An Observation…and Then a Short Story

When Chuck Berry passed away in March we read numerous obituaries and “appreciations” singing his praises for the originality of his music and his enormous influence on rock’n’roll.  About a week after he passed away a few publications wrote hesitant, almost apologetic pieces about how in real life Berry wasn’t such a great guy:  convicted of armed robbery while still in high school, imprisoned in the early 1960s for transporting a fourteen-year-old girl across state lines (and having sex with her), settling out of court with fifty-nine women who sued him for installing cameras in the bathroom of a restaurant and making videos of them doing…things, and more.  Great musician, apparently not-so-great guy.

We’ve seen this before:  people who for one reason have a good reputation but turn out to be bad guys in some ways.  Mel Gibson, for example, was a pretty big star, but these days he’s still practically persona non grata in Hollywood because he’s an anti-Semitic misogynist, among other things.  We’re now supposed to pretend Bill Cosby was never funny, even though we all know he was, because he also turned out to be a bit of deviant.  Chuck Berry survived his shortcomings; Gibson looks like he’s slowly regaining some of his stature.  Mr. Pudding Pops, though, is a long way from redemption and won’t live to see that happen.  There were others, too, including O.J. Simpson, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Tiger Woods.  Not that Bill O’Reilly was ever really a good guy, at least to many of us, but his reputation has now swirled down the toilet bowl like yesterday’s Hot Pockets.

There are probably a lot of movies where characters who were supposed to be good guys were actually bad guys.  The Curmudgeon isn’t much of a movie guy and can’t think of many off-hand, although certainly, audiences stood up and applauded the success of Michael Corleone when he killed of his competitors at the end of The Godfather, and face it, Michael is a bad, bad guy:  he killed his wife’s husband, he killed his brother, he is actually pretty damn repugnant.  In literature there’s Roy Hobbs, in The Natural (if you’ve never read it, the book’s ending is VERY different from that of the movie), Satan in Paradise Lost, and a short story The Curmudgeon recalls reading years ago called “The Greatest Man in the World” by one of his favorite writers, James Thurber, about an aviation pioneer who’s a con man and a criminal and an all-around lout and how, when he’s honored for his achievements, the people who are honoring come to learn what an awful guy he really is.

In other words, the hero-as-jerk (or bad guy) isn’t exactly an original idea.  When The Curmudgeon read the follow-up stories about Chuck Berry he remembered a short story he wrote a few years back about this same concept, even though it’s not an original idea, so he dusted off that story and shares it with you below.  (For the record, a few real-life people whose names you may recognize (depending on your age) appear in this story.  Remember, folks:  it’s fiction, just made up.)

Enjoy


“Cool Girls”

When people think about the boy singers from Philadelphia of the late 1950s they think of Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian.  But even before Avalon, Rydell, and Fabian – when they were still in high school and still working on their pompadours – there was Johnny Jeannette.  Nearly two years before the better-known boys of Philadelphia came along, Johnny Jeannette was a smash sensation, climbing the pop charts with his 1956 hit single “Cool Girls.”  “Cool Girls” topped the charts for four weeks and stayed in the top ten for another six – a remarkable run for that or any other era.  Jeannette’s record company – as all record companies did with their new young stars in the 1950s –  sent him on a whirlwind national tour, barnstorming the country with a dozen other young singers enjoying their first or second hit records.

But unlike Avalon, Rydell, and Fabian, Jeannette had that one hit and then no others.  There were no more hits, not even any more records, and no attempts many years later to milk his moment of fame into a career as a professional nostalgia act.  When Johnny Jeannette returned home from his tour of state fairs and pop concerts and “Cool Girls” fell off the charts as even the most popular songs eventually do, Johnny Jeannette disappeared and was heard from no more.  Even before the stars of Frankie, Bobby, and Fabian began to rise, the star of Johnny Jeannette had permanently set.

By late 1957 Johnny Jeannette was invisible – and for the most part, he stayed that way.  Publicly, he missed the 1960s entirely:  neither hide nor hair was seen of him as the British invasion signaled the rise of rock’n’roll and the demise of pop music.  The 1970s saw a renewed interest in the music of the late 1950s and early 1960s and “Cool Girls” would occasionally resurface – but never Jeannette.  The song would play once in a while on oldies radio stations and at dance clubs and would appear on record compilations of hit songs from the 1950s, but no matter how often the song re-emerged, its singer never re-emerged along with it.

*              *              *

“Save our past!  Save our past!” cried about a dozen women carrying signs of protest on tiny Daly Street in South Philadelphia.  As the women marched, another dozen or so watched – curious, roused from their homes by the unusual noise on what was otherwise an unusually quiet city street.  More began streaming out of their row homes as the spectacle of the protesters was surpassed by an even greater spectacle:  the arrival of a television news van with the words “Action News” emblazoned on its side.  The van pulled onto the sidewalk – the street was so narrow that parking was possible only on one side – and a well-coiffed woman and a scruffy-looking man stepped out of the van and onto the street.

The woman immediately plunged into the crowd in search of the protest’s leader.  Once she found her they spoke for about five minutes, with the reporter taking a few notes but mostly just nodding as she absorbed the answers to her questions.  Meanwhile, the camera operator began shooting footage of the protesters, who naturally raised their volume and their enthusiasm once they saw that they might be on television.  As he taped them, the camera operator was struck by something he noticed:  the protesting women all looked surprisingly…old.  Several had white hair, and he guessed that not one of them was under sixty years of age and that many appeared to be more than seventy.

Out of the corner of his eye, the camera operator saw the reporter signaling to him.  He lowered his camera and joined her.

“I’m ready.  Where do you want us?”

He motioned toward a street corner, and both the reporter and the protest leader obediently moved in that direction.  In a matter of moments, everyone was positioned and the camera started to roll.

“I’m here on Daly Street in South Philadelphia, where a dozen or so women are protesting the planned demolition of four row houses to make way for a new 7-Eleven convenience store.  With me is Marie Russo, one of the protesters.  Marie, what’s this protest about?”

