By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer
POSTED July 29, 1998
Joe Tartaglia, the Illustrated Man of the Italian Market, is late – 15, 20, 25 minutes – so we’re sitting with his dad in the family stand at Ninth and Ellsworth, watching two chickens peck romaine under a table of $5 straight-to-video bargains, when in saunters the man, apologizing.
“I was delayed,” Tartaglia says.
He’s been working the street, talking up his movie. It’s his first film, a short feature about the market, and its Philadelphia premiere is Saturday. In May, it was voted audience favorite at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival. Tartaglia had submitted it for the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, as well, but he missed the deadline.
The film is called Punctuality.
“I’m always late,” he says, barking a cloud of smoke from a Kool. “That really is the inspiration. ”
He is a beefy guy in a sleeveless black T-shirt and shorts with a silver hoop piercing his left eyebrow and a good 28 tattoos. He’s Old World meets Gen X in one beautiful package. His inkings started with a caveman, who soon acquired a cavewoman to drag across Tartaglia ‘s left shin. Then they multiplied.
“It’s the only money I ever spent that I can show for,” he says.
There’s a scorpion, a dragon, Jesus, a Raphael cupid, St. Sebastian – the patron saint of his grandfather’s hometown in Sicily.
“I did it for my father to make him happy.”
“I’m so happy,” his father, also named Joe Tartaglia , says straight-faced.
And well he should be. When his younger son, Frankie, was 11, he won a national young comedians contest that got him on HBO. And now, his older boy has made his mark – a ripe, R-rated cinematic slice of the street brimming with bookmaking, loan-sharking, shakedowns, lovemaking and spaghetti.
“I wanted to give people a story about South Philly,” says the movie mogul, age 28 – give or take a couple of years. “South Philly people are one type of person. Then there’s the rest of the world. I’m not saying everyone from South Philly is like these characters. But they exist. ”
We go walking, up the street where a Tartaglia has sold food or wares since the Illustrated Man’s great-grandfather peddled parsley from a bushel basket around 1912. It’s an occasion to staple a movie poster on the few feet of South Philadelphia real estate that he’s somehow missed.
A van stops outside Pat’s Steaks and two big men hail Tartaglia . It’s King Arthur, the DJ who’s been promoting Tartaglia ‘s film on WNJC-AM. They chat a while. No one in the cars behind them cares to honk. Then it’s Joe One-Arm, a.k.a. Pony Joe, stopping his truck in the middle of busy Ninth Street to shoot the breeze.
“He’s in the movie,” Tartaglia says, jerking his thumb as some kid named Anthony walks by. “Him, too,” he says, passing another teen.
“She’s in the movie,” he says, outside his father’s place again, only there is no one there, except the two loose chickens. It turns out he’s talking about the female, Snowball. She’s in the movie.
Now we’re at his headquarters, the storefront at Ninth and Annin with the giant Sicilian armada flag and his grandfather’s bocce trophies, a few Tony Bennett and Dean Martin records, and stills of Brando from The Godfather, De Niro from Taxi Driver and Jackie Gleason from The Hustler.
This is Dronehead Productions, named for a phrase his Uncle Tar used to describe a human meatball. Seated on a giant couch is Tartaglia ‘s cousin Salvatore D’Angelo, a restaurateur, and Lou Manzotti, a variety store owner. They’re in the movie.
Manzotti is in mid-conversation, even though he’s just starting. “So the New York screening is over and we’re heading for dinner when this guy comes up to me from Warner Bros. To make a long story short, he goes, `Are you Lou Manzotti? I’m doing a film with Paul Newman and James Woods. ‘ He said, `I love your acting. Have you ever had acting lessons?’
“I said, `No, but my mother did. ‘ ”
Tartaglia used no professional talent to make his lively, rough-hewn 55-minute debut about an art student’s introduction to the local mob. Tartaglia , who never took a film course during his time at Community College of Philadelphia, put an ad in a local paper for actors. “I knew everyone who called,” he says. He gave the cast an idea of what he was looking for out of the script that he wrote with a friend of his brother’s. He encouraged improvisation.
Ron Jacobs, a neighborhood kid who moved to Atlantic City and then Las Vegas, fronted the cash, which is heading toward $100,000. Tartaglia , who supports his wife and two children by working at both his father and mother’s stores on Ninth Street, put up about $5,000 himself, including the $200 to rent the AMC Olde City at 11 a.m. Saturday for his hometown debut.
And he’s nearly got the 400 seats filled, which would help bring some return on his labors, except that he’s been giving away all the $10 tickets.
“I don’t care,” Tartaglia says as he pokes into Iannelli’s bakery, laying a VIP pass on the kid behind the counter. “It’s like a dream.”