Philly tradition: Grease pole competition returns at Italian Market Festival

Heat didn’t stop people from attempting to climb the fabled 30-foot tower of slick.

Climbers struggle as their teammates climb on their shoulders during the greased pole competition in Montrose Piazza on Sunday

Climbers struggle as their teammates climb on their shoulders during the greased pole competition in Montrose Piazza on Sunday

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
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Hundreds of people came together this weekend to celebrate a hallowed Philadelphia tradition: watching people shimmy up a lard-greased pole for fame and fortune (where fortune is defined as gift cards for olive oil and cannoli).

The annual 9th Street Italian Market Festival offered plenty of other attractions. Sunday was again crowded, despite dense humidity that made the temperature feel like over 100 degrees. Stalls offering food, drink, jewelry, candles, and art were full for a second day in a row.

But the heart of the event was the piazza at 9th and Montrose streets, where a 30-foot grease pole stood ready and glistening, beckoning all who’d brave the challenge.

A constant crowd of curious onlookers formed around the space, and some snapped selfies with the infamous mast.

Festival goers take a photo with the greased pole in Montrose Piazza

Festival goers take a photo with the greased pole in Montrose Piazza

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn

In the blistering heat, only one team volunteered to brave the climb.

The group attempted the climb several times throughout the day in order to reach the top and grab an envelope with the prize inside. Possible prizes included gift cards to the Italian Market, Termini Bros, Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom, and cash, among others.

A climber nears the top of the greased pole at the competition in Montrose Piazza on Sunday. Participants climb for the chance to win gift cards, cheese, or even cash depending on what envelope they grab at the top.

A climber nears the top of the greased pole at the competition in Montrose Piazza on Sunday. Participants climb for the chance to win gift cards, cheese, or even cash depending on what envelope they grab at the top.

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn

One of the climbers was Frankie Longo, a 17-year-old first-timer who came with his dad, Frank Longo, a veteran climber and lifelong South Philadelphian.

“That’s how old I was when I first did it,” the elder Longo said, as he reflected on the roots of the event, which he called a Sicilian tradition revived here in the 1970s.

Crowds of people watch as teams attempt to climb a 30-foot pole greased with lard in Montrose Piazza on Sunday

Crowds of people watch as teams attempt to climb a 30-foot pole greased with lard in Montrose Piazza on Sunday

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn

South Philadelphian Mike Watson, came across the festival by chance. Intrigued by the good food and drink, he and a friend stumbled upon the greased pole competition.

“It’s pretty hilarious — these dudes are legit,” said Watson. “I didn’t know what to expect out of it, but it’s impressive what they’re able to do.”

Asked if he would try, he declined, but called the participants trying on Sunday pros.

Climbers struggle as teammates climb on their shoulders during the greased pole competition in Montrose Piazza on Sunday

Climbers struggle as teammates climb on their shoulders during the greased pole competition in Montrose Piazza on Sunday

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn

“I have a lotta respect for these guys — we were having flashbacks of the Super Bowl greased poles,” Watson said. “But these guys are a lot more sophisticated with their strategy.”

Scroll down for more pics from the event.

Envelopes labeled with the prizes they contain hang at the top of the greased pole

Envelopes labeled with the prizes they contain hang at the top of the greased pole

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
Climbers near the top of the greased pole as South Philly residents cheer in the background

Climbers near the top of the greased pole as South Philly residents cheer in the background

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
A 9th Street resident tied a beer to string in order to drop it down to festival goers below

A 9th Street resident tied a beer to string in order to drop it down to festival goers below

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
A climber braces themself as teammates climb on their shoulders during the greased pole competition in Montrose Piazza

A climber braces themself as teammates climb on their shoulders during the greased pole competition in Montrose Piazza

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
A climber takes a water break after attempting to climb the grease pole

A climber takes a water break after attempting to climb the grease pole

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
A woman sporting head to toe denim watches the grease pole contest

A woman sporting head to toe denim watches the grease pole contest

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
Climbers link arms as their teammates step on their shoulders during the greased pole competition

Climbers link arms as their teammates step on their shoulders during the greased pole competition

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
A man takes a cigarette break after multiple attempts to climb the pole

A man takes a cigarette break after multiple attempts to climb the pole

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
Crowds of attendees brows stalls of food, clothing, and art despite record heat

Crowds of attendees came out to browse stalls of food, clothing, and art despite record heat

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn
Crowds of attendees brows stalls outside of J&J Italian Grill

Crowds of attendees browse stalls outside of J&J Italian Grill

Erin Blewett for Billy Penn

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