In the Future, We Will All Live in Plastic Houses Put Together in Six Weeks


"The toughest place to get work is in your hometown,” says Stephen Kieran, who has worked around the country and around the world, designing buildings that have won an armful of honors. His colleague for more than three decades, James Timberlake, phrases the phenomenon slightly differently. “Quite honestly,” he admits, “we’ve had very few projects in Philadelphia. Sometimes I think the syndrome is, your hometown doesn’t know what they have.”

If you’ve never heard of KieranTimberlake (and right off the bat, no, that’s not a Bieber-like younger sibling of Justin), you’ve got company.

Yet Michelle Obama knows KieranTimberlake. Sasha and Malia go to a school in Washington called Sidwell Friends, the master plan for which was created by the architecture firm—founded by two Penn grads—and reflects their early adoption of sustainability in building, including recycled materials and constructed wetlands to recycle water. When the First Lady met the architects, she told them her daughters think it’s really cool to attend a green school. More recently, Michelle’s husband nominated James Timberlake for a seat on a presidential advisory board on building.

Brad Pitt knows them for the prototype house the firm designed for his Make It Right project, which is trying to help rebuild New Orleans’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward with affordable, energy-efficient—and good-looking­—modern new homes.

It’s safe to say that Charles, the Prince of Wales, also has his eye on the firm, which last year won a design competition for the new American embassy in London. The Philadelphians’ high-tech tufted-glass cube for the billion-dollar project on the south bank of the Thames is exactly the sort of building the traditionalist architecture-buff prince loves to bemoan.

“Right now, KieranTimberlake has the highest profile of any architecture firm from Philadelphia,” says William Menking, who edits a national newspaper for architects. “If they use it right, the London embassy project will sort of ratchet them up to the next level of notoriety.”

Even in their hometown? Well, the firm will hardly escape notice here when renovation of Dilworth Plaza begins at the western doorstep of City Hall (assuming the Occupy Philly camp can be convinced to move out of the way), with two sweeping, glass-covered stairways leading down to a bright transit station. Add to that a role in the new Delaware River master plan, plus a possible rebooting of the Kimmel Center to make its public spaces actually attractive to some of the public. For a firm that has labored Loman-like in Philly for nearly three decades, at long last attention will be paid. (An architect can’t live solely on love from the First Lady and Brad Pitt, after all.)

Of course, getting noticed isn’t always something to wish for in this town. “We don’t mind flying under the radar,” Timberlake says. “It allows us to get more work done.” Yet self-effacing Philly-esque statements­ aside, peek underneath the well-designed public facade of KieranTimberlake­ and you find two guys who want to achieve nothing less than a total transformation of how architecture is practiced.

Joseph A. Rigotti

IT ONLY TOOK a few dimes to get the old-timers angry.

When cousins Bill and Emilio Mignucci took over the narrow and jam-packed Di Bruno Bros. cheese store on 9th Street in the heart of the Italian Market 20 years ago, one of its signature items, a grated sheep’s milk cheese called locatelli, sold for $3.49 a pound. The price hadn’t gone up in years. Bill’s grandfather Danny Di Bruno and Danny’s brother Joe had run the store since 1939. With the mortgage long paid off and a loyal following of customers, they felt comfortable drifting toward retirement buying the imported cheese from Italy for about three bucks and only marking it up 50 cents.

Bill and Emilio were both 21 years old at the time. They had scraped together enough borrowed money to buy the store from Danny and Joe, paying an amount that was acceptable to not only the old guys, but also their combined 11 children, who, until that moment, had not shown much interest in Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. The new young proprietors needed larger profit margins so they could start paying off their debt as they learned to run the business. One day, they pushed the price of locatelli up to $3.79.

“My God, the backlash!” Emilio remembers. “People wanted to kill us for raising the price 30 cents. We were thinking, ‘Are these people crazy?’ They’d come in and yell at us — ‘You’re tryin’ to get rich quick.’”

As it turned out, the Mignucci cousins (Emilio’s older brother, Billy, is also a partner these days, but stays in the background) have become kind of rich pretty quick. Two decades on, Di Bruno’s has far outgrown its Italian Market roots and is on the verge of opening its fourth retail outlet, at the Ardmore Farmers Market in Suburban Square, this month. Venturing into the Waspy and manicured suburbs, something that would have been unthinkable to the gritty, ethnic South Philly souls of the founding brothers — “Danny and Joe would be spinning in their graves,” says Bill Mignucci — is the latest expansion of a company that now includes a wholesale division, online mail order, a catering operation, an outpost in the Market & Shops at Comcast Center, and a 19,000-square-foot store not far off Rittenhouse Square that has established Di Bruno’s as this city’s answer to the great high-end food shops such as Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s and Zabar’s.

