Joe Piscopo-01/13/99

The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 13, 1999

Actor Joe Piscopo finds hope in Camden
At Wilson High School, he watched performers and met students. Some will be on his TV show.

By Russell J. Rickford

CAMDEN -- When Maliki Durant, 18, was a grade-schooler, "causing mischief" meant lifting candy from corner stores and pelting rocks at abandoned buildings until the empty window frames gaped like eye sockets.
Five years ago, the South Camden teenager found discipline in a military-style drill team. But he has since watched many of his boyhood pals graduate from mischief to misdemeanors to the sort of hustling that earns you a "rep" in neighborhoods that are crucibles of handguns and drugs.
"Some move away. Some get arrested. Some wish they could rewind time and go back and do the right thing," the Camden High School senior said.
Yesterday, still mourning a friend slain days earlier, Durant showed actor Joe Piscopo and a lineup of city dignitaries how he does right, demonstrating drill maneuvers and formations alongside his teammates in a Woodrow Wilson High School auditorium.
Piscopo was there on a recruiting mission. The actor, of Saturday Night Live fame, was on hand to view the performance -- by the local UPK Pasha Generals -- and mingle with other active high schoolers, some of whom may wind up on a New Jersey Network show that spotlights everyday youngsters in communities where television cameras traditionally have been turned only on hoodlums.
Piscopo's Positive Impact Television series, aired twice on NJN last year, has already featured athletes and culturally conscious youths in New York City's Lower East Side and North Jersey.
In the next couple of weeks, the show's producers plan to handpick three to six teenagers from Camden High School, Woodrow Wilson High School and Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School. Camera operators will then become their shadows, recording their lives at school, at work, at church and at home, and documenting their struggles, triumphs and dreams.
The intertwined stories will be aired as 30-minute episodes hosted by Piscopo but narrated only by the subjects -- not prodigies, just everyday young men and women who maneuver through a slalom of chal- lenges almost every day.
But "a kid in Kansas will relate to a kid in Camden," Sol Feldman, the show's executive producer, maintained. "It's not 'the mean streets of Camden.' "
The show is unusual because the economically hobbled city has been skewered time and time again.
In January 1992, for instance, Time magazine profiled Camden as part of a series on beleaguered communities, referring to the "city of scrap."
"Many American cities have sinkholes that are just as run down, burned out, crime ridden and drug infested," the magazine reported. "The difference is that this describes all of Camden, not just a part of it."
More recently, a Newark Star-Ledger article called Camden's financial drain on state taxpayers a "gaping wound," prompting an angry buzz among city officials.
Robert H. Dickerson, founder of the city's nonprofit Unity Community Center and the UPK Pasha Generals, said even when the members of his drill team travel beyond Camden for performances, they cannot seem to leave the city behind.
"They've announced us by saying, 'Nothing good comes out of Camden,' " Dickerson said. "Even in Sicklerville and Williamstown, children are petrified if you say you're from Camden."
Piscopo, who lives in central New Jersey with his wife, Kimberly, and son Joey, said he created the show to atone for the trouble he used to get into. Although the actor grew up as a "middle-class white brat" in Bloomberg, a suburb of Newark, he said he drank frequently as a teenager and was tossed out of school eight times.
"I went through some bumps and bruises in my own life," Piscopo said. "I can't tell you why I was such a jerk."
The show's producers are planning three more episodes in as many months, including features of youngsters in Atlantic City and a rural area in South Jersey. Piscopo said he hoped that Positive Impact Television can make the leap to national television, but he admitted that the concept has been tough to sell to network executives.
"If I hear 'That's not our target audience' one more time . . .," he said.
At a school where street gangs clashed only weeks ago, a dozen or so other elected officials and civic leaders turned up for the program, including School Superintendent Roy Dawson; Police Chief Robert E. Allenbach; and Paul Donnelly, executive director of the state's Juvenile Justice Commission.
But Paul Goldenberg, who heads the Positive Impact Foundation, which produces the show, stressed that Positive Impact Television will not showcase city brass.
"The kids are the messengers," he said. "And we want the airwaves to carry that message."