Six Degrees of Pittsburgh

December 23rd marks the 40th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception—a moment which Steeler Nation will surely celebrate next Sunday.   It is the play which NFL Films has called “the greatest play of all time and which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has called “the play that changed a city”, and on Sunday, many Pittsburgh expats who wave their Terrible Towels as they congregate as part of the Steeler Nation, will agree.  But I must confess here that I did not fully appreciate the whole significance of that football catch of Franco Harris—that apparently came off off of Jack Tatum’s or Frenchie Fuqua’s football helmet depending on who you believe-- which led to a victory against the Oakland Raiders in 1972, until I met Franco himself while making “My Tale of Two Cities” in 2005.   For the film, we asked iconic Pittsburgh neighbors from Teresa Heinz Kerry to Fred Rogers’s wife Joanne to be interviewed in places which meant something to them.   Teresa chose the Strip, Joanne the studio where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and Franco chose the Mexican War streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side where  he still has the house he owned as a Steeler and where he would walk to games with Steeler owner, the Chief, Art Rooney.

Truth be told, growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970’s, I was a Minesotta Vikings fan—mainly because as a somewhat scrawny kid—I could identify with their quarterback Scramblng Fran Tarkenton who seemed to  have the ability to escape the big guys who were running after him (unlike myself who ended up getting a few wedgies growing up here.)   As Franco kindly pointed out, that was not the greatest choice in the 70s when the Vikings were known for not being able to win a Super Bowl, but had I known the man who Franco was, I would have had quite a different team I was rooting for. 

The filming was cathartic and revelation to me on several fronts –

1) though he is in some ways a living symbol of Pittsburgh’s obsession with sports, in talking about how Pittsburgh could reinvent itself as a city, he spoke of how important was for a city to have all the elements—sports, business, the arts—work together in order for that city to compete. 

2) though Franco is known as an athlete, he tells a wonderful story about his son, Dok, and realizing early on that Dok whose real name is Franco Dokmanivich Harris, would not be a professional football player, and Franco takes tremendous pride in his son who chose a different path— who came back to Pittsburgh after Princeton and working in D.C. to go to business school and law school at the same time, and then run for Mayor. To watch Franco and Dok, who share many passions together

3) before we did the official filming, two young African America boys both yelled out—“Franco” and he stopped to talk with them.  I was amazed that they even knew who Franco was.  The first asked if Franco was still famous.   What’s famous?, Franco asked.  The other asked if Franco was rich.   Franco asked what “rich” was.   When they pointed to a fancy car and asked if it was Franco, Franco showed them the old Jeep he still drives.   And he pointed out that the key in life was to be happy with what you make.   He then asked both boys what they wanted to be in life.   “Football player.”  “Football player!” they both shot back.   Franco shook his head and laughed, then asked what they really wanted to be.   “A fireman.” “A lawyer.”   Franco then shook their hands, and said he looked forward to shaking their hands again—when they were a fireman and a lawyer.

(Watch part of this at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUSt4uWyJm4 ) 

Over the years when we showed “My Tale of Two Cities” on Capitol Hill in D.C., in New York at the Tribecas Cinemas, and to a sold out crowd of 1300 here in Pittsburgh at The Byham Theater, I have gotten to know Franco a bit.    And have been humbled by the person I have gotten to know.   The man I have come to know is quiet, gentle, articulate, and thoughtful.  He is the kind of person who offered to give me a ride home from the airport after we came back on a trip—even though my place was the other end of town—and then playfully got on me, when I tried to give him directions to my house, telling him how to get to the East End after the Fort Pitt tunnel.  “You don’t think I know where Oakland is?”  He is the person who I have watched quietly support the underdog, give of his time, himself and his resources.   And he has done all this selflessly. I realize some have questioned him when he took a stand on behalf of his old coach Joe Paterno.  He could have easily kept quiet, and his life would have been oh, so easier.  But that is not who Franco is.    And believe me, he is one who cares about the underdog and the lives of kids over football.   But for Franco it seems to be all about character.  He is a man who does what is right for its own sake.  