Fueled by a bred-in-the-bone work ethic, buoyed by a bubble in consumer behavior, the Mignuccis — Bill as president and Emilio taking the more fanciful title of “vice president and director of culinary pioneering” — now control one of the largest family-owned businesses in the region, with up to 175 employees during busy holiday seasons and well over $20 million in annual sales. The Mignucci boys may have created the most successful enterprise based on cheese since Lawrence Welk.

But while the Mignuccis long ago transcended the South Philly storefront culture that gave them life, something about 9th Street keeps pulling them back. In addition to striking out into the suburban market, the cousins have hatched some ambitious designs to upgrade their original stake hold in the Italian Market, a project that could help preserve — even while drastically altering — that uniquely Philadelphia landmark, whose demise has been heralded since the Mignucci boys were born.

Feature: Is West Philly the Next Center City?

Over the distance of a little more than a dozen blocks, John Fry has guided his immaculate, country-club-ready Land Rover from a cute, leafy street right out of Michael and Hope’s Thirtysomething to a streetscape more reminiscent of The Wire. Stopping at a corner near the informal border between Powelton Village and Mantua, the newly appointed president of Drexel University waits patiently for the car in front of him to move on.

A hooded figure emerges quickly from the shadows into the jaundiced, weak glow of a streetlight, shuffles to the driver’s window of the run-down sedan, and makes a quick exchange. Now, the car in front clears out.

“I think we just saw a drug deal,” says Fry’s passenger.

With his well-cut conservative suit, neatly knotted tie and shiny loafers, the 50-year-old with the accounting MBA looks to-the-suburbs-born. (And, in fact, he now lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife and three children.) There is a quiet, precise and efficient friendliness about him that makes him seem either an extremely thoughtful rich man or a very worldly priest. But John Fry is a child of Brooklyn who made his professional reputation by manning the ramparts of the University of Pennsylvania at a time when the school seemed besieged by crime. He acknowledges what we’ve just seen — “So, you noticed that” — and with that, he drops the unpleasant subject and smoothly accelerates, pointing the Land Rover to a spot where he can stop for a moment and imagine a better neighborhood.

Soon we’re parked overlooking a desolate stretch of rail yards lining the west bank of the Schuylkill, sprawling northward from 30th Street Station. “This is the gleam in my eye,” Fry says. “You can’t move the rail yards. But these tracks are used sparingly. I’m told there are possibilities of air rights and platforming. Look at this. You can see the killer view across to the city and the Art Museum.

“We could have a whole new place to go. Campus development has to be more about growing out to where it should go, rather than into the neighborhood. For Penn, it was the post office and the Civic Center. Maybe this area could be the same thing for Drexel someday. This is part of my minor theory.”

John Fry presented his major theory early in October, after he’d relocated from Lancaster (where he’d run Franklin & Marshall College for eight years) and when he was just weeks into the role of replacing the now-deceased dynamo named Constantine “Taki” Papadakis, who for the previous decade had been transformative as president of Drexel. His business suit covered by long academic robes for the university’s convocation ceremony, Fry stepped to the lectern and asked, “If Anthony Drexel were to walk today from the Main Building, where the Drexel Institute was founded almost 120 years ago, through our campus and into these neighborhoods, would he be satisfied that we are fulfilling our obligation as an urban university?”

Fry’s answer was no. As he worked through his speech, he engaged in some rhetorical flourishes — such as proposing that Drexel become “the most civically engaged university in America” — but he also displayed his inner MBA, outlining a series of get-down-to-business programs like increased policing and public-safety infrastructure spending, a generous neighborhood home-
ownership loan program for employees, and a proposed benevolent university takeover to improve a nearby elementary school.

The short-term goal is to make the northern University City neighborhoods around Drexel more like the clean, leafy, surprisingly safe and prosperous precincts that adjoin the Penn campus, whose very niceness Fry had more than a little to do with creating during a seven-year stint as Penn’s executive vice president under then-president Judith Rodin.  

But the really big idea that Fry and some others are hatching is to create a University City that rivals Center City, where the jobs juggernaut created by two major universities, a huge teaching hospital and medical research center, a world-renowned children’s hospital, and the nation’s oldest urban scientific-research park will finally occupy a neighborhood with a stable and attractive housing market, a vibrant street scene, state-of-the-art restaurants, upscale retailers, the arts, and the kinds of schools to which families are willing to send their children.

Media: Food Fight: A Look at Philly Food Bloggers

It’s a Wednesday night in mid-July, and though the air is as moist and thick as vichyssoise, the help is scrambling to set out tables and chairs on the steamy sidewalk at 5th and Bainbridge. It’s so unfashionably early that many restaurants would still be offering the early-bird special, but here, all the seats inside are already taken, and the bar is clogged.

This is the official opening night of Adsum — that’s Latin for “I am here,” though the folks who read already knew that. It’s a “refined neighborhood bistro,” the owners say, the brainchild of chef Matt Levin, the thick, burly, owlish chef with the sleeve tattoo whose look and profane persona seem at odds with his previous position, cooking at the ultra-white-tablecloth Rittenhouse Square aerie Lacroix, where the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan awarded him the coveted four bells.

