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In the spotlight

The South Tampa Chamber of Commerce executive director wears many hats. As an actor, he welcomes the challenge.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 11, 2002

TAMPA -- By day, he's a one-man show.

At night, he shares the stage.

Jay Furnari is executive director of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He's also an amateur actor and former stand-up comedian.

His roles sometimes merge.

At a recent chamber luncheon, Furnari, 59, broke the ice by asking 80 people in attendance if he should launch into his old shtick.

The response was sure and swift: "NOOOOOO!" The room cracked up.

Unconventional, maybe. But that's Furnari's approach.

"That's humor," he said recently in the chamber's modest office on Kennedy Boulevard. "It puts people at ease."

Furnari, who assumed chamber duties in April, isn't your stereotypical suit.

The Wellswood resident sports a goatee and a mass of slicked-back hair. One untamed strand is prone to bob when he gestures with his hands.

His loud-as-a-jackhammer ties are as colorful as his past.

In his 20s, Furnari gigged as a comedian and pianist on the Jewish club circuit in New York's Catskill Mountains.

About the same time, he began acting. He figures he's done 50 to 60 plays in 40 years, mostly supporting roles. In New Orleans, he landed the lead in a Tabasco sauce commercial.

He prefers comedies.

"People have very difficult days. I don't care who you are," Furnari said. "But the one thing that helps everybody ... is laughter."

In his current role, Furnari plays a spineless business executive in Solid Gold Cadillac, a 1950s-era story about corporate greed.

Opening night is tonight at the Carrollwood Playhouse.

In his chamber office, Furnari performs solo.

He answers phones, enrolls new members, organizes the golf tournament. He leads workshops on customer service with a teddy bear in tow.

"That's my warm fuzzies," he said. "That's how you develop good customer service."

Furnari's strong personality hasn't always served him well at work.

Members give him high marks for workshops and other programs. But some grumbled recently that he wasn't spending enough time recruiting new members.

He also occasionally "rubbed people wrong," said the chamber president, Jerry Clark.

In response, Furnari said he shifted his priorities -- and toned down his approach.

"I told him, 'Jay, you have big stature, a deep voice ... Sometimes you intimidate people,' " Clark said. "But he can change. He's a good actor."

Before the chamber job, Furnari worked in retail 32 years, most recently as a store manager for Bloomingdale's. Most of that experience came in Miami, where he grew up.

Furnari calls himself a "transplanted Jewish Italian Floridian." He was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to a Lithuanian mother and Sicilian father.

"You ever had a matzo ball pizza?" he asks.

Humor didn't come naturally. It was a tool to help an overweight kid cope, Furnari said.

"People didn't like fat kids," he said. "So what I had to do was learn how to laugh, tell jokes and dance."

He says he can out-jitterbug the best of them.

After high school, Furnari took a shot at theater in New York City.

He missed.

Stand-up in the Catskills was next.

During the week, Furnari heard stories about visitors while he played in the piano bar. On weekends, he'd craft those stories into zingers he'd toss while the visitors sat in the audience.

"They're like, 'Insult me! Insult me! Insult me!' " he said. "They would fall over dead from this. Stupid humor. But it was personal. You touched people with it."

Furnari said his stand-up days are long gone.

But the stage still calls.

"There is nothing in the world like applause," he said. "I go home after a show and I don't sleep. I'm just high as a kite."

Furnari does community theater in Carrollwood, Dunedin and other Tampa Bay area playhouses. Since moving to Tampa four years ago, he has performed in eight plays, including The Mousetrap, The Rainmaker and Fiddler on the Roof.

Most of the roles were supporting parts, but Furnari played Tevye in Fiddler and Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple.

He can claim national exposure.

The Tabasco commercial, produced 15 years ago, features Furnari next to a barbecue grill. He pulls a bottle of the famed hot sauce from a gun holster at his side, then flips it in the air and catches it.

"It took me 17 takes," he said.

It aired at least once. Furnari saw it while watching The Johnny Carson Show. "I didn't know who to call first," he said. "There I was, on national television."

Furnari isn't all yuks all the time.

He reads Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein stories to elementary school children. He pushes chamber members to serve as mentors and "lunch buddies" in South Tampa schools.

A few months ago, he raised eyebrows at a public meeting by suggesting that developers of a new Interbay apartment complex should provide day care for residents.

Before moving to Tampa, Furnari trained young workers for a few years in Guyana, in South America.

He can't shake the image of families living in one-room shacks, with no electricity or indoor plumbing. And yet, when the kids marched off to school, their uniforms were crisp and spotless. Their mother "did it with a flat iron over a hot coal," he said.

Seeing that put things in perspective, Furnari said.

"We get so wrapped up sometimes, you need comic relief," he said.

And who knows?

All that comic relief might lead to bigger things.

"I'll be discovered," Furnari said. "Robert DeNiro called me last week. But the part wasn't for me."

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or

Jay Furnari AGE: 59

  • JOB: Executive director, South Tampa Chamber of Commerce
  • HOBBY: Acting
  • FAVORITE ACTORS: Robert De Niro, James Cagney
  • FAVORITE PLAY: Death of a Salesman
  • FAVORITE ROLE: Oscar in The Odd Couple
  • FAVORITE COMICS: Buddy Hackett, Jonathan Winters, Myron Cohen
  • FAVORITE PLACE: On stage
  • FAMILY: Wife of four years, Alex Furnari
  • OTHER HATS: Exchange student sponsor, Italian chef

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