Tap Shoes and Unicorns: Teresa Martuccio Serves Up “Pink Potatoes”

playwright Teresa Martuccio feigning exasperation while writing on a manual typewriter

America’s greatest playwright—at least, we think so. Teresa Martuccio finds the inspiration for her next masterpiece.

There is a wisdom, passed down in theater circles from high school drama clubs all the way through to the backstages of Broadway. Death of a Salesman: good play; could have used some robots.

It’s true. Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams wring the pathos from human existence, but who is speaking up for the world’s mice, slugs, and garden vegetables? Chekhov never had the, ahem, integrity to spew the front row with space jism. And sure, Shakespeare made witches central to the plot of Macbeth, but it would take a true visionary to turn them into full-contact action heroes.

actresses dressed as space unicorns in the film "Strange Noodle"

Sara Banach and Jen Cooney in the film “Strange Noodle,” 2016.

Something truly unique and special is happening in a converted industrial products showroom in North Oakland called The Glitterbox Theater. There, for the past three years, local playwright Teresa Martuccio has been producing a series of her own original plays that truly defy any categorization.

While we were fumbling for the words, Ms. The Orbit chimed in here on our read-through describing Martuccio’s productions—and the whole Glitterbox oeuvre—as “true do-it-yourself fringe theater all the time,” “fully realized pure creativity,” and “incredibly daring and accessible … the best kind of outsider artist.” We couldn’t agree more, nor said it any better.

Teresa Martuccio in costume as bregastone in the play "La Strega"

Martuccio as a Bregastone in “La Strega,” 2018 [photo: Chris St. Pierre]

In a world where color is illegal, a renegade band of dissidents defy the law of the land by secretly hoarding the remaining bits of contraband hue in an underground resistance. In this dystopian near-future, the government has been taken over by a mega-corporation called Amazono that rules with authoritarian brutality.

“It’s a feminist sci-fi musical,” Teresa Martuccio says about her newest original play Pink Potatoes, “… with tap dancing.” Pink Potatoes opens this Thursday.

The Wind is a major character in the play, as is a “wind whisperer”/aeronaut. (“That’s a hot-air balloonist—I didn’t know they were called that.”) Martuccio warns that the story is sad, but ultimately hopeful. It’s also difficult to imagine the sets remaining black and white through the final curtain.

actress in robes with sign reading "Pope Secret"

Martuccio in “Love, Betrayal, and Dying: the Wool Story,” 2016

actress dressed as mouse with large piece of cheese

Valerie Herrero in “Meow,” 2016 [photo: Teresa Martuccio]

If you haven’t seen any of Martuccio’s other productions, this Handmaid’s Tale-meets-Busby Berkeley narrative may seem awkward, or unfocused, or novelty. In lesser hands that might be true.

Teresa’s plays are indeed rag-tag and acted with let’s put on a show enthusiasm, but they have a tremendous depth and heart, message and moral. Shows are also reliably wacky, ridiculously-costumed, milk-coming-out-of-your-nose funny, and include great original tunes. Martuccio is a student of both history and folklore, so you just might learn something while you’re at it.

group scene from play with actors against colorful handmade stage set

Group scene from “Sea Turtle in Space,” 2018 [photo: Chris St. Pierre]

The kitchen sink/more-is-more approach may align closer to the zaniness of Sid & Marty Krofft or Bollywood film than classic theater. That is, inevitably, the product of an extremely active creative mind.

“I’m always on to the next thing,” Martuccio says. The next next play is already written and there’s another movie, Siren City, in the works.

In the spring, Martuccio will return to playing defensive end/offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Passion and she’d like to bring them into the creative space as well. “My dream is to produce a play with my football team.”

playwright Teresa Martuccio feigning exasperation while writing on a manual typewriter

Always on to the next thing. Martuccio at “work.”

Pink Potatoes will be at least the tenth full-length play Martuccio has written/produced/acted-in over the last five or six years. [Earlier shows were put on at various community spaces prior to the opening of Glitter Box.] That same period has been additionally busy with contributions to the regularly occurring Ten-Minute Play Fest events, sections of the Wilde Gone Wild cut-up performances, and creating Strange Noodle, an hour-long movie where an ex-Olympic gymnast leaves her mundane life to be a slug in a technicolor dream world.

Martuccio, with her three co-managers, also organizes and coordinates countless other events at The Glitterbox Theater, where the new play will run next weekend.

actress in space suit and crash helmet with time machine prop

Martuccio with time machine in “Amelia,” 2014 [photo: Caldwell Linker]

“Every time I say I want to keep the next one simple,” Martuccio says about the complexity of organizing another large-scale production, “And then I’m looking for breezes, tap shoes, and unicorns.”

Luckily, she gets a lot of help. Believe it or not, staging big productions in a tiny room for a four-performance run—with absolutely no grant funding or other outside sponsorship—doesn’t generate much profit. So Martuccio and her cast and crew of 20-or-so are all volunteers who collaborate on rehearsal, set building, costume making, promotion, and everything else. The money made from the last big play was just enough to cover a party with cheap champagne and rides on a mechanical bull.

actors wearing costumes of vegetables

Martuccio, Tenley Schmida, and Rachel Dingfelder in “Meow”

We are all lucky. Whatever else is going on in your life, be glad to live in a world where we can express ourselves with any crayon in the box; where no one needs a secret supply of cast off candy bar wrappers, torn bits of fabric, and crumpled magazine ads just for a taste of color.

