The more I hang out with the Geator, the more his world seems to expand. Tonight’s show, at the Dizzy Dolphin bar at the Hilton in Atlantic City, is just like the other shows. I walk in, the Geator introduces me from the stage (“Jimmy Kimmel, that’s Jimmy Kimmel”), people come up to me, shake my hand. Jerry collects people. He is incredibly good at it. A person born into privilege can be blasé about making friends, but not Jerry Blavat. Jerry never wastes a chance to tell his story to anyone, no matter if it’s the Prince of Wales (“He says, ‘Eh, what’s a Geator?’”) or Peggy, the 59-year-old Home Depot employee with a tattoo of a shamrock above her left breast. The life’s work of the Geator with the Heator has been to give The Music to The People. But the life’s work of Jerry Blavat has been to assemble a tribe.
These two projects are related, of course, because The Music is the common language and religion of the tribe, the thing that unites people from all these cloistered worlds in a state of woozy nostalgia for a time when a man could dance to the Village People without it being all gay. The only requirement for membership in the tribe is a certain respect for Jerry Blavat, the tribal chief. Jerry’s talent is to make that respect extraordinarily easy to bestow, even for people who aren’t accustomed to giving the time of day to runty half-Jewish dudes. Frank Rizzo gave it (“I respect a guy like that,” says Jerry, “because I know where you stand”), and so did slumlord Sam Rappaport (“Unfortunately, people called him a slumlord”) and press lord Walter Annenberg (“I used to make him laugh a lot”) and indicted lawyer Ron White (who successfully defended Jerry in a sex-harassment lawsuit 13 years ago). These bonds of loyalty allow the tribe to function in a semi-sovereign fashion. And Jerry will always side with his tribe members against any encroachment, even if it means he has to look the other way when those members do things that would cause most of us to piss our pants out of naked fear.
Jerry has been friendly with several bosses of the Philly mob, among them Angelo Bruno (the quiet, honorable don), Nicky Scarfo (the tiny, explosive, bloodthirsty don), and Joey Merlino (the young, flashy don). When the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation investigated the Scarfo mob back in 1992, Jerry took the Fifth. The commission later released a report that alleged, based on the testimony of mob snitches, that Jerry asked Scarfo to kill Hy Lit, a competing deejay, and that when Scarfo said that was “crazy,” Jerry asked if Scarfo couldn’t just “have Lit beaten.” There was other stuff in the report, too — stuff about Jerry being a loan shark, and allowing himself to be a front for Scarfo’s ownership of a $107,000 boat, and offering to help Scarfo poison a guy, and generally perpetrating a “successful intermingling of his careers in both the entertainment industry and organized crime” — but the Hy Lit hit was the one that got all the media attention.
Jerry has always denied these allegations and has never been charged criminally for any mob-related activity. Back then, he mostly issued brief denials through his lawyers, but now that Bruno’s dead (Jerry was an usher at his funeral) and Scarfo and Merlino are in prison, Jerry’s answer is basically this: “I grew up with these people.” Okay, but why actually befriend them? “Guy’s got leprosy — would Jesus walk away from a leper?” Of course not: Jesus would hook him up with a $107,000 boat. Allegedly.
“They never did anything wrong that I ever saw.”
Here’s the thing, though. Today, the Philly mob is dead or fatally crippled. Mob stories aren’t scary anymore. They’re just nostalgia. And Jerry, after years of roaming the plains with these dying tribes, has got the nostalgia market cornered. “Pick up the newspaper today,” he says. “There’s killing. There’s this, there’s dope, there’s war, there’s that. You wanna get away from all that. You wanna go back in time. To a better time.” So that’s what he’s selling, tonight, every night — little bits of dead worlds, packaged, Geator-hawked … stories about the Brat Pack, of course, here at the Hilton … and now he’s booking it back to Pennsylvania in the Geatormobile, which for now is an SUV but which he’s going to trade in next week for a sexy little hybrid … heading toward the site of his late-night show, a place called the Springfield Inn in Delaware County, where people are more likely to laugh at stories about how “9th Street used to be 9th Street, now it’s Chinatown, ha ha ha,” and where U.S. Congressman Bob Brady’s waiting by the bar with two aides. As a kid, Brady used to brawl at the Geator’s record hops, until the Geator set him straight. “Keepin’ us all young,” Brady says, nodding. “Philadelphia treasure. Good man. Don’t make ’em like that anymore. Broke that mold. Great heart, good mold.”
Brady readjusts his bulk. “Write nice things about him,” he says. “If you don’t, a lot of people are going to be upset.”