The Wise Guys' 'Last Waltz'

LAUREN REILLY / FOR THE DAILY NEWS The Wise Guys' last hurrah comes after 35 years of song and fun.
LAUREN REILLY / FOR THE DAILY NEWS The Wise Guys' last hurrah comes after 35 years of song and fun.
Posted: May 25, 2014

ALL GOOD THINGS come to an end. The Wise Guys could cry about that, but they'd really rather sing.

On Sunday, the Wise Guys - eight intellectually disabled adults who have been singing, dancing and rocking out almost as long as Aerosmith - will hold a farewell concert at the Cardinal Krol Center. Owned by the Philadelphia Archdiocese, it's a residential community in Springfield, Delaware County, where the Wise Guys live with more than 100 other men similarly impaired.

The center is closing, the men to be dispersed to small group homes. And the Wise Guys will be no more, says their music director, Joe Reilly.

"I want them to go out with a bang," Reilly says.

The men do, too.

"I'm a ham," says Fran McCullough, 58, who has Down syndrome. I met McCullough, (stage name: "The Pope") at the Wise Guys' rehearsal at the Krol Center, where the concert will take place. I was floored when he donned a pope's mitre to belt a funny song called "It's Not Easy Being a Saint," penned by Reilly. "It makes me happy."

He then hugged me as Wise Guy Mike "Tom Jones" Magee, 54, strode forward to shake my hand. He has Williams syndrome, a neuro-developmental disorder that happens to give him an outgoing personality and love of music.

"Nice to meet you!" he says, pumping my hand.

Next was Mike "Frank Sinatra" Gesualdi, 56, who rocks a fedora to perform "C'mon, Get Happy."

"Hello, hello!" he says, pulling the hat on an angle, the way Ol' Blue Eyes did.

The Wise Guys are not gifted singers in the way we understand the word to mean. Some have speech impediments, so their lyrics are difficult to understand. Others are off-pitch or wobbly in their steps. But onstage, all you see is their joy, doggedness and lack of the kind of self-consciousness that can make "normal" folks hesitate to sing along to the radio even when alone in a car.

"Their way of being is just beautiful," says Reilly, the Krol Center's longtime music therapist. Described by admirers as a "brilliant lunatic," he created the Wise Guys 35 years ago. "They're extraordinary."

The group performs several times a year at the Krol Center, nursing homes and the like. Reilly, an accomplished singer, musician and composer, accompanies the men on guitar and adds backup vocals. Last month, they brought down the house at St. Joseph's University's Hand-in-Hand Festival, an extravaganza to promote acceptance of people with special needs.

The concerts gratify the Wise Guys' loved ones.

"Anything that makes Frankie happy, we're all for it," says Joe McCullough, older brother of Frankie "The Pope." "He's a born performer."

"Joe loves Tchaikovsky to rock 'n' roll. He's thrilled to be a Wise Guy," says Ann Magee, mother of Mike "Tom Jones."

Many of the men have lived on the sprawling Sproul Road campus for decades. As children, they attended its residential Don Guanella School (now closed). Then they moved into the adjacent Krol Center, working in job programs, partaking in therapeutic and recreational activities and becoming each other's family.

But powerful forces are bringing change.

Pennsylvania's Office of Developmental Programs, which contracts with the Philadelphia Archdiocese to provide services for the disabled, has been pushing for the closure of big residential homes like the Krol Center. The new "best practice" is for those with intellectual disabilities to reside in small group homes so that they may be integrated into the mainstream community.

"The state has been quite level with us about the change in direction and policy. We've gotten the message," says James Amato, director of Catholic Social Services. "Very few of these large residential centers exist any more."

Krol Center residents are being moved over the next 18 months or so into 11 group homes (two have already opened). The center's campus, which sits on prime Delaware County real estate, is being marketed for sale. Bids are being accepted on 210 acres; the remaining 5 acres will be reserved for possible future use by Don Guanella Village, which provides daily programs and services to the disabled.

Families have mixed feelings about the change.

"I think it's fabulous," says Jeanne Dowling, mother of John, a/k/a "Michael Jackson." "The families of those who have already moved are ecstatic."

Others, like Ann Magee, mother of Mike, a/k/a "Tom Jones,"are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I wish the move didn't have to happen. But I have to accept it and hope that Mike will be happy," says Magee. "We've been told the men will still receive the same services, so that's good."

One staple of the Krol Center won't survive the move, though: the Wise Guys.

"The men would have to come to a central location from 11 different places, all at the same time" for the group to remain intact and have regular rehearsals, says Reilly. "The logistics just aren't workable.

"Maybe we'll do Christmas caroling," he says. "But at this point, I just don't see a way for the group to remain the way it was."

The thought saddens Catholic Social Services' Amato.

"I really hope Joe can work something out. I hate to see this concert as the Wise Guys' 'Last Waltz,' " he says, referring to the filmed final concert by the Band in 1976, which has attained cult status.

Just in case, Sunday's concert is being recorded for posterity by local filmmakers Ed Kiggins and Todd Gerber.

"Once we understood the whole story - how the men grew up together, live together, sing together and are now being separated - we wanted to document the end of this era," says Kiggins. "They have such joy - the kind of joy you or I would have to be medicated to experience."

Kiggins and Gerber have a Kickstarter page to raise $15,000 to make the film.

Last week, they'd already begun filming the rehearsal and interviews. They hope to complete the movie by December.

"We're going to be stars!" says Frankie "The Pope," explaining to me why he's so excited.

I'd say they already are. But if the film captures their joy on film, it'll be a helluva last waltz.

The Wise Guys will perform this Sunday, May 25, at 2 p.m. at the Cardinal Krol Center, 1799 S. Sproul Rd., Springfield, Delaware County. Admission is free.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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