When last we left Woodwell Street—a single long residential block at the north end Squirrel Hill—it was full of bright color. Thin streamers from every point in the rainbow decorated lamp posts and trees like electric shafts of light. House after house, the community art project was a wonderful, safe, deep pandemic way to get out and experience little bursts of joy.
Woodwell Street is at it again, read the email from dedicated streetwalker Lisa Valentino, and she wasn’t kidding. (The block mounted a yarn bombing project between then and now, we’re told, but we missed that one.) Woodwell Street is currently host to an excerpt of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” displayed (mostly) one word at a time, house-by-house, in block letters attached to front porches and dug into flower beds.
The poem, written for and first delivered at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is a call to action. To merge mercy with might and might with right are fabulous words with terrific intention. Walking down Woodwell Street on a blessedly beautiful day like the one we happened to catch is a wonderful experience of community effort, but putting those heady words into action isn’t so easy. Let’s all see what we can do.
Cowards die many times before their deaths, Julius Caesar famously opines in William Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name, the valiant never taste of death but once. (Julius Caesar, II:ii)
Your author a taste of death has yet to sample—but wander perilously closer to the kitchen each annum does he. Shakespeare, roundabout way as he might, enticed the same to a fine loves labour’s lunch.
With this simple invitation, to Ellwood City a voyage planned; the ensemble boisterous and profound. A prediction bold, for sure, but this meal does the great All-U-Can-Eat buffet in the sky maintain superior.
Battlements the first thing the eyes divine. Rising from Lawrence County’s gently rolling hillsides, the imposing gray structure unmistakably a castle keep. Here in the highland just above Ellwood City, it’s a remarkable sight—even if faded the illusion has by the time one pulls into the giant parking lot out front.
Imposing against this winter of our … very predictable discontent’s bleak weather, Olde Stonewall, the name for both the ersatz castle and its accompanying golf course, may or may not be “olde”—opened in 1999, it did—but the stone be jest it is not. Seven hundred and fifty thousand tons of stone, true to Olde Stonewall’s history, make up lengthy walls that around the property run. Continue it does up along the hillside above the adjacent golf course.
Forsooth and forthwith did our merry band of hungry travelers at the entrance to Olde Stonewall arrive. Enormous be the 800-poundwooden doors outfitted each with dragon-shaped handle and details, born of fire at the castle’s construction. The building’s entrance is a stunner true betwixt fine carpentry and bronze work, its elegant adaptation of rescued Catholic church light fixtures, and the replica suits of armor, shields, and weapons that decorate the dark wood paneling that runs throughout.
If music be the food of love, play on, Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. (Twelfth Night, I:i)
Indeed, play on the group did and to Shakespeare’s Pub & Restaurant we were shown for the food of … lunch. ‘Twas for midday repast the foursome sought from afternoon’s grey light a pause. And O! what bountiful offerings were presented to even these knaves from Pittsburgh came.
The better part of valor is discretion, true, but how can an appetite’s natural yearnings be denied when Shakespeare’s “Castle Teasers” tempt the very limits of mortal tastebuds’ capacity for carnal pleasure? Would beer cheese are twin pretzel logs be requested? Perhaps the party would opt for the wings of hen, flavoured of garlic-Parmesan or dry ranch served. Cruel witches be the only explanation for the devilish debate that ensues pitting cocktail of Gulf shrimp against fried cheese with marinara aligned.
A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. (Much Ado About Nothing, II:iii)
We’ll excuse The Bard’s gender-exclusive language as but peril of his age. For man is not alone when the offerings of Shakespeare’s Restaurant “From the Pantry” selection present themselves for delighted perusal and consumption be. To wit, Queen Heidi made not her enjoyment of the kitchen’s Castle Burger unknown. The lady doth not protest at all, if in meaning thou doth comprehend. Good Sire Paul—himself, a learned scholar of the form—accepted a chicken club, traditional not in the least, but a thrill nonetheless. On Mancini’s egg Kaiser rolls both sandwiches arrived adorned and with pickle spear paired.
