Philadelphia Traditions: Yo, I’m From Philly!

What makes Philadelphians … Philadelphians? We went rummaging through the pasts of Tina Fey and 20 other notable area expats to find out how our city made them who they are

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.