Greased pole returns to Italian Market fest after 20-year hiatus

Frankie Longo

Time to get your hands greasy.

The infamous, 30-foot tallgreased pole returns to the South Ninth Street Italian Market Festival this coming weekend, May 21 and 22, after a nearly two-decade hiatus.

His neighbors call him a “living legend” around the Italian Market, and FrankieLongo said he plans to be at the South Ninth Street Italian Market Fest all this weekend, and may even attempt it himself. The last time he tried it was in the late 1990s.

“Youth, strength, whatever you want to call it – it’s a fun thing,” he said.

“I don’t know that there was a strategy … I’m enjoying they brought this thing back. It’s a tradition that I feel went to the wayside. You know, the way society is today and the way things are.”

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When Longo first attempted it in 1982, atthe age of 11, he said his cousins basically hoisted him up – arm-by-arm – to the top of the pole, where an envelope awaited him with $400 inside, as well as a slew of Italian Market homemade meats and cheeses, gift cards and other local prizes. He did it again through the 1990s and made it to the top.

Now 46, Longo said his son will be partaking on Saturday, and he has something of a surprise in store.

“The locals get crazy when you talk about the greased pole. It made everything so much fun and it made other people get to see what we had to show.”

Alicia DeLuca, manager of the Italian Market Visitor Center, said a lot more rules are in place since the nearly two decades the greased pole has been erected in South Philly. The reason its been on sabbatical is because it used to have a title sponsorship that would pay for the insurance, but that no longer became affordable. DeLuca said the merchants along the Italian Market decided to make it a group effort instead.

“It’s a longstanding tradition that everybody looks forward to,” she said.

“It was really a group effort, and we had to do things differently because times have changed from the 1970s to now – now we had to get a waivers, a lawyer involved and an engineer.”

DeLuca said the pole – which will be greased with five gallons of lard from a pig farm in central Pennsylvania – is firmly in the ground seven feet at the Piazza on East Ninth Street and Montrose Street, right in front of giant mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.

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On Saturday, May 21 and 22, teams will go up the steel pole every hour on the hour from noon to 5 p.m.

Each participant will have to sign a waiver, submit to a Breathalyzer test and there will be gymnastic-grade mats beneath it.

“This limits the liability factors,” said DeLuca.

Many methods have been used in the past to get to the top of the pole, including forming a human pyramid, with the smallest person closest to the top.

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