Playoff Fever: Pittsburgh Sports Scribe Discusses Hit Play On Steelers' Owner

By: Joe Strupp The hottest ticket in Pittsburgh this weekend is undoubtedly the Steelers-Jets divisional playoff game on Saturday, in which the locals are favored by at least a touchdown. But, for most of December, another Steeler had crowds coming in record numbers.

A one-man play about the late Steelers' owner Art Rooney, titled "The Chief" and co-written by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports columnist Gene Collier, ended its second run two weeks ago and became the most successful production in the 30-year history of the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

"It is really amazing," said Collier, 51, who has written for the Post-Gazette and the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press, since 1984. "He is really one of the great characters of the 20th Century."

Rooney bought the team in 1933 and remained an integral part of its operation until his death in 1988. His son, Dan, and other members of the family continue to operate it today. Collier said he had started researching a biography of the former owner in the late 1990s, but found it "a little daunting."

He gained interest in a theatrical project in 2001 after meeting Rob Zellers, who heads the Public Theater's education and outreach program. The two met when Collier's son, Sean, participated in a contest sponsored by the theater.

"He asked me about whether there had ever been a biography of [Rooney] and he thought it would make a good one-man play," Collier recalls. "I blurted out that I would be interested in it."

The two worked on the project for the next two years. The play first opened with 42 performances in November 2003, with a second run last month with 17 shows that ended Dec. 26, Collier said. The most recent run featured veteran television, movie, and stage actor Tom Atkins as Rooney.

"He was a real Pittsburgher," Collier said of the former owner. "He was interested in politics and he was a great boxer and his father owned a saloon on the north side of town."

Collier also recalled Rooney's friendly relationship with sports reporters covering Steelers games. "He would hang around the press room and talk to us," he said. "He was the one guy who would ask how you are and really want to know."

No plans are set for another run of the play in Pittsburgh, but Collier said producers have been in talks with venues in other cities and with public television. "It will probably live on in some form," he said.


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