West Coast showbiz folk fondly recall Pittsburgh roots

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John Beale, Post-Gazette
More than 200 former Pittsburghers who work in showbiz in Los Angeles gathered on the first Sunday this month in Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills to show their pride in Pittsburgh. There is a poster-sized version in .pdf format and an index, too.
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By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Audio slideshow: HollyBurgh -- The sights and sounds in Will Rogers Park as former Pittsburghers gathered to make a photo and sing.
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- It's different on the West Coast. In New York, as the song says, they swirl up from a hole in the ground, dodging traffic, and they melt away just as quickly into the Times Square throng. In Los Angeles, they stroll up beneath the palms, dodging the sun, and they bring their kids along and hang out.

Not that the basic comparison is exact: The Times Square gathering of Western Pennsylvanians in show biz was at noon on a weekday in November, while in Beverly Hills, it was at noon on a Sunday in June, making for distinctions in weather as great as in ambience.

But the goal was the same, to take a group photo to celebrate expatriate Pittsburgh talent. And so was the result. On June 4 in Los Angeles, as twice before in New York, more than 200 former Pittsburghers turned out to give testimony to their affection for their heritage, to meet old friends, to discover how few degrees of separation there are among Pittsburghers, even those who have never met, and to sing the "Mister Rogers" theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor."

Providing most of the organizational muscle such an undertaking requires was the crew of "A Tale of Two Cities," a quirky, personalized documentary about the great city Pittsburgh once was, the uncertain city it now is and the creative dynamo it might become. Made by once-and-present Pittsburgher Carl Kurlander, a longtime film and TV West Coaster himself, it sings the praises of Pittsburgh's greatest export, creative and entrepreneurial talent.

The filmmakers were as curious as we were to see who and how many would turn up. New York theater is notoriously democratic. The film and TV industries that dominate Los Angeles are notoriously star-driven. Just as it takes a name above the title to get a Hollywood project off the ground, wouldn't Angelenos decide to come only when they heard that one of the A-list expats had signed on? Michael Keaton or Jeff Goldblum, perhaps, or Eric Gold or Jimmy Miller?

We needn't have worried. That's not the Pittsburgh ethic. As one after another of the expats noted, taking in the crowd pouring in under the palms, Pittsburghers are real folk. Debra Levine, daughter of one-time KDKA Radio personality Mike Levine, proved a prophet in her RSVP: "This will be the most condensed gathering of real people in the city of Los Angeles."

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Susan Burig, formerly of Shaler, right, greets a friend during the gathering in Los Angeles.
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So who showed up? Or, in the words of the most usual response, "Will I recognize anyone?" Maybe not. There are some powerful people scattered through the picture, but what it mainly demonstrates is the variety and range of specialties in an endlessly branching industry.

Where to meet had long stymied our plans. Times Square in the heart of Broadway is the obvious choice in New York, but what's the equivalent in that more decentralized empire known as Hollywood? Under the Hollywood sign was impossible, given the terrain and parking. Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Sunset Boulevard was a daunting prospect, given the packed sidewalks and milling crowds of tourists.

We did visit Fred Rogers' star nearby on Sunset, and we did pay a courtesy call on the Hollywood sign. But for the event itself, we went more upscale. Will Rogers Memorial Park in the very posh nearby enclave of Beverly Hills is a handsome small oasis of palms and gravel walks, fountains and greenery. The connection with Will Rogers, who famously "never met a man he didn't like," seemed fortuitous -- Fred Rogers never suffered fools, exactly, but he certainly knew how to find the good in everyone.

There was plenty of space under the palms to pitch a tent and set up tables with food, including sandwiches of chipped ham from Isalys, Clark bars, big dispensers of Lemon Blennd, Klondikes and souvenirs, including bags shipped out by the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Kimmarie Johnson, a former Miss Pennsylvania and actress who grew up in Wilkinsburg, does some networking with writer/producer Norman Steinberg ("Blazing Saddles," "My Favorite Year," "Doctor, Doctor").
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Nearby was a small flight of steps for the photo, with a rented 14-foot stepladder for the Post-Gazette photographer. For the New York gatherings, the Post-Gazette offered to contribute $10 per head to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; in Los Angeles, the organization to benefit was the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at Saint Vincent College. Otherwise, the only attractions were the chance to meet old friends and new and the affection for a previous home.

That was enough. Rusty Cundieff, North Side native who grew up next door to Dan Onorato and is now an actor, writer and director ("So noTORIous" and "Chappelle's Show") labeled his connection to Pittsburgh succinctly: "born, raised, left, still love it."

"I'm often grateful for my Pittsburgh upbringing," said Pitt grad Rebecca Greenberg, national director of the Recording Artists' Coalition, "as it keeps me grounded -- I can never forget where I come from."

