Thom Nickels, February 2014

    Our friend, South Philadelphian Frank Brancaccio, author of Ephemeral Nights, called to say that his name was splashed across the pages of the National Enquirer and Midnight Globe. While Frank is no publicity hound, his American Bandstand story is making the rounds. As a misfit teenager, Frank says he found solace hanging out (and dancing) with the Bandstand “in” crowd, which eventually made him an on-air celebrity. With his 1960s Ricky Nelson-style good looks, it’s hard to think of Frank as ever being a misfit, but in those days if you didn’t want to play baseball, people looked at you funny. Frank told me a while ago—way before Perez Hilton picked up the story—that most of the good looking (and masculine) Bandstand male regulars were not straight. Dick Clark had three rules for dancers: No camera hogs; no close dancing; and no dancing with someone of a different color. To filter out the show’s pansies, Clark sent spies to Rittenhouse Square to see if any of the male regulars were conjuring lavender spirits. Frank, who regularly hung out in the Square when he wasn’t dancing with Arlene Dipitro, says he survived the witch hunt because Clark liked him and probably never suspected that a macho South Philly kid could be cut from the same cloth as…Liberace.

    The Merriam brought us face to face with Fred and Ethel Mertz, Ricky
Ricardo, and of course, Lucy. Fred (Kevin Remington) was a curmudgeon, Ethel (Joanna Daniels) just as clueless as the television original, Ricky (Bill Mendieta) just as patriarchal and macho. All eyes were on Lucy (Sirena Irwin), however, to see how closely she resembled the original. She came very close, especially when she went into cry-baby mode. What affected us most were the redos of 1950s and  early ‘60s television commercials preformed live with dancers. “See the USA in your Chevrolet” became a fleshed-out dance number with Dinah Beach (not Shore), although we would have preferred Shore, fresh from a rendezvous with (archival hunk) Burt Reynolds. Vitalis and Vaseline hair tonics were famous lotions for men in those days, but the featured commercial was Brylcreem (“A little dab will do ya”). We also anticipated Canoe and Jade East cologne commercials, but instead got a big blast of Mr. Clean. Enjoyable, but heavy on the cheese is how we would sum up the evening.   

    At The Print Center on Latimer Street, we watched as our friend Regina crawled through an oversized dog door in a silo-like paper column into a dark womb-like space to see the planet Sirius, a la Fels Planetarium. After Regina was swallowed up, we moved into the Center’s chapel, a darkened space with benches facing an eight-channel installed video featuring multiple close-ups of artist Demetrius Oliver’s 2011 kinetic sculpture Orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, best viewed from one of the aforementioned benches. We sat (in the dark) chatting with Frank Luzi of the Philadelphia Opera Company, while trying to figure out the meaning of it all, since the installation art exhibit had more in swirling symbols than a game of Candy Crush. “It’s like a traveling Rosicrucian road show,” we exclaimed, after which we also thought of the puzzles in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We’re sorry that we missed the opening lecture by Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at The Franklin Institute, on the mystery of Sirius, although we liked the fact that everyone present was an integral part of the show. Regina told us, “I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m sure it means something.” Why does everyone say this? The Print Center is a venerable “best of” Philly institution, that’s why it seemed odd to us that this Pew Charitable Trust-funded exhibit was Spartan when it came to reception fare: two small bowls of miniature pretzel nuggets and one person to pour carefully measured wine for the 100-plus people seemed a paltry nod to the wonders of the cosmos.    

    In the 1960s, Aunt Dorothy loved the fact that Princess Grace, a Catholic, seemed to be getting more press than the Queen of England, a Protestant, despite the fact that English royalty thought of Monaco royalty as second rate, “thrift store royalty.” When traveling with Aunt Dorothy in her Chevrolet Impala, she’d drive up to the Kelly home in East Falls, slam on the breaks, and exclaim, ‘There's where Grace Kelly grew up! Her father was a common brick layer!” Together we’d examine the grounds of the house as if hunting for tell-tale signs: a lock of Grace’s hair or a mash note from Alfred Hitchcock on the lawn. Aunt Dorothy’s penchant for the living legend came to a head when the Princess herself appeared at a special Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. Aunt Dorothy extended her gloved hand, apparently touching the Princess’ tweed jacket. Her well meaning, “Hello, Princess,” was greeted with a Medusa stare. “I gathered from that,” Aunt Dorothy reminded us years later, “that it is not permissible to touch royalty—ever!” Even, of course, royalty of the thrift store kind.

