Six Degrees of Pittsburgh

Mister Rogers and Autism

Tuesday, 29 November 2011 03:04 PM Written by





I had promised myself I would take a break from using "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" as metaphor for everything Pittsburgh, but but yet another Fred Rogers connection came up recently when an intern at my office, Bridget, brought to my attention special “sensory friendly” screenings of films at AMC theaters for children with autism spectrum disorders. At these screenings the lights are turned on, the volume is lowered, and moviegoers are able to make noise and get out of their seats. I found this program really interesting, even more so in light of my increasing awareness of the special connection that Fred Rogers and the Fred Rogers Company have to the autistic community.

I first became aware of this connection at an early screening of our film My Tale of Two Cities at the Sonoma Valley Film festival. After the film had been shown, there was a Q&A session with the audience and the first hand to go up with a question was that a young girl who seemed very shy.  The moderator called on her, but she seemed momentarily frozen, and so the moderator delicately asked her to come up front and asked her question directly to her. It seemed like almost five minutes passed before she actually whispered her question, and when she did, it was not into the microphone, but into the ear of the moderator. The moderator turned to me and repeated her question: “She wants to know if you think this movie could really change things?” I was so moved by this I was a bit frozen myself. I didn’t know what to say, but eventually ended up blurting out, “If you could come up here and ask that question, I think anything is possible,” I think I would have remembered this moment as it was, but what really cemented it in my mind is that after the event the girl’s parents came up to me. “I can’t believe our daughter did that,” her mother said to me. “She never does things like that…she’s autistic”.

Fred Rogers thought that everyone was special just by being them, but over the past few years, I've become increasingly aware of the special relationship his program has with some from the autistic community in particular. In addition to his message to kids of appreciating diversity, "Mister Roger’s Neighborhood’s low key production and lack of hyper stimulation made it more accessible to autistic children than other children’s TV programming. In particular, his habit of starting and ending shows the exact same way and repeating activities like putting on his shoes has made the show resonate for some autistic children, many of whom benefit from routine. One of my students at Pitt even wrote a paper on this, after consulting with the Fred Rogers Company which, with the help of a grant from FISA, a foundation based in SWPA, is getting ready to release special DVDs of selected episodes and bonus materials designed specifically to benefit children with autism spectrum disorders.

On the Fred Rogers Company website it says “There are many file folders here at The Fred Rogers Company filled with letters from parents of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders. We hear time and again that watching and reflecting on episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helps children in numerous ways, such as decreasing anxiety and excitability, improving listening and speaking skills, increasing attention to learning tasks, and building capacity for imaginative play.”  You can read more and sign up for their wonderful newsletter at 

Fred Rogers devoted his life to the idea that television could change things, and Pittsburgh, his company, and many of its neighbors continue to build on his legacy to take this idea to heart for a community that holds on to hope for a brighter future.  

Another great site for those working with children in Pittsburgh to make this the best place in the world to grow up is:

And I recently had the privilege to be part of a wonderful conversation about Pittsburgh last week with Fred's wife Joanne Rogers as part of a special 4802 for WQED before the premiere of My Tale of Two Cities with Paul O' Neill, Franco Harris and Dok Harris, Michael Bartley, and Grant Oliphant, each of whom had a great stories about Fred.  Afterall, while the program remains timeless, Pittsburgh still remains the real life "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."   Click here to watch. 








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Giving Thanks to Pittsburgh

Thursday, 24 November 2011 11:09 AM Written by




How do you give thanks to a city?  I never thought my wife Natalie and I would end up staying here after what coming back here for what we thought would be a one year Hollywood sabbatical.   But as I tried to express in this article in the PG, the reason we are here all boils down to one thing:  The People. 

"Thanks, Pittsburgh"

We could hardly imagine that this journey would end up becoming a movie, much less bring us in touch with so many wonderful neighbors, both here and elsewhere.  

Here is a clip of a rarely seen trailer from "My Tale of Two Cities" which has been called our valentine to Pittsburgh and premieres at 8 p.m. tonight on WQED proceeded by a great conversation at 7:30 with Paul O' Neill, Franco Harris, Dok Harris, Joanne Rogers, Grant Oliphant and Michael Bartley on what makes Pittsburgh great and how it can be even greater.   (see

Please share reasons you are thankful for Pittsburgh below.    Thanks so much to all of you.  





