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"The Chief" takes center stage

Posted Jan 3, 2014

The play based on the life of Steelers' founder Art Rooney Sr. is at the O'Reilly Theater for a final run through Jan. 5.


Photo Gallery: Behind the scenes of "The Chief"

Art Rooney, Sr. was a story teller, always sharing an anecdote with those who crossed his path, always having a good story to tell about his life, from his days growing up on Pittsburgh’s North Side, to his boxing career, to purchasing the Pittsburgh Steelers and seeing them grow into four-time Super Bowl champions.

That is what makes The Chief, the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s one-man play about the Steelers’ founder, so special. It’s simply Rooney telling stories, sharing his life, through the brilliance of actor Tom Atkins, with the audience.

The setting for the play is Rooney’s office at Three Rivers Stadium in March, 1976. The office is a replica of what it was like back then, from his actual desk, to a box filled with his favorite cigars, to photos that adorned the wall and much more.

In the play, Rooney is trying to avoid heading off to a dinner that is set to honor him by doing what he loves to do most, telling stories. And it’s not just football the play focuses on, as it allows you the opportunity to really know Rooney, and what his life was like.

The only problem Rob Zellers and Gene Collier, who co-wrote the play, had was finding a way to keep the play to only 90 minutes, as the stories could go on for hours.

“There were so many good stories,” said Zellers. “This was a real Pittsburgh character that not only was a lot written about him, but he still had a lot of friends around the city when we did our interviews for it.”

Among those who shared stories were family members who gave their blessing for the play, friends, and many who knew him as the Steelers loveable owner.

“I think he is the kind of colorful character that perhaps we don’t see as much now as we saw 30, 40, 50 years ago,” said Zellers. “I think people miss that kind of character. A lot of depth, a lot of dimension, a lot of core Pittsburgh values. I think people look at the man and think back very positively about the city and learn more about themselves.”

It’s that character, the stories, and the love Steelers’ fans have for him, that has made the play, which debuted in 2003, return to the stage for what could be a final time. The Chief gives insight into the man who not only was the founder of the Steelers, but truly was one of the most beloved men in Pittsburgh sports.

“It’s amazing for any play to come back,” said director Ted Pappas. “You get one run of a great show and you feel fortunate. It’s pretty wonderful.  It’s a play about a lot of things, the City of Pittsburgh, the founding of the Steelers, but most important it’s about family.

“If the story is true, and the person telling the story is fun and exciting, I think that story telling pulls everybody in no matter what their age is. We have people coming from all over the country and world to see the show. You are sitting with veteran theater goers and football fanatics.”

Time is running out, though, to catch The Chief as it will be presented at the O’Reilly Theater only until Sunday, Jan. 5. Steelers’ chairman Dan Rooney is one of the many who have taken in the show through its run, along with hundreds of Steelers’ fans.

“You will never see more men at a show than at this one,” said Zellers. “I was listening to two guys talk about it, and one said, ‘what did you think?’ and he said ‘awesome,” and turned around to his friend and said, ‘dude, we’ve got to see more plays.’

Tickets can be purchased by calling the Pittsburgh Public Theater box office at 412-316-1600 or visiting www.ppt.org.  

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