Tina Fey: The Upper Darby Years
By Don Steinberg
When she was little, Tina Fey wanted to be a Phillies ball girl. Her father, Don, took her to games at the Vet, and to Penn football games at Franklin Field. He also took her to ice-skate at the Penn rink. “She never became a whiz on ice skates,” he says, “but she was pretty good.”
[sidebar]The ironic, sarcastic Tina we’ve come to know and adore was forged long ago, before her Saturday Night Live stardom. In fact, that Tina goes all the way back to Upper Darby, where she grew up and went to high school. (She once described her younger self as an “active nerd” to the Daily News.) She survived adolescence by being funny and social: At Upper Darby High, she wrote for the newspaper and played on the tennis team. In her yearbook entry, she predicted (wrongly) that in 10 years she’d be “very, very fat.”
Like a lot of suburban Philly kids in the ’70s, she devoured TV comedies: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Saturday Night Live. When Tina was about 11, Don took her to a Center City theater to see Evita, and something clicked. Dreamgirls replaced ball girls, and before long, Tina was singing in Guys and Dolls, doing local summer stage, and beating out hundreds of candidates who auditioned in Chicago for the famed Second City troupe.
But Fey’s classic Philly music experience was unrehearsed, and it started the way it did for thousands of local teenagers—hanging out behind the Tower Theater, waiting to meet a rock star after the show. In this case, one Elvis Costello.
“We grew up basically walking distance from the Tower,” says Tina’s brother Peter, 47, who’s eight years older. “I knew when the sound checks were and when the artist would be popping in and out. The alley there is too small for cars, and they have to come out.”
Peter openly admits to being a Costello fanatic; he says he’s seen him “maybe 80 times.” Tina was a fan, too, and when she was 16, in October 1986, they got tickets to see Costello at the Tower. Peter recalls asking Tina beforehand what song she’d most like their idol to perform that night. She chose the esoteric B-side “Hoover Factory.” Peter liked it, too — “I used to take the El to Temple, and there was this huge smokestack in West Philadelphia that said HOOVER on it, and I would get a smile out of that” — but told his little sister there was no chance Costello would perform it. And then, of course, Costello sang it.
The young Feys decided that “Elvis had spoken to us,” Peter recalls. So with destiny on their side, they waited after the show for Elvis to leave the building.
“Sure enough, he came out, and we had our picture taken with him,” Peter says. “He was very nice, but obviously he had elsewhere to be. He was just looking at the camera, and there we were with our grins and our silly concert shirts on, like dorks.”
Fade into: March of this year. 30 Rock’s season finale is being taped at NBC. Costello, Sheryl Crow, the Beastie Boys, Norah Jones and other musicians are in the studio to sing an extravagant, fake tribute song, written by Tina’s real-life husband, Jeff Richmond.
“It’s all these people, many of whom we’d grown up going to see, like Cyndi Lauper — I took Tina to see her one time,” says Peter, who was there for the taping. He brings the old photo along, and after some small talk gets up the nerve to show it to Costello.
“He howled,” Peter says. “He could not believe that little 16-year-old face was Tina.” Then Tina starts showing the picture to the girls in hair and makeup, and someone suggests they retake the photo, and Elvis agrees. So they pose with Elvis again, right there, 22 years later. (Alas, no return trip to the alley behind the Tower.) And at the very end of last season’s 30 Rock finale, after the credits, there was the original snapshot, showing a rock god and a geeky girl from Upper Darby who never did become a Phillies ball girl after all.