“Aida, one of the four houses to be leveled belonged to the family of Johnny Jeannette, a singer who had a huge hit record in 1956.  Johnny lived here when the song was a hit.  All of us knew Johnny and grew up with him and went to school with him, and we believe this landmark should be preserved.  Johnny Jeannette is an important part of the heritage of this neighborhood and South Philadelphia and the entire city, and we believe it should be saved.”

“And you think this protest will make that happen?”

“We think this protest will help, but we’re also working with our city councilman and the alumni association at Southern High, where we all went to school.  We realize there may be times when the past has to make way for the future and for progress, but tearing down this landmark for a faceless company store where people can buy cigarettes and sodas shouldn’t be one of those times.”

“And what about Johnny Jeannette?  How does he feel about this protest?”

“Johnny’s not involved in any of this; it’s just us.  But we know how much he loved the old neighborhood, and we’re sure that wherever he is, he supports us.”

“Thank you.  Reporting from Daly Street in South Philadelphia, this is Aida Alvarez, Action News.”

About seven miles away, in a room illuminated only by the light emitted by the television and the burning end of a cigarette, John Gianelli laughed heartily.

“Yeah,” he said aloud even though he was alone in the room except for the German shepherd sleeping near his feet, “I loved the old neighborhood so much that the minute I had enough money I beat it the hell out of there and haven’t been back in fifty years.”

He raised a bottle of beer to his mouth and laughed again.  As he drank, the telephone rang.  It was a reporter from the Philadelphia Post, the local tabloid newspaper.

“Mr. Gianelli, have you heard about the protest on Daly Street today?”

“Yeah, I just saw a thing about it on the news.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about it?”

Gianelli’s smile of a moment ago was gone.

*              *              *

The following day, Gianelli found himself at the corner grocery store, buying a newspaper for the first time in at least a year.  He returned home, took a seat in his living room, turned on the television, opened the paper, and found what he was looking for.

Oldies Tune Sparks Protest in South Philadelphia

Demonstrators blocked traffic in South Philadelphia yesterday to protest the proposed demolition of the house once occupied by Johnny Jeannette, whose 1956 pop hit “Cool Girls” proved to be the first of many hit songs by Philadelphia singers in the 1950s.

Jeannette – his real name is John Gianelli – quickly faded from public view.  Since his hit in 1956 he has made only two public appearances:  in 1975 he was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame and in 1977 he appeared on a special “boys of Philadelphia” edition of The Mike Douglas Show, the nationally broadcast talk show that originated from Philadelphia from 1965 to 1978.

The protesters claim the house and the song are integral parts of South Philadelphia’s cultural heritage that should be preserved.  Michael Mariucci, who represents the community in city council, agrees and indicated that he intends to work with council to block the planned demolition.

When reached for comment, Gianelli – Johnny Jeannette – said he was not involved in the protest.

Gianelli still resides in Philadelphia and has lived in the same Lehigh Avenue house in North Philadelphia since 1959.  He says he disliked show business and never attempted to continue his career after his 1956 hit.  According to Gianelli, he moved to North Philadelphia because he was an avid Phillies fan and wanted to move as close as possible to their then-home at Connie Mack Stadium.  He remained in North Philadelphia, though, after the Phillies relocated to South Philadelphia in 1971 and says he still attends about forty games a year – by subway.

Gianelli used the proceeds from his hit single to invest in real estate in the North Philadelphia community into which he moved, and he continues to manage that real estate today, at the age of seventy-two.  He is widowed and has three children and eleven grandchildren.

*              *              *

“Thank you, Principal Williams.  My name is Marie Russo, and I’m president of the South Philadelphia High School Alumni Association.  I asked Principal Williams if I could address this assembly today about an important part of our school’s past:  a singer named Johnny Jeannette.

“Back in 1956, when I was a sophomore here, sitting in the same auditorium seats that you’re sitting in today, Johnny Jeannette had a huge hit song and was a national star.  He had just graduated from Southern the year before, and I lived on the same street as Johnny – on Daly Street, right here in South Philly.  I still live on Daly Street today, in the same house, and Johnny lived just down the block.  My father played cards with his father every Tuesday night, we went to the same church, and I have to admit, I had a bit of a crush on Johnny even before he became a star.”

The students laughed.

“I know, I know,” she said, smiling.  “And now, Principal Williams has agreed to play the song so you can hear what all the fuss is about.”

She stopped speaking, and a few seconds later the song began to play over the public address system – not just in the auditorium, but throughout the entire building as well.

At first the students seemed unmoved.  Some just looked at one another, mystified.  A few even laughed.  After a few more seconds, though, some began tapping on their armrests and a few bolder students, mostly girls, left their seats and began dancing in the aisles.  Much to their surprise, the principal did not stop them.  When the song ended, the students burst into applause.  Principal Williams and Marie Russo applauded with them, and when the applause faded, Russo returned to the microphone.

“I realize that ‘Cool Girls’ isn’t exactly the kind of music you hear today, and it’s probably not the kind of music that most of you like, but I think it’s pretty incredible that the person who sang that song, and who traveled across the country singing that song, and who was number one on the pop charts for four weeks with that song, once sat in this room, had classes in the same classrooms that you’re learning in today, used the same locker that one of you has your books in right now, walked the same streets to school that you walk, and was born, raised, and grew up in the same community we all live in today.  And now, excuse my language, but dammit, I don’t think they should be allowed to tear down the house he lived in to put up a lousy 7-Eleven.”

The students burst into applause – applause with an intensity that surprised Russo and even their principal.  When it finally faded, Russo called out, “So, will you help us?”

The students cheered.

“Will you sign our petitions?”

The students cheered again.

“Will you join our protest?”

The students cheered yet again.

“So here’s what’s going to happen,” Russo continued.  “We’re circulating a petition, we’re going to have a rally at a meeting of city council, and we’re going to do everything we can to make our point and stop the demolition of the house.  Two members of the alumni association will be handing out fliers in the lunchroom today.  You can also visit a special web site we created at www .savecoolgirls.com to see the latest about what’s going on.  That’s www. savecoolgirls.com.

“So are you with us?” she shouted.

“Yes,” the students replied.

“And can we count on you?” she shouted even louder.

The students roared and cheered.

