Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in "The Bells of St. Mary's" tells the mother of a student how he located the girl's father who was a pianist. "He's a musician, so he must be in the union. I went right to the top, Petrillo!"
In the middle of the 20th Century, the name "Petrillo" was well known in America. He was a labor leader who was often in the news because of so many battles he fought on behalf of his members in a rapidly changing world for musicians. Jimmy Petrillo was President of Local 10 of the Chicago Federation of Musicians for forty years from 1922 to 1962. He also served as president of the American Federation of Musicians for 18 years from 1940 to 1958. The Petrillo Band Shell in Grant Park was named in his honor in 1976.
James Caesar Petrillo was born near the corner of DeKoven and Taylor Street in Chicago on March 16, 1892. He loved to play the trumpet but he concluded in his early twenties that he did not have enough talent to make his living as a trumpet player. So starting in 1919, James devoted his life to organizing musicians into effective union locals. Petrillo once said many years later, 'If I was a good trumpet player I wouldn’t be here. I got desperate. I hadda look for a job. I went into the union business."
According to an article about Jimmy on the WTTW Channel 11 website, "Petrillo first attracted national attention in the 1930's after he cabled Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, demanding that he reprimand the Consul General in Chicago for hiring a non-union band."
"Petrillo's power within Local 10 was as absolute as that of Il Duce within Italy. Only once prior to 1962 was his rule challenged. After he defeated contender Angelo Cavallo in 1933, he ripped up the losers union card and banished him from the organization."
Twice Petrillo and his local and national unions had to fight battles against technology. During the era of silent movies, most movie theaters employed some musicians to accompany to film with mood music. Depending on the size of the theater, often the musician was a pianist or organ player or a members of a small ensemble. With the advent of talking pictures in 1928, there soon became no need for musicians in movie theaters and thousnds of musician jobs were lost around the country.
When Petrillo was president of the American Federation of Musicians during World War II, he led the musicians on two different strikes to protest the increasing use of recorded music that paid musicians on one-time performance fee with no royalties for repeat uses. From 1942 to 1944 and again in 1948, Petrillo instituted the "Petrillo Bans" on union mucisicans making recordings until a royalties deal was worked out with the record companies.
The picture at right was taken on June 15, 1954 at the American Federation of Musicians annual convention. Former President Harry Truman is playing the piano and AFM President Jimmy Petrillo is playing the trumpet in what one union official described as "possibly the worst rendition of 'The Gang's All Here' ever performed in public for a piano and trumpet duet."
It is somewhat ironic that Jimmy Petrillo was finally dumped as president of the Chicago Local 10 in 1962 by dissident union members who wanted a merger between a largely black local with the white dominated Local 10 that Petrillo had led for forty years. Ironic because two years later in 1964 Petrillo came back on the national scene in a special assignment for the American Federation of Musicians as head of the civil rights campaign outreach. Maybe Jimmy Petrillo changed with the times but in any case he did travel in the south and helped to organize black musicians and recruit them into the AFM even if it was late to do so. Jimmy was already in his early seventies when he took on the new assignment.
Jimmy Petrillo died on Oct. 23, 1984 at the age of 92.