At the end of our filming, Franco autographed a football for me, and inscribed on it “believe in Pittsburgh.”   At the time, in 2005, no one was thinking Pittburgh would be named “America’s Most Livable City” twice, that the city would come back and be named by Business Insider as one of only 3 major American cities which has fully recovered from the recession.   Oh yeah, and no one thought that the Steelers would win 2 more Super Bowls.

But the Immaculate Reception was not just or maybe not even about football.  It was always about belief.  

Speaking of which, the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception happens to be occurring just two days after  December 21st, 2012, which has become notable as a day of significance on the Mayan Calendar.  You may have seen the Hollywood tales of what they say is predicted Mayan Apocalypse.  But do you know about the Pittsburgh/Mayan connection?  After one of the screenings of “My Tale of Two Cities”, I met Vikki Hanchin, a psychotherapist who also happens to believe that Dec. 21st may have a different opportunity for Pittsburgh which she believes could become Peaceburgh as many things converge here.    The confluence behind Pittsburgh’s three rivers—and a secret underground forth river—apparently has  special significance which could, according to Mayan Elders, allow Pittsburgh to be a special portal for energy which may lead to a new way of thinking in the Universe.   It could be a new world of compassion and enlightment—which in my mind, would be keeping with all the many good things which seem to be converging in Pittsburgh these days.

And so, whether you believe in the Steelers, the Mayan Calendar, or just Pittsburgh in general, I think we can all concede that something good is happening here amidst these three rivers.  

(For more, please go to www.mytaleoftwocities.com)  

Join the conversation:

Pittsburgh talent shines at Sundance and Spirit

Thursday, 29 November 2012 06:09 AM Written by

You really have to say at this point, that there is something in the water here, or that perhaps the Mayans were right about everything converging in Pittsburgh in 2012.    As the 2013 Sundance Film Festival line-up is announced you will find two great Pittsburgh stories at least that I know of, that are represented.    

A few years back, I was visiting the offices of the very talented folks at Animal, one of Pittsburgh's finest production houses run by Michael Killen, who himself moved back here from L.A.  (Though Animal is known for their amazing work in commercials bringing things like the Taco Bell dog to life, they do so much more.)   Anyway, as I was meeting with Michael, he introduced me to a couple of young men, Steve Hoover and Danny Yord, who looked just out of college and who casually told me they were headed  to India to make a little documentary abot their friend Rocky.   Out came the seeming amazing story of how Rocky had been a student at the Art Institute and now was working in the orphanage in India with children who had AIDS.   It is a story that sounded compelling, but as I watched them lug bags and equipment as they headed towards the airport, little could prepare me, for the final film which I saw in rough cut and which was truly moving and surprising and funny and sad, and was just wonderful.

You can get a sense of "Blood Brother" which was just accepted into the 2013 Sudance Film Festival at:

http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com

There is of course at least one other Pittsburgh connection to Sundance, and that is "The Lifeguard" starring Kristen Bell, a film set elsewhere, but produced here by Pittsburgh's own Mike Dolan with Liz Garcia directing who sounded like a passionate Pittsburgher by the time she finished shooting here.  

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118062785

And then this week, I have been visited by Steeltown's first intern, Tom Pelligrini, who has gone on to have a couple of movies he produced in Sundance, and who most recently produced the critically acclaimed "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" which was picked up by Magnolia (owned by Pittsburgh's own Mark Cuban), and which has been burning up at Itunes and Netflix these days.  

http://www.magpictures.com/jirodreamsofsushi/

And amidst all this of course is news that Stephen Chbosky, one of the nicest and most talented guys ever to come out of Pittsburgh, who achieved the almost impossible feat of writing an amazing novel,  "Perks of a Wallflower", and turning it into an equally amazing film which he wrote and directed and shot right here, which is nominated for a Spirit Award (which we are sure is just the beginning.)   

Sure, the talent will be flocking to Salk Lake City for Sundance this January, but at least a few of them will be getting on a plane from Pittsburgh.  

