On Penn's Landing, a dose of reality – plus music and pastries

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Michelle Hamill and son Jack, 6, of "Our Little Family" sign autographs during the TLC Summer Block Party.

No one has made a reality television show out of Tina Rutkowsky's life, but there's enough material - her parents disowned her and her family went bankrupt.

Not that network folks hosting Saturday's TLC Summer Block Party on Penn's Landing would have known that, but that's partly why Rutkowsky made the trip to Philadelphia from a small town outside Wilkes-Barre for the reality TV event.

The TLC folks were busy corralling their crew of reality television stars - Kate Gosselin of Kate Plus Eight, Buddy Valastro of Cake Boss - and deflecting questions about the embarrassing Duggar family and their show, 19 Kids and Counting, which is, at least temporarily, off the air now that one of the sons has admitted to molesting several girls.

Anyway, why should reality interfere in what was a perfect day on the Delaware River?

Because, it is too painful, or maybe too bittersweet.

There were two events on the river Saturday - the TLC Summer Block Party on Penn's Landing and, a few blocks north at Festival Pier at the foot of Spring Garden Street, the sold-out Roots Picnic, with its daylong line up of performers including Philadelphia's own Roots, appearing with singer Erykah Badu.

Angela Harvey's spiked fire-red mohawk stood out in the crowd at the Roots Picnic, where the audience was settling into a cool vibe, mellow and multicultural.

Less than three months ago, the popular Cincinnati disc jockey learned that she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. That quick, Harvey wound up in wheelchair.

Ten friends, from Minnesota, Florida, Delaware, and Ohio, brought her to Philadelphia. Why? For the music, one said, but mostly for the memories.

"I can still talk," Harvey said, sporting a nose ring and a blue rubber "Kiss My ALS" bracelet. "I can still hug my friends. I can still hear music. This is the best medicine I could have."

Not reality TV, just actual reality.

Like the reality experienced by Lisa Miller, 47, single mom, making her way through college, teaching autistic children, hoping for a second chance at love.

Philadelphia was picked as the place for TLC's party - held to raise awareness for the hunger-relief organization Feeding America - based on an essay from Miller, a Philadelphia classroom assistant from the city's Pennypack section.

It's not surprising that Miller's favorite show is Kate Plus Eight, although its star Gosselin has eight children, while Miller has only one.

"She's amazing. I like to look to her for tips. I love to live through them," Miller said in an interview Friday. "I watch all the reality shows."

In an untelevised plot twist, Miller couldn't make the TLC party. Something personal came up at the last minute.

A particular crowd-pleaser Saturday was "Cake Boss" Valastro, who stopped by after the grand opening of his Philadelphia shop, Carlo's Bakery, at 21st and Walnut Streets.

"His lobster tail [pastries] are phenomenal," said Rutkowsky, 63.

Rutkowsky said her parents disowned her at age 18, when she married the man she loved. It took a wild hurricane and the raging flood of the Susquehanna River to reunite her with her parents.

She and her husband - they are still married - went bankrupt.

"We were living penny to penny," Rutkowsky said.

Even so, she got a loan to become a nurse - first becoming a registered nurse, then gaining her four-year degree. Now she's an advanced specialist in anesthesia.

Her experience of overcoming adversity lets her appreciate what she sees on the two hours of reality television she watches daily.

"It is inspirational," she said. "People complain. People whine about every little thing. They have nothing to complain about it. Look at Kate, she's raising all those kids. As far as I'm concerned, she's a woman and she's made it."

And the Duggar family?

"I always had a problem with that family," she said. "It just seems unnatural. But we all have skeletons in our closet."


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769@JaneVonBergen

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