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A Pittsburgh Halloween movie story

Tuesday, 25 October 2011 08:58 AM Written by


If you or your kids were watching Cartoon Network this past weekend, you may have noticed a creature called "The Evil Thing" devouring an Eat 'N Park cookie.    That film, R. L. Stine's Haunting Hour "Don't Think About It" filmed here in 2006 before the film tax credit brought us the likes of Tom Cruise and Batman.   And the story of how that film, which has become somewhat of a kids cult classic on Halloween, got here, just may be worth some re-telling in itself.

It all goes back to the "Steeltown Entertainment Summit" which Steeltown put on in 2003 bringing back what the PG called "the greatest assemblage of talent and hustle this town has ever seen."   Steeltown Entertainment Project was a non-profit founded by expatriates like myself who had grown up here and headed out to Hollywood and local community leaders, led by found executive director Ellen Weiss Kander.  Anyway, in 2003, "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, "300" producer Bernie Goldmann, "Two and a Half Men" director Jamie Widdoes", Jim Carrey/Ellen DeGeneres manager Eric Gold, and many others came here to talk about Pittsburgh's potential for an entertainment industry.

At that summit, Bernie Goldmann met George Romero, and within six months, he was producing George's new movie "Land of the Dead."  Both Bernie and George wanted to film in Pittsburgh where the film was set, but Hollywood economics (i.e,, tax credits) drove them (and their investors) to Canada so they could have more money to make the movie.


Feeling badly, Bernie and George arranged for a Pittsburgh premiere of "Land of the Dead" attended by Pittsburgh's own Greg Nicotero-- who did the special effects for the film and has gone on to win an Oscar for "Chronicles of Narnia" and produce a little show for AMC called "Walking Dead."   (When Greg told a few friends he was coming to Pittsburgh for the premiere of the new George Romero film, Quentin Tarintino, Robert Rodriguez, and Simon Pegg showed up.)  

Back in L.A., Greg was working on a new creature for this R.L. Stine film and called me over-- where I saw things like the head of Tom Cruise from "Minority Report" and other amazing concoctions.    At the time, the R.L. Stine project was being budgeted for Canada, but Greg introduced me to the producer of the film, Margaret Loesch, a legend in her own right in family entertainment.  Margaret had been the founded CEO of Fox Kids (which I knew about as I was producing "Saved By the Bell" at the time for NBC and "Power Rangers" were kicking our butts.  As I started to argue why the R.L. Stine project shoot film in Pittsburgh, Margaret stopped me, and said she knew all about SWPA as her Dad was from Meadville. 

Margaret explained that they had $2 million to make this movie and needed another $1 million to finish, and if we could raise that in Pittsburgh, then the film would shoot there.  At the time, with the film tax credits being far less competitive, far less was happening with the film scene.   Anyway, to make a long story shorter, Steeltown executive director Ellen Weiss Kander and Board Chair Anne V. Lewis raised the money through a private/public partnership, and the film shot in Pittsburgh, creating over 115 jobs locally and resulting in $2,165,000 being spent in the region.   And unlike films which shoot here with no Pittsburgh investment, Pittsburgh has tasted part of the profits which are being used to help create a regional investment fund. 

The film has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of DVDS and continued to play on Cartoon Network, and Margaret, who is now CEO of the new Hasbro Discovery Network, has greenlit the series of "Haunting Hours" movies which unfortunately are shooting in Canada.  But we continue to talk about further projects which might shoot here-- using the above mentioned investment fund.

So, actually, this Halloween story just may have an eerily happy ending. 

To read more, please see the article below or go to

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Steve Jobs & the new generation of Innovators!

Sunday, 09 October 2011 11:33 AM Written by

Walking to temple on Yom Kippur, a neighbor and friend who is a physicist at CMU commented that he was surprised by the outpouring over the death of Steve Jobs—not that he wasn’t a man of great achievement—but that it was as if the Pope had died.   And there has been something religious about the way Steve Jobs passing—too short—has resonated with us all. 

I had mentioned to my friend the someone comedic headline from the Onion: “The last American who knew what the %^*& he was doing is dead.”   And my friend said, well of course.   Because one of the few things we make these days is entertainment and that is the one thing we can’t seem to outsource.  (I have written before about the intersection between entertainment and technology and more and more that overlap is being taken for granted.) 

Later that day, I was asked by the Rabbi of our temple to give a Midrash (or teaching talk) during the day of fast on “how Pittsburgh conquered polio and what will we conquer next?” and spoke about Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh who developed the first polio vaccine.

Like Jobs, Jonas Salk was an innovator who had achieved great success at a young age, and became world famous from it.   Both men had great teams behind them and were testaments to what the American imagination can achieve.