We should also consider ourselves fortunate to be alive when Pink Potatoes are dug from the earth and served up however Teresa Martuccio plans to present them. We know it will be delicious.

promotional poster for original play "Pink Potatoes" perfomed at Glitter Box Theater, December, 2019

Promotional poster for “Pink Potatoes” by Steph Neary

costumed character with "Welcome" sign

All are welcome. Dream landscape from “Strange Noodle.”


Pink Potatoes will run for four performances December 5-8, at the Glitterbox Theater, 460 Melwood Ave. (North Oakland). There are no advance ticket sales, so get there early enough to secure a folding chair.

Photos from past productions courtesy of Teresa Martuccio. Special editorial guidance from Kirsten Ervin.

The Pizza Chase: Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe Ain’t Monessen Around

exterior of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, Monessen, PA

Pizza heaven, right here on earth. Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, Monessen.

It is entirely fitting that one must ascend a steep hillside to get here because this pizza comes not of the earth, but from the heavens.

Pardon me if we exercise a little culinary melodrama, but this deserves it. Biting into a fresh slice is to be transported, 30,000 feet straight up into the sky, where one glides on—and dines of—pure ether. How can this most common of meals manage the paradox of being both hearty and weightless, brutally crude and expertly crafted, simple and transformative? Yeah, it’s a lot to consider, but … we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

man holding open box of pizza with smoke stack and steel mill behind him

Pizza: Monessen style. Paul with full “tray” of Nuzzaci’s pizza.

The word sponge doesn’t cannote great faith in the food it describes. Sure, sponge cake has its proponents and there’s injera, the sourdough-risen flatbread, often described as “spongy,” that you’ll find in Ethiopian cuisine. Maybe we can count marshmallows as little gooey sponges—but that’s really about it.

That the product of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe is most frequently described as “sponge pizza” may be understandable, but it’s unimaginative and does a disservice to this extraordinary, pillowy, thick, cake-like pizza.

No, the experience of eating Nuzzaci’s, fresh from the oven, lifted, airy, and—sorry: it’s the only word for it—moist, is like biting into a cloud…with melted cheese on top. It’s as if the very atmosphere has morphed into warm dough, crowned with a thin halo of red sauce. It is absolutely divine.

J.T. Sassak, third-generation owner of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe

J.T. Sassak, third-generation owner/pizza maker of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe.

J.T. Sassak is the third generation to operate the tiny pizzeria from its only ever location in the basement of the family’s large, wood frame house on Knox Avenue in Monessen. In 2010, the Trib did a pretty complete rundown on the Nuzzaci-Sassak family lineage, going back to J.T.’s grandmother Cosamina Nuzzaci opening the shop in 1952, so we’ll not repeat all that here.

We will mention, though, that Sassak mixes all his dough by hand and J.T. has the Popeye-style forearm muscles to prove it. There was just no way to get a commercial dough-mixer down the little basement stairs and around the various corner-turns necessary to make automated dough kneading happen. So the pizza crust is still prepared exactly as is was by Cosamina, according to her hand-written in Italian recipe on a brown paper bag.

basement window with neon "PIZZA" sign

Basement kitchen, penthouse pizza.

You hear the phrase if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it plenty, but Nuzzaci’s makes the old cliché a mission statement. This is pizza simple: there is only one product that may be purchased at the restaurant, either by the slice or as a 15-cut “tray.” There are exactly seven options for toppings—inserted under the mozzarella—plus “double cheese.” There are no drinks, sides, bread sticks, chicken wings, salads, or dessert. All purchases are made in cash. Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe has no dining room.

A full tray of pizza with one (split) topping provided the basis for five meals and cost twelve dollars and seventy-five cents.

three rectangular slices of pizza on a white plate

Pizza simple. Three slices of Nuzzaci’s back home.

Here’s the heartbreaker: J.T. Sassak is 67 years old (“born the same year the shop opened”) and not only is there no apprentice learning the ropes, there’s no one in the family remotely interested in taking over operation of the small-town pizzeria.

Selling the business is out of the question, J.T. says, as the grandfathered-in commercial license on (otherwise residential) Knox Ave. would likely not transfer to a new owner and moving the location “wouldn’t be the same.” J.T. says he’s got around five more years left in the business and “then we’ll see.” At some point in the not-too-distant future, Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe will likely close up forever.

If you love great pizza—unique pizza, special pizza—I’m imploring you: make the trip out to Monessen for what may be one of the most heavenly culinary experiences of your life. It’s worth it.

man holding pizza slice to his mouth outdoors

Ghost sign; real pizza. Completely unstaged photo of Paul about to devour a slice of Nuzzaci’s he describes as “like fluffy pizza clouds.”

A couple things to know if you’re going:

  • Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe is located at 483 Knox Ave., Monessen. It takes most of an hour to drive there from Pittsburgh.
  • The shoppe is closed on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; open 11 AM to 7:30 PM the other days.
  • This is important: while Nuzzaci is open for pickup until the early evening, J.T. may have already sold out all the day’s dough way before then.  Call ahead to 724-684-4814 to make sure you get your order in.
  • As mentioned, there is no dining room, so all orders are pick-up/take-out only. If you’re coming from Pittsburgh, you may want to consider bringing some drinks, planning a place to eat, etc.

