While the 90-mile divide between New York and Philadelphia would seem to suggest a close resemblance between the two cities, that’s hardly the case at all. Yes, there are streetscape similarities that often excite the Hollywood film industry, but any relation other than the strictly cosmetic is in large part imaginary.
The world of politics offers ample proof of this. New York’s strongly Democratic electorate has a fluidity Philadelphia’s Democratic majority lacks. New Yorkers can vote for an urban liberal Republican like Bloomberg and then go back to voting for a Democrat. Philadelphians, however, find it much harder to switch-hit in the voting booth. They prefer staying put in a machine-dominated political vortex that rarely thinks outside the box.
Consider the political legacy of Sam Katz, three-time liberal Republican candidate for Mayor, three time loser and a one-time ‘almost ran’ in the 2011 Democratic primary against Mayor Nutter. Katz’s aborted 2011 mayoral stint came sometime after he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere in Philadelphia as a Republican, so he switched political parties. In the end even that didn’t work. The machine in charge had its own hierarchy of “favorites,” and Katz wasn’t among them, despite the fact that nobody seems more suited for the mayor’s office. Well read, articulate, conversational (sans arrogance), tall and urbane, Kat has all the exterior attributes that would put him in the running in any big city in America--except Philadelphia.
Philadelphia’s Democratic roots, after all, go back to 1951, a year when the local press made a point of lamenting 60 years of boss Republican rule. Republicans were the machine then, with Mayor Bernard Samuel’s ten year term as mayor ending a cycle that was largely broken by FDR’s New Deal and the ensuing massive immigration of southern blacks into the Quaker City. Realizing that the influx of new residents could provide a windfall of votes, city Democrats courted the newcomers to help win city elections. The strategy worked and helped elect Democrat Richardson Dilworth as mayor in 1951 and presto, a new machine was born.
. Katz’s political withdrawal from the 2011 mayoral race had the markings of a NASCAR race car coming to screeching stop. The press reported he was dropping out for “personal and political reasons.”
“But never say never,” the man himself told me in his offices in the beautiful Frank Furness-designed J. Gardner Cassatt house of the Library Company of Philadelphia. The mild mannered Katz has done what few seem to manage successfully: He’s reinvented himself Arthur Rimbaud-style: “You must change your life,” the 19th century French poet once wrote.
“Philadelphia is my passion,” he asserts, a slight redness around the eyes seeming to indicate overwork, perhaps exhaustion.
‘Passion’ in this case refers to a new project, “Philadelphia, The Great Experiment,” which will consist of a series of documentary films focusing on the history of the city and possibly expanding to include historical subjects outside city and state boundaries.
The endeavor has received a significant amount of press these days. The showing of the pilot film, “The Floodgates Opened, 1865-1876,” in a theater in Radnor last year was one of twenty local screenings. To date, the response has been robust and enthusiastic, and the former politico “also ran” couldn’t be happier.
“The Floodgates Opened,” concentrates on a divided Philadelphia immediately after the Civil Wars years, when Irish immigrants and former African American slaves came to blows on South Street. The film covers the time when the city was planning its most ambitious architectural endeavor yet, the building of City Hall. The story ends at the 1876 Centennial Exposition but does not include that story.
“There are a lot of different ways you can contribute to your city besides running for mayor,” he adds.
The sentiment, however, sounds a little bit like a self-help mantra in light of his reinvention of himself as a film producer.
With Katz, the subject often returns to politics.
“When I ran against Mayor Street in 2003, things were on their way to being a close election until they found the bug. It turned out not to be a close election. But had there not been a bug we would have been closer than 15 points, which is what I lost by.”
I ask him if he would care to get specific about those “personal and political reasons.”
“I kept those cards pretty close to my vest,” he says, the word ‘vest’ somehow conjuring visuals of classic Republican dress accruements like Brian Tierney’s bow ties or the “Chestnut Hill” suits of Thatcher Longstreth.
“It was my wife who suggested this was not a good year to run, and I’ve learned to trust her instincts. But now that we’re finished the pilot we’re going to use it to raise money for the other films. But we don’t currently have that money in the bank.”
Talk to Katz long enough and you’re likely to detect a not so subtle boyishness. He yawns and rubs his eyes occasionally, the result, perhaps, of media overexposure. He leans forward when a question, in this case about money, strikes a nerve.
“My wife loves the pilot film, and she would like me to make money. I’m not making money, not a lot of money, but I need to make money. I did put money away and if I was seven years older the answer might be different. But having lived through what happened in the last 3 years and what could happen again to assets…. My children are grown and I don’t have the private school tuitions, and even though I don’t have the lifestyle that needs a lot of money, I need to make it.”
He believes that the films will be successful, given the near- absence of historical films about Philadelphia. With his staff of one, namely son Phil, and two project workers—writer Nathaniel Popkin and Gregory Nickerson, a research assistant—it seems more than likely that this will happen.
Son Phil is stationed at a computer on the far side of the project’s war room, a resplendent book-lined Victorian office that’s a dead ringer for the interior of the former The Poor Richard Club, just across the street at 1319 Locust. Phil and company are busy at work chatting about actor resumes and debating who might play this or that historical character.
It’s painstaking work making movies, especially when you do commissioned films on the side to pay for the mother project.
The commissions include a short film for the Union League, another short film on the life of Stephen Girard for Girard College, and yet another short on the life of Richard Allen for Mother Bethel AME Church. These ten-minute snippets, while not part of the Philadelphia Experiment, could still become classic showpieces.
Katz traces his first thoughts about the project to 2005-06, with plans solidifying in 2007. Much like running for mayor, there were stumbling bocks, what Katz calls “the lack of a sustained, overview of the history of Philadelphia done by a historian who taught and did scholarship out of the local universities.” There was not, he says, a “definite narrative” on Philadelphia.
“New York and Chicago both had historians who taught and wrote this way, but not Philadelphia. Even the book, “Philadelphia, a 300 Year History,” is more of a reference book than anything else. It’s also the work of some 20 authors who specialize in different areas of history, like Dennis Clark from Temple who studied Irish history in Philadelphia. When you don’t have that voice that speaks with continuity throughout, there are problems.”
‘Philadelphia, The Great Experiment,’ will skip all-inclusive generic overviews for specific times in the city’s history.
“The Floodgates Opened, 1865-1876,” will be followed by “Capital in Crisis,” about the city during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.
“We had two full days working with historians, notably Rob Armstrong, who helped us figure out how we were going to do the first pilot. With the Yellow Fever episode we had to ID 15 historians to be our “go to” people both in script writing, research resources and also as camera experts. They will significantly shape what our thinking is about the story.”
“Capital in Crisis” will tell the story of how both Jefferson and Hamilton fled Philadelphia, along with Congress and the Secretary of State.
“We are looking for those stories that become pivot points,” Katz says, mentioning how Yellow Fever was probably brought to the city on slave boats from Haiti a la Stephen Girard. “In 1793 there was a huge shift from earlier colonial times. The city was deserted, and the capital was permanently moved to Washington.”
Visual ‘footnotes’ from the film, known as Websodes, will be posted on the project website (http://www.historyofphilly.com/).
Right now, the man who was almost mayor could be making an historic legacy of his own, but that depends on promotion.
“It’s all about promotion, especially if you can get commercial TV to promote this film to its audience. I think we’re really going to create a good show geared to audiences of all ages. I hope it’s going to be quite good,” he says.
At least, as far as one can tell, there are no machines to beat.