    In her book Philadelphia: The Place and the People (1898), Agnes Repplier wrote, “[Above all]…The Quaker City lacks that discriminating enthusiasm for her own children…which enables more zealous towns to rend the skies with shrill paeans of applause…If mistaking geese for swans produces sad confusion…the mistaking of swans for geese may also be a serious error. The birds either languish or fly away to keener air.” Repplier meant those Philadelphians who left the city for more welcoming environments.

    Repplier’s writing career lasted 65 years and attracted the admiration of both Henry James and Edith Wharton, yet in order to experience her reading public’s appreciation she had to travel to Boston. Her biographer, George Stewart Stokes, notes, “…If her head had been understandably turned by Boston, it was swiftly unturned again by Philadelphia. Back home, she was merely Agnes Repplier, a relatively insignificant writer living quietly west of the Schuylkill. Here she found no open-arms reception, and this in spite of her ‘triumph’ at Boston. Here she found only obscurity, the obscurity, she felt, that is Philadelphia itself.”  

    This reminds us that in The Perennial Philadelphians (1963), Nathaniel Burt lays the blame for the city’s failure to be driven by literature to the effects of colonialism. “Philadelphians were slobbering over Tennyson and Thackeray,” he writes, “while they condescended to Emerson and Hawthorne.” While Repplier may have admired Thackeray, she had no aversion to sharing a drink of whiskey (in a china toothbrush mug) with Walt Whitman even as most Philadelphians, according to Burt, considered Whitman and Melville “rude barbarians.” Burt concludes: “In later years, colonialism became provincialism, and Philadelphians waited for the accolade from Boston or New York.” We think that’s a little bit changed, but not enough.  

    We didn’t expect to attend the 114th Mummers Parade, but there we were with friends Tamara, Walt and Matt, walking up Broad Street to the Union League, practically the only place where the string bands stop and play during their strut through Center City. In prior days, the bands were generous when it came to the number of tunes they belted out. If they saw enthusiastic crowds, they’d offer a song and a strut. But those crowd-pleasing days are over, thanks to Mayor Nutter’s 2009 “October Revolution” in which he made the bands cut down on the number of playing sites, reduce props from 16- to 12-feet, and then stop marching at 5 p.m. as if ordering church ladies home ahead of a storm. This has made the Nutter-reformed parade about as exciting to watch as a 4th of July parade in Utah. Before 2009, not only did the parade end around midnight, but there was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street, an atmosphere of revelry as people camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched past. It was the one day of the year when you could be a public Party Monster, drink on the street, or sit on a lawn chair by an alleyway dressed in Mummers glitz. This healthy venue for letting go gave the city a New Orleans feel. A real life Mummer agreed with us when he said—on condition of anonymity, of course—that the Mayor really hates the Mummers and that he made this fact clear to the string bands and to the Mummers Association. “He sucked the life out of us making the changes he did. But trust me…we will never give up trying to make the parade as it was before.”

    Strolling through Center City on a Sunday afternoon usually reminds us of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, especially when we linger near Rittenhouse Square. On a recent Sunday we headed over to Barnes and Noble, the only remaining big chain bookstore in Center City, and were shocked by what we saw: Familiar book nook areas—literature, history, religion, etc.—had been revamped or downsized. We rode the escalators hoping to spot the new nooks but wound up in the poetry section where we spotted the usual suspects (Plath, Ginsberg, etc.) but no tomes by local poets (who can also be international), such as CA Conrad (who was once a clerk at B&N and who took great pains to give prominent shelving space to local writers). It was the same in the fiction area (sans the work of Jennifer Weiner, who is everywhere like Trident gum). We asked a clerk if there had been an “October Revolution,” because the place seemed so different,” and she told us that “corporate” had reorganized and downsized, meaning that entire populations of books now only get into the store if a customer orders them. Corporate began this trend years ago when they made it a rule that only books with publishers willing to shell out ad money can be placed in the front window.


Journalist Thom Nickels’ books include Philadelphia Architecture, Tropic of Libra, Out in History and Spore. He is the recipient of the 2005 Philadelphia AIA Lewis Mumford Architecture Journalism Award.



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