The Pizza Chase is an occasional series where we document regional pizzerias that do something fundamentally different or extraordinary with ol’ cheesy.

Send in the Clohns: John Lee, The Cardboard Caravaggio

street art painting of figures with distorted faces and captions saying "All things are yours"

All things may be yours…but you can’t always take them home with you. Painting/wheatpaste by John Lee (aka “Clohn Art”), Munhall, 2016

January 1, 2016. This blogger has no particular memory of what was going on that New Year’s Day nearly four years ago, but the photographic record doesn’t lie. We shot a series of ghost pizzerias and No Parking signs at scenic locales from Homestead down, around, and over the river to Glassport.

The most intriguing find of the day, however, came calling out from the inside of a rusty metal shed along East 8th Avenue in Munhall. Completely open to the street, the little three-walled steel shack appears to be either an artifact of the area’s industrial past or a larger-than-average bus shelter–perhaps both. Either way, its open-to-the-public opportunity and hidden-from-the-cops privacy make the little lean-to an easy target for graffiti.

street art painting of woman with three eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

This piece was different, though. No mere copycat tag or delinquent’s de rigueur spray-painted wang, what caught the eye was a legit original artwork. The painted was rendered in bright acrylic color on thick brown packaging paper and applied directly to an interior wall of the shelter.

The subjects are three cartoonish human-like figures, their facial features randomly shuffled out of order. Eyes are stacked one on top of the other under a single brow; elongated oversize noses are lifted and askew; pursed graphic lips are highlighted like an offset print job.

The metal enclosure even makes its way into the artwork. Random rust spots permeate the unpainted surfaces of the wheatpasted paper media giving the three faces pockmarked or freckled blotches across their skin and through the bare sections of background. Each person has a word bubble with the same arch message: all things are yours. (See photo, top.)

street art paintings of man with five eyes and panda bear

Shadyside, 2017

The Munhall painting wasn’t the first piece we’d come across attributed to the cryptic Clohn Art–there had been a couple earlier finds along Penn Avenue (see photos, below)–but it was the one that put all the pieces together and it still remains a favorite.

After that, the floodgates seemed to open just briefly as we spotted more Clohn Art all over: a series of animal paintings on Chinese restaurant placements in an alley downtown; a three-eyed, green-haired woman fused to plywood; stray blue period paintings on the back of a Shadyside garage. And then … it all stopped.

street art painting of woman with three eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

street art painting of rhinoceros, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown, 2016

John Lee (aka Clohn Art) (it’s pronounced clone; not the way Pittsburghers say clown) is a hard guy to get on the horn–and it wasn’t for lack of trying! Three full years after initially getting shot down, in comes the most welcome–if apropos of nothing–comment on an otherwise unremarkable Orbit Instagram post. The artist is ready to come in from the cold and he’s just decorated Second Avenue in Hazelwood with a new batch of paintings.

street art painting of wise men with Christmas gifts, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville, 2015

street art painting of four people with missplaced eyes, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield, 2014

“There’s a quote, ‘Writers write,’*” John Lee tells me, “so I figured that painters paint. I should be painting.”

And paint he does, usually six days a week at his Lincoln Place home studio, churning out artwork on a variety of recycled media: packing paper, placemats, plywood, and flattened cardboard boxes. There are so many paintings that they need to go somewhere, and that includes the tasteful redecoration of underused buildings–here in Pittsburgh and wherever Lee travels.

“With cardboard art you always have an outlet,” Lee says, “It’s the most respectful form of street art–you’re not really damaging anything.” Lee prefers to staple his cardboard paintings to the plywood covering windows and doors of abandoned/unoccupied buildings, though he’s also used wheatpaste to effectively glue paper artworks directly to wall surfaces. The results will still wash or peel away eventually, but they last a little longer.

street art painting of totem pole of various animals on cardboard

totem pole, Hazelwood, 2019

street art painting of polar bear in a brown dress suit on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

John Lee’s art has a couple common subjects: people–often with their facial features irregularly rearranged–and animals. You’ll also find a blending of the two as the series in Hazelwood included: a panda’s head on human body wearing a brown suit; a cat-man in pajamas; a person in western wear with a bird’s head costume. “You don’t know,” Lee says of the ambiguity in man-beast representation, “They could be anything.”

Other oft-repeated motifs include a sort of jointless free-floating position in the slender bodies–arms and legs extended, folding, and curved backwards in a kind of weightless space yoga–and stiff, awkward hands as if the characters are just forming their first words in sign language or attempting to flash caricatures of gang symbols.

street art painting of cat in pajamas on cardboard

cat’s (in) pajamas, Hazelwood, 2019

street art painting of bird wearing jeans and western-style shirt on cardboard

bird of the West, Hazelwood, 2019

In several instances, John Lee has set up what he calls the Honor System Art Gallery. Beyond just street art, the typically-smaller, often framed artworks are bundled together at a common location with instructions to Take one art work now and then pay (what you like). Details on purchasing via various app-based electronic payment systems is included.

artist John Lee (aka "Clohn Art") installing Honor System Art Gallery, Pittsburgh

John Lee installing the Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

… and, because we didn’t have a “real” gallery show or other public event to hang this story on, John Lee suggested he set up a new Honor System Art Gallery just for the occasion.

