Watching the Philadelphia Theater Company production of “Rizzo” last week at the Suzanne Roberts Theater was more than an exercise in nostalgia. The force of Frank Rizzo not only shaped the politics of South Philadelphia forevermore, but in many ways casts a large shadow over the 2016 presidential race. Whether you believe the former mayor’s impact has been for good, evil, or somewhere in between (the play’s conclusion) is up to you, dear reader, but you cannot deny that impact.
This columnist’s own life intersected with that of Frank Rizzo at several different levels. Like Rizzo, my father was all cop. A law and order cop. He started on the police force around the same time as Rizzo. Like Rizzo, he was a high school dropout from South Philadelphia. Rizzo’s unique identification with South Philadelphia was largely shaped by his persona and his police and political career. Unlike my father, who lived here all his life, Rizzo left South Philadelphia at an early age. My father became a personal friend of Rizzo. They stayed friends throughout my dad’s life. Both Rizzo and my father were almost obsessive over their spit and polish appearance. Dad’s police pistol had pearl handles. He spent hours at the kitchen table polishing his weapon. While Rizzo became known as The Cisco Kid, my father’s nickname was Pistol Pete. Even detractors of Frank Rizzo will admit his courage. My father earned 35 commendations for bravery as a cop.
When Rizzo ran for mayor, I was a young columnist at the South Philadelphia Review. While South Philadelphia fell in love with Rizzo, I was critical. The owner of this newspaper at that time, Leon Levin, told me that local merchants were threatening to pull their ads. I can’t afford to run anti-Rizzo columns, he told me, so you can write them, but I won’t print them. You could’ve more easily slammed the Pope in these parts than Frank Rizzo. And yet, the Rizzo campaign advised me that it was sending one of my columns about him to the nationally syndicated Washington columnist Joseph Alsop for background. Rizzo had become a national figure.
My father told me one day that Rizzo didn’t understand how the son of a good cop could write such negative stuff about him. In response, Dad told me that he shrugged his shoulders and told Rizzo in so many words that I was his son with a mind of his own.
An actor named Scott Greer does as good a job as possible playing Rizzo, but no actor can radiate the former mayor’s magnetism and menace. Many of Rizzo’s most infamous statements were greeted by laughter from the theater audience the night my wife and I saw the play. It was as if they were watching reruns of ALL IN THE FAMILY and Frank Rizzo was merely Archie Bunker. But I can guarantee you that when Rizzo actually said such things as “I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” no one was laughing. I can still remember one night when my wife and I attended a Rizzo fundraiser in South Philadelphia as guests of this newspaper. Prior to the dinner, Rizzo was in the lobby of the catering hall surrounded by media. “Smile for us, Frank,” one of the reporters shouted. Rizzo, who had just beaten liberal Councilman and antagonist David Cohen for the nomination, gave the reporter a stare that Wyatt Earp must’ve flashed at the OK Corral. “Say David Cohen,” he hissed. And then he smiled.
The PTC production is taken from a book by Sal Paolantonio, “Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America.” Paolantonio is well known to football fans for his work on ESPN, but he was also a political reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and covered Rizzo’s last political campaign. When this columnist served as the host of the pre and postgame shows on the Eagles radio network, I got to know and like Sal. I interviewed him many times on my sports show.
Paolantonio’s book about Rizzo came about when the former mayor defeated Ron Castille for the Republican nomination in 1991. Rizzo died before the general election and Democrat Ed Rendell became mayor. I interviewed Paolantonio about his book on my public affairs show on then WYSP-FM and disagreed with his conclusion that Rizzo could well have become mayor again (he barely edged Castille to win the GOP nomination and would’ve needed an African-American to enter the general election to siphon off votes from Rendell in order to win. Paolantonio thinks that was going to happen. I thought it was a fanciful delusion on the part of Rizzo’s political supporters.
Controversy still surrounds Rizzo. His detractors want to remove his statue across from City Hall. His rough style in going after his opponents (Rizzo is reputed to have spied on Castille and others) is emulated by Donald Trump. I think it no accident that Trump’s appeal in South Philadelphia lays rooted in its continuing love affair with Frank Rizzo.
Just a couple of week before Rizzo’s death, my wife and saw him in Center City. She smiled at him and Rizzo smiled back. “I knew someone you knew,” she said to the former mayor. “And who was that,” Rizzo replied. “Pete Cardella, she said. “Pistol Pete,” Rizzo replied with a smile. “Helluva cop. Helluva cop.” SPR
(Tom Cardella can be seen along with Paul Jolovitz on MONDAY NIGHT KICKOFF Mondays from 6 to 7 PM video streaming at wbcb1490.com)