What more can be said of the humble potato? Its starch as plain as air; its color that of the earth from which it is born. And yet for our company did surprise it make! Elevated at the hands of Executive Chef Andrew Davin, the pomme de terre is formed into corkscrews thick, to golden brown fried, and delivered as hot and steaming as a planet erupting. No less impressed by such a celestial visage were our diners at these sides of fries.
Fishes live in the sea, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones. (Pericles, Prince Of Tyre, II:i)
Ms. Orbit, herself favoring a harvest sought deep from the briny, engaged in Chef Davin’s shrimp Barsac and was no less pleased. The meal, a melange of the color tan, did not a charitable photograph make. In its accompaniment, however, Shakespeare’s French onion crock did surpass any expectation—it’s flavours rich and satisfying, piping hot and belly warming on this frosty day.
Your author cannot a generous fish sandwich dissuade. On Saturday last he was no more able to deny its temptation than in Lent’s siren season, a mere six salivating weeks hence. O! Why must Lent come but once a year? While I hope we shall drink down all unkindness every day, ’twas but he that sampled of Shakespeare’s ales. The gustatory ensemble it did complete in suitable fashion. No customer at this table was made to feel unsatisfied.
Praise us as we are tasted, allow us as we prove. (Troilus and Cressida, III:ii)
Razor thin be the line betwixt class and kitsch as it stretches across the fair acres of Olde Stonewall. Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge and perhaps an extra dose of the former would have enhanced the experience of the latter. The property’s fine millwork and legitimately delicious fare do not disappoint, but hard it is to overlook be truth of the situation, goofy by an standard.
Brevity is the soul of wit and the better part of valor is discretion, true. Your author claims neither attribute in his praise for a visit to Olde Stonewall—be it the final destination or side trip when travels take Orbit faithful north. Haveth a good tyme—and a fine meal at an expense faire—thou willst, but dodging duffers in warmer seasons may prove a task more treacherous than sublime.
Godspeed you travelers and curiosity-seekers alike! To Shakespeare’s Restaurant & Pub you go! Forget not to order the fries. They be the true sustenance of gods.
Is it lying or laying? I’ve read and re-read the grammar definition a dozen times—my dear, sainted mother was an English professor, for goodness sake—and I still can’t figure out whether there’s a direct object there or not.
Fooey. A large gold letter L, turned upside-down so it looks more like a lazy J, lies (lays?) in the thick sidewalk mud that has collected late autumn’s last fallen leaves upon its gooey surface. On this chilly Sunday morning one can’t help but feel the sadness as the air has quite literally gone out of what we hope was a joyous moment, now gone by.
Someone (Lori? Linda? Lenny?) was celebrated in the near past—a birthday, maybe? perhaps an engagement, job promotion, or baby shower—and her or his friends ordered up a golden capital L balloon to commemorate the occasion. The party may have been terrific—drinks all around, goofy stories from the past, novelty gifts from friends that embarrassed family members—but that’s all over now. The big helium-filled letter balloon floated out of a car window or the venue’s service entrance, had some dying adventures in the low atmosphere, and landed here, in the muck under a bridge on the South Side.
This day—of all days—New Year’s happens to fall on a Sunday and like Kris Kristofferson, we’re all comin’ down, one way or another. Maybe you reveled last night; maybe you stayed in with a book or a movie; maybe you were working or taking a care of a sick kid. Either way—any way—New Year’s Day resets the table, tells us that last year, whether it was a party or not, is definitively over and we’re on to new things.
Your author is not one for resolutions, but he did make a plan to learn Vladimir Cosma’s “Sentimental Walk” on the piano. It’s simple enough that these amateur-level hands should be able to grasp it and heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that will reward the time commitment.
Whatever your plans for the new year—inspired by a resolution or not—hopefully they’ll include new adventures, plans realized, and the wonderful happenstance that leads you up into the treetops and down in the muck. Life exists on both planes and we’re fools to fantasize that it can occur in only the more lofty of them.
Something was brooding this year. Perhaps we were all scratching and clawing for a chance to get back to the real world. There was a fox in our collective hen house, but when we tried to fly we couldn’t get off the ground. Cocksure at our place in the pecking order, we waddled out of the frying pan straight into the fryer. In a plot most fowl, feathers were ruffled and eggs were cracked in the great omelet that is a year in the life of America. Yes, in 2022 the chickens came home to roost.
