Wednesday, September 4, 2002


Press coverage of the exotic dancer and the lads from Ladder #37 continues, relentlessly, in the Philadelphia area. The saga has eclipsed all other items of local interest, including the state takeover of the public schools, the resignation of Senator Torricelli, and even Donovan McNabb’s $115 million contract.

On Sunday, September 22, the Rolling Stones performed at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Local police and firemen were present outside the theater, during and after the concert. Among this security contingent were the volunteer firemen of Ladder #37, complete with fire truck. They didn’t really have an assignment, and they didn’t see the concert. They were simply on-call, hanging around.

When the show ended, one of the music-lovers to emerge from the venue was Angela (no last name), an exotic dancer employed by a Philadelphia club named Cheerleaders. As luck would have it, Angela had rushed to the show from the club and was still dressed in her work clothes. These consisted of a scoop-necked halter-top, five-inch platform heels, thigh-length black leggings, and what used to be called hot pants. Perhaps they still are.

The colloquy that ensued as Angela walked past the fire truck and the idle contingent of Upper Darby’s finest was not recorded, but since I once took a psychology course in college, I can confidently report that the conversation went substantially as follows:

One of the Boys: "Yo, Babe. How were the Stones?"

Angela: "Awesome. They let me go backstage."

OOTB: "Cool. You a model?"

Angela: "Yeah. Sort of."

OOTB: "Can we take your picture?"

Americans everywhere will be shocked to learn that Angela was amenable to this suggestion, and in a trice, had donned a fire helmet and was posing seductively on and beside the truck. One of the boys (let’s call him Jimmy), snapped merrily away.

As luck would have it, the photo session continued and the conversation turned, as it sometimes does, to the subject of thong underwear. "They were like ‘Do you have a thong on? Can we see your thong?’" Angela reported. "I was like, ‘OK’." This exchange led quite naturally to another series of photographs and ultimately to a crisis involving the zipper on her shorts.

Here, at last, was an opportunity for the bored firemen to draw upon their well of experience in emergency situations. Passing the camera, Jimmy leapt to Angela’s aid and fixed the stubborn zipper while his comrade recorded the rescue in a photograph Angela later described as "misleading."

"He was the perfect gentleman. He didn’t try to touch me in any perverted way at all. He was just trying to help me with my zipper."

As luck would have it, other cameras were present that evening in Upper Darby, and two of them belonged to professional photographers Tom Kelly III and Tom Kelly IV. (There’s still a lot of numbered people in Philadelphia.) Exiting the concert, the Kelly’s, pere et fils, captured the entire tableau on film and rushed their prints to the Philadelphia Daily News, our local tabloid.

And yet…. And yet….

Where was the news? Where was the "hook?" The Daily News is, alas, a newspaper, and while any fool could see that the lovely Angela, with her helmet and her high heels and her firemen, belonged on the front page, some journalistic justification for putting her there had to be found. It didn’t have to be big or important news. It might even be silly news. But if it weren’t news at all---well, then, she might wind up on page 12.

One can only speculate on how the Kelly/Daily News pictures came to the attention of Upper Darby Chief Administrative Officer Thomas J. Judge Jr. and Fire Chief Ed Cubler, but as luck would have it, they did.

"That’s conduct unbecoming [a firefighter]," said Chief Cubler.

"We are extremely disappointed," said Thomas J. Judge Jr.


Across this great land, Philadelphia may be viewed as a parochial little burg of cheese-steaks and drunken football fans, but Philadelphians are, by and large, a thoughtful people. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison---these men walked our streets, pondered the inalienable rights of man, and founded a country. The Declaration of Independence was written here.

Thus, it should surprise no one that the story of Angela and the firemen would seize the imagination of the populace. In the streets and by-ways, from the Main Line to the Italian Market, Philadelphians examined the seven Kelly photos (especially the cover shot), dissected the comments of the principals, and formed their opinions, which were then expressed everywhere, including editorial pages and radio talk shows. The story had everything---a long-legged dancer, firemen, a thong, and even a philosophical question. To wit: when a stripper wants to borrow a helmet and pose for photographs on your fire truck, what precisely does "conduct unbecoming a fireman" consist of?

Ultimately, there arose two schools of thought on the question, and predictably, both camps invoked the memory of 9-11 to support their positions.

"Their behavior disgraced the memory of the brave firefighters who gave their lives last September," said one radio caller (it might have been "Jim from Haverford"). John McNally, a letter-writer to the Daily News, saw it differently: "The men under investigation are the same ones who will run into burning buildings to rescue Upper Darby residents…. Leave them alone."

The thong/zipper incident in particular was the focus of much commentary, and became a sort of flash point, and a dividing line between the pro-decency and pro-testosterone forces. Letting her put on the helmet---OK. Taking her picture on the fire truck---OK. But asking to see her thong? Many pundits felt this crossed the line, though the prevailing view appeared to be that of a caller ("Joe from Kensington"?) I heard on the radio one afternoon: "So they’re firemen and she’s a stripper and they ask to see her thong. What are they supposed to ask her about---Iraq?"

The investigation continues, according to Upper Darby officials. The boys of Ladder #37 are not talking to the press. And the young lady? Well, she has been extremely generous with her time for the local media, and while we still don’t know her last name, we know she thinks Upper Darby officials should "lighten up." This would seem to put her in the mainstream of contemporary thought here in the City of Brotherly Love. Finally, her tips at the club are up---way up. Recently, it was reported that firemen from the entire area are flocking to Cheerleaders, and they only have eyes for Angela.

Copyright 2002 Michael Kubacki