Whether designing string band costumes or moderating panels at the CBGB Music and Film Festival, South Philly native James Donio has dabbled in a gamut of artistic experiences.
However, the now-Collingwood resident has recently embarked on a brand new creative endeavor – authoring his first children’s book.
Inspired by his own pets, “Zane to the Rescue,” which was published in October, tells the real-life story of Donio and his husband, Larry, as the couple memorialize their late cocker spaniel and adopt a mixed-breed pup named Zane.
Though Donio drafted the story on a bit of a whim, the book, which was illustrated by Delaware-based author Mark C. Collins, is making various impacts, including supporting a local animal shelter and benefiting the Mummers charity in light of a tragedy.
“I had no idea that this would take on a life of its own…This idea just came to me,” he said. “I thought my husband and mine’s story about adoption of animals and rescues would really be something special to do for children. That they’re great messages for children.”
Though “Zane to the Rescue” marks his first published book, Donio, who grew up at 20th and Ritner streets, has been writing since he was a student at the former Edgar Allan Poe School in Girard Estates.
As a student, he crafted a poem about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The piece, which he read aloud during a ceremony at school, was sent to Washington, D.C. and even received a response of gratitude from widow Ethel Kennedy.
While a student at Central High School, Donio’s flairs took new forms after joining Hegeman String Band. While with the ensemble, he not only contributed to costume and theme designs but played the glockenspiel.
For Donio, working with a South Philly-based string band established the foundation for his diverse future.
“South Philadelphia, for me, is still home,” he said. “That’s where my roots are. There’s still a special feeling coming back to South Philadelphia.”
After graduating high school in 1973, Donio studied journalism and communications at Temple University.
Not long after college, Donio’s zeals for media and Mummery married after auditioning as a color commentator for the annual Mummers Day Parade television broadcast, which even landed him a local Emmy for a collaboration segment.
Throughout the 1980s, he worked in the broadcast booth for NBC, CBS and KYW. For his first two years, Donio solely provided string band coverage before eventually taking on the entire parade.
“I was able to bring a lot of insight to the commentary…That was an extraordinary experience,” he said. “I got the opportunity to work with the great Philadelphia broadcasters.”
Along with the broadcast experience, Donio’s name could be found in the mastheads of local newspapers and magazines and even in the credits as an extra in feature-length movies filmed in Philadelphia, such as the 1987 romantic comedy “Mannequin,” which starred Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall.
Continuing his smorgasbord of creativity, Donio found himself drawn back toward music after landing a position with the South Jersey-based National Association of Recording Merchandisers, which is now known as the Music Business Association in Marlton.
For the 30 years that followed, Donio worked in the ever-changing music industry, as he eventually rose to president of the association before retiring in September of this year.
Donio’s music adventures led him to meet celebrities such as Kelly Clarkson, Meghan Trainor and Mary Wilson of the Supremes, along with frequently attending the Grammy Awards.
“The ability to have worked in and around music for three decades – I will never quite fully express what that meant because music is something that is just so important to people,” he said. “It’s so powerful. Music is powerful.”
These days, Donio is keeping himself busy as a professor of music business at both Temple University and Monmouth University.
Coming full circle with his Mummers zeal, he also serves as the publicity director for The Palandro-Ferry Memorial Foundation, which provides “monetary scholarships and goodwill” to individuals in need throughout Philadelphia’s Mummers community in memory of two South Philly String Band members who lost their lives in a car accident on Jan. 2 of this year.
On Sunday, Dec. 8, at noon, The Kitchen Consigliere in Collingswood is hosting an event in honor of Donio’s new children’s book, “Zane To The Rescue.” The restaurant’s owner, chef Angelo Lutz, plans to match however much is made during the book signing and then donate the funds directly to The Palandro-Ferry Memorial Foundation.
A portion of all book sales will also be donated toward the Almost Home Animal Shelter in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, where Donio adopted Zane after the passing of his prior pooch.
“One of the messages about rescuing animals is you have to think to yourself, ‘Who is really doing the rescuing?’ We rescued him but he really rescued us, because we were inconsolable,” Donio said.
As emulated in the storybook, the wholehearted love shared between pets and their owners acts as a lens to view other forms of compassion.
“Zane to the Rescue” hopes to act as a sense of affirmation, especially for adopted children and kids with parents who are members of the LGBTQ community.
“I think it’s a story about love and caring for animals but also caring for each other,” Donio said. “The relationship and the love that you share with an animal is unconditional. It’s like the purest love that there can be between yourself and your animal or animals.”