Levin and his partner, Kar Vivekananthan, have secured a big-windowed storefront here at this corner and turned it into a sleek little food laboratory, with a back bar lined with books and chemistry beakers, clean tiled floors and soapstone tables, recycled from an actual science classroom. But readers of the Inquirer’s online Insider blog knew that, too.

Fans of the City Paper’s Meal Ticket blog knew, a full five days before the opening, exactly what the menu would be tonight: friendly, neighborhood-y prices and dishes ranging from an $18 fried chicken with collards to a top price of 22 bucks for short ribs and mussels in a Worcestershire/brown-butter sauce. They’d learned of the quirky cocktail list concocted by young mixologist Preston Eckman that includes a gin/green tea/lime juice/honey/absinthe mix called Logical Consequence, garnished with — get this — a sprig of dill. Advance attention focused on Levin’s decadent appetizer twist on the French Canadian indulgence poutine: potatoes fried in duck fat, then doused with gravy and cheese curds, with the daring chef dolloping on a few lobes of foie gras to up the ante. As someone once said, “Bam!” There was a time not long ago when a skilled and ambitious cook like Matt Levin would have found a little spot of his own, bought some tables and chairs, worked up a menu, and had what the restaurant business called a “soft opening,” unlocking the front door one night without much fanfare and hoping that a handful of satisfied customers would spread the word, and wouldn’t take too long doing so. Maybe he’d hire a PR person to alert the couple of critics in town to come and eat there someday soon.

The menu has changed. “Nowadays, it’s just about impossible to do a soft opening,” says one restaurant insider. “You can’t fly under the radar.”

Now, food, restaurants, chefs — the whole gastro-industrial complex — might just be the most hyper-examined subject in this city. At least five different food blogs were breathlessly scanning the skies to pick up Adsum’s every movement, from the time the contract was signed for the storefront space back in March, to Levin’s choice of a name, to his decision to serve homemade pierogies (with thyme and smoked buttermilk). And that’s just the pros at work. Philadelphia has scores of amateur food freaks who fill the Web with reports of their every meal, either through blogs with cute names like Foodzings and Fries With That Shake, or in the Wild West of the growing “community” sites like Yelp, where, truly, everyone is a critic. When it comes to food, the Web has become the clogosphere.

There’s a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome that affects children, making them always hungry, insatiable, for food. Nowadays, it seems some mutant form of Prader-Willi is becoming epidemic in the population. We are always hungry, insatiable, for food information: the next hot chef, the new restaurant, the unlikely, surprising dish. Whatever strange bacillus causes the obsession seems to thrive in the host of the Internet, which is the natural home of any virus.

When did you first notice the symptoms? Was it that table of diners who kept asking the waiter about Chef? Not the chef. Chef. As in, “What does Chef recommend tonight? Is Chef making anything off the menu?”

Or was it the day you realized you could name more chefs than members of the Supreme Court? Was it the evening you decided to splurge for the grand tasting menu at Vetri, and were nearly blinded as the couple next to you took pictures of every dish that came to their table? I have a specific moment that confirmed my Prader-Willi theory. It was when my -fiancée came home from a doctor’s visit and informed me that her gynecologist was now writing a food blog.

“Over-covered?” asks Michael Klein, poking his chopsticks into a bento box tempura lunch special at Doma, a bright sushi joint just down Callowhill Street from the Inquirer. “Hmmm,” he muses. “Hmmm. I guess that would be like asking the Eagles writer if the Eagles are over-covered.”

An age ago, all the way back in 1993, Klein was working as a copy editor at the Inquirer when he saw an opening. John Corr, a longtime newsman who’d penned a sleepy and desultory column called “Table Talk” about his ramblings through Philadelphia’s bars and restaurants, was being transferred to a suburban bureau. “I asked the editors if anyone was going to pick the column up, and they said, ‘No, nobody wants to do it.’

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the most exciting time for restaurants coming up. The Convention Center is being built. Striped Bass is being built. The Rendell years are in full swing. Philadelphia is about to pop.’ I said I would do it for free.”

Klein had grown up in Philly, and his parents ran a luncheonette on Sansom Street. “I am not a foodie,” he maintains. “Not at all.” But childhood experience and his reporter’s instincts told him that restaurants could be a big, ongoing story. All those mom-and-pop luncheonettes, all the food franchises, all the fancy white-tablecloth eateries … added up, they formed a big chunk of the local economy. And restaurants could have all the intrigue and drama of politics and sports. “After a couple of years,” he says, “I realized that the city runs on its stomach. The deals are made in restaurants; whatever passes for a ‘celebrity scene’ happens in restaurants. Restaurants just sort of morphed into that.