*                                                                           *                                                     *

If you are a Pittsburgher who has your own dreams of making a movie, please come to Monday December 3rd to a Free Screenwriting Special Event for the Steeltown Film Factory at the University of Pittsburgh at 6 p.m.  in Room 501.   You can learn all you need to know to enter the 4th annual Steeltown Film Factory where you could win up to $30,000 and a trip to Hollywood for a 12 page script that just has to be shot in Pittsburgh.  (See www.steeltownfilmfactory.org

 

 

 

Join the conversation:

Thanks to Carnegie, Westinghouse, and Pittsburgh

Sunday, 18 November 2012 12:28 PM Written by

This Thanksgiving holiday I want to give a shout out Thanks for Pittsburgh's past, present, and future.  (I guess that is more Dickens/Christmas themed, so forgive the mixed holidays-reference, but based on the retailers moving Black Friday up to Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I am hoping to be forgiven.)

Pittsburgh Past. 

If you watched The History Channel’s recent “The Men Who Built America”, you could not be help but reminded again of what a seminal role that Pittsburgh played in building this great nation during the industrial revolution.   The series focused on key men and key industries: Vanderbilt who built the railroads; Rockefeller with his oil and gas monopolies; JP Morgan who backed Edison and created General Electric; Westinghouse who was the underdog with Tesla whose DC current eventually lit America; and Carnegie, the young Scottsman who worked for Tom Scott on the railroads, and went on to revolutionize the steel business and become the richest man in America.

In My Tale of Two Cities”, our little Pittsburgh comeback story documentary, we had said that Carnegie was worth more than Bill Gates, and Mellon was worth more than Warren Buffet.   But apparently, we were wrong.   When Carnegie was bought out by J.P. Morgan for $400 million in 1905, that apparently translated in today’s dollars to wealth more than Bill Gates and Warren Buffet combined being equivale to over $280 billion dollars.   And in the same town, you had Mellon, Frick, Westinghouse, and Heinz.   This was surely one of the richest cities the world has ever known just over 100 years ago.

But what also came across from the series—and I doubt it was made by a Pittsburgher—was that, of these industry age titans, Carnegie and Westinghouse were two of the most decent human beings-- given what anyone had to do to succeed in that era.   It is not that they did not have their downsides—Carnegie having Frick do his dirty work including the Homestead Strike; Westinghouse getting the patents from Tesla for nothing.   But Carnegie truly did give away all his wealth-- which is still astounding-- and Westinghouse treated workers with such respect that I still hear from those who worked at Westinghouse, about what a wonderful place it was.  And of course, we should note that it was Pittsburgher workers at all levels who helped create make Westinghouse and Carnegie's successes in so many ways.  

(If you have any doubts about what Pittsburgh has given to the world, watch famed historian David McCullough as he sites a few Pittsburgh firsts in the trailer of My Tale of Two Cities.   See www.mytaleoftwocities.com) 

In this TV Series, they also have interviews with folks like G.E.’s Jack Welch,  Pittsburgh’s own Marc Cuban, AOL's Steve Case, business magnate Ron Perelman, Donald Trump, Casino owner Steve Wynn and other moguls of today.  And the undercurrent is what are we today compared to yesterday.  Can America build anything like railroads and electricity and steel that can go around the world?    And that question remains open.

Pittsburgh Present and Future:

Tomorrow's world will not be a physical universe as much as a digital one, and we may not acknowledge the products as openly except in the case of Steve Jobs.   But what is still alive and growing here in Pittsburgh is this sense of innovation and “can do” attitude.    We tend too often to look at Carnegie and Westinghouse as old men in stogy potraits, and not realize that they were in their twenties and thirties when they had their big ideas and early successes.   The new Carnegies and Westinghouses are right here amongst us, perhaps at CMU, Pitt or Point Park, or maybe some of those young people who are choosing to stay in Pittsburgh and build shops in Lawrenceville and the Strip.

Just to mention a few, there is MacArthur Genuis and real life genuis Luis Von Ahn, whose company ReCaptcha has helped digitize all the books ever written and whose new company Duolingo will be revolutionizing translating languages.     There is Robert Daley and Henry Throne, who have changed the way Baby Strollers are designed and who knows what next.    There is Chris Preksta, who shoots his web-series "Pittsburgh Dad" on his Iphone which now has over 8 million views.  And of course, there are companies like Resperonics, Plextronics, Vivisimo, Redzone, which have made headlines for innovation.

