Man vs. Pole.
If the scene Saturday at the South Ninth Street Italian Market Festival were a reality show, that would be the fitting title.
The 30-foot grease pole, back from a 19-year hiatus, cut an imposing - and rather slippery - figure. Slathered in 16 pounds of lard, it won the crowd over early.
But that didn't deter "Team Cannuli" of Cannuli's House of Pork.
Leader Charlie Cannuli, 28, got pals Ricky Jacobs, 27, Mike Mastero, 27, and Luke Lindsey, 27, still wearing their aprons from selling pork sandwiches, to be the first team to take on the formidable column.
Vince Iannella, 45, a multiple winner of the pole challenge from the 1990s, jumped in to be the fifth man - the guy on the bottom lending his broad shoulders to hoist someone up.
"You need to have two guys of the same size and height side-by-side, and the guy on top puts a foot on each guy," Iannella advised during the team's group huddle.
Despite the strategy, the pole won out easily. Cannuli and Jacobs did what Iannella advised, but the vertical challenge at Ninth and Montrose Streets was too slippery. They fell within minutes, on mats arranged at the bottom. Back in the day, they used hay.
"This stuff is nasty," Jacobs said of the globs of lard on his hair and clothes after his fall.
Classically trained violinist William Harvey, 33, who was in town to promote his nonprofit group's project, Cultures in Harmony, also dropped fast. He said he wanted to experience the pole firsthand as part of his research.
"That was great!" he said to crowd applause.
The pole last made an appearance in 1997, before the festival's five-year hiatus. When it returned, the pole did not - until this year, creating a lot of buzz in the neighborhood of its origins. While meaning different things to different people, one constant was how it always brought the community together.
In the pole's glory years, it was topped with cheeses, meats, and gift cards. On Saturday, a basket sat at the top containing 15 envelopes holding prizes ranging from $50 to $500 in cash, gift certificates, and a "free pass" to get to the head of the line on Christmas Eve at Isgro pastry shop on Christian Street.
Since no one reached the basket, the prizes will be doubled to 30 envelopes for round two on Sunday, the final day of the festival, now in its 75th year.
A sign of the changing times: Participants this year have to sign liability waivers, prove they are at least 18, and take a Breathalyzer test.
The new rules were for safety reasons, said festival director Michele Gambino.
They were too strict for Anthony DiVincenzo, 23, who feared the Breathalyzer test more than the pole.
"I don't know if I can pass that," he said, holding up two empty cans of Bud Light and drinking out of a third.
Rains delayed the start of the pole event from noon to 1:30 p.m. Festival rules forbid any climbing in rain.
Frank Longo, 46, who reached the top with Iannella in 1992, '94, '96, and '98, said he didn't understand the new rules and all the talk about liability.
"You can't regulate tradition," he said. "That's lawyer talk."
Former teammate Anthony "Bones" Leuzzi, 58, looked on, nodding.
"Back then, you just jumped in," he said.
Leuzzi's role Saturday was to cover the pole in lard using a cherry picker. He did so wearing a T-shirt that read, "Lard Have Mercy."