THE PETEY GREENE STORY ON FILM
[Lurma Rackley wrote "Laugh If You Like" about Petey Greene, about whom a movie is about to be released]
LURMA RACKLEY, WASHINGTON POST - Washingtonians of a certain era knew Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene in his various life phases: as a raggedy kid who could "play the dozens" better than anyone in 1930s black Georgetown; as an often inebriated yet phenomenally funny young comedian at "picnics" in Wilmer's Park; as a rapping, rhyming emcee at Lorton Reformatory, where he served time for robbery; and finally as a legendary broadcaster who charted new territory in straight talk and community activism until his death in 1984 at age 53.
This week, moviegoers nationwide will be introduced to Petey's story in "Talk to Me," starring Don Cheadle. I got to know Petey while we worked on his memoir, "Laugh if You Like, Ain't a Damn Thing Funny," which I published in 2004. To those of us who knew Petey, the movie will challenge our memories (was it really Petey who calmed the city during the 1968 riots?), will misrepresent facts (did he really bomb on "Johnny Carson"?) and will ignore Petey's ultimate triumphs and his return to the church. . .
But people will be talking about him, and for a man who enjoyed stirring controversy as a means to an end, that was always the bottom line. Petey would be delighted by the edgy panel discussions and debates the movie has ignited. He would also approve of the more than 200,000 hits that "How to Eat a Watermelon," his routine from the early 1980s, has received on YouTube, spiking arguments about the N-word among the Dave Chappelle generation. . .
In late 1981, Petey asked me to help him tell his life story. . . I spent most of my time cracking up with laughter. He told me that he honed his rapping, rhyming and "joning" skills as a preschool kid dead set on taking the focus off his disadvantages. His father was in jail more often than he was at home, and his mother had her own brushes with the law. His beloved pipe-smoking grandmother Maggie Floyd, known as A'nt Pig, instilled in him a fortitude and an optimism that carried him through the worst of times in his personal life. From the age of 3, Petey heard A'nt Pig say: "Boy, I know your mouth is gone get you killed or get you rich one day. 'Cause you the talkingest damn boy I ever seen.". . .
Not surprisingly for a biopic, [the movie] leaves out much of Petey's story. Toward the end of his life, Petey began to step into his A'nt Pig's full vision for him. He stunned his friends in 1979 when he finally gave up binge drinking. In 1981, he was baptized by the United House of Prayer's Bishop Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCullough. . . The movie also overlooks the towering role that A'nt Pig played in Petey's life. Yet she was the person he most wanted to honor through his life story.
That story ended too soon. In mid-1983, as I was starting to transcribe my mountain of interview tapes, Petey was losing his battle with liver cancer. An estimated 20,000 people lined up for his wake on a cold night in January 1984, and 2,000 mourners packed the church for his funeral the next day, with hundreds more outside. . .
KATHRYN SINZINGER, COMMON DENOMINATOR - At his death, "Petey Greene's Washington" was broadcast locally on Channel 20 and nationwide to 5.5 million homes in 53 cities by Black Entertainment Television. . . Greene began his shows with a monologue and a trademark lead-in: "Well, let's cool it now. Slide on in, adjust the color of your television, hole up and get ready to groove with Petey Greene's Washington."
PETEY GREENE ON HOW TO EAT A WATERMELON
LAUGH IF YOU LIKE