A remixed coat of fame

Photos by Maria Young

Frankie Avalon has resided in California for nearly six decades, but he never neglects to laud his native turf as the inspiration for his show business career. On Saturday, the 76-year-old icon and other melody makers and mavens gathered at 1532 S. Broad St. for the dedication of the South Philly Musicians Remix Mural.

“The backbone of anybody is where you come from,” Avalon told the cheerful afternoon crowd of approximately 300, “and I am always proud to say I am from South Philly.”

A likeness of The Golden Boy, who most identifies with the West Passyunk neighborhood, having logged eight years on the 1900 block of South Hemberger Street, joins images of Eddie Fisher, Fabian Forte, Bobby Rydell, Jerry Blavat, Al Martino, Chubby Checker, Charlie Gracie, James Darren, and Danny Cedrone as components of the vibrant work by lead muralist Eric Okdeh. As a commission from Mural Arts Philadelphia, the addition features “remix” in its name to acknowledge the original artistic tribute at 1231 E. Passyunk Ave.

“That struck everyone as such a heartwarming sign of appreciation,” Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public art program, said of the 2005-installed “The Sounds of Philadelphia.” “Murals can experience decay, though, so we wanted to work even harder to honor these legends.”

The result is a stunning “Thank you” to local pioneers of tunes that helped to shape the music scene of the 1950s and ’60s. Through a May conversation with Blavat, everyone’s favorite radio showman, Okdeh began to consider the scope of the endeavor and set out to commend the depicted figures’ prominence.

“We were saying ‘Don’t let it die,’” Pam Zenzola said of the love that she and peers from the Passyunk Square Civic Association honed for the original mural. “I’m not from South Philly, and neither are the others who lobbied hard to keep some form of recognition for these personalities, but that doesn’t matter because even as outsiders, we know it’s our history.”

The newly minted executive director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District gushed when recounting that Avalon’s ’59 smash hit “Venus” was one of the first records that her father bought for her.

“I wore it out,” Zenzola said with a laugh. “I think it’s still relevant, as is all of the music from that time.”

Along with eye-catching depictions of the musical heroes, Okdeh, who has created public art for 18 years, made sure to add images of high-charting records and included personal symbols for each star, such as a beach background for Avalon to tout his films with Annette Funicello.

“This is my home,” the singer said to lively applause. “When I reminisce about years gone by, I’m happy to think about how instrumental my time here was for me. I know that’s the same way that my contemporaries on this mural feel, too.”

The dedication marked the halfway point of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Month celebration. With nearly 4,000 creations, the art behemoth has helped the city to distance itself from every other metropolis in the world as an employer of eager innovators.

“We are wall hunters,” Golden exclaimed with the enthusiasm that has assisted her in becoming quite chummy with South Philly-situated art admirers. “We want to keep promoting the message that art ignites change, and today is a huge way for us to do it.”

Partial backing for the project came from some of the honorees, with 1st District Councilman Mark Squilla praising their generosity. The support for the whole endeavor resonated with Blavat, too, especially since he has devoted most of his life to spinning the timeless tunes all over the area.

“I’m thankful to everyone who loves and cherishes our music,” the “Geator with The Heater” said as the emcee before introducing Avalon and the others. “There are going to be people who will always know what we’ve contributed to the music industry, so, for them, today is a wonderful occasion. However, I want for younger people to inquire about these artists. I want for them to go on Google and learn about what we did.”

“You just always knew their stuff was going to be dynamic,” Lydia Angeloni, a resident of Pennsport and an Al Martino devotee, said before the program, which included a block party and selections from DJ King Arthur, the son-in-law of Cedrone. “We’re all aging, but these songs will keep us forever young.”

Gracie, a product of East Passyunk Crossing, joined Blavat and Avalon in thanking the attendees. Decked in a stylish black suit, the 80-year-old, who is marking his 66th year as a professional singer and guitarist, drew the most laughs, especially when speaking a bit in Italian.

“Being a musician has been my salvation,” the voice behind “Butterfly,” the original recording of which became a chart-topper in ’57 and which inspired Okdeh to include fluttering insects as his mural symbols, said. “It gave us a special source of pride to be ambassadors from South Philly. I’m really happy that Eric did such a wonderful job and that there are so many folks who want to keep our legacy going. That’s touching no matter who you are.”

Mural Arts Philadelphia’s October love for our environs also included yesterday’s 9th Street Stock Exchange Private Press Tour in conjunction with a participatory art project with input from Passyunk Square-based curator Theresa Rose and will conclude Sunday through the unveiling of a mural honoring jazz guitar great Eddie Lang at Seventh and Fitzwater streets.

“The remix mural is going to be a continual source of inspiration and another sign of how much we love this part of our city,” Golden said. “To South Philly, I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.” SPR

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com.

Wonderful weather helped the crowd of nearly 300 to enjoy a two-and-a-half-hour celebration of South Philly’s influence on pop music, with Frankie Avalon, middle, drawing applause for his legendary contributions.

Photos by Maria Young

Photos by Maria Young

The depicted figures figure to attract attention for years to come thank to muralist Eric Okdeh.

Photos by Maria Young