Rizzo on Stage in Philadelphia

When I attended the premier of "Rizzo" -- a play by Bruce Graham based on the best-selling book The Last Big Man in Big City America by S. A. Paolantonio -- at Christ Church in Old City, the first thing I noticed were all the politicians in attendance. This was not your regular theater crowd, but more like a formal gathering of politicos at Famous Deli on Election Day. The men and women in the lobby of the Neighborhood House of Christ Church greeted one another in that political way you sometimes see people doing inside City Hall.

I got the feeling that a fair portion of the people lingering in the foyer of the Christ Church Neighborhood House had been friends or colleagues of Mayor Rizzo. It was at this point that I asked myself: Will this play be a whitewash? Did the playwright denude or tone down the truth about Rizzo? I mentioned to my theater companion, Xena, "Do we need to get set for some revisionist history?"

As we moved into the seating area it became even more obvious how much of a City Hall crowd this was. Much more than the premier of a play, this was a display of City Hall power, the roaring up of politico engines for a peacock power strut. There was even a line of politicos standing along the edge of the stage getting ready to make a lengthy introduction. Some of them also appeared to have a buzz on. Had there been a pregame party somewhere, one of those private booze affairs usually reserved for donors and A-listers?

"I think I smell a political pep rally," I said to Xena.

The Christ Church Neighborhood House is about as small a theater as you can get. Ticket holders kept piling in until it got so crowded that it looked as if some people would have to sit on the floor. I was glad that Xena and I had found decent seats in the middle of the theater beside an apparently boozed-up redhead who was there with her two sons.

I knew this gregarious redhead has been drinking -- when she turned to me after mentioning to Xena that I was shaky about the integrity of this play (I used the word "whitewash" again), I was hit with a breath storm of alcoholic stench as the extroverted woman assured me that wouldn't be the case.

"I read the thing," she emphasized, slurring her words just a little, "and it's no whitewash."

Encouraged by the apparent ring of truth ensconced in a bourbon haze, I felt better about what I was about to see despite the pandemonium in the seating area rising to intolerable levels. People were switching seats, talking to ushers about switching seats, walking up and down the center aisle or reaching over ten heads in one row to wave to somebody they knew in City Hall twenty years ago in another row. It's called networking, that horrible 21st century disease that rarely has as its impetus something like true friendship.

The networking went on forever. The interminable wait for its conclusion reminded me of the Rizzo years when good citizens thought that the tyranny would never end -- the police raids, the police wagons roaming the streets picking up anyone and everyone who looked suspicious or out of the ordinary, the untoward behavior of cops (especially undercovers) who would order pedestrians into unmarked cars or stand at urinals in the old Greyhound Bus station hoping to entrap a "pervert."

Suddenly, things quieted down as the chorus line of politicos along the edge of the stage began to gear up like the Rockettes in Radio City Music Hall.

In the speakers' lineup was one man who left most in the audience scratching their head when he began his Rizzo-rich monologue. Perhaps this politico had tipped the drinking scales himself because his talk went on and on... and on. So long, in fact, that I began to feel sorry for the actors waiting in the wings. The audience, after all, was dying to see Rizzo. You could feel the tension and the excitement. But the speaker kept at it until, finally, his verbal motors expired -- he actually ran out of things to say -- and so the play began.

Scott Greer finally appeared on stage as Rizzo. But Greer, as great an actor as he is, didn't remind me of Frank Rizzo at all. I think part of this is because his facial features are too fine -- the real Rizzo had a Mt. Rushmore nose, not one of those miniature noses especially popular among female celebrities. The on-stage Rizzo didn't have the bricks and mortar physicality that the real Rizzo had, but then who among us could ever match that? In life, Rizzo was a giant, a Redwood tree of Frankenstein proportions with hands so large one could easily image him crushing two men together to make hasty pudding.

After the play, I admit that I embarrassed myself when I saw Greer at the bar and asked him, seriously, if he was a radio personality at WXPN. The fact is, I didn't recognize him off stage because he was no longer wearing his fat suit.

While Paolantonio's book presented the good and bad side of the former mayor, the play attempted to do the same, but succeeded only superficially. What was missing, as one friend of mine commented, was a very real sense of menace. Playgoers saw Rizzo as a hooligan bully, but one who carried a rubber stick instead of a wooden stick and possibly a gun. Rizzo's battles with the city's black community were detailed to an extent, as were his "problems" with the city's gay community. But his conflicts with other groups, like hippies and the countercultural scene of the 1970s, were left pretty much untouched. Perhaps if an Ira Einhorn character had been added (Einhorn fit right in with the schmoozing power brokers at Famous), the play would have expanded into a broader canvass not so steeped in the race relations issue.

At the post-production reception I was shocked to see how many people in attendence had never met Rizzo. While reaching over the food table for slices of this or that, I heard people talk about "The Bambino" as if they'd actually met him. It was one of those moments when my memory of meeting and talking with Rizzo flooded my mind like water from a broken Holland dike.

"Well, you know, I sat down with him once and we talked. He slapped me on the back. He called me by my first name. He invited me to lunch. And he told me that he had a good policeman friend who was dying of AIDS and that he visited him frequently," I told at least two people. By that point, though, people had heard too many Rizzo stories from the stage and really didn't want to get into it.

Most of the comments I overheard indicated that history will not judge the ex-mayor kindly. Rizzo had so much drive, force and willpower that if this energy had been directed towards more enlightened views, his accomplishments would have been stellar.

When the wife of an ex-museum curator, for instance, heard that I had once met the former mayor, she wanted to know what he was like. I said he was a gentle giant-type with a dangerous-yet-soothing charisma that sought to win everybody over. "He really did have a very good side," I said, "But..."

Again, it struck me as odd that so many of the playgoers knew so little about Rizzo. This was certainly the case with the curator's wife who did not know the details of his death, although she knew from the play that he had died in his Republican reelection headquarters in Center City.

"He died in the washroom, the men's room," I told her, not meaning to suggest something dirty or low level but she took it as such.

"Appropriate," she said.

And then I felt bad that I had mentioned that.