|Thank You, Mr. Rooney|
by Gene Collier (screenwriter, Post
Gazette sports writer)
(The following is from the playbill of the one man
play "The Chief" presented at the Pittsburgh Public Theater)
The coal trucks that bucked and rumbled through the streets of the North Side
during the Depression carried more than some prescribed tonnage of bituminous
mineral, for coal was much more than that. Coal was currency. Neighborhood kids
in Art Rooney�s First Ward considered it the resource of a favored pastime, that
being a proclivity more officially called petit theft.
The trick in removing a mound of black currency from a filthy moving coal truck
wasn�t terribly complicated, but some kids had elevated it to a low art, even
They�d take a brick, a block of wood, a loose cobblestone, and roll it or pitch
it or skim it beneath the rear tires of the passing vehicle. If one of the back
tires lifted onto it, the hiccupping of the rear axle was often enough to make a
valued amount of coal slide off the back of the truck.
For some coal removal artists, the resultant mound of black diamonds on the
street represented principally their practiced ability to get away with
something, but for others, it was instant solvency. Coal heated houses and fired
up stoves, and at Christmas time, could be traded for the cash to buy mom a
gift. Even dad if you were flush.
But many of the older people in the neighborhood, having long reached the uneasy
dignity of adulthood, knew nothing of this game and suspected less. And when the
Christmas season might bring to the street in front of their homes a mound of
coal that some harried kid had forgotten to collect, their first thought was
often this: Thank you, Art Rooney.
Oh yes Virginia, there is an Art Rooney. There was an Art Rooney, and the notion
that there has ever been anyone like him remains dubious to this day, some 15
years after his death.
The legend of Rooney as Santa�s little North Side helper, of course, savagely
uncomplicates one of the most compelling personal histories of 20th century
America. Santa Claus, examined through the myth-making literary mechanisms of
cultures across the globe, didn�t lay bets, didn�t run booze, didn�t frequent
speakeasys, didn�t whistle past whorehouses, didn�t play the ponies, didn�t
cultivate a reputation as even a middling street fighter, didn�t play baseball,
didn�t turn up at Mass with metronomic reliability, didn�t display any apparent
giftedness for back-alley politics, didn�t prop up a lurching drunk called the
National Football League and steer it toward legitimacy, didn�t foment the
structure of the greatest football team of all time, and, unless my research is
flawed, didn�t attend many wakes.
Mr. Claus, in short, was and is no Mr. Rooney.
I hadn�t thought for some time about everything that was real and genuine about
Mr. Rooney, nor about everything that was folklore and legend, but that morning
in January of 2001 when Rob Zellers of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre approached
me and said, �I�ve been thinking that Art Rooney�s life might make an
interesting one-man play,� I knew I�d just heard a great truth.
The genesis of our collaboration was not very much more or less than that, but
the process of putting a singular lifetime into a script called The Chief
(Rooney�s sons named him that after the editor in the Superman TV show), has
brought to the surface many similar truths I didn�t know I knew.
Atkins, whose father played baseball with the Chief and introduced the Chief to
his son, is singularly qualified to bring Mr. Rooney to life on stage.
In what remains perhaps the clearest memory of the creative process, Atkins,
Zellers, the gifted director Ted Pappas, and I were to convene at the Art Rooney
statue near Heinz Field for a photo shoot upon the announcement that Atkins had
agreed to play the Chief and that the Pittsburgh Public Theater would produce
As we walked up to the statue, I was going over in my mind the correct way to
introduce the great actor to the great photographer John Beale of the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette. Before I�d sorted it out, Atkins was a mile ahead of me. �Hi I�m
Tom Atkins,� he said striding toward Beale, �what�s your name?�
There�s nothing terribly memorable about that on its face, except that it is
exactly what Art Rooney would have done. Atkins had not only locked into the
Chief�s karma, but had apparently shared it for generations, and rehearsal was
still eight months away.
This is no small achievement, as the Chief�s disarming persona was as
conspicuous as his legend would become as his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers won
four Super Bowls in the glorious 1970�s.
I knew Mr. Rooney only for the final five years of his life, but that was long
enough to appreciate that he was an American original, the very walking
prototype of the immigrant innovator and the ultimate human prism through which
Pittsburgh grew to appreciate its gritty history and enduring benevolent image.
When the Chief said, �H�waar ya?�, he meant it literally. That was not plastic
modernist etiquette or even small talk. He wanted to KNOW about you and your
family and he had in a genuine interest in seeing that all was well. Hobos,
drunks, sportswriters (you�ll excuse the redundancy), politicians, captains of
industry, CEO�s, they all got the same treatment from him.
Boiling it to the bone, as complicated as the Chief was, his baseline philosophy
was that people were great, and Pittsburgh was his Exhibit A. He detested
�puttin� on the dog.� He�d ride in a Lincoln, but not a Cadillac. Riding in a
Cadillac was �puttin� on the dog.� They devised all manner of formal public
ceremonies in this town to convince the Chief he was great, but to him it only
meant he was just like everybody else.
The morning after he died, Pete Elliott, the executive director of the Pro
Football Hall of Fame, told the Post-Gazette�s Ron Cook: �If all people had the
attitude of Art Rooney, most of the world�s problems would be solved.�
He was, for all his sometimes improbable facets, the best evidence I�d ever come
across that the most important thing we have in this life is each other.
To have been a small part of bringing that evidence to the stage of one of
America�s great theaters has been gratifying beyond my most psychotic
expectations. It�s not terribly unlike waking up Christmas to that mound of
black diamonds. Thank you, Art Rooney.