For the last several months, director/writer Jeff Hare and I have been working on a TV series on the Broad Street Bullies, a behind-the-scenes look at what happened off the ice and what made Philadelphia fall in love with those feisty and talented teams.
Tony Ciabattoni, a Delaware native with a larger than life personality, was the biggest proponent of the series, which wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without his financial support as the show’s executive director.
He believed in this project with all his heart, and was beyond excited whenever we called with frequent updates on Episode 1 or the accompanying book we are writing. He offered suggestions, such as the music that should accompany a scene at the Philadelphia Flyers’ old hangout, Rexy’s. He was insistent on having the Hollies’ 1972 classic, Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress) enticing the players as they partied at Rexy’s.
“One of the best songs ever made,” he said. “It just seems perfect” for a Rexy’s scene.
Oh, how I will miss those conversations with Tony, a brilliant entrepreneur who once nearly bought a small share of the Eagles. (That’s the football team, not his favorite musical group.)
Oh, how I will miss his insight on the Philadelphia sports scene, especially the Flyers.
Oh, how life doesn’t always seem fair.
Tony Ciabattoni, 79, died peacefully in his sleep on Tuesday.
But his inspiration will live as we pursue getting Bullies on TV, hopefully in the fall of 2024.
Met by chance
I became friends with Tony, arguably the most devoted Philadelphia sports fan on the West Coast, by fate. Or luck. Maybe both.
When I began covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Inquirer in 2008, Tony would send me thought-provoking emails about the team.
We’d go back and forth, and he sometimes made such good points that I’d base part of a story around one of his observations.
A few months into our friendly, online Flyers banter, Tony said that if I and the other writers were ever covering the team on a California trip, his house was open to us.
I was floored that he wasn’t a local guy. I just assumed he lived in the Philadelphia area.
But in the years that followed, several of the Philly writers — including myself, Tim Panaccio and Dave Isaac — would stay at his sensational Laguna Beach mansion that had an Italian Villa-style architecture and overlooked the Pacific Ocean.
It was, by far, our favorite stop on the road. Tony made it that way because of the hospitality he and his wife, Jane, showed us.
They would always have a feast of a meal for us and, since Tony had friends in the entertainment industry, he would get movies before they were released. We’d watch them in his movie theatre, which sat near his elaborate wine cellar. The same wine cellar that Tony and his next-door neighbor, musician Richie Sambora (formerly of Bon Jovi), once got locked into and feared for their lives before they were “rescued” by a friend who had stopped by the house.
At one point, they had to relieve themselves. Tony grabbed a huge pitcher to pee in. Sambora handed him a small carafe and took the pitcher.
“The rock star gets the bigger one,” he cracked.
Tony laughed until tears fell down his cheeks.
He had story after incredible story.
Like how he bought his then-modest Laguna Beach home from the family of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, TV superstars in the 1950s and 1960s. David Nelson, their son and one of Tony’s friends, gave Tony and his wife things from the Nelson family, including the refrigerator that was used in The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet TV show in the early 1950s (it still works!). David also gave him some Nelson family memorabilia, and pieces of art made by his younger brother, Ricky, when he was a kid.
Like how he traveled around the world with Sambora and Bon Jovi and all the adventures that went with it.
Like how he helped his friend, Diane Keaton, sell her Laguna Beach house.
But most of the stories centered around sports. I’m sure there may be others who could analyze the Flyers, Eagles, Phillies and 76ers better than Tony. But I can’t think of anybody. He watched all their games in his movie theatre, and he could dissect their strengths and weaknesses better than anyone I know.
Devoted to Philly sports
Tony always had so many business projects going, but he somehow found time for all the Philadelphia sports teams. They kept him grounded, and took him back to his Delaware roots. Throughout his amazing life, he remained close with his Delaware pals of his youth.
I last talked to Tony a couple weeks ago, and he said when his health got better, he was thinking of moving to Italy for a while, or perhaps to a high rise in Center City Philadelphia. Or maybe he would move close to his son, Mike, or daughter, Susan, in Southern California and be near his adored grandkids.
He also mentioned he was proud of work being done at his late wife’s resting place. “Janie,” as he lovingly called her, died in 2021.
“Not to be maudlin, but I want to take you there to see it next time you’re out here,” he said.
“I would like that,” I said.
Then came the bombshell news that Tony had passed.
Rest in peace, my friend. Thanks for your friendship, your loyalty, your stories, and for not making a big deal when I accidentally spilled red wine on your white kitchen chairs. (Janie got out the stains by using white wine!)
One more thing: We are going to make you proud with our Flyers TV project, one that will have your fingerprints all over it.