By Ben Joravsky

When Donna De Rosa launched her campaign four months ago it was easy for Chicago’s civic power brokers to write her off as a kooky housewife from the western suburbs with too much time on her hands.

Why should they–the money and connections behind the city’s ambitious plans for Millennium Park–take seriously her pleas to preserve the name of James Caesar Petrillo on the new music shell they’re building? Who would join her crusade? Who would care? Who even remembers Petrillo aside from De Rosa, who’s his granddaughter?

Well, apparently they’re rethinking their reaction, for De Rosa’s one-woman campaign has touched a nerve. It’s winning growing support from activists and park users who fear the city’s selling off its history and allowing public space to be hoarded by the rich and well connected. “I say give ’em hell, Donna,” says Peter Donoghue, a longtime Park District watchdog. “It’s time someone took a stand.”

De Rosa says her grandfather was a Taylor Street kid, the son of a sewage ditch digger, who dropped out of school at age nine and went on to become one of the country’s most powerful union leaders. “He had to leave school to help his family make a living,” says De Rosa. “He attended Hull-House. Jane Addams gave him his first trumpet. He used to play weddings.”

Petrillo realized he didn’t have the talent to become a professional musician, so he became a union organizer. By the early 1930s he was the leader of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, and in 1935 Mayor Ed Kelly placed him on the Park District board.

By the mid-1940s Petrillo was president of the national union and one of the most powerful men in the music world. Newsreel clips show him testifying before congressional committees, being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow, and playing a duet with President Truman. It was Petrillo, according to De Rosa, who convinced the city to hold free concerts in Grant Park, just as it was Petrillo who saw to it that a portion of all recording royalties was siphoned into a trust and used to pay for free concerts in schools, parks, and nursing homes. “He made it possible for people to attend free concerts, not just in Grant Park but all over the country,” says De Rosa. “Since 1949 the nation’s received over $300 million in free concerts. Chicago’s received over $22 million. That’s his legacy. That’s why he should be remembered.”

In a 1976 Labor Day celebration, Mayor Richard J. Daley had the old music shell in Grant Park named for Petrillo. “My grandfather had retired by then, but Mayor Daley knew what he had done,” says De Rosa. “It was a nice ceremony. Mayor Daley made a speech. We have a picture of the two of them at that ceremony.”

Two years later the city built a new band shell at Jackson and Columbus. “The city kept the Petrillo name even at the new band shell, no fuss, no muss,” says De Rosa. Over the last 24 years the Petrillo shell has been the site for everything from rock concerts to the annual July 4 celebration. But last year the city announced plans to remove it in favor of Millennium Park, to be built on 26 acres east of Michigan between Randolph and Monroe. According to the latest account in the Tribune, the extravagant $230 million project will feature, among other things, a “heated year-round fountain,” a bridge over Columbus Drive, a “state-of-the-art” bike path, a stainless steel interactive sculpture, and a 6,000-seat band shell and music pavilion designed by architect Frank Gehry.

Roughly $215 million will come from public funds and the rest from private donors, some of whom will be honored by having their names attached to various parts of the park. At a press conference last year, Mayor Daley announced that a plaza in the park will be named for Ameritech. The mayor suggested that the music shell might be named for the Pritzker family, which is contributing millions of dollars, but no formal announcement has been made.

One thing’s for certain–it won’t be named for Petrillo. It was clear that the city had no plans to associate his name with the park in any way. And De Rosa was livid. “I understand the need to honor people for donating money to a cause, but does that mean we should do away with meritorious honors? My grandfather earned this recognition. You shouldn’t erase it because you need to raise funds. O’Hare airport underwent massive renovations, but we still call it O’Hare. The Goodman Theatre is still the Goodman even though it’s being moved to a new location. So why are we changing the name of a music shell named for an Italian-American citizen and a great labor leader who left a legacy to the parks? What’s next? Will it be good-bye to the Harold Washington library? Is nothing sacred? Have we no respect for tradition anymore?”