Seemingly overnight—quite possibly literally overnight—an entire flock of bright red roosters appeared in Polish Hill. The big birds’ super-saturated color glowed from the drab surfaces they played against. The roosters’ look was both comical and earnest—wholesome, even—but with a keen, knowing wisdom beyond their years.
At first—especially when wandering around Polish Hill, randomly finding the fowl on different morning constitutionals—one assumed the roosters are all of a common breed—identical in size, scope, and marking. Each has the same brilliant crimson, the same general shape, and their images have certainly been applied to United States Post Office equipment and city infrastructure with the same wheat-pasted method.
But given this opportunity to see each member of the flock right up against the others, we have the advantage of understanding they’re no mere cookie-cutout duplicates. Some of the roosters face left; most face right. There are clear differences in beak shape and hind feather arrangement.
The widest variance, though, is in each bird’s detailing. Some include a fully-formed leg and claw, but others remain gestural—or nearly free of definition altogether. Chickens may have cartoonish humanoid eyes or concentric circular rings like those of a hypnotist, mid-induction process.
Full disclosure: your author is a rooster booster who loves chicken-pickin’, so the arrival of these fine creatures last April was a welcome surprise as winter’s gloom ceded to glorious spring rebirth. They’ve lived a lifetime since then with many of these specimens no longer present or left in wounded, half-torn-off states of decay. Perhaps many of us—certainly those blunted by seasonal affective disorder or the holiday blues—feel in their own states of decay this time of year.
How the non-denominational bunny rabbit and egg came to be so closely associated with Christianity’s highest, holiest holiday is a matter for historians and/or Wikipedia. We’ll not trouble ourselves with all that, but the roosters of Polish Hill walked out of our dreams and into our lives right around Easter. The timing may be coincidental, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Maybe that’s what the chickens were trying to tell us all along … if we’d only listened.
December, here we are. We can now see our breath on every pre-dawn constitutional as November’s mild, sunny weather has finally given way to real winter temperatures. Snow has been minimal, so far, but shovels and salt stand at the ready for the inevitable. Trees are fully divested of their leaves. Figs have gone to ground.
All around us The Twinkling has begun—lights in Christmas green and red, but also “electric icicle” white. Plastic figurines are set up to either celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ or make offerings to the candy cane gods—take your pick. Draped on bare trees and outlining front porches, all those tiny LED bulbs act as sentinels to the night. It’s coming, they sing in quiet unison to an audience with no option, whether you want it or not.
In short, we are officially in what retail workers, mail carriers, and delivery drivers call the most wonderful time of the year.
It’s likely The Orbit‘s convivial readership will have plenty of visitors to their homes over the next few weeks. Hopefully some of those will bring glad-tidings, along with the requisite maids a-milking and geese a-laying. If you’re lucky maybe Uncle Joe will break out the myrrh—it’s just not the holiday season without myrrh.
Others will climb your front steps on business. Envelopes stuffed with year-end brag letters and pictures of golden children will come for many. Thousands—millions!—will receive packages ordered from enormous operations full of plasticware produced far, far away. Amazon doesn’t offer real live swans a-swimming for sale—yet—but that feels like merely a matter of time. If you’re lucky, a friend will send you something truly special by U.S. Mail.
This isn’t the start of the holiday season—that kicked-off right after Valentine’s Day—so let’s call the first week of December the beginning of peak Christmas. For that, we’re sending this photo collection out to all the folks visiting all the addresses with all the things while many of us get to sit cozy, work a puzzle, and fall asleep on a couch as the television spools out one myth after another.
Be Thankful. Those two words—or possibly three when rendered as BET / HAN / KFUL—are something we can all (hopefully) act on. Your author has plenty to be thankful for—a wonderful wife, terrific friends, neighbors, and creative partners, most of his health, some of his hair—and I don’t take any of it for granted.
So often—especially in today’s hashtag self-obsessed culture—expressing gratitude comes in the form of “humble brag” gloating. We’ll not do that here. Instead, we thought for this Thanksgiving we’d nominate some very Pittsburgh-centric things our readership can relate to and share in group gratitude for this little collective virtual Thanksgiving.
