Where is the next generation of Pittsburgh characters?

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Vic Cianca, the white-gloved traffic cop who died Sunday, was a Pittsburgh kind of guy. So were Fred Honsberger and Fred Rogers and Myron Cope.

Former Mayor Sophie Masloff continues to embody a kind of affectionate yinzer spirit. The list goes on: Bruno Sammartino, Ricki Wertz, Lynn Cullen, Bob Prince, Chilly Billy Cardille, Joe Hardy, Joe DeNardo, Dan Rooney, Michelle Madoff, Cyril Wecht, Paul Shannon ...

Some Pittsburgh-area icons

Trying to be an icon means you don't deserve to be one. Here is a casual list of Pittsburgh-area icons, suggested by Post-Gazette staff:

Bruno Sammartino, Sophie Masloff, Michelle Madoff, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, entertainer Phat Man Dee, John McIntire, Chilly Billy Cardille, Paul Shannon, Andy Warhol, Warhol museum director Tom Sokolowski, Chuck Tanner, Mario Lemieux, Judge Jeffrey Manning, DJ Scott Paulsen, David "Speedy Delivery" Newell, Sally Wiggin, drummer Spider Rondinelli, Paul O'Neill, Lynn Cullen, Beano Cook, Richard Mellon Scaife, Donnie Iris, actor Bingo O'Malley, August Wilson, Billy Hillgrove, artist Steve Pellegrino, photographer Teenie Harris, Mike Lange, Dan Rooney, Patrice King-Brown, Ken Rice, Franco Harris, and the sports fan trio of Maurice "Mossie" Murphy, "Tiger" Paul Auslander and Lawrence "Deuce" Skurcenski.

Have we forgotten anyone? Tell us who should be the next Pittsburgh icon.

Love them or hate them, they belong to us. Iconic personalities all, they help shape how we share the view of ourselves as Pittsburghers.

But here's the odd part: in trying to compare the next wave of iconic personalities in this city, it's apparent there will be no next wave, at least not until everyone is on the same, digital page.

Just being famous or successful doesn't count. Same with being beloved (sorry, Sidney Crosby) or greatly admired (ditto, Thomas Starzl).

Truly iconic Pittsburghers are known by everyone, from the city to the suburbs. They often have quirky personality traits that border on the eccentric, and they've made their mark locally. We'll include actor Michael Keaton because he once worked for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood before hitting it big in Hollywood.

"I think a reason why a guy like Fred Rogers was able to become an icon, not just in Pittsburgh but everywhere, was he tapped into a part of the human psyche," said Brian Tedeschi, partner and general manager of Think Communications Inc., headquartered in the Strip District.

"He was able to intersect with what we as kids, and adults, felt. He touched some sort of emotional chord."

To be truly iconic in this town, one has to be a household name. But many older residents are not computer savvy, and the younger generation isn't into print media. This creates a gap that could take years to bridge; the exception, of course, could be a sports icon.

"It could simply be one of those cyclical things ... and in the next decade or two there will be a plethora of interesting people," said Cyril Wecht, the renowned forensic pathologist who himself is an iconic figure.

"The paucity, the dearth of such kinds of people [under 40 years old] is inexplicable. I remember, growing up and becoming politically active, you met so many types of people. Some you admired, some you didn't, but it was a much more exciting time."

Chris Potter, editor of Pittsburgh's City Paper, agrees. "I do think there is some sort of qualitative difference between the kind of 'personality' Pittsburgh had before, and has today.

"It's not exactly pride in our perversity, but the very fact that you couldn't imagine Myron Cope anywhere else is what makes him so Pittsburgh."

Robert Lansberry (1930-1999), who famously walked the streets of Pittsburgh carrying anti-government signs, was considered by some to be a kook, but he was our kook.

"He was like the eccentric aunt or uncle who helps define the family. They're part of us," Mr. Potter said.

Many of our icons were born of the media. Meteorologist Joe DeNardo, who spent almost 36 years doing the weather for WTAE and then another 10 for KDKA, remembers the easy relationship between the big names and the newscasts they anchored.

"When you thought of Channel 4, you thought of Paul Long. When you thought of Bill Burns, you thought of Channel 2," he said. Mr. DeNardo was the subject of an enigmatic 1994 publicity campaign featuring billboards that simply read: "Joe said it would."

Today's on-air talent is much more interchangeable, he added, and has less time to get out into the community.

Mr. DeNardo began going to area schools to talk about the weather when management asked if he might target a wider geographic area.

"I said I can't do that because I have to go to work," he said. "So they said, 'What if we get you a helicopter?' "

It's a sign of the times that "quirky" and "outspoken" doesn't sit well with anyone, particularly professional sports teams. Consider iconic announcers Bob Prince and Myron Cope.

Beano Cook, former sports publicist and currently a radio commentator, said that "today's ownership would have fired Bob Prince and I think that most of the owners of the NFL today would have fired Myron Cope."

"Today's owners want everybody to be cookie-cutter, to be the same."

From television to radio, the true personalities, Mr. Cook said, are disappearing: "Now the guy on Channel 4 or whatever gives vanilla, vanilla editorials."

Rick Sebak grew up in Pittsburgh and has documented many of the things -- including those that aren't there anymore -- that make this Some Place Special.

"I guess every place has its character, and it makes it more lackluster to lose those 'characters,' " Mr. Sebak said. "We want the characters, we want the wacky buildings and the wacky places."

Even Mr. Cianca, whose jazz-hands direction of traffic drew national attention, was just doing his job, his way. City police Chief Nate Harper was in the traffic department in the 1980s and said he appreciates his style:

"If you look at the C.O.P. [Community Oriented Policing] program, it reflects Vic Cianca. He was always there to help and guide people along with his theatrics directing traffic."

Two very different mayors were spotlighted on national talk shows early in their terms. Sophie Masloff was 70 years old when she was a guest on "The Pat Sajak Show," because, well, it's interesting to have a loud-talking, grandmotherly type running city government.

Luke Ravenstahl was just 26 when he appeared on "The Late Show" with David Letterman. But while Mrs. Masloff, 92, is a Pittsburgh icon, Mr. Ravenstahl is not. At least not yet.

"That was my trouble, I was too colorful," she said, laughing that famous raspy laugh. "I was one in a million. We need people that citizens can relate to, whether they admire or dislike, but they're there."

"But nobody ever said 'Tone it down,' and I said what I wanted."

"There is a fine line between character and caricature," said Joe Wos, director of Pittsburgh's ToonSeum. "But it has to be totally natural, it cannot be forced. ... Community icons just sort of happen. You do not set out to become an icon."

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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