Steel City Con brings pop culture icons to Pittsburgh

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LeVar Burton’s journey through Hollywood has taken him from the clergy to TV screens in elementary schools all over the country to the intergalactic travels of starship “Enterprise.” After creating a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to get “Reading Rainbow” on the Web, his unique career path now brings him to Pittsburgh for the city’s annual Steel City Con. 

Steel City Con

Where: Monroeville Convention Center

When: 1-9 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $15 each day at door only; $30 three-day pass (online and at door); childen under 5 free.

“How did I get into acting from the seminary? Oh, that’s such a long story!” said Mr. Burton via phone in late July. Raised Catholic in California, Mr. Burton always had a dream of being an ordained priest. He entered the seminary at age 13, but eventually left to attend the University of Southern California and study acting. 

“The Catholic liturgy is very theatrical: the vestments, the candles, the incense. ’Watch me turn this wine into the blood of Christ.’ It’s showbiz!...I used to have a dream about my first sermon as an ordained priest. I’d have this recurring dream where I was in the pulpit and I was really reaching the people...The work I do now is not that much difference from what I envisioned myself doing.” 

Mr. Burton broke into the business as Kunta Kinte in the 1970s television series “Roots.” Between that, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and “Reading Rainbow,” he is immediately recognizable despite the years that have passed since he starred in those roles. People like him, actors and actresses who have created iconic characters on popular television and film franchises, all get to come together this weekend and interact with the fans that love them at the Steel City Con.

Mr. Burton, who has done events like these all over the country, says they are an enjoyable way to reunite with the talent from old shows and sometimes are the only opportunity these actors have to see each other after all these years. This Con has been around for 24 years, a mix of toy, comic book, television, and film paraphernalia. Other stars in attendance include Penny Marshall from “Laverne & Shirley,” Verne Troyer from “Austin Powers,” and Billy Dee Williams from “Star Wars” along with many more. 

Occasionally, Mr. Burton also has a run-in with a starstruck fan that plays out not unlike the scene in NBC’s “Community” where lovable goofball Troy Barnes is rendered incapacitated by Mr. Burton’s mere presence, left rocking himself back and forth quietly singing the “Reading Rainbow” theme song.

“I gave a speech at NASA and I had a Troy Barnes moment with one of the NASA engineers. I know that this man had something that he wanted to say. I know he did. But when it came his turn, he could not get it out. He just could not get it out.”

On the topic of bringing back “Reading Rainbow,” which Mr. Burton is now doing backed by over 5.4 million dollars raised through the online fundraising site Kickstarter, he insists that this show has a special place in his heart because of its impact on children. 

“I wanted to make it relevant for an new generation of kids and so I pursued it single-mindedly. ... It is very risky to try and reboot a franchise, especially one that strikes an emotional cord for people. However, we did it as intelligently and compassionately as we could and I’m really proud of what we did with the ’Reading Rainbow’ app and I’m excited about what we’re able to do now with these funds raised.” 

Though Mr. Burton may never be an ordained priest, his way of thinking about his diverse roles and “the power of storytelling” still ring with divine inspiration. He speaks of his life as an actor with the cadence and cosmic vision of a man of faith. 

“Even when things happen and we can’t quite discern their purpose, there’s always a reason for it. ... One of the things that I like to believe that I’ve learned is that as much as I can get out of the way, the better. There’s a plan in effect for all of us that is much better than any plan we could have ever imagined for ourselves. We need to be willing to get out of the way in order for that plan to transpire and to exist.” 

Steel City Con will be held at the Monroeville Convention Center from Friday to Sunday. Mr. Burton will be having a Q&A session on Saturday at 2 p.m. Single-day tickets are sold at the door as well as passes for all three days, which are additionally sold online. 

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