When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in February and Villanova took home the NCAA championship last month, Philadelphians shocked the world with their gravity-defying ability to scramble up poles greased with Crisco and hydraulic fluid. But what most people outside Philadelphia don’t know is that climbing greased poles is practically embedded in Philly culture.
Climbing a greased pole, or Albero della Cuccagna to Italian speakers, is the centerpiece of the annual Italian Market Festival that runs from Fitzwater to Wharton streets on Ninth Street Saturday and Sunday. After a hiatus that spanned two decades, the famed pole returned in 2016.
Ambitious climbers will get their shot at legally conquering the pole this weekend.
Each year, the 30-foot-tall steel pole at the intersection of Ninth and Montrose Streets in front of the Frank Rizzo mural is greased with lots and lots of lard. It’s as gross as it sounds, but at noon on Saturday and Sunday, those brave enough to give it a shot might just be able to secure themselves prizes of meats, cheeses, money, and the chance to cut the line at Isgro pastry shop on Christian Street on Christmas Eve. (But let’s be real — it’s about the glory.)
Climbing the greased pole at the Italian Market requires a much different tactics from the kind of pole climbing Philadelphians were doing earlier this year. First of all, all pole climbers have to register through the Italian Market Festival’s website, fill out a liability form, and pass a breathalyzer test at the Visitor Center located at 919 South Ninth St. prior to beginning their ascent. That means if you’re one of those people whose pole-climbing skills only kick in after five beers, you might be out of luck.
But if you make it past that first step, well, we have some tips.
Choose your pole climbing team wisely
According to Michele Gambino, who produces the Italian Market Festival, the most successful teams build a stable human pyramid. Shimmying up the pole post-Super Bowl style isn’t going to cut it because the pole is so much wider than a traffic-light pole.
“You want to come with lots of strong people,” she said. “You’ll need at least 12 people and you want to place the bulkiest people at the bottom.”
You don’t need to recruit 12 people to start; many link up with strangers at the festival. But a range of sizes is necessary if you want to win. Yes, you’ll need your friend who is 6-feet tall for the base, but you’re also going to want a tiny person who can scramble up shoulders and knees to the top to grab one of those precious prize envelopes without breaking someone’s neck in the process.
(You’ll also want to make sure that you pick friends who won’t drop you when chunks of lard are raining down on their faces.)
Frank Longo, who grew up in the Italian Market and successfully summited the pole a number of times, said that teams these days like to start out with a four-person base.
“From there, you want three people on top of them, and then another three and another two, before you can send your climber to the top,” he said.
Don’t forget to bring “tools”
Just because the pole starts out greased doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
The more grease you can wipe off the pole, the more likely it is that your team will find its way to the top. Lots of teams also like wearing belts because it gives the climber something to grab as they clamber up the human pyramid.
“The best teams come prepared with towels to wipe off the lard, which makes it easier for the next layer of people to climb up,” Gambino said.
She also suggested wearing “the least amount of clothing possible,” because lard is good for the skin. Billy Penn reported that organizers are actually planning to double the amount of lard used to grease the pole this year because there’s been so much attention on greased pole climbers. (When I asked how climbers get the lard out of their clothes, Gambino said that most of them just throw their clothes away. “You should also take at least two showers after,” she said, laughing.)
Be smart about when to climb the pole
The pole is only greased once on Saturday and once on Sunday, which means that even though you can officially begin climbing at noon, it’s probably not in your best interest to do that. If you wait until after a few teams have given it a shot, there will probably be less grease on the pole.
“Last year, a guy named Nicky Cordisio won the whole thing,” said Longo, who used to sit on top of the pole and throw food down to delighted tourists. “I told him to wait until around 2:30 p.m. when the lard slips down the pole from the sun. There happened to be an opening and that’s when he did it.”
But if it’s sunny or rainy, expect climbing the pole to be harder.
“Honestly, there’s not a lot of strategy that goes into this tradition,” Longo said. “There’s not a whole lot I can tell you. Just show up with people who are in shape, and who knows what’ll happen?”
Italian Market Festival
- 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday or Sunday (rain or shine), Ninth Street between Fitzwater and Wharton, free, www.italianmarketfestival.com