because people used to come in just to listen to him," Ekonomou said. "When he was upstairs, it wasn't so many. People just don't go to a dessert room to listen to piano."

Ekonomou said he wasn't surprised that Mr. Furia kept working even while he was nearing death.

"He was a professional, a true entertainer," Ekonomou said. "Anything he could do to make people happy, he did it. That's who he was."

On the job, people saw him drinking only orange juice. Afterward, he and his steak house co-workers would often head to Village Inn for pancakes.

"Everyone loved Manny," said Kenny Friscia, a bartender at Bern's.

Mr. Furia was already a successful professional musician in 1967 when he auditioned for Bern Laxer, the restaurant's founder and David Laxer's father.

In the decades that followed, Mr. Furia spent his evenings entertaining patrons with the old songs he loved, the works of such composers as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

That's Amore and the theme from The Godfather were among his audience's favorites.

His signature song, though, was Iron Butterfly's In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida. He said he had never heard the original recording, but learned it from another pianist.

"That was his song," Laxer said. "Somehow the word got out that he played it. People would say 'You've got to go to Bern's and ask this guy to play In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida."

Mr. Furia's survivors include his brother Frank Furia Jr., sisters, Josephine Furia and Margaret Torres, nephew, Frank Furia III, and several nieces and nephews. In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to the American Cancer Society, 1001 S MacDill Ave., Tampa, FL 33629.

Times staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this story.

>>Biography

Manuel "Manny" Furia

Born: Jan. 31, 1931.

Died: Aug. 4, 2008.

Services: Visitation, 5 to 8 p.m. Friday; funeral, 10 a.m. Saturday, both at Boza & Roel Funeral Home, 4730 N. Armenia Ave. Interment at Myrtle Hill Memorial Park, followed by a reception at the funeral home.

Accordion player gave Bern's its own soundtrack 08/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 11:25am]
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