Here then are some things The Orbit is thankful for every day we get to spend in our hometown. Maybe you’ll relate and maybe not. Either way, we thank you for reading.
Yes, we’re grateful for the humble parking chair. For the record, Chez Orbit, located in cheek-to-jowl Lawrenceville, does not deploy a chair—even after digging out from snow. Regardless, the absurdity of seeing random old dinette seats literally taking up space three feet off the curb never gets old and never stops being amusingly funny. With more and more parking placeholders moving to generic white molded plastic lawn chairs and Home Depot job buckets, we get a special thrill to come across a classic like this one.
City Steps are ho-hum to some and what are those? to others. Like a child’s fantasy of magical pathways through mysterious overgrown woods, Pittsburgh’s collection of seven hundred-and-a-bunch sets of city steps are an elaborate intra-city adventure portal masquerading as public transit infrastructure. With this large a collection, pretty much everyone in the 412 has steps not too far away, right at your fingertips … err, foot steps. Be thankful you do.
We’re thankful for walls. Not any ol’ jive-ass boring walls, mind you, but walls that read like archeological expeditions, art moderne collage, and site-specific evidence of histories we’ll never know. Take that wall off of that wall and dudes in New York will pay top dollar for it. You can have it for free, right here.
Our friends over at The Portland Orbit coined the term “Outside Art” for the unique phenomena of exactly that. Neither public art nor graffiti/street art, outside art is installed either by the (private) property owner or with their consent for the express purpose of delighting and amusing the rest of us. We’ve been working a couple angles on this we’ll get to in the new year, but suffice to say the volume of outside art available just about everywhere is awe-inspiring when you start cataloging it. Putting one’s art into the world anonymously, with all the potential hazards of weather, mockery, and vandalism, is as altruistic an action as there is. We’re glad people keep doing it.
Generally, being a morning person works out pretty well—that is, until you stay up late and can’t ever make up the sleep. It’s never more true than when one is on a pre-breakfast constitutional through thick fog. You name it and it’s going to look better draped in the gauzy blur of cool humid air that makes everything appear mysterious, a little dangerous, and right out of a dream. When you take that fog walk through the cemetery? Fuggetaboutit.
Weird views are something everyone in Pittsburgh gets accustomed-to—but don’t take it for granted! Sure, you can go with a corporate view like Mt. Washington or the West End Overlook—and those are great—but give yourself a chance to check out the view of town looking straight across the Liberty Bridge from the trail in Emerald View Park or the roofs of Bloomfield’s row houses lit by the morning sun from Sugar Top/Upper Hill District or the 360-degree view from St. John’s Cemetery in Spring Hill or this one looking down at the top of Troy Hill and all the way across the river to the Strip District from Reserve Township.
Pole Art is the evergreen Where’s Waldo? of bike/pedestrian travel. On any day any given utility pole may be enhanced by the anonymous addition of just about anything. Sure, we’re nuts for tin can pole art, but it doesn’t stop there. Weird signs, full art installations, recycled toys, and improvised memorials. You gotta look! The very nature of these ephemeral pieces means that each has a ticking clock counting down its limited lifetime before it disappears. Not knowing how long we’ve got is a central theme of all of our lives—being thankful for the time we have and the opportunity to interact with these random exclamation points is something we’ll not overlook.
Cruel humor from beyond the grave may be a strange thing to find comfort in, but it reminds us we’re thankful to be alive. Even with all of life’s pain—and there’s no small amount of it—I’d rather be breathing than the alternative. Hopefully that’s the same for anyone reading this. If you’re in doubt, please get yourself the help you deserve, and then think about the things you have to be thankful for. Those things are all around us every day.
OK, maybe it’s not much of a quandary for The Orbit‘s corner on both obsessive-compulsive and dirty-minded readers, but let’s accept that many of us (ahem) changed our hygienic standards with the onset of the pandemic. Mary—mother of all mothers, blessed virgin, you know, that Mary—seems to have recalibrated her priorities as well. If the Marys of greater McKees Rocks/Stowe Township are any indication, Mary is already comfortable with her proximity to godliness and content with an almost exact day-on/day-off schedule.
