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Groups Want to Revive Gambling and 'Grease Pole' at San Gennaro Fest

By Andrea Swalec | September 17, 2012 7:06am

LITTLE ITALY — As the Feast of San Gennaro fills Mulberry Street with Italian flags, sizzling sausages and heaps of fried zeppole, some Little Italy boosters want to revive a few of the festival's other traditions: church-basement poker, long-banned street games and a contest to climb a three-story-tall pole covered with automotive oil. 

Father Fabian Grifone of Most Precious Blood Church said he will push the city to allow the Mulberry Street church to host poker, blackjack and roulette games, which raised more than $25,000 per year for the church during the 10-day festival, until Mayor Rudy Giuliani cracked down on gambling at San Gennaro in the mid-'90s. 

"I never forgave [Giuliani]," said the Roman-Catholic priest, adding that he refused to shake the then-mayor's hand at the festival the following year. "He took away our bread and butter." 

Grifone, 87, said the cash-strapped church — which has seen a 60-percent drop in donations this year — could use the money that gambling events would generate. 

Members of the Figli di San Gennaro — the nonprofit that coordinates the festival, which packs more than 200 vendors along Mulberry Street from East Houston Street to Canal Street — said they, too, are looking to reinstate banned components of the event. 

Members of the group's board said they have had multiple discussions about seeking city approval next year to reinstate the grease pole and street games that were deemed to be gambling. 

"We're trying to bring back as much as we can and return to the roots of the festival," said John Fratta, a San Gennaro board member who was born on Mulberry Street. 

The mayor's office did not respond to an inquiry about the groups' plans.

Giuliani scrubbed casino-style gambling and "games of chance" from San Gennaro in 1996, when he overhauled the festival in attempt to rid it of corruption and alleged organized crime influences, The New York Times reported.   

"It's going to be a feast that actually delivers money to charity. It will help children. There was a lot of extortion and a lot of shakedowns associated with the feast in the past," Giuliani said when he attended San Gennaro in 1996, according to the New York Daily News.

Fratta said he thought the city should allow the parish to host casino-style games.

"If it's at the church," he said, "I don't see what the problem would be."

Fratta, 59, said he would also like to bring back a frenzied contest for teams of neighborhood men and boys to shimmy up a greased metal pole to grab cash, dried salami or provolone attached to the top. The contest was an annual part of the 86-year-old festival until the game was banned as a public health risk in the early 1980s, Fratta said. 

"No one ever got hurt climbing the grease pole," he said. 

Information about the city ban of the event or reported injuries was not immediately available. 

Five-person teams representing individual streets in Little Italy competed in the grease pole climb, which took place on Hester Street between Mulberry and Baxter streets, where games for children can be found now, Fratta explained. 

"The way you climbed it was you had the heaviest guy on the bottom and then the next heaviest, and so on," he said. "And then for the next few months, whoever won it would have bragging rights." 

Remembering the grease pole brought a smile to the face of Ralph Tramontana, the president of the Little Italy Merchants Association, who grew up in the neighborhood. 

"I remember being 9 or 10, standing under the pole, and grease would get slapped onto people who were watching," said Tramontana, 43. "At the end of it, we used to open a fire hydrant on Baxter to wash it all off." 

Fratta said the San Gennaro board would place giant airbags under the pole, and have participants sign waivers and buy insurance for the contest, which was depicted in a 1978 episode of "Laverne & Shirley." 

"We want to see if we can bring back the grease pole next year with teams for all the Italian neighborhoods around the city — Bensonhurst, Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Howard Beach," he said. 

Some newcomers to Little Italy said they would support the return of the grease pole. 

Graphic designer Sean Panzera, 23, said he would enter the contest if given the chance. 

"Bring it back, give me a waiver and make it happen," he said. 

San Gennaro board members said they also want to reinstate banned street games to the festival, like a 3-foot-wide wheel players spin to win prizes like stuffed animals. 

Attractions the city deemed games of chance rather than games of skill were banned because they were considered gambling, Fratta explained. 

"We just want these things back," he said. "They're part of our tradition."