“And people have a passion for restaurants,” he adds. “They have a sense of ownership: This is my place. They have theories about why places succeed or fail. Theories about the people working in them. There are heroes and villains. There’s a great story going on there.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Klein was catching the incipient swell of a great wave in the zeitgeist. In late 1993, a fledgling cable channel called the TV Food Network started production. Soon, the gourmets were galloping across the screen 24/7.

“The rise of the Food Network was a big thing,” says Aileen Gallagher, a Newtown Square native who’s now a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, and who until this summer edited a group of food-focused regional websites called Grub Street, including the one in Philly. “Emeril Lagasse was the first contemporary breakout star. Later, they started doing the competitions like Iron Chef. You had food people with personalities.”

Restaurants had always been theater. But theater has always been a rarefied art form with a relatively small audience. Once restaurants became television, there was a massive change in public consciousness.

Before he stepped down as chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni told me, in a conversation, “Over the past decade, the number of Americans who have become sophisticated about food — for whom making and eating great food is a principal pastime — has grown and grown. That’s reflected in the popularity of shows like Top Chef, in the kind of books you see on the best-seller list, and in the advances doled out for food books. We’ve become obsessive about food and restaurants.” There was a certain skeptical, nearly sarcastic tone in his voice when he said this. Not long after that, Bruni wrote a best-selling book about his life and — what else? — food.

While the obsession with food and restaurants — this peculiar Prader-Willi epidemic — was spreading elsewhere, in Philadelphia, Klein pretty much had the food beat to himself. His editors didn’t even think the subject warranted his full attention, so he was charged with also covering celebrity gossip, or, as he emphasizes, “what passes for celebrity in Philadelphia.” Then, in 2005, a La Salle student named Drew Lazor landed an internship with the City Paper, where he took over the weekly restaurant-news column. After getting a full-time job at the weekly, he took over all food coverage, and started a food blog in 2008. “It was kind of an arbitrary assignment in the beginning,” Lazor says. “But it just so happened that I’ve always been really interested in food and restaurants in Philly.”

Around the same time Lazor came on the scene, Art Etchells, an information-tech guy who loved food and beer, decided to start his own website, called Foobooz, that would report on restaurant specials, events and gossip. In 2009, the Grub Street franchise run by New York magazine hired a Philadelphia-based blogger (she’s now this magazine’s food editor and says any comment she would make for this article would be “the pot calling the kettle black”) to manufacture up to eight posts a day on the local food scene. Around the time a New York publication decided Philadelphia was ripe for a restaurant blog, this magazine decided it couldn’t miss all the fun and started a blog called Restaurant Club.

Suddenly, the field of play has gotten awfully crowded. Though the City Paper has appropriated the phrase for one of its blogs, it’s impossible not to call this sudden appetite for foodie news a feeding frenzy. “It went from scarcity to overabundance pretty quickly,” says Etchells.

“Before the advent of food blogging, people didn’t have the notion that they needed to know this stuff,” Lazor tells me. “There’s more material than I could ever dream of. Readers tip me off, restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders. There’s this constant feed of information, and somehow, suddenly, it becomes interesting.”

We’ll have to take his word for it. Like any obsessive subculture — the daily denizens of sports-talk radio, say, or the faithful followers of political gossip — the foodies very quickly start caring a lot about a little. Topics that are on their face arcane turn gargantuan in this particular Lilliputia. The new linen napkins? The source of the crème fraîche? The secret ingredient in that zingy new cocktail? It’s all fair game in the new Philly foodie blogosphere.

“When I was really into it, I would get so excited,” says one former food blogger. “I’m going to get the menu first from the new wine bar. Score! But you really do see a spike in readership on days you break news. And you kind of get obsessed with seeing that spike in traffic. The biggest story I ever broke was that we were getting our own cupcake truck here in Philly. This was huge!”

Stop the presses. Yes, admits Drew Lazor, who was scooped on the cupcake-truck story — “It seems kind of silly. But people are really crazy about that fuckin’ cupcake truck.”

With this new corps of reporters fighting for every last morsel of food and restaurant news, the traditional relationship between journalists and PR people has flipped. Instead of publicists fighting for the attention of reporters, now it’s the other way around, with harried, hungry bloggers — gotta get eight items a day! — grateful for any crumb of information that comes their way.

“When the bloggers first started appearing five years ago, we just said, ‘Huh? What’s this about?’” one top food publicist told me. “But we figured it out. Now, we make sure that everybody gets something. I’m not going to tell you exactly how we do it, because I want the competition to have to figure it out for themselves.”

Let’s go back to Matt Levin’s newly opened Adsum. On a Thursday morning a full six days before the opening, Grub Street put up the food and drink menus; the next day, at lunchtime on the Friday before the launch, Klein posted a scan of the actual menu and some raw video of the restaurant, shot with his Flip camera. The video, he admits, “was pretty lame. But the public is pretty forgiving about quality because they just want to see the stuff.”