“Thank you, students of South Philly High, and god bless you.  We should all be proud of our heritage and work to preserve it, and this is a part of that heritage that’s worth preserving!”

And with that, the students roared yet again, Marie Russo turned and shook Principal Williams’ hand, and she waved as she walked off the stage to the students’ continued applause.

*              *              *

“Welcome back.  It’s 7:54, traffic and headlines in six minutes, and you just heard Frankie Avalon singing ‘Venus’ here on oldies 95 WPEN.  This is Phil Grass and I’m here with the singer of that song and his pals, Fabian and Bobby Rydell, who’re with us this morning to talk about their upcoming show at the Borgata in Atlantic City tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday.

“I guess that song put a few of your kids through school, didn’t it, Frankie?”

“At least a few, Phil.  The kids didn’t come along until later, but the song led to the movies and that kept the kids in sneakers for a long time.”

“I’ll bet it did.  Listen, fellows, we’re having a little controversy here in your old home town these days about a plan to demolish a house in your old stomping grounds of South Philadelphia where Johnny Jeannette lived when he had his hit ‘Cool Girls’ back in 1956.  We’re being deluged here at the station with press releases and calls urging us to get behind the movement to save the house.

“Frankie, I know Jeannette’s a few years older than you guys, but did you know him?”

“Not really, Phil.  The three of us were on a Mike Douglas Show with him back in the mid-70s, I think, but that was the first time I met him and I’ve never seen him again.”

“How about you, Bobby?”

“Same here.  To be honest, I must’ve been living in a cave when I was in high school because until I met him on the Douglas show, I’d never heard of Johnny Jeannette and had never heard the song.  It’s a great song, though, no question about it.”

“How about you, Fabian?”

There was a momentary silence.

“Fabian?”

“I think we should leave it at the Douglas show,” Fabian finally replied.

“Oh, I think I sense a story here.  Out with it, Fabian.”

“Yeah, c’mon, pal, we don’t keep secrets,” Avalon chimed in, egging on his friend.

“Well,” Fabian began, “I met him a few months before the song broke.  He went out with my cousin a few times and she came to me and a few of us had to have what today they call an intervention with him.  It was short and direct and unpleasant, and I think I should keep the rest of it to myself.”

“Well, we’d love to hear more but Fabian’s saved by the bell for now because we need to go to news and traffic.  So remember, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian are appearing tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday night at the Borgata in Atlantic City, show time nine p.m.  We’ll have more with the boys of Philadelphia in a few minutes, but first, news and traffic.  You’re listening to Oldies 95 WPEN, where the time is 8:00.”

*              *              *

“Mr. Gianelli?”

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“I’m Susan Miller of the Post.  Thanks for agreeing to meet me.”

The Post reporter was surprised.  Amid all the fuss about Johnny Jeannette and his hit song – the traffic tie-ups, the petitions, the march down Broad Street – she had only seen a brief film clip of Jeannette appearing on an old American Bandstand show.  She had seen what appeared to be a tall, slender man with dark, wavy hair.  Consequently, she was unprepared for the man who now stood before her:  Gianelli was five feet nine inches tall and at least 275 pounds.  Shabbily dressed, he was badly in need of a shave and a decent haircut – a haircut that included a much-needed trim around his ears.  His hair had gone completely gray, but a dark, steely, very unappealing gray; his shirt-tail overflowed out of the back of his pants; his front teeth had a large gap between them and were an unsightly yellow; and the fingers that held his cigarette were a yellowish brown, suggesting they had held many, many cigarettes over the years.  She now understood why he had agreed to meet on the condition that no pictures be taken.

As Gianelli stubbed out his cigarette at the door and they stepped into the diner, he replied, “Sure.  You said you’re paying for lunch, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then my time is yours.  So what can I tell you?”

“With all of the activity surrounding the proposed demolition of your childhood home, we thought we’d do a light feature on the man behind the hit.  Our society has gotten so used to singers who were, for lack of a better term, one-hit wonders, but we’re not used to singers who have that one hit and then don’t spend years trying to score another.  So we think our readers would like to know more.”

“Well, the part about dropping out after one hit is the easy part.  First of all, touring was terrible.  We rode from town to town for nine months in buses with no heat or air-conditioning, slept in flea-bag motels, and ate at the greasiest spoons you’ve ever seen in your life.  We worked every day, and I mean every single day, spent part of every day on the bus, and had no lives of our own.  If you were tired, you had to go on.  If it was a holiday, you had to go on.  If you were sick, you had to go on.  You know, my old man once told us kids that anyone who worked for a living when he didn’t have to was a sucker, so I took the money I made from ‘Cool Girls’ – not as much as you might think, but enough – came home, and invested it all in real estate.  From then on, my job has been managing my real estate investments.”

“So tell me more about what you’ve been doing for the past fifty years.”

And for the next hour, while eating – three times Gianelli ordered more food, and twice he stepped outside for a cigarette – he told the reporter about his life.  He was a widow with three children and eleven amazing grandchildren, he said.  After fending off numerous attempts by record companies to get him to sing again, he moved out of his parents’ home in 1959 and bought a house of his own around the corner from Connie Mack Stadium, where the Phillies played.  Baseball, not music, was his true passion, he insisted, and twice he had attended Phillies tryout camps, only to be told that he was not good enough to be considered a prospect to play major league baseball.

Meanwhile, after he settled into his new home, he used more of the proceeds from “Cool Girls” to buy more real estate.  At first he moved cautiously, buying houses here and there, always nearby in the neighborhood so he could keep an eye on them.  Eventually he learned how to buy houses with little or no money down, often with the help of government programs because the neighborhood in which he was buying was officially designated “blighted.”  Within ten years, he said, he owned fifty-four houses and five apartment buildings with another 112 units.  Over the years he had sold some of these homes and bought others, hitting his peak in 1994 with seventy-three houses and 144 apartment units.  He was now in the process of systematically liquidating everything, he said, so he could retire and move to the house he had already bought in Clearwater, Florida – a house within walking distance of where his beloved Phillies conducted their spring training.

The reporter asked him about Fabian’s comments on the recent radio program.

“Not true,” he insisted.  “Not a word of it.”

