Ellen Weiss Kander, a visionary hometown loyalist who co-founded the Steeltown Entertainment Project on the conviction that entertainment could become Pittsburgh's "new steel," died at home Tuesday after a 13-month battle with liver cancer. She was 51.
Ms. Kander, of Squirrel Hill, believed a city that produced such successes as directors George Romero and Rob Marshall had the resources to become a national player in the entertainment industry -- especially if famous alumni could be enlisted in the effort.
In 2003, having returned to Pittsburgh after a stint as a Wall Street lawyer, she joined with childhood friend Maxine Lapiduss (writer-producer, "Roseanne," "Ellen") and Carl Kurlander (screenwriter, "St. Elmo's Fire") to build a more vibrant show business industry in the region.
They convened an entertainment summit, bringing back to Pittsburgh a number of major industry figures to talk about their roots and brainstorm ways to help their hometown become more of a player.
Ms. Kander and Anne Lewis, then Steeltown chair, raised $900,000 to finance an R.L. Stine film, "Don't Think About It." The movie created 115 jobs and over $2 million in spending in the Pittsburgh region, Mr. Kurlander said, and reached over 15 million viewers. Its profits continue to fund Steeltown to this day.
"Not only was Ellen able to secure meeting after meeting with potential money people, but she was able to get an entire city to open its arms to this little movie," said Dan Angel, producer of the Stine film.
Mr. Kurlander called Ms. Kander "the charismatic magnet that drew so many good forces together," adding that she gave "countless hours with the sole purpose of trying to help her hometown reinvent itself for a new age."
Mr. Marshall called her "a great friend with an amazing spirit and an infectious energy. I will miss her dearly."
Ms. Kander laid the groundwork for programs such as the Steeltown Film Factory, a film competition that builds and showcases Pittsburgh talent. In May, that project recognized her pivotal role by giving the first annual Ellen Weiss Kander Award, a prize of $30,000, to emerging filmmakers.
A native of Squirrel Hill, Ms. Kander graduated from what was then Taylor Allderdice High School, then earned a degree in urban planning from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., followed by a law degree from Boston University. She married law school classmate Gregg Kander, and the couple moved to New York City where she worked as special counsel to the derivative securities division at the American Stock Exchange.
In 1993 they returned to Squirrel Hill to be near her family and raise their children.
In addition to her work with Steeltown, Ms. Kander used her talents to benefit the Jewish community. An alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program, she served on the board of Jewish Community Center, where she chaired The Big Night fundraiser. She also chaired Campus Superstar for Hillel Jewish University Center, served with the Hebrew Free Loan Association -- which grants interest-free loans to those in need -- and was special events chair of the Jewish Israeli Film Festival.
In addition, she was on the board of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
"Ellen would do whatever it took to get the job done, even making the food for one of our fundraisers, and she always had a good time doing it," said Kathryn Spitz Cohan, director of the Jewish film festival. "One year there was a shortage of bartenders on opening night, so she went behind the bar and started making drinks."
Mr. Kander, her husband of 25 years, said his wife kept a treatment diary.
"One page is headed 'Regrets,' " he said. "No. 1 on the list was volunteering. She had so much more to give."
Last year she co-founded Cancer Be Glammed, a website that provides advice and stylish apparel to women undergoing surgery and treatment. She and her partner, Lisa Lurie, were high school friends who reconnected through their children. The business was hatched several years ago over the kitchen table when Ms. Lurie was in chemotherapy and Ms. Kander was trying to cheer her up.
"Ellen had this great sense of personal style," Ms. Lurie said. "She understood how important it was to keep your dignity while struggling through a tough illness and was determined to help other women achieve that."
Stacy Weiss, Ms. Kander's sister, said that while her accomplishments were many, those closest to her would remember her warmth, sparkle and kindness most of all.
"She was an inspiring example of living life to the fullest," Ms. Weiss said.
In addition to her husband and sister, Ms. Kander is survived by children Ben, 22, Jacob, 18, and Kate, 13; parents Jack and Andy Weiss; and brother Lou Weiss, all of Squirrel Hill.
The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday at Temple Sinai, 5505 Forbes Ave, Squirrel Hill. There will be no visitation. Interment will be at Homewood Cemetery.
Donations may be made to the Ellen Weiss Kander Award Fund, Pittsburgh Foundation, 5 PPG Place, Suite 250, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-5414 (www.pittsburghfoundation.org) to benefit aspiring filmmakers.
Sally Kalson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1610. First Published June 7, 2012 4:00 AM