By the end of that same day, the Restaurant Club blog posted an interview with Levin and some details of the restaurant. The next day, working on a summer weekend (“Because I’m so cool”), Lazor put up the menu plus a slide show of still photos he took of design details of the restaurant. Art Etchells waited until Wednesday to report the “news” of the food and drink menus.

“It’s a competitive environment,” Lazor says. “People can get cantankerous. I’ve heard stories of people threatening to not cover something if they don’t get it first. That’s not my style. Sometimes I’ll get a tip and I’ll call a restaurant and they’ll say ‘We’d love to talk to you, but we promised an exclusive to Mike Klein.’ I understand that, because he delivers more eyes than we do. But usually we each get our own little perks with our own little material.”

Klein, who, one publicist says, “can really be so crabby,” seems to take the power to demand information first or exclusively as simply his due for delivering the largest number of potential readers, since he’s got two platforms. “I think by design they give me stuff first,” he says. “They know it’s going to appear in print.” And “As much as I love the Web, print is still king,” Klein says. On Thursday, when Table Talk runs in the Inquirer, “There’s a potential readership of over 300,000.” Though the reporter can’t reveal the exact number of readers who see his items exclusively on the Web, he’s certain it’s a fraction of the print audience. Still, as the City Paper’s Lazor points out, Web readers seem more engaged. And that keeps the competition for those page-clicks intense.

“Nasty?” Klein asked when I told him of complaints I’d heard from other bloggers about his big, sharp elbows. “Look, everybody gets frustrated. I haven’t threatened. Did anybody say I threatened? There’s always something else to move on to … enough going on in the business to keep people employed.

“Are there rivalries?” he adds. “Yeah. Is it a blood sport? No.”

Maybe not, but Klein certainly showed his skill and experience in the arena in late July, when he broke the story that Georges Perrier had put his famed Walnut Street restaurant up for sale. It was front-page news in the print edition, and online views of the story went through the roof.

But that was a rare event.

Day to day, we often have five people fighting to be the first to post about a new appetizer special at some neighborhood BYOB. Between them, the Inquirer and Daily News have four writers covering state government in Harrisburg. If people cared enough to pore over the sausage-making of government with the same fervor they now examine and discuss, say, actual sausages, we could be living in the new Athens. Lazor says he’s often teased by City Paper colleagues who blog about City Hall and other such indigestible matters: “They tell me, ‘It must be nice to write something people actually want to read.’”

“Jose Garces just got a Twitter account.”

I heard this again and again from people I spoke with, as if it represented some sort of milestone. And perhaps it does. There are strong indications that the explosion of social media could allow restaurateurs to skip the middlemen of print and electronic media completely. Already, according to two prominent restaurateurs I talked to, who between them own several popular spots in town, the proliferation and unquestioning receptivity of the bloggers has allowed them to stop spending money on advertising. Stephen Starr, who is credited with being out front with social media, has active Facebook and Twitter accounts covering all his restaurants, and — unlike Garces early on — actually uses them.

Indeed, the food blog explosion shows little sign of abating: NBC is now launching a hyper-local site called The Feast, edited by Collin Flatt, who wrote for Philebrity’s food blog, Phoodie. Art Etchells of Foobooz already sees the absurdity of food-blogger competition being raised to new heights. “What will it mean to get something first,” he asks, “when all it means is you received Stephen Starr’s latest tweet before the other guy?”

Klein is more critical. “From a journalistic standpoint,” he says, “it’s annoying when you read about something on Twitter. This is the antithesis of journalism. The source is going directly to the readers.” Of course, Klein has more than 3,000 followers on his Twitter account.

Who knows where it’s all going to end? Maybe this food obsession will burn itself out, and one day the hordes of frantic foodies will seem as quaint and scarce as roller bladers. Or maybe there’s no stopping this Prader-Willi epidemic, and our future will resemble a kind of Zombieland, with cities populated by insatiable, vacant-eyed creatures who emerge at night to eat food and talk about food and blog about food and tweet about food.

I like food as much as the next guy, maybe a little more, but lately I’m constantly reminded of what my father used to say when I was a kid and talking too much at the dinner table: “Just shut up and eat.”

Pulse: Chatter: Theater: Dominic and Me

Hollywood was still buzzing the day after the Academy Awards. Entering a small theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, I half expected to step over a disheveled, torn-tuxed Jeff Bridges, sleeping it off. But tonight the stage belonged to a younger actor from Cherry Hill, named Dominic Comperatore. He’d landed the role of a lifetime — my lifetime. Dominic was going to play me.  

