Young Rendells step up, out as arts patrons

Jesse and Beka Rendell: "They understand the importance of keeping Philadelphia a cultural city and making it better. They get it," says Richard Vague, board president of the Fringe Festival.
Jesse and Beka Rendell: "They understand the importance of keeping Philadelphia a cultural city and making it better. They get it," says Richard Vague, board president of the Fringe Festival.

Jesse and Beka Rendell will be front and center with dad Ed at Feastival Fringe benefit.

Posted: September 13, 2012

It's not unusual to see the name Rendell headlining a city arts event. So when Feastival - Wednesday night's fund-raiser benefiting Philadelphia's Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe - revealed its cochairs, no one was surprised to see the Rendells leading the charge.

Only it's not Ed and Midge. It's Jesse and Beka.

Meet the next generation of Rendell arts patrons. This is Jesse, 32, the Rendells' only child, and his wife of four years, Beka, 30. Along with real estate attorney Tony Forte, they're spearheading what many tout as Philadelphia's party of the year - the third annual gala where more than 700 patrons will sample from more than 85 local restaurants and watch Fringe-worthy avant-garde dance performances.

"They understand the importance of keeping Philadelphia a cultural city and making it better. They get it, for lack of a better word," said Richard Vague, the board president of Fringe Festival.

Jesse noted that a certain demographic of Philadelphians is already tuned in to giving to the arts. His and Beka's job is to bring in another one.

"Guys like my dad and Richard [Vague] and their circle, they're super dialed in and they've built up this amazing event, but it's the same group of people who have been doing things for a long time. I don't want to call them old . . . ."

"More mature," Beka interjected.

" . . . but we're trying to get the younger crowd, the up-and-comers," he said. "Charities need the support of that older crew, but you need the young ones, too, because, in 10 to 15 years, that's your main support base."

While this isn't the first time the couple have stepped out together for charity - last fall they worked on a subcommittee of a Susan G. Komen Foundation fund-raiser - this may be their highest-profile foray into the city's social scene.

It's fitting that their public debut comes with an event associated with Fringe, the 16-year-old 16-day festival of often bold and bizarre performances that draws more than 50,000 people annually. Ed Rendell, who will MC Wednesday night's Feastival at Pier 9 on the Delaware River waterfront, has long been a supporter, during his stints both as mayor and as governor. He and Jesse's mother, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Marjorie Rendell, were outspoken advocates for the development of the Avenue of the Arts. (The couple amicably split in 2011 after nearly 40 years of marriage.)

And both Jesse and Beka have a background in the arts, he as a musician and she as a visual artist.

Restaurateur Audrey Claire Taichman, a founder of Feastival, said having the couple at the gala's helm also brings a certain mainstream legitimacy to the arts event.

"For people that would normally think it's too risqué, they understand if Jesse and Beka and Tony Forte are going for it, it's not that risqué," she said. "It's innovative and groundbreaking."

Jesse and Beka live in East Falls, where Jesse grew up. It's where they're raising 3-month-old Dean, who may or may not make an appearance at Feastival depending on whether his parents can get a babysitter. Jesse said he likes "the balance of urban and suburban" the neighborhood offers.

The couple met in 2000, when Jesse's band, Don't Look Down, was touring in Florida. Beka, a Sunshine State native, attended a few shows.

"Everyone always asks if she was a groupie, and I always tell the story that she did not care at all about my band and I still, to this day, think she didn't think we were that good anyway," Jesse said.

Beka mildly disputes this. "I thought they were good," she said.

The two had a largely long-distance relationship before marrying in 2008 at the Governor's Residence in Harrisburg. They could have settled anywhere. Jesse has always wanted to be a Southern California beach bum. Beka loved New York when she studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

But a few factors drew them to Philadelphia, among them:

1. The Rendell family. It's especially good to have Ed and Midge close, especially now that there's a grandson around, Jesse and Beka said. "When I was younger, I was so focused on setting myself apart. I wanted to go out and be in a band and I wanted to be 'Jesse Rendell of Don't Look Down' to somebody in California. And I think I was pretty successful in doing that," he said. "But you get to a certain point where you get more comfortable in your own skin and you just get over all that."

2. Philadelphia sports teams. Seriously. "I couldn't imagine watching an Eagles game at 10 in the morning," Jesse said, which would have happened if he'd followed his Cali calling, plus, "I love talk radio. It would have killed me not to be able to hear people talk about the Eagles the next day."

"He's not kidding," Beka said.

3. The Shore.

4. The opportunity to be a big fish in a smaller pond. "Philly just suits me. It's a big city, but it's not a big city," Jesse said. "I knew I'd have better opportunities here than I'd have elsewhere."

5. The Attitude. Jesse visited places like Southern Cal with his band and "my one critique is, out there, everybody cared so much about what they looked like and what people thought of them. Here, it's like, for better or worse, 'I am what I am and if you don't like it, screw you.' There's just a different realness here to people that I've always loved."

Jesse, a lawyer/entrepreneur, now works with his father at Rendell Management & Consulting. Beka runs a design business, Styled Creative, in Old City. (She even "styled" Ed Rendell before a Philadelphia Magazine cover shoot, a term, in this case, that needs clarification by Jesse: "With him, you're going to get some sort of suit and a white shirt, so all you can do is make sure that he's got a tie on that you like that doesn't have stains on it . . . . It's not like styling someone for the Oscars.")

Jesse said he's not interested in politics "at this point."

"I'm not going to be the next Ed Rendell, in that I'm not going to be the mayor or the governor," he said. "But hopefully, I'll be a business leader, a community leader."

He doesn't mind the comparisons to his parents, or the idea that he and his wife are following in their footsteps.

"Supporting events like this and helping out with the arts can be a continuation of the work that they've done," Jesse said. "If that's something I can do . . . if I can continue that work over the next 20 or 30 years and make a similar impact, I think that'll be a great thing for everybody."

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