If you had to choose one video to encapsulate the City of Philadelphia — the language, the attitude, the atmosphere — this 1980 altercation between former Mayor Frank Rizzo and KYW’s Stan Bohrman might do the job, for better or for worse.
In one corner, you have the ex-mayor of a major metropolitan city threatening a reporter to a street fight while accusing him of being an alcoholic. In the other is a clean-cut journalist who, though stunned by the barrage of insults, refuses to back down. How you see the video, of course, owes a lot to how you see Rizzo — perhaps the most controversial figure in the city’s history — but it’s impossible to deny the rugged charm and magnetism of the man, even on the verge of a violent outburst. Who else but Rizzo would have the audacity?
There’s something so brash, so ridiculous, so… Philly about it. Now, 35 years after the infamous exchange, Billy Penn looks back at the interview’s legacy, the complete account of what actually happened, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, and why it continues to fascinate.
“They shouldn’t be doing that”
It all began with a little yard work.
More than three decades later, Philly native and KYW cameraman Greg Meyer remembers it exactly. While driving past the Rizzo residence in Chestnut Hill one day, Meyer noticed something strange — uniformed Philly Police officers raking the leaves of the former mayor’s lawn. “That’s not right,” Meyer recalls. “I thought they were probably his security, but they shouldn’t be doing that.”
While the former police commissioner had a famously close relationship with the police department, if the allegations were true, it would mean that Rizzo was taking advantage of the city’s private security detail posted at his home by having officers do his personal chores.
The next day at the KYW offices, Meyer explained what he had seen to Tony Lame, head of the station’s I-Team investigative group. The crew was then given the go-ahead to rent a van for video surveillance of the Rizzo property. Parked down the block from the house and on the opposite side of Crefeld Street, Meyer sat solo, while producer Robert Rand’s vehicle was parked around the block. They had walkie-talkies.
It was a “just another stakeout” for Meyer, a pretty standard day’s work. “At least it wasn’t hot. I had done others where it was 111 degrees out, but it was kind of a nice day.” This calm wouldn’t last much longer.
After noticing the van, a group of police officers from the security detail approached the vehicle and began knocking on the door. They could tell someone was inside. Meyer radioed Rand to attempt to defuse the situation. “He hemmed and hawed with them,” Meyer remembers. “For the longest period of time, he tried to put it off.” Rand’s on-the-fly explanation for the cops was that there was just a dog inside. In the video, as Meyer points out, “You can hear Rizzo’s son say, ‘He’s saying you got a dog in here!’”
“It’s all right, I’ll pull another wire”
With Rizzo himself now involved and leading the charge, the cops threatened to break in to see what was actually going on. Rand unlocked the van door, which was promptly thrown open. As you can see in the video, after handing over his press card, Meyer is interrogated by the group about his motives. “We coulda shot ya,” the cameraman is told. When asked now if he was nervous during the encounter, the usually unflinching Meyer admits he was.
“There was a lot of cops out there,” Meyer’s recalls. “There was Frank, there was his son Franny. They all have guns. Frank’s a pretty imposing guy, but I dealt with him for a long time and actually, my father had dealt with him.”
Meyer’s father Frederick was a still photographer for The Philadelphia Bulletin. In 1964, he and two other journalists won a Pulitzer Prize for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting for uncovering a numbers racket police officers were running in Queen Village. Their work led to 18 dismissals and suspensions throughout the department. During this time, Rizzo was chief inspector. “So we had been dealing with Rizzo for two generations,” the younger Meyer quips. “I knew who he was. I knew his bluster.”
The former mayor soon threatened to break the camera, which was left on. After learning that it was still recording video, Rizzo began swatting at it. After this failed to turn it off, Rizzo announces, “That’s all right, I’ll pull another wire!” The wire in question was the battery cables, which finally did the job. ‘
Off-screen, the crew was allowed to leave the scene, with some busted cables and a load of prime footage in hand. Back at KYW headquarters, Meyer recalls the staff being shocked by their run-in and its accompanying evidence. They proceeded to write the story for air on a later broadcast, after station manager William Aber filed a complaint with the police department’s Internal Affair Bureau. Nothing ever came of the complaint, nor were any charges filed.
‘By myself, I take yous physically’
The crew returned to Crefeld Street days later, to film introduction segments for their on-air piece. They brought along news vet Stan Bohrman, who had joined the station only a few weeks prior. Meyer says that despite popular belief, it was only in the process of filming this footage that they encountered Rizzo walking his dog—the plan was never to confront him. “The way we saw it,” according to Meyer, “he decided to come out and confront us.” Nevertheless, the I-Team jumped at the chance to talk to the cigar-smoking Rizzo about the past incident, which he nixed with a few colorful phrases such as, “Scram! Get outta here!” Bohrman stood his ground, which is when things went quickly downhill.
Over the next two minutes, Rizzo repeatedly insults the crew and violently threatens them with slices of street-tough poetry, firing off one line of gruff prose after another:
“You’re a real crumb-bum!”
“By myself, I take yous physically!”
“I was a cop all my life and I know a lush when I see one!”
For many Philadelphians, these slights are now an absurd piece of local legend. Even three-and-a-half decades later, Meyer can still recite them verbatim, echoing the rough inflection and unmistakable accent. His favorite?
“He goes, ‘There’s a gang of yous here.’ But then he caught himself, correcting it with ‘you.’ The South Philly came in him, but then he thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is going to be on TV.’”
The interview ends as Rizzo walks away, nonchalantly greeting a neighbor as if nothing happened.
“You’re gonna have a helluva story on that one!”
Still in shock, the KYW crew returned to their HQ, quickly rewrote their previous work in progress and aired the seven-and-and-half minute piece that afternoon, including a shorter version that night. The next day, it had become a national story, appearing in newspapers all over the country and even on The Today Show.
Meyer, who retired this past February after 38 years at KYW, says although he was “uncomfortable” becoming part of the news, it succeeded in “showing [Rizzo] for who he truly was.”
Philly native and playwright Bruce Graham remembers seeing the interview when it aired, making enough of an impression that he included the outrageous scene in “Rizzo,” his play based on Sal Paolantonio’s 1993 biography of the man, which just recently ended its well-reviewed, sold-out run. Graham said he believes that Rizzo was still not used to being former mayor of Philadelphia, even 11 months after leaving office when the KYW confrontation went down.
“He was lost,” Graham speculates. “He was looking for something to do. He didn’t have any power. There’s a line in the play where he says, ‘There’s nothing more useless than a retired politician.’ He was kind of floundering.”
The day after the interview aired, security detail at Rizzo’s house was ended, though Police Commissioner Morton Solomon stated the move had nothing to do with the segment. KYW reported that over the course of nine months, the eight officers stationed at the residence cost the city’s taxpayers an estimated $250,000.
Rizzo, who passed away in 1991, never held the office of mayor again, but claimed he was responsible for a promotion. Unfortunately for him, it was Bohrman’s, becoming anchorman at KYW not long after their run-in.
As Rizzo boasted in a radio interview years later, “Tangle with me and you become a star.”