“You mean he just made it up?” she inquired.

“Nah, I remember him, he wasn’t a bad guy, I just think he mistook me for someone else.  I had one girlfriend from ninth grade until “Cool Girls,” and when I came home for good after the tour, I married her.  And I never touched her, if you know what I mean, until our honeymoon night in Atlantic City.  But could he have mistook me for some other skinny guy named Johnny in South Philly?  Hell, South Philly was crawling with skinny Italian guys named Johnny.  It’s an easy mistake to make, although it would a been nice if he hadn’t made it on the radio.”

The following day the story appeared in the Philadelphia Post, and as he read it, Gianelli shook his head and smiled, satisfied with how he had represented himself and how the reporter told his story.  He knew he could do nothing about the continuing campaign to save his old house – as silly as he found it to be to try to save an old dump like that – but he also hoped he could now disappear again as completely as he had more than fifty years ago.

*              *              *

In the press room in Philadelphia’s city hall, Philadelphia Times reporter Andrea Nolan read the same Post story as she munched on an apple and sipped a Diet Pepsi.  Although only killing time on a slow news day, she found the Post story unsatisfying and suspected it might be incomplete in some way.  No matter how much a singer disliked the entertainment business, she told herself, it seemed implausible, if not entirely unbelievable, that a teenager would find the maturity to walk away from fame and fortune.  She also found it peculiar that someone had found a way to prosper financially by investing in real estate in the Broad and Lehigh area of North Philadelphia, which was as horrific a slum as any in the country and that, even allowing for the ravages of time, must have been in pretty poor condition in the late 1950s as well, when John Gianelli began investing there.

Nolan also knew, from a previous Post article, that the group seeking to save Gianelli’s boyhood home planned to seek city council’s help, which in an indirect way put the story within her purview as the Times city hall reporter.  Her instincts roused, she picked up the telephone and dialed.

“Hi mom.”

Nolan spent ten minutes talking to her mother, a Philadelphia native, asking her about what she remembered about Johnny Jeannette and “Cool Girls.”  Her mother’s memory was good but offered nothing beyond what the Post had already reported.  Nolan was about to say good-bye when her mother mentioned the radio interview she had heard the previous week and Fabian’s unusually strong and negative reaction to the mention of Jeannette’s name.

This piqued her interest anew:  people don’t hold fifty-year grudges that turn out to be a case of mistaken identity, she told herself.  If Fabian had a beef with a slender, dark-haired singer from South Philadelphia and thought it was with John Gianelli, then it was almost certainly a beef with John Gianelli and not someone else.  Nolan placed a quick call to her editor and received his approval to pursue the story.

Nolan made a few more calls, gathered some names and telephone numbers and information, and took extensive notes.  Two days later the Times published its first story on the movement to save the pop singer’s childhood home.  After summarizing the issue, however, Nolan added new information that the Post had not reported in its several articles.

Reached in his office in King of Prussia, music industry expert and consultant Jerry Goldman offered a different perspective on how Jeannette’s singing career came to an end.

“As I recall, Jeannette was very difficult while on his national tour.  He complained constantly, and at least three times he threatened to quit unless he got a raise.  They caught him with liquor several times, too – remember, he was under age and it was the 1950s and that kind of thing was taken much more seriously back then.  There were also persistent rumors that in all fairness were never confirmed that he had gotten one of the girl singers pregnant and that the record company had had to get that taken care of, if you know what I mean.

“Anyhow, when the tour ended, no one wanted anything to do with him.  He was coming off a monster hit, though, so he made the rounds of all the record labels in New York, asking for exorbitant amounts of money in exchange for his services and trying to get them into a bidding war, but he didn’t get so much as a single offer.  After a few months he was offering himself up for nothing to anyone who would take him into a recording studio – and even then, there were no takers.

“Think about that:  here was a twenty-year-old kid who’d had the biggest hit of 1956, without even a single flop to bring down his value, and by 1958 no one would touch him with a ten-foot pole and he was essentially out of the music business.”

Reached at a retirement home in Cypress, California, eighty-five-year-old George Tilton, former producer of The Mike Douglas Show, offered a similar perspective on the other side of Johnny Jeannette.

“Boy, do I remember him,” Tilton recalled.  “We paid union scale for the show, which at the time was about $350.  I mean everybody got $350 – Sinatra got $350, John Lennon got $350, Burt Reynolds at the peak of his career got $350.  We were planning a show with Jeannette, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, and Chubby Checker, and the day before we were scheduled to tape, Jeannette called and said he wouldn’t come for less than $1000.  Well, we had already started promoting the show, so we really had no choice but to pay him.  He also demanded a limousine, even though his house was a fifteen-minute cab ride to our studio.

“He was difficult once he got here, too.  He ignored the other guests, barely acknowledged Mike Douglas, and ate more food in our green room than any guest we ever had.  Then, when the show ended and Mike and the other guests went into the audience to shake hands and sign autographs, which was always a tradition on the show, Jeannette beat it out of the studio like the place was on fire after a quick stop in the green room to clean us out of the last of the food.”

*              *              *

Two days later, the company that wanted to tear down the houses to make room for the convenience store appeared before Philadelphia’s zoning board to seek the variance it needed to establish a commercial enterprise on a site zoned as residential.  The company had hired the best real estate lawyer in town and had submitted all the required paperwork for applying for a variance.

Such meetings typically were a formality.  Except when liquor licenses were involved, requests for zoning changes rarely encountered opposition, so usually, only the involved parties attended.  Zoning board meetings were held in a conference room of the law firm where the board’s chairman worked, and under ordinary circumstances that room comfortably accommodated the board’s seven members and the parties with business on the agenda.

On this particular day, however, fourteen women wearing “Save Our Landmark” and “Cool Girls” buttons crowded into the room, along with reporters from the Post, the Times, two radio stations, and a camera operator from a local television news program.  The board members, unaware of the budding controversy surrounding the proposal to tear down Johnny Jeannette’s boyhood home, looked around, bewildered, asking one another if they knew why so many people had come to the meeting.  The board chairman, Floyd Barnes, entered the room and chatted briefly with a few of the spectators and one of the reporters, nodded several times as he listened, and then took his seat and began the meeting.

