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Colonnade waitress has luck on her side

She used to be a jazz singer. Now she sings to customers at the Colonnade and is an expert contest winner.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Krystal Kinnunen]
Mary Fabiano, 64, takes a drink order from a customer at the Colonnade, where she has worked for 15 years.
BAYSHORE GARDENS -- Colonnade waitress Mary Fabiano considers herself the luckiest woman alive.

She knows to watch the curb each day in case the UPS man comes again or maybe the Federal Express driver.

When the truck stops, her winnings arrive.

At 64, Fabiano is a contest winner extraordinaire, one who enjoys all-expense paid cruises, whirlwind big-city trips and tickets to Broadway musicals.

"I don't know," she says, at a loss to explain her luck.

Over the years, she has won baskets of groceries, T-shirts, key chains, sports tickets, stuffed animals and so many bags of frozen French fries that she had to pawn them off on her neighbors.

"Whenever Mary wins a contest, she's always so surprised, even though she keeps winning all the time," says Annie Salzman, fellow waitress and cashier at the Bayshore Boulevard restaurant.

Fabiano's charmed life doesn't end with contests.

A former jazz singer who recorded an album on a major record label in the 1950s, she can carry a pretty fair tune. Her voice -- if you can coax her to sing a riff or two -- still sounds a little like the young Doris Day.

Others agree, including, apparently, actor Jack Nicholson.

No one was sure just how Nicholson wound up at the Colonnade in August, ordering vodka on the rocks and crab cakes from the early bird menu.

But plenty of people saw Fabiano win that famous Cheshire grin.

Nicholson had overheard her singing a Happy Birthday solo to two elderly women. She had no idea who he was. The only actor who ever impressed her was Cary Grant. Was this guy Jack Lemmon, maybe? He seemed to be preening, sitting there at a window table along Bayshore Boulevard, right next to her busy tray cart.

"He was wearing those dark glasses and really wanted me to notice him," she recalls, flipping her mink-black hair. "He kept smiling that smile."

Nicholson asked Fabiano to sing If I Could Write a Book. "I got nervous and my voice cracked," she says.

Rumors circulated that Nicholson flew Fabiano to Los Angeles, but people were just confused. Nicholson had nothing to do with Fabiano's scoring an October trip to Beverly Hills, where she saw the premier of Monsters Inc.

Her voice and good luck are legendary among fellow employees and patrons at the Colonnade, a local landmark known for its regular food, million-dollar view of Tampa Bay, and a sign out front proclaiming, "We serve crabs, come inside and we'll improve your attitude."

According to Salzman, Fabiano's vocal abilities are prized among tuneless staffers at the restaurant where she has worked for 15 years.

"We all want her to help us sing Happy Birthday," Salzman says. "We all say, "Mary will you please help us?' "

For many years Fabiano toured the country as a jazz singer, singing and playing piano under the stage name, Marlene Cord. She even recorded an album when she was 19, on the now defunct Dot Records label.

These days she goes to work in no-nonsense restaurant-style black pants, a crisp white shirt,and plastic name badge. While customers decide between clam, conch or scallop chowder, she balances a tray in her left arm like a clipboard, smiles and scribbles without once peeking at her pad.

But in the early 1950s when she was discovered while playing piano on an Erie, Pa., TV variety show, her look was something else altogether: "Strictly evening gowns, high heels -- nothing junky like people wear today. In those days it was all glamour."

One of eight children who grew up in Springboro, Pa., a small town where her father worked as a farmer and tool and dye maker, Fabiano began taking piano lessons at 12 at the urging of her grandmother.

By 17, she was on the road, touring with small bands, playing gigs at supper clubs and tony night clubs all over the country. Her crooning abilities were noticed by an agent with the MCA talent group, who caught her act while she was performing at a club in Chicago.

While on the road, she met her husband, Nick, who owned a jazz club in Kenosha, Wis.

Fabiano took time off from her singing career to help him open a restaurant in Milwaukee. She ended up waiting tables, keeping the books and tending bar for 18 years, trading her glamour-girl singing career for love and family.

She moved to Tampa after vacationing in the area and took a job at the Colonnade because she had eaten there and liked it.

"I need the job to supplement my income," she says. "But even if I had all the money in the world I'd still do it. I can't just sit at home. Even on my days off, I have to go out for four or five hours a day.".

These days, her lounge act is limited to singing along with the radio in her green Buick Skylark. Fabiano and her husband, Nick, live in Carrollwood with their grown daughter, Victoria, who helps Mary enter contests, a hobby that neither one can really explain.

They comb newspapers and local stores for drawings and other events to keep the winning streak hot: The latest freebies included tickets to see Beauty and the Beast last week and the Harlem Globe Trotters this week.

It's not really luck, Fabiano says, "just the law of averages -- sooner or later you're going to win."

Every time she goes into a store, she looks for a drawing of some sort.

"Just yesterday in Dillard's I entered a drawing at the men's cologne counter to win a Monte Carlo car."

But real luck, in Fabiano's opinion, is "finding the husband I've had for 45 years," one who still cooks dinner every night.

"We enjoy the same things," she said.

"We've had a pretty darned good life together."

And that, above all, is why Fabiano considers herself the luckiest woman in the world.

-- Do you know an interesting character who should be profiled in City Times? Call editor Patty Ryan at 226-3382.

MARY FABIANO

  • COOLEST WIN: Shopping spree in Publix frozen food aisle with Bucs offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch.
  • HER CATCH: Eight cartloads of icy cold food.
  • VICTORY'S TOLL: She had to buy a deep freeze.
  • HARDEST WIN: A three-night cruise to Nassau. Her husband got food poisoning from tainted shrimp.
  • MORE PALATABLE: A seven-day trip to St. Martin, to compensate for the food poisoning.
  • BEST MAILED PRIZE: A four-foot-tall purple toy from the movie Monsters Inc.
  • DEAREST PRIZE: Husband Nick
  • LOTTO: She plays weekly.
  • HER FREE HAIRDO: From the Super Cuts School on N Dale Mabry
  • FAVORITE SINGER: Peggy Lee
  • FAVORITE SONG: Fly me to the Moon
  • FAVORITE DISH: Nick's spaghetti

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