"I dream of getting a call to do a shoot in Pittsburgh," said CMU grad Elizabeth Chambers, a movie production assistant, "just so I can end my nights at Primanti Bros. and start my mornings at Ritter's."

The crowd brought Pittsburgh gear with them, too. Will Bennett noted that while wife Hanni Sanft earned her degree at CMU, he earned his at the Squirrel Hill Cafe, and he had the old T-shirt to prove it. Arthur Greenwald brought "a vintage 1988 KDKA Members Only jacket. We actually sold these to viewers via ads in TV Guide."

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Tom Cherones, who graduated from WQED to direct "Seinfeld" and "Desperate Housewives" sports a thematically-inspired tee-shirt.
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Surveying the crowd, Kurlander was encouraged in his conviction of how much talent Pittsburgh has nurtured and exported and in his hope that Pittsburgh can find a way to invest in projects which will bring some of it back. He said, "It really is a tribute to Fred ... who realized that TV and film had the power to 'make good attractive.' "

That ethic was recalled by Jan Pascale, who started as a propmaster on "Mister Rogers" and said she missed that sense of family until she found it again on the film "Good Night, and Good Luck," for which she was nominated for an Oscar as set decorator.

Some of the more influential names present included John Dellaverson (New Castle, Pitt), executive vice president of Lions Gate Films ("Crash," "Fahrenheit 911"); Tom Cherones, who graduated from WQED to direct "Seinfeld" and "Desperate Housewives"; Mt. Lebanon grad and "Guardian" creator David Hollander, there with his two kids; and David Salzman, general manager of KDKA in the '70s, who went on to help launch more than 200 TV series before joining with Quincy Jones on shows like "Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

They aren't necessarily faces you recognize, but they make the industry hum. There was also Jonathan Green, who has written for David Letterman and the new "Class"; Emmy-nominated composer Christopher Klatman; Rowdy Herrington, director of "Striking Distance" and the recent "Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius," who said he would love to come back to Pittsburgh for the right project; comic Frank Nicotero, son of actor Sam, host of the TV show "Street Smarts"; and Lee Miller, who's produced everything from the Tonys and the Oscars to "The Cher Show" and the Jerry Lewis telethon.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Carl Kurlander and his film crew spend quality time with writer/producer Norman Steinberg.
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The Pittsburgh Movie

Filmmaker lives to tell his 'Tale' of Pittsburgh (Feb. 24, 2006)
Official Web site: A Tale of Two Cities


There was a big group of WQED alumni, many of whom moved West when the station's output of national programs declined in the '80s. Zilla Clinton was there with husband Pat Buba, movie editor brother of Braddock filmmaker Tony. They have all stuck together, she said, a Pittsburgh family in exile.

There were also many CMU alumni, thanks to the strength of its alumni organization, stimulated for this event by CMU's Jen Neubauer. Among the young people, many start out by working for Pittsburghers Eric Gold and Jimmy Miller. Young Matthew Fisher, producer of the movie "Cut Off," found a role for his proud mom, Audrey Hillman Fisher -- who was there, too. Robert Slane and Steve Zakman (Fox Chapel), who wrote and produced the family feature "Come Away Home," say they're prepping to shoot a film in Pittsburgh next fall, titled "Silent Knights."

There were blasts from the past, such as Joe Pilato, once a stalwart on Pittsburgh stages, who's eager to come back and discover Pittsburgh's expanded theater scene. Among testimonials to more pragmatic ways Pittsburgh prepared them for this industry, Matthew Todd recalled that "I was fortunate that Keystone Oaks had a TV/video production program that I became a part of in the eighth grade." Now, he's a freelance production assistant, one of many unseen rungs on the career ladder.

The range of the industry extended from Matthew Sheby, a CMU computer grad who designs software in the "nascent field of digital cinema," to Point Park's Paul Pakler, playing Dopey in Disneyland's "Snow White: An Enchanting Musical" (and doing weightier roles on the side). Asher Garfinkel runs a screenplay analysis service; Audrey Kania is a co-founder of the World Poker Tour.

"There seemed to be a lot of people at the photo shoot," noted veteran comedy writer Charlie Hauck: "I'd say about three or four thousand, right?"

No, Los Angeles didn't quite beat New York's record last November of 230-plus. But it might have if everyone had been there at the same time -- the day was a party in motion. Among those present but not photographed were writer/producer Norman Steinberg ("Blazing Saddles," "My Favorite Year," "Doctor, Doctor") and former Miss Pennsylvania Kimmarie Johnson, a Wilkinsburg actress with a dozen films in a half-dozen years.

Nicholas Carifo summed up: "It was a wonderful day in the neighborhood!"

John Beale, Post-Gazette
After a Hollywood moment of picture-making, the clean-up began.
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Post-Gazette theater editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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