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New book resurrects a Washington folk hero
(Published March 8, 2004)
One mourner outside Union Wesley AME Zion Church in Northeast Washington described the scene as something she hadn’t seen since President Kennedy’s funeral: an estimated 20,000 people lined up in brutally cold temperatures in January 1984 to pay their respects.
Twenty years after his death from cancer at age 53, broadcast personality and community activist Ralph "Petey" Greene has been resurrected as a Washington folk hero in his long-awaited "life story" by writer Lurma Rackley.
"His story kind of reads like a novel," says Rackley, who was selected by Greene in early 1982 to tell the story of how he grew up poor in Georgetown of the 1930s and rose from the depths of "being a wine-head bum" and Lorton Reformatory convict to become an award-winning broadcaster, comedian and champion of the poor.
"Laugh If You Like, Ain’t a Damn Thing Funny," self-published by Rackley via Xlibris, was officially released Jan. 31 during a book-signing fund-raiser sponsored by the Greater Washington Urban League. Rackley, who now lives and works in Atlanta, will return to the District for another book-signing at the Urban League’s March 10 gala at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. She also will attend book-signings at 6:30 p.m. March 11 at Karibu Books in Prince George’s Plaza, 3500 East-West Highway in Hyattsville, and at 6:30 p.m. March 12 at Sisterspace and Books, 1515 U St. NW.
While younger Washingtonians and recent arrivals may know Greene merely as a name on the United Planning Organization’s satellite center in Congress Heights, thousands of his fans can still recite the signature sign-off rap from his weekly Emmy Award-winning television show:
"I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold, I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old, I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. Achtt! This is Petey Greene’s Washington."
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. During his show, Greene offered non-scripted streetwise advice and commentary, and talked with guests about life in non-official Washington from his perch in a huge rattan chair. Similar to his signature ending, 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."
Greene also had a local radio show called "Rapping With Petey Greene" on WOL, worked as a community activist for the United Planning Organization and founded a group to help ex-offenders return to the community.
Rackley said she first met Greene in 1971 when, while working as a reporter for the now-defunct Washington Star, she was assigned to write a story about then-program director Dewey Hughes at WOL.
"When I met Dewey, I met a number of personalities at the station, and Petey was doing a show with Dewey," she said by telephone from Atlanta.
It would be almost 10 years before Rackley got her first opportunity to speak with Greene at length. After the Star folded, Rackley began freelancing for a local black-oriented newspaper whose editor asked her to write about Greene giving up drinking and being baptized as a member of the United House of Prayer.
"During the interview, he out of the blue said, ‘I’m thinking about writing my life story and would you help me with that?’" Rackley said. "Then he hedged a little and said, ‘Well, let’s see how this article works out.’"
Greene later called her and said he liked her article. Rackley said she began meeting with Greene at his home in early 1982 for two hours on three Saturdays of every month to record his memories. The sessions filled about 60 hours of tape, which Rackley used to write the book, sometimes quoting Greene at length verbatim.
"Not a penny passed between us," Rackley said of her agreement to help tell Greene’s story. "We were going to make the money after the book was published. … The idea was for Petey to go around and sell the book."
Rackley said Greene "started talking about not feeling well" about a year into the project.
"When he died, I of course was devastated," she said. "I pulled together the prologue and the first couple of chapters … but I hadn’t started the book yet."
Rackley said she met with Greene’s agent, lawyer Ron Goldfarb. "He, too, had the wind knocked out of his sails," she said. "I was kind of left to my own devices."
For Rackley, a single mother raising a young son, "putting food on the table" had to take priority over finishing the book. For a time she became press secretary to then-mayor Marion Barry, a job that she said became "too intense" after the mayor’s arrest on crack cocaine charges and his subsequent trial.
When she left the government, Rackley said, she was determined to finish the book while freelancing and working for the Greater Washington Urban League. She said she and Dewey Hughes "shopped it around" to publishers, who expressed no interest in the book, so the project again was put on hold. Her next jobs took her from Washington to Seattle to Atlanta, where she now works as director of public relations for CARE USA.
In the interim, Hughes and filmmaker Joe Fries signed a deal with actor Martin Lawrence in June 2000 to play Greene in a movie of "Petey Greene’s Washington." Rackley said she tried to negotiate a deal with Hughes and Fries to provide the script for the movie, but she said contract talks broke down.
"I didn’t really want to give up my broadcast rights," she said. "Then they decided to do it as a ‘Petey and Dewey’ movie. That just stuck a needle in my behind, and I sat down and finished my book."
When another round of contacting publishers failed to turn up interest, Rackley decided to self-publish the book to fulfill her obligation to Greene.
"I was awestruck that he picked me," Rackley said. "I took this project to heart and knew I would finish it, but without him, it was kind of daunting."
She said her one regret in writing the book was that "had Petey stayed alive to review the final [draft], he might have said ‘We have to put this person in’ or ‘We need to leave that incident out’ of the book."
Timing of the book’s publication "at least connected with something," Rackley said, despite the long delay.
"Petey’s birthday was in January and his death was in January, so January was very significant," she said. "It was divine intervention that this year was the 20th anniversary of his death."
Rackley said she hopes to be able to "reconnect with Dewey [Hughes] and his friend Joe Fries" on the movie project. She expressed disappointment in seeing an Internet reference to their movie describing Greene as "a dumb, but funny, convict who becomes a popular radio personality."
"I hope they don’t intend to portray Petey as ‘dumb,’" Rackley said. "He was no way dumb – nothing about him was dumb."
Rackley said Greene’s children, who were living with Greene’s ex-wife when he died, came to the release party for the book in January. She said Greene’s son and nephew "might ultimately package the [existing tapes of Greene’s television] shows," which she said might make a good companion to her book.
"If I’m able to make this book a success, I would be more than happy to share the money with his children," Rackley said, noting that the book is selling well at Sisterspace and on amazon.com but she is still trying to interest a publisher. "So far, I haven’t even made back my initial investment."
Copyright 2004, The Common Denominator