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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Banshee trailer featuring Vandergrift released
- Heating oil costs lowest in years
- Washington Township supervisors grant exception to put apartments on property
- Public can learn about Narcan use during training in New Kensington
- Police: Tarentum man talks way into 26 terroristic threat charges
- Armstrong County Jail board to discuss tighter security
- Upper Burrell to review minimum distance between homes, gas wells
- Kiski Valley water authority, Allegheny Township dispute over School Road close to resolution
- Cause of devastating Allegheny Township fire ‘undetermined’
- New Kensington dek hockey rink slated for spring debut