That went up two days ago on the rough plywood of a condemned building on Penn Avenue in Garfield and I’m here to tell you it looks great. It’ll be a heartbreaker to see those little paintings disappear–however that happens–because they are such an obvious civic improvement to the old boarded-up Heavenly Cuts storefront. But … John Lee would also love for you to have a piece of his artwork displayed somewhere in your life.

artist John Lee (aka "Clohn Art") with Honor System Art Gallery, Pittsburgh

John Lee with a brand new Honor System Art Gallery, Garfield

An earlier “gallery” Lee set up on a chain link fence in Seattle currently holds the record for the best response/most (financially) appreciated artwork. So, c’mon Pittsburgh! We can’t let those latté-sniffing West Coast jagoffs hold a title over our (adopted–John Lee is originally from Albuquerque) home town guy! Get your keister to Garfield and buy a piece of street art!

street art painting of deer with large antlers on cardboard

Hazelwood, 2019

John Lee can be located online via the @clohncount Instagram account, clohnart.com web site, and clohn Patreon page.


* Best as we can tell, the quote is by Ralph Keyes and goes, “Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.”

Failing Media! SAD! The Fourth Estate, Six Feet Under

former offices of The Daily News, now with boarded up, downtown McKeesport, PA

The Daily News, McKeesport (1884-2015)

Walk by the old Post-Gazette building, on the very last block before Boulevard of the Allies terminates at Point State Park, and you’ll likely be the only one on the sidewalk. It’s a surprisingly desolate section of our otherwise healthy and lively downtown. Boxed-in by highways and a complete lack of any retail nearby, this hulking, ugly building sits alone and empty at one corner of downtown.

At street level, there are giant windows that used to look straight into the busy printing floor of the newspaper. Here, for more than 50 years at this location, you could stand on the sidewalk, peer straight in, and watch the incredible synchronicity of massive printing presses spinning at full speed, cranking out the daily news. It was quite an operation.

former printing floor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

former printing floor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1927-present)[1]

You can still peer through those big windows, but you won’t see any equipment filling the space today. That’s all been removed–sold off, presumably–with the Post-Gazette‘s upgrade to a brand new suburban printing facility a few years back. The subsequent relocation of the news office to the near North Side followed. On the bright side, the P-G‘s current crew of journalists, editors, and the like need only head downstairs for a fill-up on No Joke Mac ‘N Cheese or a flight of shooters at Tequila Cowboy.

entrance to the former News-Tribune office, Beaver Falls, PA

The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls (1928-1979)

If you’re on Boulevard, grab a gander while you still can. What’s left is a fascinating view into a work space once pumping with activity. Floor mounts for all the heavy machinery are still intact; blank walls are scarred with the gouges and pockmarks of a half-century’s hard physical abuse. One visible section of below-street-level wall still contains taped-up news clippings, notes, employee graffiti, and torn photos of women in bikinis. All surfaces appear blackened with a spray of printing ink that one imagines hung in the air like thick fog.

The Burgettstown Enterprise (1878-1999)

For now (at least), the Post-Gazette is still very much alive–although it continues to try to figure out how many days a week it can actually afford to print and deliver a paper.

The same cannot be said for many of the region’s old news sources. Head out of town in any direction and each Main Street will almost invariably offer up the spent carcass of a former local newspaper.

eight-story stone Victorian office building in downtown Pittsburgh

The Pittsburg (sic.) Times, 1880-1906

Jeannette Dispatch (1889-1918) [2]

With banks being the notable exception, newspaper offices erected a century-or-so ago seem uniquely confident in their place in society among private businesses[3]. A huge number of papers have the original masthead built right into the brick and granite framework of their headquarters buildings.

You can’t always tell from these photos, but trust that it was the engraved crowns on the Jeannette Dispatch (above) and Leader-Times (below) that gave them away; no pre-research was necessary to find them–we just looked up and read the rooflines.

Simpsons’ Daily Leader-Times, Kittanning (1921-1961)

brick building with sign reading "The Times Publishing Co.", Duquesne, PA

The Duquesne Times (1918-1960)

For this piece, we decided to only include photos of newspaper buildings where the passer-by can still read the original mission of its previous host. If we were to do all the forensics on every old paper in the region … well, we’d never get back to weird pizza and sad toys.

That said, the great all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a terrific post on the various former locations of the Daily Citizen. They’ve done an amazing job of tracking and showing then-and-now pictures of the five different Ambridge buildings the Citizen occupied during its 55-year run (1904-1959). None of the current photos give any hint to their past life in media.

