- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Bobby Rydell has a theory about why South Philly was such a hothouse for neighborhood kids hoping to become the American Idols of the 1950s and ‘60s.

“I always say there was a water trough at Ninth and Dickinson. If you drank out of it, you became a singer. If you dipped your foot into it, you became a dancer,” the singer says.

Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker, Fabian, Al Martino, Jack Klugman, Marian Anderson, Mario Lanza, Joey Bishop, James Darren - they are but a few of the South Philly spawn to make it big.

This was a place for red-blooded dreamers and hustlers. And so it should be little surprise that passions are astir, decades later, over the fate of a mural that memorializes many of the neighborhood’s most treasured sons.

A towering tribute to seven of South Philly’s music and film stars is crumbling. The painted collage across from world-famous Pat’s King of Steaks is at the end of its life after being eyed by countless Whiz-wolfing tourists since its unveiling at Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue a decade ago.

Huge portraits of Rydell, Avalon, Checker, Fabian, Eddie Fisher, Martino, and the DJ Jerry Blavat are chipped and faded. The mural has been so damaged, presumably by roof leaks, that the city’s Mural Arts Program had planned to paint over it this spring - what it calls a retirement with “dignity.”

One reason for the decision: The painting’s future appears doomed by plans for the lot next door. The rise of a proposed four-story development would block the mural.

But just a few weeks ago the whitewashing plan was scrubbed and replaced with a mad dash to find money and a new wall somewhere else in South Philly.

Several of the stars say they were unaware of exactly what was happening but were sure of this much: South Philly deserves a mural to memorialize its incredible track record in producing big talent.

“Let’s keep that mural alive,” Rydell said from Minnesota, where the silky-voiced singer was doing a Friday night gig at a nearby casino with Avalon and Fabian.

“I just don’t want to see it go away,” said Avalon, whose 1970s turn in the movie Grease came years after he burst onto the Hollywood scene as a singer and actor. “Whether people know Frankie Avalon or not, it is something that is part of the history of this city.”

“There’s no need to replace it (or whitewash it) until something else replaces it,” said Checker, whose cover of “The Twist” earned him immortality in music history and a spot on that wall.

Mural Arts founder and executive director Jane Golden has been exhilarated by the fervor to find an ambitious Plan B for what she calls one of the most popular murals in its collection of nearly 2,000 citywide images.

“There are certain murals where the image has far transcended the boundaries of Philadelphia,” Golden said.

This one had been on the group’s restoration list for about two years. The eventual plan was to find a new location for a new mural after whitewashing it. The paint-over was supposed to happen before the planned opening, on Monday, of a pop-up beer garden, Golden said.

But last month, the daughter of Martino - the late crooner remembered as the wedding singer in the original Godfather movie - contacted Golden’s group. She was concerned about losing the cherished painting.

In late April, as constituent whispers had begun to make their way into the ears of Councilman Mark Squilla, things became urgent.

Squilla arranged for a 10 p.m. conference call on a weeknight, needing to talk to Golden and her head of restoration, Kate Jacobi.

Golden, in Atlanta for a talk, obliged.

“Do we have to white it out?” she recalled Squilla asking.

Golden decided her group would push the project ahead of the few thousand others waiting in line.

“There was all this uproar,” said Golden, whose group works to include the community in every decision it makes. “And suddenly, what seems like a challenge becomes a great opportunity.”

Blavat, who spun many of the records that helped make South Philly’s crooners famous, agreed to work with Golden to rescue the mural. He hopes to help raise some of the $70,000 or more that will be needed.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Blavat said, “every one of those artists up there were stars who sold records, who appeared on TV, appeared in movies, and were gigantic stars of the day. This mural is a tribute to artists from South Philadelphia who became national stars.”

Checker, who like Rydell calls the Philadelphia suburbs home, still heads several times a week into the neighborhood where they still call him by his birth name, Ernest Evans. He got his nickname a few blocks away from where the mural now stands, while working at the Italian Market as a kid. He ate steaks at Pat’s growing up, too.

“To have that mural right across the street is pretty incredible,” Checker said. “Just to see my picture there is incredible.”

Rydell, Avalon, and Fabian all grew up a few blocks from one another. Even today, with California his home, Avalon regards his old haunt with awe.

“The greatest neighborhood in the world,” he called it.

Moving the mural will be bittersweet. Its location is marquee - a place that, either through nostalgia or love, still beckons.

“I could be sitting in my house and all of a sudden my nose and my mind say, ‘Christ, I have to go to Ninth and Passyunk to get a Pat’s steak,’ ” Rydell said. He leaves his Penn Valley home for Pat’s when that happens.

To remove the mural and forget about it forever, Rydell said, “would be a total shame.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1Fm4Rg5

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Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, https://www.inquirer.com

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