The backstory to this casting starts about 10 years ago, when I wrote a book called Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House and Rediscover Each Other. Though my publisher used a publicity plan borrowed from the folks who run the federal witness protection program, a handful of people managed to find and read Renovations. Several did ask me at the time, “Who would you want to play you in the movie?” It became a fun little party game, which I often ended by saying, “Rosie O’Donnell. Who else?” Then, a few years ago, a young playwright named Andrew Gerle read Renovations and purchased theatrical rights. I blew the big windfall on dinner and a movie. Gerle told me, “You should start thinking about who would play you.” Rosie O’Donnell loves the stage.

Meanwhile, Dominic Comperatore was heading for his date with my destiny. He started acting while attending St. Joe’s Prep because it was one of the few extracurricular activities at the all-boys’ school that included girls — the actresses were imports. In college, though he was studying international studies and German at the University of Scranton (my hometown; coincidence?), Dominic kept acting. When he came back to Cherry Hill after graduation, his mom and dad sat him down and gave him advice unprecedented in the history of parenthood — move to New York and try to become an actor.

His first role was Hamlet, far downtown and “way the hell off Broadway.” But he worked and studied and ended up on Broadway. Then he did a few independent films and decided to move to Los Angeles, and he appeared on 24 and Chuck and Entourage. He got a part as a Holocaust survivor in a movie called The Good German that put him in the midst of Cate Blanchett, Tobey -Maguire and George Clooney. Dominic worked so hard to inhabit that part that he lost 25 pounds.

But Hollywood work “comes in waves,” he says, and the tide must have been out when someone asked him to play a burnt-out, bitter freelance writer who leaves the city to fix up a house in the country. “The script was touching,” he says, “and a lot of fun.” He didn’t have to live through it.

I wish I could tell you that Dominic Comperatore nailed me. But from the moment Dominic started reading his lines — many of them my lines — my head spun, and I experienced a full body blush. My fiancée said he was great — and really cute. I do recall that actor Apollo Dukakis (Olympia’s brother) really got my father.

The playwright tells me there’s a chance of another production of Renovations soon in Chicago. I’d certainly suggest Dominic Comperatore play me again. But would he be willing to gain the 40 pounds necessary to really capture my essence?

“That depends,” he told me, “on what kind of food I could eat.”


Brawl on the Square

THE WARS THAT are fought around Rittenhouse Square are usually quite civil.

Occasionally, a perfect apartment in one of the best buildings will become available and provoke a skirmish of bidding by rival buyers. The Ladies Who Donate will sometimes engage in some sharp-elbowed jockeying for chairmanship of the proper charity event. And, of course, the opening of Stephen Starr’s Frenchified Parc this July forced tout le monde to tussle not just for a good table, but for any table.

So it was a little surprising when word started spreading of a bitter fight over the fate of a dowdy little wall on a cute little side street just off the Square. Tempers began flaring in June, around the time of the signature annual soiree of the Rittenhouse set, the Ball on the Square, where nasty whispers mingled with Eddie Bruce’s cocktail music and Georges Perrier’s canapés. Not long after, a shouting match erupted inside the earnest Ethical Society, pitting neighbors in the city’s most exclusive precinct against one another. Some think the fight is simply the latest manifestation of the always-simmering conflict between Old Money and New, the battle lines drawn in the sands of taste and propriety, fought at close quarters with charges of crassness hurled against a return volley alleging elitism. “This is just insanity,” says one prominent Rittenhouse resident who was at the Ethical Society brouhaha but didn’t want his name in print. “These people are crazy. I’m not looking to get into a fight. All the people on either side have had such a crazy, emotional response. I can’t even talk to my wife about it.”

The “it” in question is a painting, a big painting — a mural that would cover the two-story side wall of an art gallery bordering what is now a 40-space parking lot run by Joe Zuritsky’s Parkway Corporation. The lot sits on a tiny block known as Rittenhouse Street, which runs east to west between 17th and 18th streets. A lot of people agree with Zuritsky’s own evaluation of the aesthetic value of the spot right now: “It’s an ugly wall behind an ugly parking lot.”

It was when someone tried to make that wall look nicer that things really got ugly. The crazy, emotional argument started after attorney Paul Rosen — whose most recent high-profile client was Alycia Lane, in her battle against CBS 3 — announced that he was planning to cover Zuritsky’s blank wall with a realistic, allegorical painting depicting “Justice,” and the role of civil attorneys like himself in its noble pursuit. The artwork would be paid for by a foundation funded by Rosen’s law firm, Spector Gadon & Rosen, PC, to help encourage positive depictions of lawyers. The actual painting would be created under the auspices of the world-renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and its much-lauded and beloved director, Jane Golden.

So an ugly wall gets covered with a pretty painting about Justice. Who could argue with that?

Science: Al Gore Is a Greenhouse Gasbag

IT’s THE LAST day of November, which means winter begins in three weeks. Yet the temperature on the Penn campus is nearing 70 degrees, and it’s muggy. Walking to the offices of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science from a remote parking lot makes me sweaty. Global Warming.

