After nearly 20 years, the grease pole is back

italian-market-grease-pole
It takes teamwork: A 1992 attempt at getting the prizes at the top of the pole.

Did you find this article because Philadelphia officials were greasing poles to deter climbers after the Jan. 21, 2018, NFC championship game? You might enjoy our live coverage of the Eagles-Vikings game.

About 70 slippery pounds of lard are secured in five-gallon buckets in an undisclosed South Philadelphia location.

It's physical proof that, after nearly two decades lost to history, the grease pole - Albero della Cuccagna to Italian speakers - is finally back.

The spectacle once was the centerpiece of the South Ninth Street Italian Market Festival: a 30-foot-tall beacon of steel and pig fat at Ninth and Montrose Streets, topped with meats, cheeses, and gift cards, tempting the brave, the drunk, and the temporarily insane to scramble up - and slide haplessly down.

Things will be a little different this time, though: There will be liability waivers, an 18-and-older age limit, gymnastics landing mats, and, yes, Breathalyzers.

"My insurance agent thought we were crazy," said Michele Gambino, business manager for the United Merchants of South Ninth Street Business Association.

The pole was last seen in 1997, before the festival went on a five-year hiatus. When the event returned in 2001, the pole was gone.

"We couldn't find it," Gambino admitted. And, later, "the hole got cemented over because the piazza got repaved, and then we couldn't get insurance at one point. And then we had a title sponsor, and the title sponsor didn't want it."

But fans never forgot it.

"Every year, people ask where the grease pole is," she said.

Climbers can attempt to scale the pole between noon and 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the festival, which also incudes a half-ball tournament, a car show, and a procession of saints.

Teams can register at the visitors center at 919 S. Ninth St. Participating is free (aside from the cost of your clothing, which will be annihilated, and any medical bills).

"They're telling me no one has ever been injured," Gambino said.

Charlie Cannuli of Cannuli's Quality Meat & Poultry on Ninth Street recalls otherwise.

"I remember falling off it," he said. "Back in the day, the only way to get up was for everyone to get on each other's shoulders. If you fell, they used to have a bunch of hay. But underneath was concrete, so it hurt either way."

He's 28 now, and was about 10 when he attempted the climb.

"My parents weren't looking," he admitted.

This year, he'll be selling roast pork sandwiches outside his butcher shop. But he might try an ascent.

"I'd like to give it a shot," he said. "It depends how many drinks I have."

Informed of the Breathalyzer, he was skeptical.

"Nobody's going up the pole, then!" he said.

For those willing to brave the pole sober, there are no rules, Gambino said.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of strategies.

"There is an art to getting up there safely," she said.

"[Historically,] the very beginning is a sacrificial round. If you're smart, you come fully dressed in clothing from your neck to your ankles. . . . You start rubbing the grease off the pole with your body, so after a few hours go by, it's easier to get to the top. If you're really good, you build a human pyramid."

Domenick Crimi, 55, said in his day people made their way up the pole shirtless. It was one less ruined article of clothing.

"There were no rules and regulations about who can climb and how drunk you can be. One guy would get brave and start shimmying up the pole and then" - he let out a long whistle - "he'd slide down again," he said.

"The only way to do it is a team effort."

Crimi was behind the counter at Cappuccio's Meats on Ninth Street, carving veal into thin cutlets.

He spoke with some authority: "My dad was the originator of the grease pole," he said.

Harry Crimi, now 91, brought the pole to Philadelphia in 1973, drawing inspiration from the San Gennaro Festival in New York City's Little Italy.

(That festival, incidentally, stopped mounting a grease pole around 1979. Asked whether they were bringing it back this year, spokesman Wayne Rada said, "It's 2016. . . . That kind of stuff is reminiscent of a bygone era. We're trying to elevate what the Italian American culture is here in Manhattan. At the same time, if I could see that spectacle, I would show up.")

Crimi, now president of the business association, did not want to say whether his butcher shop would provide the lard for the festival.

"Just say, 'The association acquired it,' " he said. "The problem is, the liability involved with it is so tremendous. People basically have to sign death waivers."

Still, he couldn't resist posting a photo of the rendered fat on Facebook.

"The amount of hits is amazing," he said. "It's electric! People are very excited about this."

Still, Frank de Luca, whose family runs Villa Di Roma restaurant, can't help wondering whether it will be the same.

"I think the guys of my generation were a little more capable of it," said de Luca, 60. "We did a lot more outdoors than the kids do today. One of the games we played was buck buck." (Imagine a cross between leapfrog and mixed martial arts, and you'll get the idea.)

"As young guys, we unloaded trucks and we worked at our fathers' fruit and produce stands, and we worked in the meat market. You had some guys who were pretty physically fit and weren't afraid to get dirty. I don't know if people are willing to get as dirty," he said.

But Gambino thinks that, based on the level of interest over the years, the pole is back for good.

To that end, it will remain in the plaza year-round, she said.

"It's not coming down. We're never going to lose it again."

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