'Two Cities' delivers a tale of comebacks

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Dorothy Gale, meet Carl Kurlander.

Both fervently believe there's no place like home and that it tugs at the heart whether you've traveled to Oz in a twister or simply moved to Hollywood to work, successfully, in the film and television industry.

'My Tale of Two Cities'
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday at the Byham Theater, Downtown.
  • Tickets: $10. A $40 ticket includes the movie and a party afterward, and a VIP package of $150 tacks on a reception beforehand, too. Box Office at Theater Square, pgharts.org or 412-456-6666.
  • Information: Groups can request a screening at the Web site www.mytaleoftwocities.com.

That's what Kurlander did until he and his wife, Natalie, weighed leaving their home above the Sunset Strip -- not exactly an ideal place to raise their young daughter -- and moving to Pittsburgh, where Kurlander grew up.

"It doesn't take any imagination when you graduate from college to go to New York or L.A., and I went. My grandmother, when I first got a scholarship to go to Hollywood said, 'Oy, you're crazy, why are you going out there, no one makes it, you're just crazy.'

"Twenty years later, we got a job opportunity to come back" to Pittsburgh for a year and that same grandmother said, "Oy, why are you coming back? Everything's dying. Go back, you're crazy.' "

His journey, which landed him in Mister Rogers' real neighborhood for far more than a year, and Pittsburgh's coincidental attempt to reinvent itself are chronicled in Kurlander's movie, "My Tale of Two Cities." It's a story of comebacks and coming back.

It will play at 7 p.m. Friday at the Byham Theater, Downtown, as part of a special homecoming celebration.

After the movie, there will be a sing-along to what Kurlander calls Pittsburgh's unofficial theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" David Newell, better known as Mr. McFeely from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," will lead the audience in "It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. ..."

The evening will mark the city's 250th anniversary, raise money to help the students of Holy Family Institute and showcase a movie that's part personal tale, part quirky history lesson and part call to arms for natives and newcomers to relocate here.

"It was not a career move to move to Pittsburgh," Kurlander said one recent snowy morning in Oakland, as Los Angeles boasted sunny skies, summer temperatures and fires on its fringes.

"It was an attempt to get back in touch with my heart and to live a decent life. ... Weather has nothing to do with it, although my wife -- as she says in the movie -- loves the sun. Pittsburgh is a much better place to raise a child."

Writer-producer Kurlander ("St. Elmo's Fire," "Saved by the Bell," "Malibu, CA") came back to teach at the University of Pittsburgh, co-founded the Steeltown Entertainment Project, helped to organize a summit for expatriates who work in show business and, along the way, directed his first movie.

The 2003 summit had begun with a documentary by former Pittsburgher Laura Davis called "Pittsburgh: Hollywood's Best-Kept Secret." That sparked a suggestion for another Pittsburgh movie and, as Davis said, "It's like a tale of two cities."

Kurlander recalls, "She was talking about the old and new Pittsburgh. I thought she was talking about L.A. vs. Pittsburgh and, by the way, both are still true."

As is another interpretation. "Pittsburgh, the greatest city in the world and Pittsburgh, its own worst enemy. ... Very few people go around the world, 'Hey, buddy, I'm from Pittsburgh, isn't that impressive?' and yet, if somebody says something about it, all hell breaks loose."

Sienna Miller anyone?

So what started as a sincere film about old and new Pittsburgh turned into a movie shot "run-and-gun" style and funded by the likes of Kurlander's dermatologist, Dr. Douglas Kress, and other neighbors.

Kurlander lacked Hollywood's infrastructure but created a key team in writer-producer Stephanie Dangel Reiter, producer Janet Driscoll Smith, consulting producer Joe Seamans, cinematographer Mark Knobil, editor/writer/cameraman/co-producer Tjardus Greidanus, co-producer Laura Davis and Web designer Jonathan Wayne.

Kurlander found himself not only on camera but acknowledging some painful or heartfelt moments as a child of divorce, a klutz in a sports-obsessed town and a man who yearns to see how Pittsburgh can reinvent itself.

Lots of familiar faces pop up, including Newell and Joanne Rogers, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Franco Harris, Paul O'Neill, Richard Florida, Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Thomas Starzl, Bill Strickland, Louie Anderson, the Holy Family Institute's Sister Linda Yankoski and the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, to whom the movie is dedicated.

Heinz Kerry and former Steeler Harris deliver the movie's one-two punch, Kurlander says.

"I think the two lines that are the takeaway for the city -- that we need an infusion of dreamers but dreaming is contagious, and then Franco saying, it's great that people went out there to explore but we've got to find a way to bring that talent back to Pittsburgh. Talent, come on back to Pittsburgh."

It's no coincidence, says Kurlander, that the movie is being screened during Thanksgiving weekend. It's the perfect time to say come on home for more than a harried visit. After all, the filmmaker says, Time magazine just headlined a story about Pittsburgh, "Finding One Economic Bright Spot on Main Street."

More than a century ago, Pittsburgh was fertile ground for dreamers and inventors, from 22-year-old George Westinghouse and his air brake to a young inventor named Charles Martin Hall who helped to found Alcoa. "He was 22 years old, he decided to come to Pittsburgh because it said, if you have talent, if you have ideas, we will back you, we will take a risk. Pittsburgh, now is the opportunity and time and, again, the opportunity is there for Pittsburgh, it's got to grab it."

The Kurlanders have grabbed it. The family bought a house in Squirrel Hill and, after fits and starts due to sabbaticals and moviemaking and other opportunities, will be back there in 2009.

"It's been a risk," Kurlander says of returning to the 'Burgh. "Like most risks, it has the most potential reward."

So far, the movie has been embraced by audiences at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, Three Rivers Film Festival and Duke University. Pittsburgh Filmmakers executive director Charlie Humphrey introduced "My Tale of Two Cities" on the opening night of the festival here.

"I've been hearing about this film for so long, both from Carl and from the friends that I have who worked on it, that I was real excited to see it was finally being birthed. The fact that it's about Pittsburgh and a subject that's very near and dear to my heart, which is the import and export of talent," made him even more eager to see the finished movie.

"They were totally into it," Humphrey says of the appreciative audience. "It's one of those things that's sort of a filmmaker's dream because people seemed to laugh in all the right places."

As Humphrey says, "I think the real challenge for Carl is, how does this film play in Sheboygan? It's going to play really well here. People from Pittsburgh, I think, are really going to relate to it."

Can a movie become a rallying cry for a city? "It doesn't happen nearly enough, for those of us who think movies can change the world, they so seldom really do," Humphrey says.

Still, he adds, "I have this feeling, I just have this sense that people are really understanding Pittsburgh in ways they haven't before." He cited a convergence of events, from the Time article to meeting two women from Australia who came to the States to tour with their band, traveled all over, stopped in Pittsburgh ... and decided to stay.

Which leads back to "Two Cities" and how it can be one of the ingredients in repopulating Pittsburgh with fresh and familiar faces.

Kurlander says wherever he goes, Pittsburghers follow or unexpectedly show up.

"A 93-year-old woman from Mountain View, Evelyn Smith, had her son drive her two and a half hours to see this movie [in Sonoma] because, as she put it, even though she left here in 1954, Pittsburgh was her home."

And there is no place quite like it.

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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