Driving here this morning, I heard a report on WHYY from National Public Radio that the International Ski Federation was canceling races because there’s no snow in the Alps. Got to be Global Warming!

Yesterday, down the road in Washington, where the temperature was 16 degrees above normal, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case in which 13 state governments are suing the Environmental Protection Agency to force the government to begin controlling carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the decades-old Clean Air Act. If that doesn’t happen, the states claim, the rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gases will rob them of coastline. GLOBAL WARMING!!

And this is just one ordinary day in the new normal. Even if daily weather has nothing to do with global warming, and even if the scientific debate about it is not quite done, its cultural moment has certainly begun. Insurance companies have stopped writing policies for coastline residents. A government report out of England warns that global warming may be so economically deleterious that it will make the upheaval of the Great Depression and World War II seem benign.

Michael Crichton has already dramatized the issue in a best-selling novel. Leonardo DiCaprio is working on a documentary on the subject. A recent Time magazine cover featured a polar bear in danger of drowning and the warning: “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.”

I’ve come to Penn to see the skeptic.

Wheel$ of Fortune

Three million dollars for an Oldsmobile? No wonder car collectors can’t stop talking about Penn Valley’s Alan Lewenthal

A$ his celebrity sprouted this spring, Penn Valley’s Alan Lewenthal latched onto a characterization of him by a newspaper writer in Colorado. “I’ve got ‘ice in my veins and the conscience of a burglar,’” Lewenthal quotes. That might sound a little Walter Mitty-ish for a 40-year-old Temple grad whose day job is VP and general manager of the kitchen-and-bath-supply company started by his father. But during 10 wild minutes of an auction that was captured on live television early this year, Lewenthal burst into prominence in the rich and surprisingly sharp-elbowed world of classic car collectors when he ran up the bidding on a shiny gold 1954 Oldsmobile to an unprecedented $3 million. Since no one knew his name, he became known for his outfit: Mr. Red Ferrari Hat. And when the gavel banged and he won the car, the burglar with ice in his veins burst into tears.

“That got everybody’s attention — everyone is talking about it,” says Richard Lentinello, editor of Hemmings Motor News, one of the bibles in the world of classic car collecting, which he estimates is a $12 billion-a-year industry.

Car collecting is a “bad drug,” Lewenthal says, and it hooked him when he was still a teenager. He and his father, Herb, were driving on the Atlantic City Expressway when a flatbed truck bearing a red 1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville passed them. Herb Lewenthal started a shouted negotiation while traveling 60 miles an hour. He got the truck to pull over, and bought the Cadillac there on the shoulder of the road.

 That started a fixation for father and son — “It kept us together when I was a teenager,” Alan says — that led to a collection of dozens of cars, including a 1963 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, a 1971 Corvette convertible with 4,600 miles on the odometer, and a passel of Ferraris.

Still, Lewenthal might have remained an obscure hobbyist if he hadn’t encountered John Hendricks in 2004. Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel and its many offshoots, recently started to develop a resort on some land he owns in Colorado, and got the idea of attracting guests with an auto museum. Hendricks was trying to purchase the cars himself, but after talking to Lewenthal, whom he had met through a couple of eBay sales, he hired him on for acquisitions for the Gateway, Colorado, Auto Museum. It’s scheduled to open next spring with more than 40 cars outlining the history of American auto design. The ’54 Oldsmobile for which Mr. Red Ferrari Hat bid so high is, Hendricks says, “our Mona Lisa.”

Lewenthal spent much of this year traveling to auto auctions, knowing he had the deep pockets of Hendricks behind him. It’s not a bad second job. Auctions like these tend to be in posh resort spots like Palm Beach, Florida. Lewenthal had to retire his red Ferrari hat; after his star turn on the car-obsessed Fox SPEED Channel (at one point during the battle for the Oldsmobile, he had to be restrained from taunting his rival bidder), he wanted to be more low-key, he says. Car collecting was already populated by such celebrities as Jay Leno, Tim Allen and Nicolas Cage, but Lewenthal’s intense auction style has propelled him to a fame all his own.

Now, with the collection at the Gateway Museum nearly ready for public exhibition, Lewenthal has switched gears slightly and opened a new 15,000-square-foot car restoration facility in Northeast Philly. Called Marquis Auto Restorations, it will spruce up the museum collection as well as handle remakes for other collectors. Lewenthal doesn’t plan to give up the family business, but he recognizes that this is his opportunity to move well beyond shower stalls and range hoods. “I know I’ve got the best skill there is for a car collector,” he says. “Cash.”

The Shore: Beauty and the Boardwalk

You think it was crazy to take this job?

The man in charge of giving Atlantic City a makeover has asked himself that question plenty of times, mulling over the life-changing twist of fate that happened on a September Sunday night nearly three years ago, when he stopped by a table at one of his Cape May hotel restaurants to ask the nice-looking couple if their dessert was okay.

