Bruce Graham's 'Rizzo': Remembrances and Relevance

Philadelphia's Theatre Exile's entertaining production of Bruce Graham's commissioned play, Rizzo, has opened to largely positive reviews that I found well deserved. (Full disclosure: My daughter-in-law, Deborah Block, is Producing Artistic Director of this small, gutsy theatre.) Exile's founder, Joe Canuso, directed this work with deep caring and commitment, and the actors bring the script to life with ease and determination. Philadelphians know well that, with a record of about 20 plays, no one captures the essence of those who are the soul and guts of Philly with more understanding and compassion than Bruce Graham. Graham's body of work, a love letter to our phenomenal and phenomenally complex city, is ever an insistence to understand, but never degrade, another human being.

However, when I saw the play, after the well-deserved applause left me, I found myself strangely unsettled, and even sad. Thanks to Graham's determination to achieve fairness and balance, the good and the bad of the highly controversial Frank Rizzo is shared. Through documentation of selected historical events, we see a man caught in a time warp of thinking and processing from which he never emerged. However, the terrifying ugly of the man is only hinted at. It never grips, taking center stage.

Scott Greer, a brilliant actor who can transform himself in each role he undertakes, shows Rizzo's girth, power, wit, determination, charm and charisma. However, there is sweetness in Greer's nature that seems ever present, and it is there is this portrayal also. And Frank Rizzo, for all his conflicting characteristics, did not have one iota of sweetness.

The multi-talented Amanda Schoonover plays every woman in the play, including Rizzo's wife, Carmella. Carmella rarely accompanied her husband during his years of prominence, but I did see her once. To say that she was painfully thin is an understatement. While her husband greeted all who approached him with gusto, his wife was quiet, seemingly withdrawn and repressed, never smiling. Perhaps at home Carmella had the warmth and health portrayed and the couple had some of the closeness scripted by Graham, but Carmella's public image was one of sad and lonely acceptance. This, of course, was perpetuated by the refusal to grant interviews, whatever the reasons, which the play touched upon. Schoonover, however, gave each of her characters a feminine walk and mild derriere wiggle in her exits, and this was surely not Carmella. (On the other hand, Schooner's walk, including the slight wiggle, was an accurate reflection of the resolute activist Shelly Yanoff, who came close to unseating Rizzo, as anyone who has seen Shelly on the dance floor can attest.)

I have read that Graham, who has taught film and theatre courses at Drexel University for over a decade, tells his students to write what they know, and with this guidance in mind, I feel compelled to do the same.

I encountered Frank Rizzo for the first time in 1961 during my junior year at Goucher College (then a woman's college, now co-ed), located in my hometown, Baltimore. During this period, the city's night life was defined by an area referred to as "The Block," the 400 block of East Baltimore Street, known for strip clubs, sex shops, and burlesque houses. The most successful of these was The Two O'Clock Club, where the city's most famous stripper, the voluptuous redhead, Blaze Starr, commanded the stage. Starr, born Fannie Belle Fleming in 1932 in Wayne County, West Virginia, and dubbed "The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque" began performing at The Two O'Clock Club in 1950. She became known outside of Baltimore in 1954 when Esquire magazine featured her in the article, "B-Belles of Burlesque: You Get Strip Tease With Your Beer in Baltimore." Starr then began performing in clubs throughout the country, including the Sho-Bar on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where she began a long-term affair with then Governor Earl Long that lasted until his death in 1960. The Two O'Clock Club, however, which she eventually bought, remained her home base.

My political science professor, Dr. Robert Loevy, was determined to make keen observers of his students, and he assigned me to somehow, someway get an interview with Blaze Starr and find out about life on "The Block" and anything else I could learn. To make a long story short, the afternoon of this interview, when I arrived at the Club my interviewee, Blaze, was sitting quietly in a corner having a drink with "a regular visitor," Philadelphia police inspector, Frank Rizzo. I learned his identity and that the friendship between the two began after Rizzo arrested Starr for "lewdness" in Philly from the bartender, who also shared that the two had enjoyed a "relaxing morning together."

Police Captain Frank Rizzo was now in full dress regalia. His gun was clearly seen, as was his nightstick. "Miss Sherman," Blaze Starr said, "meet Captain Rizzo (apparently recalling his title when he'd arrested her in 1954). The inspector stood. He was tall. He was broad. He was charming. He was foreboding. He was not one bit sweet, and I felt myself shiver. (Little did I know I would someday live in the city where Frank Rizzo would rise to such controversial political prominence.) When I returned to campus, I asked Professor Loevy why it was necessary to wear a gun and carry a nightstick while not on duty. I did not receive an answer, but I was responded to with two words, "Keep asking."

Fast forward to the late 1960s, by which time Rizzo was police commissioner and images of youths being beaten by police clubs had hit the national press: Arlen Specter, then DA, was seeking alternatives to punishment for some of Philadelphia's most troubled youth, and I was one of the social workers who volunteered to provide therapy and other healing activities. The kids called themselves the Black Panthers, but they were not connected to the famously militant West Coast Panthers: they neither wrote nor distributed hate manifestoes; the just wanted to bond and help each other with their surroundings, stay safe, and stay in school. These kids regularly joined me to make breakfasts, which we provided to hungry neighbors. Sometimes they came to my home for lunch and fussed over my first born, Elisabeth, who rode in the car with us as we delivered food.

Early one morning, as Elisabeth, four of the kids -- all 11 years old -- and I were in my car making our deliveries, I heard a police siren. "This cannot be for me," I told myself, for I was not speeding and went through no red lights or stop signs. But soon the place car pulled me over. If I was frightened at the moment, the kids with me were terrified. The police officer opened the back seat of the car, pulled out my four helpers, and threw them to the ground, treating them like a sack of potatoes. I tried to reason with the officer. "We are taking food to those who need it," I said, and I pointed to a container of hard-boiled eggs. "Keep quiet," he told me. "Just show me your license and registration." Meanwhile, the kids were taken to the sidewalk and searched roughly for weapons. When none were found, the cop threw them back into my car.

"Officer," I remonstrated, "my passengers are good kids in my care. We are working together. I am going to drop them off at school when we are finished delivering food."

"Your husband should call and thank the Philly police," he replied angrily before he departed. "We are protecting you from harm." By now the boys in my backseat were crying. "Why are we hated?" one asked.

Not long after, Arlen Specter lost his bid for mayor in a very close election. One of the reasons is if elected, he would not promise to keep Frank Rizzo on as Police Commissioner. And in 1972 several years after that, which was shown in the play, Rizzo used fear of the Philadelphia Black Panthers to terrify citizens and help him win the office of mayor.

By all means, visit Philadelphia and see Bruce Graham's sensitive and caring portrayal of Frank Rizzo. Use it as a starting point for discussion of the man, his leadership, and his legacy. But please, as you do, remember what I saw firsthand -- those crying children in my car. Remember these reverberations today. Remember the ugly.

A version of this review appeared in the Philadelphia online art magazine, Broad Street Review, on October 26.