America at its best makes things.  That is why we are all forlorned at the decline of manufacturing in this country.  (In truth, even our Ipods, Ipads, and Iphones are made elsewhere—but they convey American made entertainment content which we are still largely produced in this country.)

And we are at a time when we are wondering if America has anything left to make for the world.   Perhaps part of the frustration fueling “Occupy Wall Street” is the fact that the storied Wall Street firms—while at times drivers of great companies—now seem to be more producing financial products that have no obvious contribution to the world.  Capital is essential when it drives business—even the great 90s tech bubble at least was thinking about new and better ways we could innovate.   But the credit default swaps and episodes like Enron and the Wall Street bail out of the last decade, seemed often like just moving money from one place to the next and taking large commissions.   And so, we as a society seem to be questioning the great spirit of American innovation.

On the other hand, every day I see as a teacher at the University of Pittsburgh and the executive producer of a non-profit, Steeltown Entertainment Project, great reason to be optimistic that the next Steve Jobs and Jonas Salks are on their way.   As Steve Jobs saw the future of computing and beyond, there is a new generation of digital natives with the ability to access information like never before and the “connected-ness” to believe that one person can make a difference in the world.

Jesse Schell, another CMU professor and visionary leader of Schell Games, told me once how when he was 15, he was interested in electronics.  And so he asked someone who put him in touch with someone else who eventually got him some books on the subject.  But he pointed out, any 7 year old with the same curiousity, could now instantly access all that information.   But, he warned, the less curious kid, who is not using technology, each year falls behind.

Perhaps we can use the passing of Steve Jobs to ask ourselves how we can take the lessons of his life and make sure we are nurturing a new generation of creative innovators who are not afraid to follow their hearts.

Last year, the Steeltown Entertainment Project sponsored a digital media contest called “Take A Shot At Changing the World” and we were inspired by the 265 middle school and high school students who made 79 videos about how the development of the Salk vaccine tied to present day efforts by the Gates Foundation and Rotary International’s efforts to eradicate polio from the world.   This year we are launching “Take A Shot At Changing The World: The Sequel” to widen that lens and have students remind us how Pittsburgh has changed the world in the past (from aluminum to the first gas station; from Andy Warhol to August Wilson; from the polio vaccine to becoming the transplant capital of the world) and ask students what they would do to change their world today.   We can't wait to see what they will come up with.   We are even partnering with the national Jefferson Award which is sponsoring a $2500 prize to help kids start changing the world and offering them mentorship.  (See

Steve Job’s speech at Stanford’s graduation has been much replayed these days and particularly the line he quoted from the Whole Earth Catalogue about “Stay hungry, Stay Foolish.”  During that speech, what really came across was how much Steve was able to nurture his own curiosity.   And how much he celebrated living the authentic life that is our own.  During it, I thought once again of another Pittsburgh innovator, Fred Rogers, who utilized the new technology of his day, television, to inspire generations of young people to find what it was within themselves that was special 

Sometimes it is hard to see innovators and innovation until they have passed.  But Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religion, is a time when we are asked to look more closely at this universe and see all that surrounds us and work more diligently to dedicate our lives to meaningful pursuits.

As I think back on the life of Steve Jobs (and Jonas Salk and Fred Rogers) and look forward to the new generation who may follow in their footsteps, I have to hope the Onion headline is wrong, and that our best days are still ahead.  

Below is the "Crazy Ones" Think Different ad narrated by Steve Jobs:

‎"Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

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Pittsburghers and Television and the new Pittsburgh Innovative Media Incubator: 

As you may have read in the Post-Gazette on Thursday, "Two and a Half Men" director and Squirrel Hill native Jamie Widdoes is coming back to Pittsburgh in December to produce a new talk show through the new Steeltown/WQED Pittsburgh Innovative Media Incubator.   This is truly exciting and gratifying since Jamie was part of the initial "Steeltown Entertainment Summit" at WQED in 2003 which brought back entertainment expatriates like Jamie, "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, and "Lizzie Maguire" creator Terri Minsky to the Fred Rogers Studios where Jamie and others expressed their desire to come back and use their talents in their hometown.  We are grateful to Jamie and the pull of his Pittsburgh roots (which include his wonderful mother Babs who was the founding director of the Three Rivers Arts Festival)  that he is making time for this show given that he is not only directing "Two and a Half Men" (whose Monday premiere broke ratings records) and has had another show starring Rob Schneider picked up for mid-season.  It is truly fitting to have this be the first show which will film in the Fred Rogers Studio as part of this new incubator model.   (Jamie's producing partner Peter Isacksen was an actor in "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.")   

