A Philadelphia playwright is bringing Frank Rizzo's life to the stage

Bruce Graham (left) is the playwright, Joe Canuso of Theatre Exile is the artistic director, and Frank L. Rizzo is the subject. Their play about Rizzo could premiere in 2014.
Bruce Graham (left) is the playwright, Joe Canuso of Theatre Exile is the artistic director, and Frank L. Rizzo is the subject. Their play about Rizzo could premiere in 2014. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 27, 2013

If ever there were a character to inspire living theater, it is Francis Lazarro Rizzo. And yet, the former mayor, one of the most dramatic figures in the city's long history, has yet to be immortalized on stage.

Books have been written. And in 1998, Hollywood producers promised that a biopic was "150 percent" sure.

It never happened.

But now Theatre Exile, a small South Philadelphia company, is planning a production worthy of the character that was Frank.

"He's almost Shakespearean," says Bruce Graham, the award-winning playwright who will pen the play, which would premiere in 2014 at the earliest.

Graham, 56, who grew up in Ridley Township and now lives in South Philadelphia, remembers the Rizzo years clearly and has no delusions about the man's complexity.

"Anyone who divides people the way he did has got to make a great character," he says. Graham plans to spend at least a year on the project and conduct his own research, interviewing people who knew Rizzo well.

"I'm not interested in creating a valentine or a slam job," he says. "In every instance I can, I'm going to try to use his own words, or as close as I possibly can.

No matter how scrupulously he works to find balance, he says, he expects the audience to react with passion - "People will come in with their own point of view."

Rizzo's story provides so much dramatic detail, Graham says, he will have more material than he can possibly use.

Son of Italian immigrants grows up in South Philly. Kind of family makes you want to weep. Old school. Lots of love, no back-talk. Kitchen filled with loud opinions, steaming pots of red gravy. Kid drops out of high school, then, following the father he idolizes, becomes a beat cop in his tough city.

Frank is a big guy, makes a big impression. Runs into a burning building, throws himself into street brawls. Long story short, he becomes the police commissioner. Breaks rules. And bones. Arrests "fags" just because. Raids Black Panther headquarters, parades the Panthers naked in the street.

Lots of people hate him. Correction: loathe. But more people love him. Correction: worship. They elect him mayor. Twice.

By the time he exits in 1991, of a massive heart attack at 70, midway through his fifth mayoral run, Rizzo is legend. Richard M. Nixon would have attended the funeral if it hadn't been such a hot day. There are 14,000 mourners at the viewing, 160 cars in the cortege, and two Roman Catholic cardinals to bless him on his way to hereafter.

And Graham had a few personal encounters of his own. Like the time when he was working in the Hickory Farms shop the day the Gallery opened and Rizzo strode in for a photo op and a free slice of cheese.

"You shook hands with him," Graham recalls, "you lost half your hand."

The script will be roughly based on S.A. Paolantonio's biography of Rizzo.

"I'm thrilled. Totally," says Paolantonio, an ESPN reporter who once covered politics for The Inquirer.

"Considering he's been dead since July of 1991 and the book came out in May of 1993, for anybody to still be interested in making this into a play is fantastic," Paolantonio said. "And there's not too many indigenous theatrical works about life in Philadelphia."

For Theatre Exile, the story's appeal is as much in what it reveals about the city as the man, says Joe Canuso, the theater's artistic director.

"We try to have a sense of what Philadelphia is really about," said Canuso, raised in South Philly. "It's a city where there's not a lot of pretense, a city that wears its heart on its sleeve."


Contact Melissa Dribben at (215) 854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com or @dribbenonphilly on Twitter.

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