“There’s just this side of me that says, ‘Gee whiz, life would be just fine if you didn’t do it,’” Curtis Bashaw says. “Here comes this governor who stays at my hotel on a fluke, and I talk to him on a fluke in lieu of watching The Sopranos. Because I thought it’s not every day that a governor stays in your hotel, and I should see how his dessert is.”

His customers were James McGreevey, the new young governor of New Jersey, and his wife, Dina. Of course, the world didn’t know yet — maybe even Jim McGreevey didn’t really know yet — that, to paraphrase his stunning resignation speech, his truth was that he was a gay American. He was still just a precocious politician and family man, one who joked with the innkeeper that he was surprised a restaurant as good as the Ebbitt Room existed in New Jersey.

That made Curtis Bashaw forget entirely about The Sopranos, and got him talking to the guv about how even the political leader of the state could hold such a low opinion of New Jersey, and how great the state really was, and how the Jersey Shore should be marketed better. Bashaw was 42 at the time and appeared 10 years younger, a thin man with angular good looks, slightly moppish hair, and a relentlessly sunny spirit — he says Gee whiz a lot — that leads friends to call him “Opie.”

Bashaw had grown up headed for a career in the ministry, attended the ­conservative-Christian Wheaton College in Illinois, but then somehow veered off to the Wharton School for an MBA. The day he was accepted to Wharton, he got a bank loan to start a $3 million renovation of a dilapidated Cape May boardinghouse that he turned into an upscale hotel called the Virginia, where the McGreeveys were dining. In 2002, he reopened Cape May’s historic Congress Hall, once owned by his grandfather’s church organization, as a chic seaside hotel.

The McGreeveys came back several months later for a quick getaway at Congress Hall, and the governor and Bashaw talked again, over breakfast. Not long after that, McGreevey asked Bashaw if he’d like to run the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which, by collecting 1.25 percent of every dollar the Atlantic City casino companies make (and portions of parking fees and hotel room taxes), is one of the richest governmental entities in the state, a veritable slush fund of economic development. Though the authority now spreads its money all over New Jersey, its primary responsibility is pushing Atlantic City forward on its fitful three-decade climb from slum-by-the-sea to city reborn.

The Good Life: Should This Man Be Smiling?

Are you happy, Marty?

The Marty in question is Martin E.P. Seligman, who, in this winter week in question, might just be the best-known psychologist in America, if you don’t count Dr. Phil. Arriving back home in Wynnewood after a long holiday in the Bahamas, Seligman was greeted by a Time magazine cover story devoted to the movement he started seven years ago — Positive Psychology, the putative science of happiness. Virtually before he’d unpacked, he was whisked off to New York, where he was interviewed by Charlie Rose for a television show that would spread the word on Positive Psych deeper into America’s far-flung middle-to-high-brow, PBS-watching, news-magazine-reading population.

Rose had fixed those baggy droopy lizardy eyes on Seligman and posed the question. Here’s a guy who’s got degrees from Prince-ton and Penn. He’s been funded through 40 years of psychological work that ranged from giving nasty shocks to laboratory dogs to listening to pampered matrons who felt sad and empty. He’s the 62-year-old tenured owner of an endowed professor’s chair and the directorship of a well-funded research center at Penn. He’s written a raft of books, including a couple of best-sellers. With all that to his credit, he still needs one last crucial credential. If Dr. Seligman is going to claim that he’s discovered the keys to a happy life, he’s going to have to serve as his own poster child.

So, are you happy, Marty?

“Wow, that’s a good steak! One of the best I’ve ever had.” Tonight, Marty Seligman is tucked into the corner of the front room of Barclay Prime, folded behind a low, round table, and, at the moment, looking quite pleased with everything. It’s a few days after the Charlie Rose Show appearance. (Of course he told Charlie he was happy, though Seligman thought the show was “kind of inane. His usual show I find intellectually interesting. This was at the Oprah level.”)

The professor is dressed casually, sweater over a t-shirt and cargo pants. It could be a small problem at this new restaurant, which is working hard to be a sleek and posh ­expense-account joint. The gorgeous hostess probably doesn’t recognize him from TV. He is a squat man with an unassuming look. If you were casting an actor to play him, Paul Giamatti would be a decent choice, but Wallace Shawn might be better. Still, there is something about Seligman’s presence, his low, bag-of-gravel voice (not to mention the authentic winter tan), that says, “He must be somebody.”

“We don’t have a reservation,” Seligman declares in a Kissinger-like basso, “but we’d like a quiet table.”

And so we are seated without a reservation at a quiet table. Seligman orders a cocktail of shrimp that arrive nearly the size of footballs. He’s asked for the brand-name boutique-farm rib-eye steak and narrowed his wine pick to pinot noirs from Oregon and taken the sommelier’s suggestion and is perfectly content with the results. Ah, this is the happy life indeed.

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