Tom Atkins, outside Heinz Field with a statue of Art Rooney, circa 2003, is onstage in 2012 for Pittsburgh Public Theater's 10th-anniversary production of "The Chief."
By Sharon Eberson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Forty years on, my colleague, Gene Collier, was helping Steelers fans celebrate the anniversary of the Immaculate Reception when he wrote about a gathering last month that included Franco Harris, the man with the golden hands the day that many believe launched the team's dynasty. Ten years earlier, another work by Gene, with co-writer Ron Zellers, also recounted the glory of that famous catch and is being celebrated today, with Tom Atkins portraying "The Chief" once again on Pittsburgh Public Theater's O'Reilly stage.
You'd think every person in Steelers Nation has seen "The Chief" -- the one-man show in which Mr. Atkins embodies Art Rooney Sr., the founder of the Steelers -- but it's still packing them in the Cultural District, proving that the best-selling show in the Public's history, one that's available on DVD, still has legs.
I am among the first-timers, having caught it only on DVD before, so it was about time to see it live, don't you think?
In 2007, when it seemed as if Mr. Atkins might be saying goodbye to the role, PG senior theater critic Christopher Rawson wrote:
"Sure, Art Rooney was a titan (if such a self-deprecating jack of many trades can be called a titan), and the life behind the play is a hometown epic. But it is the marriage of Atkins and role that triumphs. With his voice lowered to a rumble, eyes twinkling, cigar cocked and jaw thrust forward, Atkins' Rooney is as powerful, dramatic an image as Cowher's Cowher -- and certainly more consistently successful."
Nothing has changed. Mr. Atkins continues to relish his time on stage as Rooney, a Pittsburgh character "from the ward" who boxed, gambled, played a little baseball and had little to no success as an original NFL team owner for some 40 years -- until he handed the Steelers over to his sons and Coach Chuck Noll. But in that time, he had one helluva run as a fun-loving guy who was lucky with the ponies and in his colorful cast of friends: Billy Conn, Sen. Tom Coyne and Mayor David Lawrence, baseball great Pie Traynor and on and on.
A triumph of the show is that it's a Pittsburgh history lesson of growing up Irish on the North Side, insider politics and sports fandom disguised as entertainment. The lessons seep in while we enjoy stories of a man who lived life to the fullest and was uncomfortable with his own legend as builder of a Super Bowl dynasty. That the storyteller is a local acting treasure pushes "The Chief" from the red zone into the end zone.
For a show that has had eight productions in 10 years, there were just a smattering of empty seats Tuesday night. There were no Terrible Towels or Polamalu jerseys; just a couple of Steelers jackets were in evidence as the Immaculate Reception was shown on a screen and the announcer's call and stadium cheers fill the O'Reilly Theater. But at show's end, they were all standing and cheering for Mr. Atkins.
Remaining shows are at 8 p.m. through Friday; and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $48 and $65, $15.75 for students and age 26 and younger at 412-316-1600 or ppt.org.