Planned documentary film series uncovers little-known Philadelphia history
Think of Philadelphia's history and the 18th century always stands out - the Founding Fathers, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. But the political, social, and economic life of today's city springs more from the late 19th century, a time Sam Katz chose for the pilot of his planned documentary film series: Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.
Think of Philadelphia's history and the 18th century always stands out - the Founding Fathers, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution.
But the political, social, and economic life of today's city springs more from the late 19th century, a time Sam Katz chose for the pilot of his planned documentary film series: Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.
For two years, the businessman and former mayoral candidate led a 126-member team that researched hundreds of years of Philadelphia's past and kept returning to a period from 1865 to 1876 when the city underwent changes that affect it today.
The 30-minute film - which has been seen by a few local groups, including the Friends of Independence National Historical Park - tells stories of that city, a sometimes rough-and-tumble world unknown to most people, and glossed over in history books.
Katz hopes showing it will create a buzz that encourages grants and foundation funding for seven one-hour films covering all of the city's history. Each hour, with its educational features and webisodes for the Internet, costs $700,000 to produce.
There's the story in the pilot of an African American woman - 80 years before civil rights activist Rosa Parks - who refused to leave a city streetcar, then off-limits to blacks, and who sat 24 hours, by herself, after white riders had left.
There are the stories of politically corrupt leaders who built City Hall over 30 years; the South Philly Irish tough who created a political empire and clashed with a growing black population, and the movers and shakers behind the Centennial Exposition, a showcase for the city and nation that drew 10 million visitors.
"There's already so much pride about the history of the city, but most of it is vested in one hot day in July 1776" when the Declaration of Independence was signed, Katz, 60, said.
"Virtually no one knows anything about 19th-century Philadelphia, and only a few people have any collective memory about Philadelphia's 20th-century history since [Mayor] Joe Clark," who led the city from 1952 to 1956, he said. "Everything before that is a blur."
Knowledge of this 19th-century period explains the character of the modern city, Katz said.
"We had three basic criteria" while producing the pilot, he said. "One was that the main character was Philadelphia. We want to tell these stories, but we don't want to lose sight of the fact that the stories are helping to fill out our understanding of the city.
"Secondly, that [the stories] would be as accurate as we could make them, knowing that some have been handed down verbally and have been embellished and changed," he said. "Thirdly, that they give goose bumps and hold your attention as an audience because we know everybody is sitting in front of a TV now with a remote-control device and a twitchy finger."
Audiences who see the pilot "have to feel the city," added Nathaniel Popkin, senior writer of the film and a Philadelphia author and teacher. "My criteria has been to have no cliche.
"That's a hard thing to do . . . to tell about this character that all of us assume we know, but not to feed the viewer more tired narratives."
The pilot starts with crisp images of a grand funeral procession with crowds of mourners and buildings draped with black bunting.
Bells toll, a funeral dirge plays, and words from a 19th-century diary describe the day in 1865, when the remains of President Abraham Lincoln passed through Philadelphia.
"Black cloth hanging from almost every house," Philadelphia essayist Sidney George Fisher wrote. "Shutters closed . . . Even the houses of leading Democrats bowed.
"The mayor sent notice that unless they gave sign of respect, he would not be answerable to the consequences," Fisher wrote.
The Civil War had ended and a new era of confidence was beginning. "The city's industrial production and railroad engineering had made the Union's victory possible," Katz said. "But almost every aspiration, personal and institutional, had been put on a back burner.
"That pent-up ambition, for wealth, power, status, freedom, equality, and opportunity, was now unleashed."
As Katz, Popkin, and other researchers got to know the people who then shaped the city, they noticed one common characteristic. "They didn't ask for permission," Katz said. Black educator and civil rights activist Octavius Catto "didn't ask for permission to try to make progress on equality and rights."
Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist Peter A.B. Widener "didn't ask for permission to try to manipulate regulated industries, notably streetcars."
The "movers and doers" simply "went out and did it," Katz said.
The same was true with the women of Philadelphia, said Popkin, who told the story of female medical students who refused to be excluded from the all-male surgical medical clinic at Eighth and Pine Streets.
"They were harassed physically, verbally, in every possible manner," Popkin said. "But that was it. They broke the glass ceiling and from then on women attended the clinic."
In the city, streetcars opened up areas to residential growth and "became a stage on which an emerging movement for civil rights would be fought," Katz said.
"A new public building and a symbol of progressivism and confidence - City Hall - providing patronage and contracts to fuel the growth of machine politics, would house the modern municipal bureaucracy," he said.
"On the street, competition between newly arriving emancipated African Americans and Irish immigrants, living together along South Street, created a cauldron of conflict."
Philadelphia was evolving into a modern urban center and "its crowning achievement was a world's fair, the Centennial of 1876, an expression that America had indeed arrived and would, like its host city, be a force to be reckoned with," Katz said.
With a locally produced musical composition, historians from across the country, color video of reenacted scenes, and period photos animated by computers, the $550,000 pilot has been a hit with audiences. Some webisodes - more detailed accounts of certain events - had already been shown on the Internet and will eventually act as video footnotes for the broader series, expected to cost a total of $5 million.
"I had never heard some of these stories before," said Tom Caramanico, chairman of the board of the Friends of Independence National Historical Park and president of McCormick Taylor Inc., a city engineering firm. "It piques your interest and leaves you wanting more."
One of the reasons Katz said he chose the 19th-century period for the pilot was that "it was not 1776."
"What I really liked about the pilot is that it did focus on a different period," said Nancy Gilboy, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, who added she would love to see the full seven-part series.
The film "was just stunning," said James Cuorato, president and CEO of the Independence Visitor Center at Sixth and Market Streets. "When a show ends, sometimes there's polite applause, but there was enthusiastic, appreciative applause" after the pilot, he said. "My feeling was that people were genuinely moved."
In making the film, "we didn't try to paint a pretty picture," Katz said. "We tried to paint one as close to what we thought was fair. Some of that picture is pretty; some of it is not."
Webisodes and a two-minute clip of the pilot of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment can be viewed by going to http://historyofphilly.com/
The pilot will be shown at 7 p.m. Oct. 13 at the Franklin Underground Museum to an invited audience. The public can request showings before community groups and civic organizations by filling out a form at http://historyofphilly.com/host.html