Music and comedy were scheduled, but when surprise guest Jesse Jackson came on stage tonight the songs and jokes faded before the familiar rhythms.
"I . . . AM . . . SOMEBODY . . ." the crowd of about 3,000 people repeated after Jackson. But when the former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination began to speak of the event that brought them all together, the crowd fell silent.
"The highest and best police behavior is not to shoot it out," Jackson told the audience gathered to raise money for the 61 Cobbs Creek families who lost their homes last May in a fire following the police siege of the headquarters of the radical group MOVE. Eleven MOVE members died in the fire after police dropped an explosive device on an Osage Avenue stronghold.
"The reason 11 are dead on Osage is because there was confrontation rather than adequate consultation," Jackson said. And then he drew some historical comparisons: "With the Panthers -- the wipe 'em out process. With Attica -- the wipe 'em out process . . ."
For much of the audience, which included about 200 people from the devastated West Philadelphia neighborhood, it appeared the comparisons were less than evocative.
The concert was, after all, called "People for People." The crowd, almost equally divided between whites and blacks, seemed more eager to laugh at the jokes of comedian David Brenner than to apportion blame for the fire. And if some of them were wearing clothes donated by strangers to replace what they had lost, host Bill Cosby didn't seem to notice.
"A lot of you look like it's Sunday," he said, and when a cheerily obstreperous member of the audience expressed some confusion over what he meant, Cosby said, "some of you look very nice."
Like many in the audience, Cassandra Carter was one who "lost everything. My dog and cat died in the house."
Carter, secretary of the neighborhood organization recently renamed United Survivors of the Cobbs Creek Disaster,added, "I don't feel qualified to say who is right or wrong. I'm sorry they're dead . . . the intentions were good, the end results you can see, but even out of bad comes something good."
The good, Carter said, was the strengthening of an already strongly bound neighborhood.
"Before, I didn't always know who lived behind me," she said. "Now, you don't have to worry if you're stranded. That's what came about from this -- a family of 61 homes. When one hurts, another hurts."
On stage, Cosby hugged Jackson when he walked on and the audience gave Jackson a standing ovation when he left. Since the May 13 fire, there has been criticism of the city's actions and Mayor W. Wilson Goode formed an 11-member commission to investigate the police assault. Restraint, however, guided the comments on Jackson's speech.
"I might see it from a different angle," said Osage resident Marlene Brown. Of Goode's decision to drop the explosive device, she said, "He had to do what he had to do. Why would you be mad? We asked them to get the people off the block and he did."
"The further you get away from Philadelphia your vision is blurred by the distance," said the Rev. Charles Diamond of St. Carthage Catholic Church, which housed many families after the fire. "I've heard comments by the national figures, standing in some rather severe judgment, who don't know what happened."
And this was, as Cosby said, an event for locals.
"This is kind of an in-house feeling," he said before the show. "I think it's sort of family."
Like Cosby, who grew up in Philadelphia, all of the performers on stage had some connection with the city, past or present.
"I turned on the TV. I looked at the flames," said Brenner, describing how he first learned of the fire. "I thought, you know something, that looks like my old neighborhood."
"I played on that street," he said, and then launched into a display of the kind of Philadelphia-boosting that continued throughout the night.
"Let me tell you something," he said. "Anything like that could happen in any major city in the U.S. But the reaction could only happen in West Philadelphia. I believe this is the friendliest metropolitian area in the country . . . I think the city's problem is it keeps harping on Ben Franklin. We know he flew a kite. That's history.
"I think they should stop pushing the Liberty Bell. Get a hoagie," he said, referring to the Philadelphia version of a submarine sandwich, "walk through the streets, meet the people."
As the Dixie Hummingbirds gospel group sang, a more political act was being performed backstage.
In a crowded hallway, Jackson and Goode passed on their way to make obeisance to Cosby in his dressing room. Goode supported Walter Mondale -- not Jackson -- for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson had just finished lambasting the mayor as directly as he could without naming names. The two shook hands. They said hello. They vanished into a dressing room to confer. Soon after, Goode left, without ever appearing on stage.
Concert organizers had been criticized for failing to publicize the event adequately. None would venture to say how much the evening would raise, but producer Toni Nash said that if all the seats had been sold, the total would be about $45,000. The outdoor amphitheater, Robin Hood Dell East, wasn't even half full. In the end, it seemed closer to a neighborhood party, a gathering of friends, than a fundraiser.