New Kensington furniture maker's life could inspire movie
Zoltan Klembus' life story would make a fascinating script for the Hollywood movie producers who used his furniture for props.
He dodged possible death from tuberculosis, Nazis and Russian soldiers during World War II, played professional soccer in Czechoslovakia and nearly lost his wife in a shipwreck before establishing the custom furniture business whose customers included mobsters, funeral directors, priests and movie producers.
“He was a very colorful man,” said Charity Klembus of New Kensington, his daughter-in-law.
Zoltan Klembus of New Kensington died Thursday, May 15, 2014, two days after his 92nd birthday, from liver cancer.
He was born in West Virginia in 1922, but his Czechoslovakian parents moved back to their homeland with their four children when he was 2 years old.
When he was a boy, Mr. Klembus nearly died from the tuberculosis that killed his older sister, according to his only child, Robert Klembus.
Zoltan Klembus attributed his survival to a combination of his Christian faith and the potions of a Gypsy woman who lived near his village.
“He lived by those remedies his whole life,” said Charity Klembus. “Especially raw garlic. He ate it every day. He only stopped eating it once he was placed at Logan House (in Lower Burrell). He loved all (the employees) so much, he didn't want to offend them.”
The healing knowledge saved his life a second time, according to his son. Mr. Klembus' village, then part of Hungary, was invaded by Germany during World War II. He was spared being sent to the front lines as a German soldier after he helped to save a general's ill mother.
Using the skills he learned at a trade school in Prague, Mr. Klembus spent some of the war years working in factories on the interiors of Mercedes cars and German airplanes.
Robert Klembus said his father also worked as an interpreter: “He knew seven languages. When I was a kid, I would get yelled at in Czech, Hungarian, German, then maybe back in English.”
Mr. Klembus at one point was captured by Russian soldiers and sent to Siberia, but he escaped and made his way back to Eastern Europe.
Michele Bloch of Harrison, who met Mr. Klembus through St. Mary of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church in New Kensington, said he would talk of offering to cook or fix things for people to earn money or food as he traveled back to his family.
Mr. Klembus returned to America in 1949, settling in Arnold where a relative of his wife lived. He soon established the business of repairing, reupholstering and designing furniture that would be his passion for more than 60 years.
A few months after arriving in the U.S., he sent for his wife, Elena “Helen” Klembus, who had remained in Czechoslovakia. She nearly died when her ship sank in the English Channel.
Robert Klembus said his mother worked side-by-side with his father until her death in 2004. The Custom Built Modern Upholstery business had locations in Arnold, Springdale and New Kensington over the years.
Ross Walker III said his father, who also operated the New Kensington funeral home, was one of Mr. Klembus' first customers.
“My dad had a new 1949 Cadillac hearse,“ Walker said. “I don't know how he ripped the leather seat in it, but Zoltan repaired it. They became fast friends.”
Walker said Mr. Klembus restored much of the antique furniture still used at the funeral home: “It's sort of a museum to Zoltan.”
Robert Klembus said his father restored furniture for several local churches and had worked for the Mannarino crime family.
Through his association with a Blawnox antique shop, Mr. Klembus also supplied furniture to movie producers working in Pittsburgh. Robert Klembus said movies that used his father's furniture included “Hoffa” starring Jack Nicholson, George A. Romero's “Creepshow,” and “The Mothman Prophecies.”
It wasn't until about two years ago, when dementia made working with machinery dangerous, that Mr. Klembus retired. But he still continued to carve wooden decoys and work on the needlepoint his wife had taught him, Robert and Charity Klembus said.
“If he was sitting down, it was after a long day of doing something,” Charity Klembus said. “He was always busy. Even while he was ill the last two weeks, his hands were still doing tapestry work.”
“His whole face would light up and his eyes would twinkle when he talked about making things,” Bloch said.
“He's the only man that I probably will ever know where God gave him the talents that literally saved his life,” said Bloch's mother, Bernadette Bloch of Lower Burrell. “Once you met him, you walked away different. I'm so glad I had a chance to meet him.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.