Who Else Needs a Statue in Philadelphia?
Last night, before one of those maddening games where the Phillies seem to decide they can win with only two runs only to find out they can’t, they unveiled a statue in Citizens Bank Park. I’m no judge of fine art, but it seems to me to be a pretty good likeness of Harry Kalas, a seven-and-a-half-foot bronze tribute that aims to capture both the famed announcer’s jaunty style and his place in the pantheon of Phillies history. Lots of folks turned out for the unveiling, done with suitable gusto by Jimmy Rollins and Steve Carlton, and Harry’s son, Kane, later delivered a bellicose version of “God Bless America” that seemed to sate everyone’s need for their sentimental Harry fix.
And that’s all good. I mean, who could quibble with erecting a statue to Harry, the man who made “Outta here!” a city anthem? Certainly not I. But the whole folderol over the unveiling and the statue’s estimated $80,000 pricetag got me thinking about the issue of statues—namely, who in Philly deserves one versus who actually gets one.
When you think about it, a statue may be the ultimate honor. You win a big prize—say an Oscar, a Nobel, a People’s Choice Award—and it goes on your mantel, then after you check out it goes to your relatives, and eventually, after a few generations, it goes to either a library or eBay. But a statue is permanent, sitting regally in a town square or venue or museum for generations, seen by passersby for years, even if most of them have no idea it’s actually your likeness they’re weaving around. Statues take up a lot of room and cost a lot of space and money—if you get one after you’ve departed, in a real sense you’ve truly arrived.
And yet with this, as with so many other things in Philly, we have it all wrong. There’s a big hulking statue of Frank Rizzo in front of the Municipal Services Building, a testimonial to a man who once carried a nightstick in his cummerbund at a black-tie event and, through cronyism, bullying, and sheer ineptitude, did his level best to run the city into the ground in the 1970s. There’s a statue of Rocky at the Art Museum, ostensibly to commemorate his heroic run up the steps in 1976, but you have to ask yourself: Is a looming replica of the man responsible for inflicting Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (Estelle Getty as the mom, no less) on an unsuspecting movie-going public really the definition of “public art”?
There is a lovely statue of Marian Anderson, the Philadelphia singer who bravely broke the color barrier and sang at the Lincoln Memorial after she was barred from performing at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939. Unveiled at the Franklin Institute in 2006, it’s now … in Spartanburg, South Carolina. There’s an interesting wire sculpture of another famed singer, the South Philly tenor Mario Lanza—in his father’s hometown of Filingrano, Italy. There are no statues here of local luminaries Grace Kelly, or the painter Mary Cassatt, or the architect Frank Furness, or Anna Jarvis, the woman who created Mother’s Day. Thomas Eakins, another of our most renowned artists, doesn’t have a statue, either, though he did rate an oval at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—part of which is now used for parking.
We have gotten some of the right people enshrined for posterity, of course: Ben Franklin, George McClellan, and of course old Billy Penn, still sitting atop City Hall. But with the way our definition of civic contribution is devolving, it has to make you wonder: Can the statue of Joey Vento be far behind? And the answer is: Not if The Geator goes first.