"Guardian" writer/producer David Hollander, who has often used Pittsburgh as his muse, also has an exciting show we are hoping to do through the Incubator this Spring which would build on the legacy of Fred Rogers who of course came back from working at NBC in New York to pioneer public television here.  

And we hope this innovative new model, funded by the R.K. Mellon Foundation, will continue to lead more stellar talent with Pittsburgh roots coming back to their hometown and working with the remarkable resources and talent which are here.  

See and for more on the incubator.  

Watching the Emmy Awards this past Sunday, I was reminded again of some of the great talent this town has produced. 

There was Pitcairn native Don Roy King accepting another Emmy Award for directing "Saturday Night Live."   I had the privilege of meeting Don during a New York City screening of "My Tale of Two Cities" where he brought his daughter Cameron who he mentioned foremost in his Emmy acceptance speech. (Having moved back to Pittsburgh from L.A. to raise my own daughter Campbell, we had that in common.)  But I had actually heard about Don before that from David Salzman, an industry heavyweight who has been a longtime producing partner with Quincy Jones, who had known Don when he was directing the Mike Douglas show and David was the General Manager of KDKA in the 1970s.  David had said how talented Don was and how he could tell he was going places.

David Salzman and David Hollander were both part of the "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" sing-a-long with over 300 folks in L.A. across from the Beverly Hills Hotel.   (See    Some of those folks included:

-- WQED alum "Seinfield' and "Desperate Housewife" director Tom Cherones

-- Mt. Lebanon native Joe Manganiello who stars in "True Blood" and was just inducted into the Mt. Lebo Hall of Fame, among many others

--Lee Miller who has producer the Oscars and the Tonys among many others

-- Emmy-winning writer and stand-up Ed Driscoll (The Dennis Miller Show) 

-- "Nanny" and "Hannah Montana" producer Sally Lapiduss (whose sister Maxine who wrote for "Roseanne" and "Ellen" was a founding force for Steeltown.) 

-- "Chappelle Show" and "Wanda Sykes" director Rusty Cundieff who grew up on the North Side.

-- comedian/actress Patti Deutch 

-- actor/producer Frank Nicotero ("Street Smarts" host)

-- WQED alum Charlie Hauck who produced shows like "Fraiser" and "Home Improvement"

-- production designer John Schaffner ("Two and a Half Men", "Big Bang Theory")

For a full view of all the Pittsburgh and Hollywood folks who showed up at the sing-a-long, look at:

(And there are also all these Pittsburghers on Broadway many of whom have also worked in TV:

But the list of Pittsburghers working in TV goes on and on, including:

-- McCandless native Greg Nicotero who is producing "Walking Dead"  who got his start with George Romero movies and who helped drive the R.L. Stine Haunting Hour movie here in 2006 before the film tax credits.   See

-- Swissvale native Billy Gardell who stars on "Mike & Molly"

-- Squirrel Hill native Jonathan Green who writes for "The Cleveland Show," the spin-off of "Family Guy."

-- Gary Randall, who is the executive producer of "Majors & Minors", a new show on the Hasbro Discovery Hub network run by CEO Margaret Loesch who produced the R.L Stine's "Haunting Hour' show in Pittsburgh, and whose father was from Meadville.

-- And many of the Pittsburghers who have been involved in the Steeltown Film Factory who include

-- "Ghost Whisperer" executive producer Kim Moses, "Ghost Whisperer" co-star David Conrad,

-- MTV "Made" producer Bob Kusbit

-- "My Wife and Kids" producer Eric Gold (who also manages Ellen DeGeneres with partner Jimmy Miller

-- "Sesame Street" director Jim Martin

-- 'Conan" casting director Janine Michaels

-- "X-Men" and "Batman" animation writer Steve Cuden (who has moved back to teach at Point Park)

-- "Crank Yankers" producer Megan Fales

-- and Film Factory producer Lisa Smith who has produced many TV shows including "The People Speak" documentary with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman which aired on The History Channel."  

For a list of all the Film Factory judges, please go to

And then there is director Chris Preksta whose "Mercury Men" web series was produced here and picked up by the Sy-Fy Channel (see

And I'm not even counting those great music videos done on Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa for Rostrum Records which were made by talented young Pittsburghers like Ian Rawson, Bill Palidino and Kevin Kaufman.  

And I'm sure I'm forgetting many (and not sure where to place the "Dance Moms" in all this.)  

Again, I am left asking "how can one town produce so much talent?"  And how can Pittsburgh better connect and invest in that talent it has in one way or the other helped nurture.  

If you know people we have missed who are from Pittsburgh working in TV, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.








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