That said, McKees Rocks and Stowe Township—the distinction between the two is completely arbitrary to any outsider—may well lay claim to the greatest house-for-house percentage of Marys in metro Pittsburgh. Little Presston, a Rocks neighborhood of just two streets, had enough Marys to fill a whole story. Greater Sto-Rox has so many Marys—just about 50/50 with and without bathtubs—that we’ll not kid ourselves into thinking we won’t have a third or fourth edition on the topic.
So we’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your Marys with the clean aroma of Mr. Bubble or not and please let us know if you’ve got a Mary of your own or Mary story we should hear.
A blast of color. Soft pinks, big reds, cool blues and purples on one face; rusty reds, browns, and blacks another. Everything is accented in gold.
That gold! It’s a gold of ancient secrets and the gold of a new dawn. The warm glow has an extra glossy shine that elevates already-textured steel surfaces to a fourth dimension—something beyond space and time. What the amateur sees as mere spray paint is actually a fuzzy overlay on reality from another world.
Cast against the very literal rust of a pair of weathered steel sheds, the gold feels like flashes of light glinting and gleaming through stony creek water. Precious metal to some, fool’s gold to others, but with an experiential value beyond anything we can measure. That is, if you can climb out of 3-D and into this transformative plane.
In glorious full sunshine, surrounded by high summer’s lush greenery, the two old metal work sheds pop from the earth like temporary housing created by interstellar travelers. We may not speak their tongue, but these pictorial representations of stars and symbols, geometric patterns and light rays communicate enough otherworldly visions that we can get along.
Getting along is exactly what we want to do—very much so. The work is striking and soothing, both chaotic and patterned, with obvious iconography and wild abstraction. Like waves crashing on the beach or mountaintops viewed from a neighboring peak, one may stare into the wide murals, let the eyes go into a glazed soft-focus, and drift off to a blissed-out zen state where nothing looks the same way twice.
The artist who painted the sheet metal sheds has signed the work only as Coker, his last name—this much we know. We’d love to do a full-on Orbit artist profile on the man—there are so many questions! Does he also make smaller works? paintings? sculptures? what’s inside the sheds? It feels like there simply must be an amazing story there.
But … the volume of No Trespassing and Stay Out signs posted around the property suggest Coker is, at minimum, wary of uninvited guests and this we respect. I’ve visited the buildings a half dozen times over the course of a year-and-a-half, on various early mornings, mid-days, and weekends and left notes for Mr. Coker. Alas, I’ve never heard back and never managed to catch him in person. So … we’re left to muse about The Wizard of Perry South from his (street-visible) painted walls alone.
Coker’s most profound work—to these highly-opinionated eyeballs—remains the large abstract wall sections. “They’re like (Marc) Chagall!” Ms. Orbit exclaimed when your author produced his first photographs of the remarkable structures. That said, the artist’s paint work extends to more representational fare as well.
A corner wall section of the first shed includes tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and Snoop Dogg (in the form of gin & juice, illustrated with musical notes). Another celebrates the music of ’70s soul group Maze and includes the band’s bizarre seven-fingered hand logo. Elsewhere King Kong tramples New York while a bloated “fake news scum-bag”—not sure who that could be—tramples democracy.
Just down the block sits the third unmistakable Coker property. It’s a classic Pittsburgh two-up/two-down brick row house—now having outlived all former neighbors on a half-block-long dead end. The front of the home is painted in Coker’s tell-tale gold, daringly paired with splotchy silver—a color combination that makes even pink & brown stand up and take notice. Around the side, Coker has continued the blocky, abstract themes begun on the pair of sheds, but this time executed in gold, black, and white.
We could all use more magic in our lives—of this I’m sure. Luckily, we live in a time and place where one may stumble upon just that, right out in the open, on a simple summer bicycle ride or autumnal constitutional through a city neighborhood.
If you’re lucky enough to live in The Perrys, you know where Compound Coker is already. For anyone who doesn’t, we’ll not spoil the surprise with a precise address or instructions for travel. There’s enough information right here to locate Pittsburgh’s buried treasure of gold (art), it’s up to you to go out and find it.
