Tony Lo Bianco’s role of a lifetime is as the great New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a transformative historical figure whom the actor has been bringing back to life for more than three decades.
Lo Bianco’s one-man show, “The Little Flower,” is set during the mayor’s final day in office in 1945. For Lo Bianco, the performance is a chance to raise issues that are as pertinent today as they were in La Guardia’s era, including during his three terms in City Hall.
Lo Bianco spoke with City & State Senior Correspondent Jon Lentz about the public perception of La Guardia, the former mayor’s many accomplishments and how other mayors have stacked up since.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: Why do a show about La Guardia?
Tony Lo Bianco: First of all, he was a seven-time congressman, and then he was three-term mayor, from 1934 to 1945. Now, his life seems to parallel very much what’s going in our country today and how we seem to not learn from history. That always fascinates me about the human race, because I always like to look at history to be aware of what was going on then. The ideas back then are prevalent today, and that is the basis of my interest in presenting this show for as long as I have. What people relate to is a man of and for the people who spoke common sense, logic, facts and from history.
C&S: Has the script changed over time?
TLB: When we first did it in Albany, in 1984, it was written by Paul Shyre. It was more of a valentine to him, more what the people expect. They view La Guardia as a cartoon character, you see, a little rotund fellow who made a lot of noise and had a funny voice and read the newspapers and the comics to the kids when there was a newspaper strike. He was everywhere, he did everything, he was a tremendous dynamo, and his size and shape sort of dictated in the newspapers a kind of cartoon character.
C&S: But he accomplished a lot, right?
TLB: Tremendous. This is just a bit of what he did in three terms: 14 public housing developments, 15 outdoor swimming pools, 25 new hospitals, 95 new schools, 340 tennis courts, 350 playgrounds, redoing all of Central Park, putting in a brand new zoo, the Belt Parkway and the Marine Parkway in Brooklyn, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, the Triborough Bridge, the Riis Park Bridge in Queens, the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the East River Drive, the West Side Highway, the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Grand Central Parkway. And this is just scratching the surface.
C&S: We did a feature identifying the top 10 mayors of New York City, and La Guardia was No. 1, with Michael Bloomberg at No. 2.
TLB: Well, good. Most mayors, including Bloomberg and Giuliani and Koch and even de Blasio all think of Mayor La Guardia as the mayor—and he was, in his time—of the world. People forget that when the Second World War broke out, he was in charge of civil defense for the country. Nobody thinks of those wonderful things he did. The fact is that in the First World War, just five or six months after he became a congressman he volunteered to go to war. He had a friend teach him to fly a plane and enlisted in the Army as a pilot. He fought in battle and knocked the enemy out of the sky. He crashed and injured his spine and his plane was all shot up. He was a lieutenant, a captain and became a major in one year. He was in charge of hundreds of men. This was a man who was a dreamer, a doer and a fighter. He fought against Tammany Hall. When he first ran for Congress as a Republican, nobody had won an election against the crooks in Tammany Hall in 136 years. La Guardia lost the first time, but had 14,000 out of the Tammany fold so they saw this young upstart had gotten this many votes. When he ran again, he had to deal with Tammany thugs with clubs in hand intimidating voters and dead people voting for Democrats.
C&S: How does de Blasio stack up to La Guardia?
TLB: Well, he’s just starting out. The mayor that I think comes closest to La Guardia was Rudy Giuliani, because he really got things done. He didn’t have conflict. We have a lot of conflict now with the Police Department and this department. We had conflict when Dinkins was in and tremendous problems with crime and so on. Ed Koch was also a very, very big fan of La Guardia—he kept his desk in front of him and had his picture over his desk. Koch, as a matter of fact, when I did La Guardia in Albany, he narrated it for television. It’s very difficult to compare him, because he was a rough rider. He really was tough. He had so much power and energy and he was a man of the people and for the people. If there was a fire, La Guardia was there. If there was a crime, La Guardia was there. He was everywhere. That kind of energy is what we need—a person that the people believe in, a healer. He ran as a fusion candidate, from both parties. He said, “I’ve been accused of being a pacifist, a communist, a socialist, a radical, a Republican, a progressive, a Democrat, a conservative, a rebel and a demagogue. Sounds like I’m a well-rounded fellow, don’t you think?”