'Birthplace of Pop Culture' deserves its own hall of fame
With VisitPittsburgh promoting a new city slogan to attract visitors -- "Birthplace of Pop Culture" -- here's an intriguing thought: What if folks in Pittsburgh took the concept one step further and established the official Pop Culture Hall of Fame here?
Goofy? Sure. A tourist draw? Nodoubtaboutit.
Big Macs, Heinz ketchup, bingo, "Night of the Living Dead" zombies and Andy Warhol are just some of the icons the city can claim as its own. So what if Frisbees, Slinkys and Barbie dolls originated elsewhere? They can be part of it, too. As can Elvis and Doritos commercials.
Think of what's been accomplished in other cities. Cleveland and Ohio leaders in 1985 successfully urged the New York City-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which was considering purchasing a brownstone for a museum in the Big Apple, to place it instead on the shores of Lake Erie. Ten years later the Rock Hall opened, bringing in 450,000-plus visitors annually (more than 8 million so far) and generating more than $107 million a year in economic impact.
Ninety percent of the visitors to the Rock Hall come from outside Cleveland.
About 60 miles up the road in Canton, Ohio, is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Opened in 1963, it's not quite the economic engine that the Rock Hall is, but still draws roughly 190,000 to 200,000 visitors a year.
Make it a hall-of-fame trifecta in the region with Pittsburgh's Pop Culture Hall of Fame (actually a quadfecta if you count the The National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame).
Teaming with those other museums to market the region as a hall-of-fame hotbed could strengthen the tourist draw and no doubt encourage folks to drive the extra two hours to Pittsburgh, especially with the one-of-a-kind Andy Warhol Museum here. The Rock Hall, according to its officials, draws more visitors than any other hall of fame in the country, and is the No. 1 tourist attraction in northeastern Ohio.
VisitPittsburgh already works with convention bureaus in Cleveland and Niagara Falls to market the region's attractions to Europe and China, said Joe McGrath, president of Allegheny County's tourist promotion agency. "Actually, Andy Warhol has more fame outside of Pittsburgh than here," he said, especially in China.
He said VisitPittsburgh is always looking to promote new ventures without undercutting the great attractions already here and that a pop culture hall of fame could have merit. "We think Pittsburgh has enough claim to it. It cuts across the whole spectrum, from music, to song, certainly to Warhol."
Certainly, housing a Hall of Fame in one of Pittsburgh's museums would make the most sense -- either the Heinz History Center, Warhol Museum or Downtown's ToonSeum.
"There an old empty porn shop next to us," joked Joe Wos, executive director of the ToonSeum on Liberty Avenue, referring to the Cultural District's former life as a red light district.
In fact, establishing a pop culture hall of fame has been on Mr. Wos' dream list.
"We have become a hub of pop culture for Pittsburgh," he said. "Look at Geek Night. We're a natural hub."
There are lots of museums and associations that deal with pop culture, but no hall of fame so far. The scholarly arbiter of pop culture is the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association, based in Lansing, Mich. It presents awards at annual conventions and publishes the Journal of Pop Culture on such topics as "The New American Hero: Dexter, Serial Killer for the Masses" or "Hulk Smashed! The Rhetoric of Alcoholism in Television's Incredible Hulk." A few bloggers have created their own virtual pop culture halls of fame.
In Baltimore, Geppi's Entertainment Museum at Camden Yards touts itself as America's premier pop culture museum; it's stocked with 6,000 artifacts from the late 1700s to the present -- much of which is part of owner Stephen A. Geppi's private collection. There's also the South Austin Popular Culture Center in Texas, Arizona Popular Culture Experience and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle.
Gary Hoppenstand, professor of writing, rhetoric and American studies at Michigan State University and editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, said Pittsburgh is right on target in recognizing its contributions to pop culture.
"I believe pop culture is a Middle America phenomenon," he said tracing a line from Western Pennsylvania to Iowa and Kansas (in addition to Hollywood and New York for movies/film and comics). "The Midwest has had a dramatic impact, not only in the creation of pop culture but the study of pop culture."
But creating a museum and hall of fame dedicated to pop culture would be too broad. "It would be very, very difficult to do that," he said. "It's easier to have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or Hollywood Hall of Fame."
And of course pop culture, by its very nature, is what's hot at the moment. So is it possible to memorialize something that is only popular because it's fleeting?
Still, it doesn't hurt to look at how Pittsburgh can capitalize on what's already happening. Thousands come here for the annual Tekkoshocon, the Japanese pop culture anime event in March, and Anthrocon, the annual Furries convention in June. There's also Zombie Walks and festivals, Steel City Con and Pittsburgh Comicon, comic book events and Horror Realm. Moreover, fundraising efforts are under way to preserve an Evans City cemetery chapel shown in George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" that could become a must-see attraction for zombie fans.
Having a destination place like a pop culture hall of fame, with annual inductions, would just enhance what Pittsburgh already has to offer.
"We have a jumping off point," Mr. Wos said. "We have the drive. We have the initiative and we have the inspiration. It's a matter of funding.
"If one foundation comes forward, we're ready to roll."
What do you think, Pittsburgh?
First Published February 19, 2012 12:00 am