The board proceeded to work its way through its agenda, addressing the first seven items on the list, and then came to item number eight, which chairman Barnes announced as “Request for commercial variance, application number 2010-018, Malone Development Corporation.”

“Jack Mayberry for Malone Development, Mr. Chairman,” said a man who rose from his seat as he spoke.

“Good afternoon, Jack, good to see you again.  You’re here about the Daly Street parcel, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

There was a stir among the meeting’s many spectators.

“Mr. Mayberry, we find applicant’s paperwork to be in order,” Barnes said.  “You’ve established ownership and, according to our staff, the request for variance has been posted and the board has received no formal statements of opposition.”

“Excuse me, your honor,” said Marie Russo, leader of the movement to preserve Johnny Jeannette’s house.

“I’m not a judge, ma’am.  My name is Floyd Barnes and I’m chairman of the zoning board.”

“Mr. Barnes, my name is Marie Russo, and I’m with the women you see today, and many others from the neighborhood around Daly Street, and we would like to protest the application to tear down the houses and put a business there.”

“On what basis, ma’am?”

“One of the houses was the boyhood home of Johnny Jeannette, a singer who had a big hit song in 1956.”

“And?”

“And we think the home of Johnny Jeannette is an important part of the history and culture of our community and shouldn’t be torn down.”

“You’ve seen the zoning notice, ma’am?”

“Zoning notice?”

“The orange signs posted on the properties that the development company wants to demolish.”

“Oh, those, yes, we’ve seen them.”

“But you didn’t file a request to reject the application.”

“No sir.”

“Why not?”

“We didn’t know how.”

“I see.  Do you have a lawyer?”

“No.”

“Well, in that case, when this meeting ends, please stay behind and I’ll introduce you to Jennifer Allen, who’s our staff director.  She’ll fill you in on how we work and what you need to do to formally register your group’s concerns.

“Any objection, Mr. Mayberry?”

“Actually, yes, Mr. Chairman, I do object.  Malone Development has followed all the rules and fulfilled all the requirements and we don’t think we should be penalized because other parties haven’t followed the same rules required of us all.”

“Mrs. Russo?” Barnes asked.

“We’re very sorry about that, but we just didn’t know.  We’re here today because our councilman told us to come.”

“I understand.  Mr. Malone, I think a reasonable compromise would be to defer our decision for another month while Mrs. Russo and her group get their act together.”

“That will cost our company a great deal of money.”

“No, Mr. Malone, it will cost your company just a little money.  We try not to be so formal that we don’t give ordinary people a fair chance to express their views.

“Mrs. Russo, I suggest that you also contact the historical sites commission.  You may have a basis for getting the house certified as a historical site, which would also result in what you and your group seek.”

“Please, Mr. Chairman,” Mayberry interjected, “this is frivolous and a waste of ti..”

“If it is, Mr. Mayberry, then you’ll get your way at our next meeting.

“Application number 2010-018 is hereby deferred for consideration until our next meeting.  Let us now turn to agenda item number nine, application number 2010-019.”

When the meeting ended, Andrea Nolan waited in the hallway for Marie Russo to finish her business inside.  When Russo emerged, Nolan introduced herself and asked if Russo would be willing to talk to her about her cause.  Russo eagerly agreed.

At first, Nolan asked about the various things Russo and her friends were doing to try to save Johnny Jeannette’s house.  She then asked more about Johnny Jeannette.

“Excuse me for saying so, Mrs. Russo, but I get the impression that maybe Johnny wasn’t such a nice guy.  There was the business about Fabian, and the things I wrote about in the paper last week.”

“Oh, you wrote that?”

“Yes.”

“It wasn’t very nice.”

“But the point is that I didn’t have to go looking very hard for it.  I only made a few calls and that’s what I learned.”

“Well, I don’t understand why you had to write about that at all.   It has nothing to do with what we’re doing.

“Look, it’s true that Johnny wasn’t the nicest boy in the neighborhood.  He was interested in baseball and girls, and when it came to girls, he was more interested in quantity than anything else.  Until the day I first heard that song on the radio, I didn’t have a clue that he sang or had any interest in music.  If you listen closely, you can hear that he’s not exactly a great singer.  It’s a great song, but anybody could’ve sung it and had a hit.

“Tell me something:  have you ever been to our neighborhood?”

Nolan nodded in the affirmative.

“I’ve lived there all my life and I love it but I realize it’s nothing special.  But me and my friends, it’s been a part of us our whole lives, and you can’t imagine how amazing it was back in 1956 when Johnny’s song started playing on the radio and we were teenagers and went to see him sing at Palumbo’s.  It gave us bragging rights, and we don’t want to see that part of our lives, of our neighborhood, taken away from us.

“Have you ever known anyone famous – I mean, besides the people you meet through your job?”

Nolan nodded.

“Casey Cantrell, the actress.  She was my roommate for two years in college.”

“So you understand what I’m talking about.  I’ll bet that whenever you see her on TV or in the movies, you get a little more excited because you know her and you have a special connection to her.”

“That’s true.”

“Are you still in touch with her?”

“Oh, definitely.”

“Then I’m sure you understand.”

“Actually, I wanted to ask you about that.  I saw on your interview on TV, or maybe in the Post, that Johnny’s not involved in any of this.  Have you or any of your friends heard from him since all of this started?”

“No.”

“Does anyone talk to him?  He’s still in Philadelphia.”

“No, as far as I know, no one’s in touch with him.”

“Then I don’t understand.  You’d think he’d be flattered and want to contact you about what you’re doing.”

“You still don’t get it.  This isn’t about Johnny.  It’s about us and a part of our lives that someone’s trying to take away from us.  We don’t want to let it go.  Let them do it after we’re all gone.  Then they can have their convenience store.  They can tear down whatever they want when we’re gone.”