No one. Not a single person. It hasn’t happened. Throughout the long history of humans applying sauce and cheese to fresh baked bread, there has never been an instance where the diner wished for there to be less toppings on her or his pizza. We refuse to accept this premise.
However, hypothetically speaking of course, if ever there was such a place—a pizzeria that lives only in the imagination of those who dream big, one whose pies are so over-laden with toppings as to prevent human hands from delivering mere pizza slices to mouths unassisted—that place is Shelly Pie. We were warned.
We’re Americans. We don’t like rules. Shelly Pie’s menu doesn’t exactly have strict rules, per se—the Page 1 instructions are more like disclaimers or warnings about what you’re getting into—but how much training and expectation-setting does a person need to order a pizza?
It’s no small amount, it turns out.
A Shelly Pie is a knife and fork pizza. It’s right there at the top of the quite literal list. Don’t try to pick this thing up, it will only break your heart. The overload of smouldering cheese and full arsenal of toppings just won’t hold up to being lifted off the plate in toto. While any one of Shelly’s eponymous pies will blow your mind, the laws of gravity still apply here.
The cold hard facts of a hot cheesy life don’t end with the use of silverware.
We use fresh vegetables. Know that a vegetable pizza will produce a lot of liquid. Fair enough—this from another of Shelly Pie’s FAQs. Neither our tomato & spinach pizza (below) nor the half green pepper (at top)—which must have contained an entire large pepper—had any noticeable storm runoff, but it must be true on a really heavy veggie pie or the notes wouldn’t have made it to the menu.
Our pizzas are unique in that no two pizzas look alike. A statement we confirmed with just our minimal sample size. Our cheeses are high in fat. When you add fatty meats to a pizza, it creates a lot of grease. Another bon mot from Shelly that really sets up There are times when the top crust will look dark. It’s not burnt. It’s charred.
The big one—that inconceivable scenario—hits you in the menu’s fourth bullet point: If the abundance of toppings is too much, ask for light toppings. Needless to say we neither requested light toppings nor were we disappointed in the abundance thereof for either entree.
A custom-ordered Shelly Pie isn’t so much flavored by its toppings as it hosts a convention attracting every free slice of pepperoni and unbooked green pepper east of metro Pittsburgh. They get down to business during the daytime and are ready to party all night long. Like the plumbers union meeting at David L. Lawrence Convention Center, participants in this Bacchanal won’t head home until they’ve done something they regret.
The toppings are extraordinarily generous—and delicious—but they in no way act as a smoke screen or distraction for inferior dough. Far from it. Shelly Pie’s admittedly irregular and “charred” crust bubbles and bulges but it’s as perfect a bed for pizza pie as this eater has ever had the pleasure to consume.
It’s been three weeks since our team ventured out to Turtle Creek on this reporting trip and, like an addictive drug, your author has fantasized about the next time he can inject Shelly Pie directly into his bloodstream, let his eyes roll back into his skull, and drift off into the abundance of another exquisite dream meal.
Getting there: Shelly Pie is located at 912 Penn Avenue in Turtle Creek and they’re open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, so all you have to figure out is breakfast.
Monroeville Mall is largely populated—if suffering the same economic woes as many of its peers—and sits right there on a couple hundred acres of the eponymous suburb’s most automobile-oriented real estate. The shopping center hosts more than a hundred retail establishments, a separate adjunct strip mall, and has its own encircling beltway, just like the small city it is.
Macy’s department store anchors one end of the mall; Dick’s Sporting Goods the other. In between, you’ll find LaButiq Lash Studio, Xtreme Teeth Whitening, Banter by Piercing Pagoda, Auntie Anne’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzel, four recruiting offices for the United States Armed Forces—one for each branch of the military—plus Up$cale Beauty, Up$cale Juice Bar, and Up$cale Kids.
Wander to the far west end of Monroeville Mall’s upper level, right next to Hot Stone Massage, and there’s another storefront with the same extended wood and glass treatment you’ll see at Klexo’s Tattoo Studio or Smoke Wizard and Vape. From the mall’s wide walkway, it looks like yet another apparel and gift shop with its prominently-displayed t-shirts, hoodies, books, and novelties.