Valley Journal/The Green Sheet, Millvale (1941-2019)

The latest casualty! Yes, even The Green Sheet (aka “Ye Olde Green Sheet”) has fallen victim to cheap/free Internet classifieds announcing their closure over the summer. No longer will you see the once-ubiquitous piles of pale green newsprint stacked by the door at Shur-Save, Kuhn’s, and Shop’n’Save. If you want to swap cemetery plots or trade for guns, that business will have to be conducted elsewhere.

former office of Butler Eagle newspaper, Butler, PA

Butler Eagle (1903-present)

Rest assured, the Butler Eagle is still publishing–but they’ve moved their news office to a more modern, large scale printing operation on the edge of town. That consolidation has vacated the c. 1924 art deco-lite building, just off Main Street, where you’ll now find the unique property listed for sale. For our purposes, we think that counts too.

former office of The Valley Indpendent newspaper, Monessen, PA

The Valley Independent, Monessen (1926-2015) [4]


[1] As the name implies, the Post-Gazette was created by a merger of two much older newspapers, The Pittsburgh Gazette (first published 1786) and The Pittsburgh Post (neé Daily Morning Post) (first published 1842). The papers were merged in 1927 and moved into the building on Boulevard of the Allies in 1962.
[2] The Dispatch merged with another local paper in 1918, forming The Jeannette News-Dispatch, which continued publishing through 1981. Sometime in there, the office moved around the corner to Fourth St. We didn’t get a picture so we’re not sure if there is still a visible marker of it’s life as a news office.
[3] It is extremely common to see government buildings, schools, libraries, etc. with this kind of confidence in its future, but much less so with businesses.
[4] The Valley Independent has stopped printing, but lives on in the Mon Valley Independent.

Hollers to Doughnuts: Cycling the Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Beaver Greens Park and Ohio River on a sunny fall day

Picture perfect. View of Beaver Greens Park, Bridgewater Crossing, and the Ohio River from River Road, Beaver

[Breathes deeply, sighs wistfully.]

If only it was October all year long. This…err, last month’s magic powers are almost too numerous to name. Golden, low-angle sunshine fans through dappled multicolor leaves. Crisp morning air yields to warm, t-shirt weather afternoons. Decorative gourd fantasias tell us the aroma of pumpkin spice and mulled apple cider is wafting somewhere nearby as the whimsical array of dismembered body parts, sadistic clowns, and sprays of blood spatter signal the most wonderful of holiday seasons is fully upon us.

elaborate Halloween decorations on house and yard in Monaca, PA

The most wonderful holiday season, Monaca

Give this blogger a day off and a blue sky and you’ll inevitably find him on a bicycle, worldly cares dismissed for the afternoon. This particular October day (it was Saturday, two weeks ago) was just such an occasion. Maps were consulted, timetables checked, and the S.S. Orbit charted a course downriver.

The goal for this particular journey was to construct our own custom bicycle-based tour through a series of nearly-contiguous river towns. We’re calling the route The Beaver Valley Six-Pack. If you get the chance and you’re so-inclined–there is still time–we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous autumn day.

Below is the path we took along with some highlights. That said, as long as you get the interchanges right, it’s pretty much choose-your-own-adventure on this one. Stay off the busy roads–that turns out to be pretty easy–and you really can’t go wrong.

rooftop decoration of Santa with 10 reindeer made from toilet bowls, Monaca, PA

Santa and 10 tiny reindeer-toilets, Monaca

Monaca

We started in Monaca and went north. There’s a good argument to go the other direction, but we’ll get into that later. In any case, one can safely park a car on anywhere around 9th Street and the vehicle should remain unmolested as long as you like.

Don’t be too quick to get across the river! An easy trundle through the longer residential streets  (Washington, Indiana, and Atlantic Aves.) is well worth the poke-see, as are the dramatic river views from Monaca’s pair of waterfront parklets.

View of the Ohio River and train bridge from Monaca, PA

View of the Ohio River from the Monaca riverfront

Right now, the city is well represented in holiday decoration with an ample supply of front yard witches, skeletons, and gravestones. You’ll also not want to miss the Christmas-all-year display of Santa and his ten tiny reindeer toilets (photo above) on the roof of a garage behind the Japanese steakhouse.

ghost sign reading "Monaca Business Block," Monaca, PA

Ghost sign, Monaca

Whenever you’re ready, the giant bridge over the Ohio River awaits. It comes straight off 9th Street and there’s a protected bicycle/pedestrian gangway on the north-bound side. Newish signage states this will part of a future, more formalized Beaver County bicycle trail–but we can’t wait for that.

We saw no other non-vehicles on our crossing and while the views up and down the Ohio River are spectacular, we didn’t manage to get a photo worth sharing. Maybe you can do better.

large elevated sign for DeAngelis Donuts, Rochester, PA

DeAngelis Delightfully Different Donuts, Rochester

Rochester to Bridgewater

Arriving on the north bank of the Ohio, you’d swear the municipality was named DeAngelis for the size and placement of the enormous welcome sign. It’s not. No, Rochester just happens to begin (or end) at DeAngelis “Delightfully Different” Donuts which somehow commandeers the enviable location where the little city’s downtown intersects with the bridge and Routes 51/65 highway through-traffic.

A dirty secret: The Orbit has been to Rochester a dozen times on various field trips and never stopped for a DeAngelis donut (sic.). We’ll rectify that one of these days.

Rochester has a cool–but, sadly, vacant–old downtown just downhill from where you are now. There’s also a riverfront bowling alley whose exterior you’ll recognize from Kingpin the next you see it. This is all well worth exploring–but we didn’t do it this trip. Instead, it was through the roundabout, arriving at six o’clock and getting out at 11, down Brighton to Madison and crossing the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Beaver River between Rochester and Bridgewater, PA

Rochester (right), Bridgewater (left), and a whole lot of blue. View from the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Bridgewater and Beaver Borough

You’ll pass quickly through Bridgewater–so quickly, you might not even realize it was its own place. That said, if you’re looking for lunch, there are a handful of establishments right there at the base of the bridge that all look welcoming and convivial.

A quick left on Market Street, following the road around to Wolf Lane, will lead you directly to a bike/ped trail up under some railroad tracks by the old train depot and into Beaver Borough.

Now, Beaver gets all the name recognition out here and that’s in no small part because it cornered the market on the three W’s: wealthy white WASPs. If you’ve never been there, Beaver is totally out of place among the rest of the area. With its wide streets, well-kept fancy homes, and main street full of boutiques and frivolity, Beaver feels like a tony commuter suburb was plucked out of Connecticut and dropped in among the old mill towns of Beaver County. Don’t let that stop you from checking out the good stuff.

Halloween decorations at home in Beaver, PA

Halloween at Thunberg Acres, Beaver

The bicycle ride around River Road is just terrific. A wide street with no traffic and long views down to Beaver Greens Park, the Ohio River, and back across to Monaca on the other shore. (See photo, top.) River Road also includes numerous park benches, historical markers, and assorted other points of interest along the way.

At the far end, you’ll come up close to Thunberg Acres (our name). Orbit fans know this as the 3rd Street home of Gary Thunberg and his always-in-rotation holiday displays. [See photo above; we’ve reported on Gary’s homemade Halloween and Independence Day displays in years past.] Whatever the time of year, see what Thunberg Acres has in the queue of full-yard displays and please sign Gary’s guest book in the front box–he’s got a collection that goes back 20 years and would love for you to add to it.

fall day in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Dappled sunlight, fall colors, Cyrillic picture graves at Beaver Cemetery

It is hard to overstate this how devastatingly beautiful Beaver Cemetery is–especially this time of year. The cemetery sits directly across 3rd Street from the Thunberg house and basically forms the western end of the town’s business district–you won’t miss it. We’ve reported on the off-its-rocker Leaf Mausoleum already, but there is so much to see here–and it colors so beautifully in the fall–that you don’t even need that.

As an unrepentant taphophile, I can tell you that Beaver Cemetery’s collection of mid-century photo gravestones is the largest we’ve seen in these parts. We first got the bug with the amazing weathered grave markers at Loretto Cemetery, but the town of Beaver bought into the little photos-turned-ceramic insets big time. At some point, we’ll go back for a big story there. For now, you’ll have to go find them yourself.

World War I memorial featuring doughboy statue painted gold in Townsend Park, New Brighton, PA

The golden doughboy, Townsend Park, New Brighton

New Brighton

Fun fact: Beaver Falls (we’ll get there in a minute) was originally called Brighton, which makes the name of the borough right across the river more sensible and explains the prominence of Pittsburgh’s north-west-heading Brighton Road. Once the name change to Beaver Falls, you’d think New Brighton might consider becoming Regular-Old Brighton, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Bicycling to New Brighton is the trickiest of the lot. From Beaver, you’ll make your way across town, down Leopard Lane, back into Bridgewater, and north up either Market or Riverside. There’s a quick little run on the sidewalk and then across the bike/ped lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. From here, you want to go straight across Rt. 65 to 3rd Avenue, which will skirt the through traffic almost all the way to New Brighton.

dark beer in glass on rough wooden table

Ein dunkel, Petrucci Brothers Brewing, New Brighton

The pairing of cycling and a malty quaff go together like…well, basically like anything else where one of the two things is drinking beer. That’s certainly true on the Six-Pack and Petrucci Brothers Brewing served up a rich dunkel that was qualified to satisfy the thirsty rider. In addition to the requisite combined brew/drink space, mismatched seating, and thrown-together bar, the Petruccis are big on games with shuffleboard, ping pong, air hockey, pool, and a big stack of board games all available to play for free.

Before leaving New Brighton, take a gander at the terrific collection of churches in town. There are too many to either discuss or include photos of here, but suffice to say for a small town it ended up with an amazing array of holy architecture.

First Baptist Church, New Brighton, PA

First Baptist Church, one of several beautiful churches in New Brighton

Beaver Falls

You’ll be tempted to ride with the traffic across the 7th Street Bridge because that’s the most direct way to where you’re headed. This stay-off-the-busy-streets cyclist didn’t feel that safe with the handful of speeding cars greasing my hip, so the recommendation is to get across the road and take the safer–if underused–walkway on the south/downriver side of the bridge.

This drops you on 7th Avenue, Beaver Falls‘ Main Street. Like a lot of its fellow old mill towns, Beaver Falls has seen better days and will demonstrate that to you with a certain level of vacancy, empty lots, and underused storefronts up and down.

river, trees in fall colors, and train bridge in Western PA

The Beaver River and train bridge between New Brighton and Beaver Falls

That said, there’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink in town–even if you’re just passing through on two wheels.

The Beaver River’s eponymous falls do indeed break alongside Old Brighton’s eastern shore and there is the shortest of bicycle paths, connecting 2nd Ave. to 6th Ave., to see them from. Don’t get your hopes up: it’s a little tricky to actually get a decent viewing spot, and when you do…well, maybe they should have called the town Beaver Rapids. The gorgeous giant waterfalls of Ithaca or the Columbia River Gorge, these ain’t.

map with bicycling route between six different towns in Beaver County, PA

One suggested route for The Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Yeah, that’s a lot to take in. For anyone who’d actually like to recreate the Beaver Valley Six-Pack, we created a Map My Ride route that should get you through.

One final note: it was mentioned above that departing from Monaca may be the wrong way to do the trip. The argument for the opposite (start/end in Beaver Falls) is that you could bag (literally!) Oram’s Donuts at the start of the journey, do the rest of the ride in reverse, and then be back for the late opening time of Beaver Brewing Company. But then you’re probably getting to DeAngelis too late–what a dilemma!

Whatever you do, an exploration of Beaver Valley’s river towns is well worth the effort–even if you don’t do it on a bicycle. We’ll be back again, for sure, and maybe we’ll see you on the Six-Pack.

exterior of Oram's Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls, PA

Oram’s Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls


Getting there: To get anywhere in Beaver Valley will take you around 40 minutes drive west from downtown Pittsburgh.

Lest We Forget: One Year On

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Portrait of Bronia Weiner (b. Romania, 1919). One of 60 large-scale photographs of Holocaust survivors in Luigi Toscano’s “Lest We Forget” project, Oakland

It is almost what you might call a Mona Lisa smile. The face on the canvas is warm, but contains a hundred years of ups and downs, tragedy, triumph, and vigor—at least, that’s what we’re seeing. The woman’s emerald green eyes stare straight back at you. Her white hair is cut short and styled—or maybe it just goes this way naturally—in a loose wave that would look fashionable on a woman a quarter her age.

But it is the upturned curl at the corner of the woman’s mouth that gives her away. This cheshire grin suggests no matter how much heartache she may have experienced, there is an indomitable human spirit alive, well, and ready to release an outrageous tall tale with joyous laughter.

Bronia Weiner is a Holocaust survivor and it is no accident that her portrait is on public display here in Pittsburgh, now.

Robert (Bob) Behr (b. Berlin, Germany, 1922)

A partnership between The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh has brought German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano’s project Lest We Forget (or Gegen das Vergessen in the original German) to Oakland.

The installation features 60 large-scale color photo portraits mounted on semi-translucent screen. Designed for outside exhibition, the photos, stretched on big wooden frames, line the broad walkways between The Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel. Additional portraits are indoors at The Carnegie Museum and Chatham University library.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Shulamit Bastacky (b. Vilnius, Lithuania, 1941)

Up close and in person, the photographs read as the kind of opaque, hiqh-quality prints that one might find on art gallery walls. From any distance, however—especially on a bright sunny day—the fine mesh of the media allows background elements to bleed through the images.

The lush green of the Cathedral lawn colors a sun-dappled face. Eyeballs pop out from university infrastructure. Cloud-like white hair disappears into arching tree limbs, autumn leaves, and blue sky.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Sofija Goljand (b. Perejaslaw-Chmelnyzkyj, Ukraine, 1924)

We have no idea if this was the intended artistic effect or just a simple accident of the medium. Either way, the result is a beautiful and haunting way to portray these elder survivors and simultaneously address the mortality all of us inevitably wrestle with.

Toscano’s subjects range in age from their late 70s to 100 years old. Their time here—like all of ours—is limited. As these rich, detailed photographs dissolve into the wider landscape, it’s impossible not to think of the dust-to-dust return to the earth that will claim us one way or another.

large portraits of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

“Lest We Forget” portraits near Heinz Chapel

As of today, it’s been exactly one year since a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue and committed an act of hate-filled violence that will forever affect every Pittsburgher.

With the Lest We Forget portraits, it is impossible not to see the sad irony that the 60 individuals pictured here survived Nazi concentration camps—not to mention everything else life throws at a person over eight or nine decades—and yet eleven of our neighbors were murdered at a Shabbat prayer service in Squirrel Hill.

large portraits of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

“Lest We Forget” portraits on Cathedral of Learning lawn

Whatever you end doing today—be it attending the Tree of Life vigil or just parked on the couch with a bowl of popcorn—please keep all of these folks in your mind. Better yet, take a walk over to the lovely Cathedral lawn to see the installation for yourself. This remarkable collection of faces, each containing more life experiences than we could possibly know, will help you remember just what you have—and what we all lost exactly one year ago.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Elena Anfimowa (b. Smolensk, Russia, 1923)

Swinging for DeBence’s: Pipe Dreams and Piano-Playing Robots at the Antique Music World

antique calliope at DeBence Antique Music World

These pipes are smokin’! A deluxe calliope at DeBence Antique Music World in Frankin, PA.

Close your eyes and imagine what a robot looks like. Chances are, you might conjure up a blocky sci-fi stereotype–all shiny metal, wires, and blinking lights, rolling around assisting space forces in a stilted computer voice. Others may envision the kinds of already-in-the-real-world robots currently zipping through assembly plants and fulfillment centers with lightning precision, or the pure artificial intelligence powering high-tech interactive devices everywhere.