Nolan nodded and thanked Russo for her time, and the two women then rode the elevator down to the ground floor and departed.  At first Nolan intended to return to her desk in the city hall press room and call her editor because she doubted the zoning board meeting, without a decision on the proposed demolition, was sufficiently newsworthy for her to write a story; it seemed more like a story for the Post.  As she walked, though, she reviewed the agenda for the meeting she had just attended and had a sudden hunch, so instead of climbing the city hall stairs to the second floor press room, she turned into the first floor entrance and sought the records department office where real estate transactions were recorded.  She wrote about what she learned there in the following day’s Times.

While Fans Protest, Singer Profits

While fans of “Cool Girls” singer Johnny Jeannette continue to protest the proposed demolition of the former teen idol’s boyhood home in South Philadelphia, city records show that Jeannette – his real name is John Gianelli – sold the house in question to the development company that plans to raze it and build a convenience store in its place.

In fact, Gianelli appears to have done especially well for himself:  while the average price of a house sold in that area in the past three years is $110,000, the Malone Development Corporation paid Gianelli $200,000 for his Daly Street property.

Yesterday, Philadelphia’s zoning board deferred a decision on demolition of four Daly Street properties so that protesters can file a formal appeal.

Marie Russo, head of the “Save Cool Girls” group seeking to block the demolition, was taken aback by the news of Gianelli’s sale of the house.

“I’m very surprised,” Russo said.  “Since Johnny’s father passed away in the mid-1970s, several different families have lived there.  No one suspected that Johnny owned it and rented it out.  You don’t usually find people renting houses in a neighborhood like ours.”

News that Gianelli himself sold the house to the company that wants to tear it down will not deter Russo from trying to save it, she said.

“This has never been about Johnny,” Russo insisted.  “It’s about our neighborhood and its heritage and about what ‘Cool Girls’ meant to all of us.”

Robert Sinni, a realtor who specializes in South Philadelphia home sales, expressed amazement over the price Gianelli got for his house.

“I’m absolutely stunned,” Sinni said.  “That kind of money for an older, small house in a neighborhood with dozens of similar houses on the market is incomprehensible.  Gianelli must have sensed that something was up when someone made him an offer out of the blue and used it to his advantage.”

Jack Mayberry, local attorney for Malone Development, the company that plans to build a convenience store where the house now stands, confirmed Sinni’s theory.

“It was the most difficult negotiation I’ve conducted in more than thirty years as a real estate lawyer.  Gianelli was obstinate and aggressive and abusive, and when that didn’t get him what he wanted, he became borderline threatening.  He didn’t realize it, but the guy I passed off as a fellow lawyer in our later meetings was an armed security guard I hired because we were afraid of Gianelli and the two thugs he brought with him to our meetings.  We were just about to walk away from the deal when he accepted what we had decided was going to be our last offer.”

Philadelphia’s zoning board will consider Malone Development’s request for a zoning change for the four Daly Street houses at its next monthly meeting.  Marie Russo of the “Save Cool Girls” group said that she and her members will file papers in opposition to the request and convey their opposition in person at the board’s next public meeting.

Two days later, the Times published another Nolan article about Gianelli.

“Cool Girls” Singer Led Troubled Family Life        

While demolition of the childhood home of “Cool Girls” singer Johnny Jeannette has been at least temporarily postponed by Philadelphia’s zoning board to give protesters time to file a formal objection, new information continues to emerge about the singer whose success neighborhood protesters seek to preserve.

In an interview published in the Philadelphia Post last week, the singer, whose legal name is John Gianelli, described himself as a widow with three children and eleven “amazing” grandchildren.

According to court records, however, Gianelli is not a widow but has been married and divorced three times.  On two occasions, his first wife, Anna Maria Ricciardi, called police after alleging that Gianelli assaulted her.

Gianelli’s second wife, Katherine Nardone, obtained a protective order banning Gianelli from coming within 150 feet of her, her home, and her place of employment.

Neither Ricciardi nor Nardone would speak to the Times about Gianelli or his children but his third wife, Emiline Sembello, told the Times that she had not seen or heard from Gianelli since their divorce ten years ago but that through her continued relationship with Gianelli’s youngest daughter, Sophie Marano – one of his two children with second wife Nardone – she knows that the singer has no relationship with two of his three children and has never even met eight of his eleven grandchildren.

Court records also show that on four occasions, Gianelli’s first wife petitioned for delinquent support payments and that Gianelli generally ran six to nine months behind on his support payments.

Gianelli did not return the Times’ phone calls seeking comment.

As singer Johnny Jeannette, Gianelli’s recording of the song “Cool Girls” was the number one hit on the pop charts for four weeks in 1956.  The singer never recorded any other songs.  Six weeks ago the Malone Development Corporation announced its intention to raze four homes on Daly Street in South Philadelphia, including the house in which Gianelli lived at the time of his hit song.  Neighborhood residents have organized to protest the planned demolition of the houses, and the city zoning board earlier this week indicated its intention to rule on that application next month.

John Gianelli laughed as he finished reading the article.  He could not imagine caring any less about his childhood home in South Philadelphia, the people seeking to save it from demolition, or whatever the newspapers reported about him and his family.  He had gotten his price for that dump on Daly Street, and that was all that mattered to him.

*              *              *

“It’s 8:53, seven minutes before the hour, I’m Phil Grass, and that was ‘Cool Girls’ by Philly’s own Johnny Jeannette.

“That singer and his song are at the center of a small controversy here in Philadelphia, and with us this morning to tell us more about it is Marie Russo, head of a group calling itself  “Save Cool Girls.”

“Tell us about what’s going on, Marie.”

“Thank you, Phil,” she began.

“As you said, Johnny Jeannette had a huge hit record back in 1956 with ‘Cool Girls.’  Johnny was my classmate at South Philadelphia High, and at the time he recorded ‘Cool Girls’ he lived four doors from me and my family on Daly Street in South Philadelphia.

“A company that builds shopping centers bought up four houses on Daly Street, including Johnny Jeannette’s old house, and about a month ago it posted a notice that it had applied for permission to tear down the houses and put up a convenience store.”

“And you don’t like that idea, Marie?”

“No, Phil, and I’m not alone.  About twenty-five women from the neighborhood and I think it’s a terrible idea, and we’re working to build opposition to the plan and preserve the house.”

“Why all the fuss about a one-hit wonder like Jeannette?”