After reading about the new park, De Rosa called the Park District and wound up talking to project director Ed Uhlir. “I asked him if the new music shell will be named after Petrillo and he said no,” she says. “Then he said that if the family’s concerned, they’ll put up a plaque or a park bench or they’ll dedicate a tree. I didn’t say anything, but that really got to me–that bit about the tree.”

A few weeks later she took her case to the Park District’s board of commissioners. “What a disappointment. Board president Michael Scott said he knew nothing about the band shell. I said, ‘Will the band shell be under your supervision?’ He said he didn’t know. I said, ‘Will the Grant Park symphony play there?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ They acted like they had no control, that it was out of their hands, that they knew nothing.”

It was obvious to De Rosa that she was up against powerful forces. She did a little digging and discovered that the project was overseen by the Lakefront Gardens/Millennium Place board, whose eight members include such powerful civic leaders as John Bryan, James O’Connor, and Marshall Field. Six of the eight live in the suburbs, most on the North Shore.

The irony was not lost on De Rosa and her supporters. “You have a public field dedicated to the memory of a union man out of Taylor Street, and it’s being taken over by the Lake Forest crowd,” says Donoghue.

He says there’s a disturbing trend toward privatizing public parks. “They’ve turned over the softball fields in Lincoln Park to the private clubs. They’re taking the big concerts out of Grant Park. It’s like they have these parks but they don’t want people to use them.” The new band shell may be less accessible than the one it’s replacing, and the city’s already made it clear that Millennium Park will be too small to handle the large crowds that file into Grant Park for the jazz and blues festivals. At the moment, the city doesn’t know where these festivals will be held once the new park’s built.

“Now they’re selling off our names. And for what?” Donaghue continues. “A few million bucks. Now this I really don’t get. The corporations are paying, what? Fifteen, maybe $20 million out of the $230 million–and I’m sure the price is gonna go way up from that–for Millennium Park. They’re not even paying the lion’s share. And they deserve the name? Please. If you’re going to name it for the people who ponied up, call it the taxpayers’ band shell.”

In November, De Rosa went public with her complaint, winning a story in the Tribune. She’s put together a video featuring her grandfather with Truman and Murrow and testifying in Washington. She’s circulated an open letter to Mayor Daley attached to the 24-year-old photo of her grandfather and the mayor’s father. She’s spoken to civic groups. And she’s won the backing of Alderman William Banks, Italian-American civic leaders, labor leaders, and thousands of residents who have signed postcards of support she intends to present to Mayor Daley.

By now parks officials have adopted a more accommodating tone. “I know that the Park District is working on a number of options that they are exploring in terms of a way to continue to honor the Petrillo name within Grant Park,” says Donna La Pietra, the television producer who’s president of the Lakefront Gardens/Millennium Place board.

The city is even thinking of putting the old band shell on wheels and taking it from one neighborhood to the next to stage free concerts. “I don’t know that anyone knows if the old band shell is going to be destroyed,” says La Pietra. “It may actually continue to live, though not in the exact position it is now. That may be one of the alternatives they’re considering. I know that they are compiling a number of exploratory notions of how to continue the Petrillo commemoration.”

As for the new band shell, La Pietra says her group doesn’t know for whom it will be named. “The name opportunities within Millennium Park are the basis for a lot of the fund-raising that we do. But I don’t think we know all of these things. I think perhaps everything is getting just a bit ahead of itself, or just a bit premature.”

De Rosa insists she won’t be satisfied with anything less than the Petrillo name on the new band shell. “They know they have a public relations disaster on their hands. They know that the public’s against them. For all I know, they’ve already promised to name that band shell for some big donor. Well, that’s not my problem. I don’t want a plaque or a kiosk or a tree or a roving band shell or whatever. This is my contention–wherever the Grant Park symphony plays should be named for Petrillo. As long as the nation’s benefiting from the trust fund my grandfather created, his name belongs on that band shell.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnick.