The Philly Pops at 30: An Ongoing Celebration

Classic Arts Features   The Philly Pops at 30: An Ongoing Celebration
The year: 1977. The place: Las Vegas. Peter Nero and his new bride, Peggy, were seated in the place of honor. Frank Sinatra raised his glass to the couple and made a toast Nero will never forget: "If you dare to be as happy as Barbara and I are: I'll break your fingers."


The maestro chuckles as he recounts those three days in the desert, beginning with tying the knot at one of Vegas' legendary chapels of love, and ending with a performance with Doc Severinsen and Jack Jones at the Sands Casino. "He and I go way back," Nero says of Jones, who will be appearing with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops in next winter's LolliPOPS & Roses program. "He is magnificent. Unbelievably artistic," Nero raves about his friend. "As close to perfection as you can get. Your attention is just riveted."

Memories and music are inextricably intertwined, as they can only be after a career as varied and storied as Peter Nero's, and while the 2008 _09 anniversary season will soon be drawing to a close, Nero has no intention of silencing the celebrations: As he correctly points out, the real 30th birthday of Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, born on November 25, 1979, is still more than six months away.

Three decades of critically acclaimed and crowd-pleasing performances will continue when the 2009 _10 season opens in October with Broadway Showstoppers and a series focusing on revivals: think South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, and Music Man. Choosing from thousands of Broadway show tunes is a challenge. "The hardest part is not what to play, it's what to leave out," says Nero. Those who cannot imagine a POPS Broadway show without modern musical favorites: something from The Phantom of the Opera, for example: need not worry. "I always find an excuse to put in something that doesn't fit the concept," says Nero. "Deviating from it is half the fun."

For Nero, there is not much delineation from one season to the next. Peter Nero and the Philly Pops is organic, constantly growing and evolving. "The ideas [for the next season] are popping as the [current] season progresses," says Nero, who describes the making of a season as a team effort, with plenty of work to go around. With 16 to 26 pieces per concert (each medley counted as just one piece), an enormous amount of time goes into every program. Nero makes all musical arrangements his own, changing the phrasing, quickening the pace, adding a ritard here, a subito piano there.

Nero is especially looking forward to next spring, when big-band singer Lynn Roberts: who has sung with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Harry James: returns by popular demand to join him and The POPS for A Return to the Stage Door Canteen featuring the evocative music of World War II. During the war, Philadelphia's Academy of Music: The POPS' former home: hosted three free stage shows a day for members of the armed forces, giving them a place to relax, get something to eat, and enjoy what Nero calls "some of the best and most poignant songs of all time. Each one of them tells a story of how people felt at the time," Nero says. "This isn't Broadway or film. It's Real Life music."

Nero, who was just a child in 1941, remembers the air-raid alerts back home in Brooklyn when the entire city went dark. Again, says Nero, there is enough material for three separate shows, but some pieces "have to be done," songs like "I'll Walk Alone," "White Cliffs of Dover," and "When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)," after which, he predicts there will be "not a dry eye in the house, including mine."

The man who knows everyone never met South Philadelphia favorite son Mario Lanza, whose versatile repertoire of great opera arias and popular songs will be highlighted in The Great American Tenor in April 2010. When Lanza died in 1959 (at age 38), Nero was still a couple years away from his Grammy awards and fame. Nero remembers Lanza from movies and televison, singing standards like "Be My Love," "Because You're Mine," and Puccini's "Nessun dorma."

Rounding out the season are the now-traditional Holiday POPS! concerts, which next year will feature Broadway star Lauren Kennedy. And, a tribute to the songs of the 1970s, Winding Around the '70s, with singer Maureen McGovern and songs from her latest release, A Long and Winding Road, "will highlight the spectacular vocal talents of one of the premier female singers of our time," Nero says.

The '70s were very good years for Nero: 1972 gave him his first hit single and gold album for his recording of The Summer of '42. And, of course, it was the decade that gave Philadelphia Peter Nero and the Philly Pops. Lucky for us, the maestro still has all his fingers.


For schedules and ticketing information, visit Philly Pops.

Margie Smith is a Philadelphia-based journalist and writer. She is former director of communications for The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and was the host of The Philadelphia Orchestra's Global Concert Series last season.

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