“It doesn’t matter to us whether he had one hit or ten.  Philadelphia has a great pop music tradition, with great stars like Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Chubby Checker, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Avalon, Grover Washington, Teddy Pendergrass, Dee Dee Sharp, Gamble and Huff, and a lot more, and we think this is a history worth preserving.  Johnny Jeannette is one of them, and we think his childhood home should be preserved.

“Phil, did you know that Johnny was inducted into the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame in 1975?”

“No, I didn’t realize that.”

“Well he was, so it’s not like we’re the only ones who recognize Johnny’s contribution to Philadelphia’s music heritage.”

“So what’re you gals doing to preserve Johnny’s house?”

“Oh, Phil, it’s so exciting.  We staged a rally at the house that was reported on Action News.  We’ve circulated petitions throughout the city, especially in South Philadelphia, and we now have about 20,000 signatures, including almost every student at Southern, our alma mater.  The kids have been unbelievably supportive.  We just hired a lawyer to help us fight the zoning change that’s needed to tear down the houses.  Those houses, by the way, are all in great shape, so it’s not like they’re an eyesore that’s ruining the neighborhood.  And last but not least, our councilman, Michael Mariucci, is going to introduce a resolution calling on the mayor and the zoning board to prevent the houses’ demolition.”

“And if our listeners want to get involved, what should they do?”

“They can visit our web site at www. savecoolgirls.com, where they can sign our online petition and send emails to the mayor, Councilman Mariucci, the chairman of the zoning board, and the head of the company that wants to tear down the houses.”

“That email address again is www. savecoolgirls.com.  We’re proud to announce that oldies 95 is getting involved, too, so if you visit our web site at www. phillyoldies95.com, you can read more about the controversy, listen to ‘Cool Girls,’ and follow a link to the site where you can sign the online petition.  I’d like to thank our guest, Marie Russo of South Philadelphia, for joining us today and filling us in on what’s going on.  I’m Phil Grass and you’re listening to oldies 95 WPEN.  News and traffic are next, it’s now 9:00.”

Andrea Nolan turned off the radio in her kitchen and told herself that she should make a few calls today and learn more about John Gianelli’s real estate empire in North Philadelphia.  She had yet to hear of a property owner in that part of town who was not some kind of slumlord, and from what she had learned so far about John Gianelli, she doubted very much that he would be any different.

*              *              *

Three days later, Marie Russo, twenty other members of her group, and about two dozen other, mostly older women filed into the ornate chamber in which Philadelphia’s city council conducted its official business.  Moments later, forty students from South Philadelphia High School entered the room and joined Russo’s group.  As the ten o’clock meeting time approached they were joined by Michael Mariucci, who represented their neighborhood on the council.  Mariucci shook hands with all of them and told them what they could expect during the meeting.

The council meeting was long and boring.  Philadelphia’s legislative body addressed dozens of issues, none of them of any interest to the “Cool Girls” delegation.  After nearly ninety minutes the council president announced that council would address resolutions, whereupon Mariucci raised his hand, which held a piece of paper.  Several other council members did the same and a council employee walked onto the floor and collected all the raised pieces of paper.

“The clerk will read the new resolutions for first reading,” the council president announced.

The clerk read one resolution and then another and another.  She then read a fourth resolution.

Resolved, that the Council of the City of Philadelphia hereby urges the Zoning Board of Adjustment to reject the application of the Malone Development Corporation to demolish the homes at 371, 373, 375, and 377 Daly Street.  Whereas the home at 373 Daly Street was the childhood home of Mr. Johnny Jeannette, and whereas Johnny Jeannette brought great attention and credit to the City of Philadelphia through his recording of the hit song “Cool Girls,” and whereas Johnny Jeannette and “Cool Girls” are a vital part of Philadelphia’s rich music heritage, the Council of the City of Philadelphia hereby encourages the preservation of the homes at 371, 373, 375, and 377 Daly Street and the denial of any and all applications to demolish those homes.

A cheer went up from the gallery.  Someone turned on a portable CD player and blared “Cool Girls” throughout the council chamber.  While the council president repeatedly struck her gavel and demanded order, the entire “Cool Girls” delegation, adults and teenagers alike, removed their jackets to reveal bright red t-shirts with “Cool Girls” emblazoned in bold black letters – South Philadelphia High School’s official school colors.  Many started dancing in the aisles as the council president continued to strike her gavel while the other sixteen members of council turned to watch the demonstration, most of them smiling as they did.  Finally, council’s sergeant-at-arms located the portable CD player and turned off the music – only seconds, though, before the song would have ended on its own.

When the demonstration ended and the meeting resumed, Councilman Mariucci came back to the group and quietly explained that this was a first reading of the resolution, intended to introduce the subject and its purpose to the entire council, and that it would be voted upon the following week.  Mariucci added that he expected the vote to be unanimous.  As the councilman started to return to his seat, Marie Russo called to him.  When he approached, she asked him quietly if the Times articles about Jeannette would affect the outcome of the vote.  Mariucci replied that he did not think they would.

The “Cool Girls” group then departed.  As Marie Russo left the chamber she caught the eye of Times reporter Andrea Nolan, who sat with several other reporters by the door, and shot her a disapproving look.

*              *              *

The following Sunday’s Times featured a front-page story bearing the headline “’Cool Girls’ Singer Has Amassed Housing Violations, Legal Troubles for 40 Years.”

While a community group advocates preservation of the boyhood home of 1950s pop star Johnny Jeannette, its members may know nothing about how the one-time teen heartthrob now earns his living:  as one of Philadelphia’s most notorious slumlords. 

Since purchasing his first house in North Philadelphia in 1959 – the home in which he still resides today – the singer, whose legal name is John Gianelli, has bought and sold 284 houses and 377 apartment units in a three-square-mile area of North Philadelphia centered at 20th St. and Lehigh Avenue.

Today, Gianelli owns eighteen houses and forty-two apartment units and reportedly is selling off his properties in anticipation of retiring to Florida.

Along the way, Gianelli has been cited for 498 violations of city housing code requirements; been fined more than $90,000 for unaddressed violations; lost 67 judgments in Municipal Court housing court cases; and paid more than $125,000 in settlements with city and federal authorities to avoid prosecution for a variety of charges.