Of course, none of these may approach what Pittsburgh's industrial titans achieved, but many have been burned by underestimating this city and its citizens-- many of whom came from nothing and went on to change the world.

And for this reason, I give thanks again to Pittsburgh—for inspiring us all.  

Join the conversation:

Pittsburgh: The Musical

Sunday, 10 June 2012 12:08 PM Written by

As the 2012 Tony Awards once again included an impressive number of Pittsburgh expats (e.g., Squirrel Hill’s Kathleen Marshall and Point Park’s Rob Ashford for “Nice Work If You Can Get It”; Fox Chapel’s Christian Borle who stars in "Smash" and won a Tony for his role in "Peter and the Starcatcher” for which he thanked his teachers in Pittsburgh, including my own alma mater, Shadyside Academy), I thought it may be a good time to articulate a fantasy I have been long thinking about“Pittsburgh: The Musical.”

Even typing it seems funny.   No one questions a musical called  “Memphis” (whose backers include Pittsburgher Marc Lhormer) or “Chicago” (the Academy Award winning film version directed by Squirrel Hill’s Rob Marshall.)  But "Pittsburgh: The Musical" already sounds like a joke.

Pittsburgh native Rob Marshall and Renee Zellweger on set of Chicago

And yet, imagine what it would be like if you went to some of the great talent on Broadway with Pittsburgh roots and asked them to wrap their minds around some of this city’s remarkable musical history.   I am currently working on a new independent feature “Sonny Days” with Ingrid Sonnichsen, who has taught acting at CMU's Drama School for 19 years. We talked about the remarkable number of CMU alums who are on Broadway right now—matched, of course, with all the talent from Point Park alums.   We met quite a few while singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in Times Square with the Post-Gazette’s Chris Rawson and saw first hand how Pittsburgh has disproportionally contributed to the Broadway stage.   

"Won't You Be My Neighbor" sing-a-long in Times Square with Pittsburghers-in-NYC

 

What if we could inspire some of them to use their talents to tell some of Pittsburgh's stories:

-- Stephen Foster, who went to school on the North Side and in Canonsburg, and composed “Oh! Susanna”, “Camptown Races", and “Beautiful Dreamer”. He was known as “the father of American music” and the world’s first professional songwriter, but died broke with only 38 cents in his wallet.

-- the Jazz scene and the Crawford Grill where Billy Eckstein, Sara Vaughn, Errol Garner, Dizzy Gillespie and other legends hung out, and which was founded by Gus Greenlee, a numbers runner who owns the Negro League’s “Pitttsburgh Crawford”.

 

   The Crawford Grill in the Hill District    

-- Doo Wop and Porky Chedwick.  Anyone who has watched the T.J. Lubinsky and WQED produced Doo Wop specials has a sense of the incredible talent that started here, like the Skyliners.  And getting that music out into the world in the 1950s was the legendary radio station WAMO (which stood for Allegheny, Monongehla, and Ohio.)  There, Porky Chedwick, the “Daddio of the Raddio” got his start, and before Alan Freed termed it “Rock 'n Roll” he was a pioneer as the first white DJ who played “race records.”  Porky is credited with helping break folks like Bo Diddley, Little Anthony, and Smokey Robinson.  “Jersey Boys” make way for “The Yinzers.”

 

Porky Chedwick on WAMO

-- I myself grew up here in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and while it was not as musically worthy, I grew up listening to AM radio here picking up the phone by answering “I listen to the new sound of 13 Q” for the chance to win.

-- But what has most fascinated me is the story of Stephen Schwartz who wrote “Pippin” as a Scotch and Soda production which was called “Pippin, Pippin”, and then worked on “Godspell” which had its own amazing original tale when a CMU student John-Michael Tebelak went to an Easter Service at a church on Fifth avenue and felt out of place with his long hair and dress (this was 1970) and, according to John-Michael, after the fairly joyless service, he was searched by a policeman who had been in the pews with him.   Inspired, he went home and began “Godspell” which started as his master’s thesis and was later re-worked by CMU alum Stephen Schwartz once it got to New York.   In listening to the scores of both of these, I am often caught up in the yearning for a better world, the idealism, and the remarkable coming of age story that the act of making these two musicals must have been for Stephen and John-Michael.

