The Times West Virginian

August 30, 2012

Italian Heritage Festival a tradition

By Nicole Lemal
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Every year, Rose Mary Bonasso finds herself in the middle of a crowd of people on the streets of downtown Clarksburg as choirs from area churches sing during a special Mass service.

After a weekend of fun at the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival, Bonasso said it’s the perfect way to end the festivities.

“If you can’t make it out to anything else, it’s just nice to be out on the streets with everyone for the Catholic ceremony outside,” Bonasso said.

She should know. Since the festival was first held 34 years ago, Bonasso and her family have been there. Whether it’s participating in the pasta cookoff, where last Saturday they were recognized for their homemade sauce and overall presentation of the food, or watching the entertainers, it has become a family tradition.

From years ago, Bonasso remembers the old Italian music, which brings back fond memories.

“It always brings you back to your childhood,” Bonasso said. “It brings back your memories from your grandparents, your parents, and it just brings back the music of the time. We just love to be there and be a part of it.”

According to the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival website, the event has garnered a lot of visitors over the years. Now rated one of the “Top 100 Events in North America,” the three-day street festival attracts up to 100,000 visitors to Clarksburg.

Authentic Italian cuisine, games and a number of events will be available for all ages, and there will be a special children’s area and stage that has been added over the years. Special guests will perform on stage, including Happy the Clown and a few magicians.

Noted highlights for the weekend include the grand parade starting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday as well as traditional performances from musicians who appreciate the festival as much as community members like Bonasso. Accordion players Ott Meale and Sam Manno will be back this year.

After 34 years, it’s still a thrill for Meale to appear on stage.

“That’s our heritage and we enjoy doing it,” Meale said. “We learned how to sing Italian songs, and it just gets better every year. It’s been a lot of fun. We met a lot of nice people. We get excited about that every year.”

Top entertainers have been known to make special appearances on the main stage as well. Tony Danza, Kathy Mattea, Jo Dee Messina, Joey Dee and the Starliters, and Frankie Avalon have performed in the past.

All performances are free.

The festival will honor a number of individuals at the annual honorees’ dinner tonight, including Marion County natives Frank and Jane Gabor, who were instrumental in developing the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center in Fairmont. Frank was named the Italian American Man of the Year, and Jane was honored as Honorary Italian Woman of the Year.

Also being recognized are Clara Spatafore for Italian American Woman of the Year and Tommy Thomas as the Honorary Italian Man of the Year. Father of the Year is Frank Scarcelli.

The queens on the court will also be recognized, which in years past made it even more special for Bonasso. Years ago, her daughter Cristina and her niece Mary Helen were named queens.

Yet nothing can take away the spirit of the event and the memories it cultivates for Bonasso’s family. When asked why she hasn’t missed a year, Bonasso’s reasons were simple: “Family, friends, just the entertainment and the dancing in the street and the whole Italian air about it, the whole culture of it.”

Email Nicole Lemal at nlemal@timeswv.com.