Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New musical celebrates Pittsburgh priest who championed the poor during the Depression

Playwright Ray Werner recognizes a fellow "ideas man" when he sees one. And the retired Pittsburgh advertising legend sees one in Father James Renshaw Cox, a Catholic priest who gained famed during the Great Depression as an advocate for the poor and jobless.

Werner first heard of Cox some 20 years ago. His stage musical “Shantytown: The Ballad of Fr. James Cox,” premieres this week at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

“It’s a great, great story, and has never been told on a stage,” said Werner. The show, which runs March 11-26, will inaugurate Playwrights’ new Madison Arts Center, in the Hill District.

From the Strip to the White House

Cox, born in Lawrenceville in 1886, was once a household name in Pittsburgh. As pastor of Old St. Patrick’s church in the Strip District, he started a soup kitchen in the 1920s. After the stock market crashed, demand skyrocketed, and soon Cox’s church was feeding hundreds each day, including occupants of the neighboring shantytown of makeshift dwellings.

Playwright Ray Werner
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.
Playwright Ray Werner

Cox’s advocacy only grew: In January 1932, he made national headlines by leading some 20,000 men — “Cox’s Army” — on a march from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to demand action from Herbert Hoover’s White House. Shortly thereafter, he ran for president on the short-lived Jobless Party ticket; one of his rallies drew 55,000 to Pitt Stadium.

He was among the first clergy to have his own radio show, on Pittsburgh’s WJAS, and he used his broadcast pulpit partly to excoriate the anti-Semitism and pro-fascistic views of his contemporary and fellow Catholic radio priest, Detroit-based Charles Coughlin.

Cox’s legacy also includes serving as a mentor to Pittsburgh’s most famous labor priest, Charles Owen Rice, a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War and advocate for laid-off mill workers into the 1980s.

But Cox, who died in 1951, had largely vanished from local memory by the time Werner first heard of him.

"He did it with ideas"

Werner — whose own accomplishments include writing the tagline for the state’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania” tourism campaign — was by then heading Strip District-based ad firm Werner Chepelsky & Partners. A friend of his on the board of nearby St. Stanislaus, into which St. Pat’s had long since merged, told Werner he should write a book about the priest known as the “pastor of the poor.”

Cox’s story intrigued Werner, a lifelong Catholic: Like Werner, who studied playwriting at Yale before becoming an ad man, Cox had a theatrical streak, both in the pulpit and in plays he’d stage on the side. He devised a scheme to feed people that involved “scrips” redeemable at local groceries and that seemed to prefigure food stamps. And he had a facility for raising the funds to pay for it all.

“I don’t think anybody saved as many lives as he did during the Great Depression, for one person,” said Werner. “Three million meals served over three years. And he was an idea guy. He did it with ideas.”

But Werner didn’t revisit Cox until just a few years ago. He’d returned to playwriting, and several of his works have been staged here in recent years. Cox’s story started out as a play and then became a musical.

“Shantytown” is narrated by a fictional Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reporter out to prove Cox is a fraud. Michael Fuller stars as Cox, and an ensemble of seven actors spins through some two dozen roles, from shantytown denizens and police officers to President Hoover himself (with whom Cox reportedly met).

Putting on a show

“Shantytown” is directed by stage veteran Gregory Lehane. With its short scenes, lively songs, and onstage box full of props, it’s a fast-paced show that feels a little like vaudeville. In fact, Werner even depicts the residents of the Strip’s shantytown staging their own vaudeville night, as a fundraiser.

Actor Michael Fuller
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.
Michael Fuller plays Father Cox in "Shantytown."

Throughout, the songs — with tunes and lyrics by Werner, and arrangement and composition help from collaborators including music director Dwayne Fulton — draw on many contemporaneous styles.

“You think about the ’20s, you have that vaudeville, stride music, some Irish folk music, even some blues and gospel overtones that you’ll hear in a couple other pieces,” said Fulton, who'll accompany performances live on keyboards, joined by a percussionist.

Many of Werner’s songs have a “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” feel appropriate to the era. “Down to nothing’, haven’t got a cent / All seems lost, never make the rent / Look behind me, nothin’ goin’ right / Head down that tunnel lookin’ for the light / Hope. All I need is hope,” goes one.

Another song mocks Hoover on the occasion of Cox’s Army’s march. “There were fifteen, 20,000 jobless men walking around Washington, while [Cox] was in the Oval Office, they had their pants pockets pulled out and they called them Hoover flags!” says Werner, laughing. “So there’s a song in our musical called, ‘So Salute This Flag, You Jag!’”

The cast also features Joseph McGranahan, Dominique Briggs, Alex Noble, Sam Lothard, Chris Cattell, Michele Bankole, and Charles E. Timbers Jr.

Undoubtedly, the play celebrates Cox. “There should be a statue to him somewhere, as a champion of the downtrodden,” said Lehane, who added that the show is “about the potential power of hope and generosity, open-heartedness to drive real social change in the face of a resistant political structure.”

“People who are passionate like that, who don’t rest until they see the poor taken care of, the downtrodden of any form, I admire that,” said Fuller, who plays Cox.

Still, “Shantytown” confronts the most embarrassing episode in Cox’s life, when he faced criminal charges for allegedly rigging a fundraiser lottery. The trial ended in a hung jury, but Werner said there might be something to his fictional reporter’s suspicions about the priest.

“He thinks this guy’s a scammer,” said Werner. “And maybe he was, here and there. But it was for the poor.”

Seeing the unhoused

Werner said “Shantytown” was also influenced by his days growing up in the railroad town of Freedom, Pa., where his parents told stories of feeding hobos during the Depression.

Werner’s advertising career, which began in the 1960s, included a long stint at the Pittsburgh office of Ketchum Advertising. His clients there included Heinz, Westinghouse, and Gulf. Later, at Werner Chepelsky, he devised the “Choose a hospital as if your life depended on it” tagline for UPMC. Other career highlights include shooting an ad at the White House with President Jimmy Carter for the International Hunger Campaign.

Since retiring, he’s had several plays staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights.

Nor is the premiere of “Shantytown” Werner’s only honor this month: The very day the show opens, he’ll serve as grand marshal in Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Along with reviving the memory of Cox, Werner hopes “Shantytown” will focus audience attention on the plight of today’s unhoused. “We want to get people to come and see our musical, but we want to raise awareness of the homeless in Pittsburgh, which is as bad now as it’s ever been.”

In the spirit of Cox, performances of the show will be augmented by auctions for items donated by Strip District merchants, with proceeds benefiting The Red Door, an initiative of Downtown’s Divine Mercy Church that provides meals and other services to the needy. Like Cox’s best-known efforts, the Red Door too dates to the Great Depression.

More information on the show is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: