|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 low theater.
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 it.
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.