1950s Hilltop performer dies at 81
In the 1940s, Ted Mack’s “Original Old Gold Amateur Hour” radio broadcast was the “American Idol” of its day.
Touring the country, Mack and his crew would audition young talents and invite the best to join his national tour.
It was 1948 when a young man from the Hilltop, Frank Ongaro, played his accordion and won the radio contest held by Mack at the former Veterans Memorial Hall on East Broad Street – before the confetti could fall, Ongaro was invited on the tour the same night.
For a year he traveled with the show, launching a professional career playing the accordion for fine restaurants and nightclubs. He performed frequently in New York City and also in former Westside establishments like Everglades, Gloria Nite Club, and the Crystal and Pier Ballrooms at Buckeye Lake.
One booking in 1950 took him to Cincinnati. Ongaro found himself playing on stage while an up-and-coming comedy duo took a smoke break – Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
About to exit the stage after finishing his number, Jerry Lewis grabbed his arm and brought him back to center stage, reportedly saying, “Frank, when the audience applauds that long you must go back and play.”
Ongaro wound up playing two encores that night.
After a few years in show business, Ongaro put down the accordion and briefly enrolled at The Ohio State University before deciding to be a salesperson. His brother, Ed Ongaro, had recently opened the Ongaro’s Nursery and Garden Center on the Westside – it would later expand to three locations before being sold.
Ongaro finally settled into the pleasure boat market, which after 10 years had expanded to 17 states and the company’s name was changed to Frank Ongaro Associates.
The last thing Ongaro invented before his retirement was a line of high tech windshield wiper blades, and special air horns for the U.S. Coast Guard and large boat companies.
On June 25, Ongaro passed away in Philadelphia after a long battle with cancer.
While he achieved quite a lot in his lifetime, family, friends, and the Hilltop community remember a humble man that just loved to entertain.