Whatever you’re thinking of, it doesn’t look like this.

wooden piano attachment to mechanically play a standard piano at DeBence Antique Music World

80 (or so) fingered mechanical piano-playing robot

A large, handmade wooden cabinet–maybe six feet long, four feet high, and at least 18 inches deep–is placed directly in front of a full-size upright piano, rendering the instrument completely inaccessible to any human hands that might wish to tickle the ebony and/or ivory. The add-on unit takes input in the form of elaborate scrolls and translates the paper’s precisely-cut notches to the mechanical operation of eighty-some wooden fingers, one placed on each (almost) of the piano’s keys*.

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion at DeBence Antique Music World

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion

DeBence Antique Music World has one of these piano-playing appliance-attachment-robots on display and ready to crank up for a mini concert on your next visit. DeBence’s collection also includes elaborate coin-operated mechanical music machines, calliopes, band organs, and more evolutions of disk-playing music boxes and phonographs than you ever knew existed.

The museum, located 80-some miles north of Pittsburgh in the über-quaint “Oil Country” town of Franklin, is a little out of our typical reach. But DeBence–and the region’s other many out-of-the-way attractions–are well worth the easy day trip from home.

metal musical disk on antique player at DeBence Antique Music World

Regina music disk and player

brass horns attached to elaborate band organ at DeBence Antique Music World

band organ horns

It’s probably safe to say musicians, record collectors, and those excited by domestic history and the development of America during its boom years will have an extra special interest in DeBence. The sheer volume of intricate, hand-cut music disks and elaborate, room-filling multi-instrument machinery is awe-inspiring and humbling to anyone who’s already dabbled in the media, fiddled with sound, or rocked the wheels of steel.

But you don’t have to be a music freak to appreciate DeBence. Just experiencing all the little gears clicking in metric time, wooden mallets tick-tocking stacked xylophone blocks, and the hair-blown-back blasts of dozens of brass pipes squonking in unison is a fascinating spectacle. The objects–polished metal disks, dark hardwood cabinetry, hand-painted decorative details–could stand alone in a design museum without ever hearing them play.

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display at DeBence Antique Music World

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display

painted detail on band organ frame at DeBence Antique Music World

painted detail on band organ frame

But, oh–you know where this is going–at DeBence, you do get to hear them perform. The collection is no mere array of historical objects entombed behind glass. No, they really don’t make them like they used to–and part of that means you can still hand crank the coil spring of a c. 1890s disk-playing music box and hear its metallic tines ting-ting-tingling out the popular music of the day. Try seeing if your 10-year-old Zune is still up to the task.

Our crew was fortunate enough to have an excellent volunteer guide who not only knew his stuff, but took us on the full tour even when we slipped in the door just before closing time. We don’t know how many of DeBence’s machines are still in working order, but an enormous number of them got cranked-up, switched-on, or otherwise sprung to life for the tour–each full of beans and with a song to sing.

costumed figures playing bells inside Victorian music box at DeBence Antique Music World

Dumb bells. Jesters ready to strike in a 19th century music box.

gold-colored pipes of a home pipe organ at DeBence Antique Music World

organ pipes

It takes a whole lot of mind-bending technology to enable the history of recorded music to be beamed instantly through one’s digital device and straight into their psyche. That’s great and all, but there is an intangible loss in this convenience.

Maybe it’s an extreme rationalization from a part-time blogger and full time record collecting junkie, but something otherworldly happens when the black lacquer spins up, a tone arm adjusts over and drops down into place. There’s an electric moment of heightened sensation when we get just the barest static sizzle of a stylus in dead wax before the Side A, track 1 music kicks in. Sure: by any objective measure, it’s low-tech, obsolete, and patently nostalgic. But there’s a magic here you just don’t get with a Spotify stream.

wooden dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

handmade wooden Victrola dancer attachment

ceramic and textile dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

ceramic Victrola dancer attachment

If it seems like that today, imagine what the technology must have felt like to the Victorians–pre-radio, pre-motion picture, probably before most had ever talked on a telephone. Those early adopters, who first plunked-down an entire paycheck for a Victrola and then had to send off to Sears for a couple two-and-a-half-minute songs to play on them, must have lost their minds at the variety of voices and sounds coming to them from far, far away.

To see these old machines whir to life, sound spilling out–yes: creaking, wheezing, groaning, and, as Randy Jackson would say, “a little pitchy, dog,” at times–is a beautiful, transformative, and, yes, magical experience. I don’t know whether there’s a chance that gets your keister to dust off the phonograph and back in the record store [we’re rooting for you!] but it should at least get you up to Franklin.

Regardless, we can cross our fingers, hope the bellows push air, the paper score feeds the tickling digits, and the beautiful sound of magical music fills the air around you.

novelty decoration of real frog, stuffed with sawdust, holding a guitar at DeBence Antique Music World

Frog fantasy. Among DeBence’s novelties are many “real frogs stuffed with sawdust.”

exterior of DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, PA

DeBence Antique Music World, downtown Franklin, PA

close-up of pump organ keyboard and stops

All the stops: Vox Humana, Gemshorn, Dulcissimo, etc.

Getting there: DeBence Antique Music World is located at 1261 Liberty Street in Franklin. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Pittsburgh. DeBence has regular hours through the warmer months, but slows down over winter, so check the museum’s web site to make sure you’ll be able to get in.


Almost. The unit doesn’t quite reach the full 88-key range of a standard piano keyboard. If you want to hit those super low notes, you’ll have to do that yourself.