This one’s different, though. For eight dollars, a cashier will grant the curious entry to an unexpected collection of movie memorabilia and replica models, disfigured mannequins and The Maul of Fame, a singular wall of hand prints and signatures from various horror film demi-celebrities, each one blood red. This is The Living Dead Museum.
You’ve heard the term dead mall—heck, you heard it right here—but ain’t no dead mall like an undead mall and this one’s stocked with ghouls, zombies, and The Evil Dead.
George Romero—the Orson Welles of gore—came to Monroeville Mall late in 1977. He wasn’t there to do his Christmas shopping. That winter, he started filming Dawn of the Dead, the zombie apocalypse masterpiece and lineal descendant of his Night of the Living Dead, the mother-of-all undead movies.
From this history, Monroeville Mall holds a special place for horror film fans long before The Living Dead Museum. Its starring role in Dawn of the Dead makes the mall hallowed ground for gore buffs and the entire structure a kind of living museum all on its own. There’s even a brass bust of George Romero on the mall’s lower level, in front of Pittsburgh Locker Room by Lids, to celebrate it.
So The Living Dead Museum ended up at Monroeville Mall by no accident and it celebrates Dawn of the Dead every way it can. There are props from the original film and movie posters from both its American version and Zombi, producer Dario Argento’s separate cut of the same movie for the European market.
Your author is ashamed to admit he hasn’t seen most of the films celebrated in the displays at The Living Dead Museum. Why, I don’t even know The Evil Dead from The Evil Dead 2! So the giant rustic woodshed from the former was indistinguishable from the various window sashes, shutters, door jambs, and fake boulders of the latter. The significance of “prop-alike” tape recorders and calligraphy from The Necronomicon was lost on me—but I’m sure The Orbit’s gore-enthused readership would enjoy them all.
Monroeville Mall even gets its own snake-eating-its-tail tribute at The Living Dead Museum. There is a defunct/replaced elevator car and a section of escalator from the period when the movie was made. The gift shop sells tote bags and t-shirts with the mall’s original uber-mod MM logo, c. 1969—with and without blood spatter.
It’s entirely subjective of course, but The Living Dead Museum’s most exciting display is a large, hand-made model of sections of Monroeville Mall as it existed in the late 1970s. Presumably built in pre-production for the movie—there is sadly no documentation on who created the model or how it was used—the piece reads like an incredible work of folk art.
Created from poster board, balsa wood, repurposed bamboo placemats, and advertising photos, the model provides an exciting window into both what Monroeville Mall looked like in 1977—originally there was an ice rink, later replaced by the food court; Carlton’s Mens Shop included the faux street lamps of mall shops of that era—and how low-budget movie-making worked at the time. It’s hard to imagine the production designers for Jaws or Star Wars cutting pictures from a Sears catalog to propose set ideas … but, maybe?
Calling itself a museum is a little bit of a stretch. The Living Dead Museum has a number of really great artifacts, but I could imagine hardcore fans being disappointed by the limits of the collection. As with the mall model, the collection is extremely light on description of either the items presented or the films they came from.
The Night of the Living Dead room, for example, has plenty of promo stills, posters, and news clippings, but for actual objects from the movie, visitors get to see Sheriff McClelland’s ammo belt and some production lights used for scenes inside the farmhouse.
Many of the other displays include “prop-alikes.” I couldn’t find an official definition for this term, but I assume it means an object not used in a film, but one that looks just like the prop. There are quite a number of replica/recreation/tribute figures which are cool, but feel a little like the house that went all-in on Halloween.
All that said, for this horror noob, fair-weather fan, and general curiosity-seeker, The Living Dead Museum was a legit hoot. There is plenty to goo-ga over, even if you haven’t seen the movies the displays reference. It’s also a nice bite-sized experience that won’t wear you out, take up your whole afternoon, or break the bank.
The creators of The Living Dead Museum clearly put their blood and guts—and the blood of plenty others too—into an experience custom made for zombies, and those who love them. This Halloween season—or any season—we highly recommend a visit.