“Mr. Gianelli is one of the city’s chief housing offenders,” explained James Curtin, director of the city’s office of housing and community development.  “No matter how often he gets cited for violations, he continues to break the rules.”

City licenses and inspections commissioner William Kolb agrees.

“We’ve cited him for literally hundreds of violations over the years – everything from rats to lack of running water to no heat to huge holes in roofs.  Virtually every time, he refuses to make repairs until we file charges.”

Gianelli also bent the law to acquire some of his properties, according to Philadelphia redevelopment authority director Martin Huff.

Over the years our agency has sponsored a number of programs to promote home ownership among low-income residents of North Philadelphia.  Most of those programs require no down payment and offer below-market mortgage rates.  The idea is for a family to buy its own home, not for investors or speculators to buy large numbers of homes.  We found that Mr. Gianelli was making straw purchases.  He’d pay people $500 to go through the process of applying for a house and then make the purchase, and when they were done, they’d sign the house over to him and he’d pay them another $500 or $1000.  He’d then enroll the property in the housing authority’s section 8 program and recoup his payoff in just a few months.  The feds were going to prosecute, but Gianelli pleaded no contest and paid a huge settlement to avoid going to jail.”

Philadelphia housing authority spokeswoman Janelle Morris said her agency has had problems with Gianelli as well.

“Gianelli had dozens of houses in our section 8 program, where tenants pay rent based on a sliding scale of their income and we pay the balance up to the market rate for rental housing in that neighborhood.  As part of the program, landlords are required to keep the properties in good condition.

“Over the years we’ve received dozens upon dozens of complaints about Gianelli’s properties, but we were under the impression that he was addressing them satisfactorily.  Eventually we learned that he was bribing our inspectors and had never made any of the repairs.  We terminated his participation in the program and turned over what we learned to the U.S. attorney.  He paid a large fine to avoid prosecution, much to our disappointment.”

Gianelli did not return several calls from the Times seeking comment.

Next Thursday, city council is expected to vote on a resolution urging the mayor and city zoning board to prevent demolition of the South Philadelphia row house where Gianelli lived when he recorded the 1956 hit song “Cool Girls.”

*              *              *

The following Thursday morning, a boisterous group of nearly 100 people wearing “Cool Girls” t-shirts filed into city council’s chambers.  Many carried signs; some wore “Cool Girls” hats; and a few carried portable CD players that continually played “Cool Girls.”  When Marie Russo entered the room, the Times’s Andrea Nolan approached her, but Russo gave her a cold shoulder and continued walking.

One by one council members arrived but the meeting’s ten o’clock starting time came and went.  When councilman Michael Mariucci arrived and the “Cool Girls” contingent cheered in appreciation for the work he had done on their behalf, he did not even smile in response.  Instead, he joined his colleagues on the council floor, walking from one member to another and conversing quietly but earnestly for a minute or two with several of them.  After a few minutes he gestured for Marie Russo to meet him at the rail that separated the council floor from the spectator gallery.

“Marie, we have a problem,” Mariucci said.

“What?” Russo asked.

“The articles in the Times.”

“Yellow journalism,” Russo snapped.  “Hatefulness and jealousy.”

“Not really, Marie.  Andrea Nolan is a credible, honest reporter.  She doesn’t make things up and she doesn’t go after public figures just to bring them down.  I’ve had my staff review her allegations and they’ve confirmed every single one of them.  I called her to talk about it and she says she has more that she hasn’t written yet.”

“Like what?”

“Violence.  After Nolan wrote about how the lawyer felt intimidated by one of Gianelli’s associates during their negotiations, she got swamped with calls and emails from people who have had similar experiences dealing with him.  Apparently, when his tenants complain about something that needs repair, Gianelli and some of his henchmen show up at their door and threaten to hurt them if they don’t stop complaining.  According to what she’s being told, people who complain to the authorities have it even worse and there’s been violence and break-ins and more.”

“She’s obviously out to get him, that’s all.  If it was really that bad, she would have written about it by now.”

The councilman shook his head.

“She’s going to, but first she’s going through police and court documents so she can get the facts straight and stay on the right side of the libel laws.  This is probably worse than the rest of what she’s reported, but she said there’s so much that she probably won’t be ready to write the story until early next week.”

“So how big a problem is this?” Russo asked.

“Too big,” Mariucci said.  “These resolutions are supposed to be things we can all agree on without any real discussion.  They’re supposed to be automatic, total no-brainers.  I can’t remember the last time one didn’t pass unanimously.

“I know that’s going to be a problem now because I received a call yesterday from Councilman Leary, who represents the district where Gianelli owns all of his real estate, and he says hundreds of his constituents have been victimized by Gianelli over the years and he couldn’t possibly vote for the resolution.  A few others have called and said pretty much the same thing.”

“Couldn’t you make a speech urging them to support the resolution anyway?”

“I could, but it wouldn’t help.”

“Then what do you think we should do?”

“I think we should withdraw the resolution.  We don’t want to put it up for a vote we can’t win.”

“That would be terrible,” Russo said.  “I hate the idea of quitting without trying.  We’ve done so much and come so far, I’d hate to give up now.”

“You’d rather lose a vote?”

“If it comes to that, yes.”

“You realize what’ll happen if we let the whole council vote, don’t you?”

“What?”

“First of all, you’ll lose.  Second of all, several of my colleagues will get up, call Gianelli a disgrace to Philadelphia and a bad person and maybe even a criminal, and they’ll insist that the last thing we should do is honor him in any way.  They may even condemn you and your group in light of what we’ve all learned about him in the last few weeks.”

“So you think we should just let it go?”

“I really do.  You’d be better off taking your chances, slim as they are now, with the zoning board and the historical sites commission.  Also, like I said, Andrea Nolan doesn’t go after people just for the sake of going after them, so if I withdraw the resolution, she probably doesn’t write another story, and that next one would be the final nail in the coffin.”

Marie Russo turned and walked back to the gallery, where she explained to those who had accompanied her what would be happening today – and mostly, what would not be happening, today or at all.

 

 

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