 

"Pippin"

                                       Original cast of "Godspell" (center holding cake is Stephen Schwartz with John-Michael Tebelak)

John-Michael passed away a few years ago, but Stephen not only has done many things since, including “Wicked”, but seems to come back to CMU often to help a new generation (including Chris Dimond who won last year’s Steeltown Film Factory $30,000 prize and writes his own musicals with Michael Koomin).

I would love to see what would happen if you let folks like that loose with the “Pittsburgh: The Musical” idea--and perhaps filmed it at the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED which happens to be on CMU’s campus.

-- And then there are the songs of Fred Rogers—which have already been used a bit in the wonderful award winning show “Everyday Rapture” which was co-written by Dick Scanlan, who has some roots here with his early training at CMU, and Sherie Rene Scott, who used the wisdom of Fred to talk about her own coming of age in the mid-west. Fred was actually a very accomplished musician and his songs endure (and I hope will one day be used as part of their own musical).    If you doubt the power and timelessness of Fred Rogers, then you have not seen this “Garden of Your Mind"  remix which has already gone viral.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzXaFbxDcM  CLICK HERE TO WATCH!

-- And of course, you could bring “Pittsburgh: The Musical” up to the present day by unleashing Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, and perhaps throwing a Jackie Evancho in there.   It is my understanding that “Taylor Gang or Die”, which Wiz is so associated with (and which means Chuck Taylors to some, but Taylor Allderdice to those here who know), really is all about being who you are—being authentic which is sort of a Fred Rogers/Pittsburgh message.

   Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa

Okay, so this would be far too electic for just one musical.  Maybe there are ten—like the ten plays which August Wilson wrote inspired by this city. 

But I just can’t help imagining what would happen if you unleashed the talent that Pittsburgh has incubated on this idea.  Maybe we could even enlist the resources of the Pittsburgh CLO, which itself is a backer of the revival of “Evita” and has backed shows like the “Addams Family” and “9 to 5.”

"Pittsburgh: The Musical."   Kind of sounds catchier than you thought, huh?    

 

 

Join the conversation:

Saturday Night Live and Pittsburgh Connections

Sunday, 08 April 2012 12:50 PM Written by

Anyone who saw Saturday Night Live last night probably couldn't help notice that it opened with a skit where Mitt Romney (Jason Sedakis) was talking about how much he loved the Steelers with a sign behind him which read the Pittsburgh Trade Association.  And you may have wondered about the other Pittsburgh references which often pop up on the show. 

Well, it may help that Seth Meyers, the anchor of Weekend Update and head writer, is a huge Steeler fan.   Though he grew up in New Hampshire,  his Dad is from East Liberty and you know how that goes once Pittsburgh gets in your blood. 

And the Emmy winning director of SNL is Don Roy King who I had the privilege of meeting when "My Tale of Two Cities" had a screening in Tribeca which he attended with his daughter Cameron.  Don grew up in Pitcairn and won his first Emmy directing "The Mike Douglas Show" in the 1970s.  He also directed "Survivor" which was won by a couple of Pittsburghers including Jenna Morasco and Amber Brkich   And KDKA General Manager and somewhat legendary entertainment power player (Telepictures and Lorimar co-founder) David Salzman who is one of a couple hundred of Pittsburghers singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" in "My Tale of Two Cities",   has called Don one of the most talented directors he'd ever met.

And I hear rumor that one of the female writers on the show is from Pittsburgh, but her identity has yet to surface.   (If you know, please feel free to post below.)

And in case you didn't see the Pittsburgh/Romney opening, click below:  

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/mitt-romney-campaign-cold-open/1395369

http://www.nbc.com/assets/video/widget/widget.html?vid=1395369" frameborder="0">

 

 

Join the conversation:

Page 1 of 5