Stamp Collecting: A Tale of Filbert, Falvo, Frank, and Ferrante

brass sidewalk plaque for G.H. Filbert, Pittsburgh, PA

“F” is for stamp collecting. Hundred-year-old(-ish) brass sidewalk plaque for mason G.H. Filbert, Shadyside

You’d think a person pounding greater Pittsburgh’s pavement, eyes glued to the surface in an intense review of its cracks and crevasses, would run out of new sidewalk inscriptions … eventually. But lucky for all of us, there is a lot of cement in the world.

So much so that after years of meticulous street-by-street inspection we can still regularly turn up absolute jewels in the field like that of G.H. Filbert’s big brass F (above) on a Shadyside cross street or the gorgeous compressed-lettering typeface of Falvo & Son’s stamp (below) on the same day, on the same block. That’s what makes this particular egg hunt so eternally rewarding.

sidewalk stamp for Falvo & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

Falvo & Son, Shadyside

What about the Putchs? Frank and Edward (father and son? or possibly brothers?) had their own sidewalk-pouring empire throughout the greater North Side. Sure, we had a pair of different Edward Putch stamps one of the times we did this, but he turns up here with yet a third variety of the stamp design, this time as E.W.

sidewalk stamp for E.W. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

E.W. Putch (version #3), Marshall-Shadeland

One could cut the excitement around Chez Orbit with a knife when another Putch entered our lives in the form of the first-initial-only F. Now, usually Googling any of the names on these older stamps gets us exactly bupkis, but this time around we hit paydirt. The great online photo and map archive HistoricPittsburgh.org happens to have an August, 1918 photo of Frank Putch Stone & Concrete world headquarters on Brighton Road in Woods Run (see photo, below).

Don’t look for that little shack today–it’s long gone–but the three-story tavern/apartment building across the alley is still there and one imagines the ghosts of Putchs past still hoisting lagers after long days of building walkways in Perry Hilltop and Marshall-Shadeland.

sidewalk stamp for F. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

F. Putch (#1), Marshall-Shadeland

sidewalk stamp for F. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

F. Putch (#2), Perry Hilltop

photo of Frank Putch Stone and Concrete company, Pittsburgh, PA

Frank Putch Stone & Concrete, Brighton Road, Woods Run, c. 1918 (photo: HistoricPittsburgh.org)

After that, we’ve got a bunch of one-offs. These all count as rare breeds, deep cuts, and/or white whales. With the exception of the Ferrante brass plaque (we got his more pedestrian stamp in 2018), Luick & Sons (there are a couple variants of this one), Ricci & Ciotola (at least two of these exist in Bloomfield), and John Heubel (Erie isn’t really “in orbit” and therefore hasn’t gotten the full dragnet yet) the rest of these all amount to one and only one spotting anywhere.

brass sidewalk plaque of John Ferrante & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

John Ferrante & Son, Point Breeze

brass sidewalk plaque for John Heubel, Erie, PA

John Heubel, Erie

sidewalk stamp for A.B. Gray, Pittsburgh, PA

A.B. Gray, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Anthony Frank, Beaver, PA

Anthony Frank, Beaver

sidewalk stamp for Joseph Franceshini, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Franceshini, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Saccacione Cement Contractor, Pittsburgh, PA

Saccacione Cement Contractor, Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for Riccla Ciotola, Pittsburgh, PA

Ricci & Ciotola, Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for D. Dalia, Pittsburgh, PA

D. Dalia, Bloomfield

hand-written sidewalk stamp for Joe Palmiera, Pittsburgh

Joe Palmiera, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Supreme Masonry, Pittsburgh, PA

Supreme Masonry/S. Dunkovich, Uptown

sidewalk stamp for Luick & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

Luick & Sons, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Battaglia & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

Battaglia & Sons, Shadyside

sidewalk stamp for Avelli Construction Crop., Beaver, PA

Avelli Construction Corp., Beaver

sidewalk stamp for R.C. Coccaro, Pittsburgh, PA

R.C. Coccaro, Friendship

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

Election Special: Meme the Vote! Ten More Reasons to Vote on Tuesday

American flag made from painted shipping pallet

“Liberty and justice for ALL.” America can do better than what we’ve got. Pallet flag, Mars.

You heard it here first: Tuesday is election day and it’s a big one. Heck, it’s the big one!

It is absolutely mind boggling to this never-miss-an-election democracy junkie that anyone would choose to not vote because (take your pick) they don’t care, “don’t have the time,” “politicians are all the same,” “it doesn’t affect me,” blah, blah, blah.

hand painted directional signs with welcome messages for many different world countries at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Maybe some day we’ll even get to see some more of it. Wall of world welcome signs, Randyland.

If there is anything the last four years should have learned every single one of us, it’s that who we hire into public service representation has very wide and extreme reach in matters of (quite literal) life and death. TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY THOUSAND American deaths from the Coronavirus this year (and counting); the goal of one party to eradicate affordable health care from millions of Americans; an open embrace of white supremacy and fascism; a complete denial of very real, agreed-upon science that our actions are cooking the globe and stirring up insane weather patterns that get more devastating every year.

Your author doesn’t believe in telling other people to do, but we do think everyone should exercise their democratic right to decide the future of this country. And sweet Jesus, if you can look at all objectively at the options before you, we hope the choices are pretty obvious.

sculpture created from candy Peeps

They’re sticking with you; look out for them too. “Peep All Night” by Kathie Hollingshead from Art All Night 2019.

Two years ago, we had a bit of fun with putting together a pro-voting, meme-style pre-election post. We like to think it was that 11th hour blog post that sparked the “blue wave” of 2018. [P.S. You’re welcome.] All those reasons still hold up pretty darn well, but they don’t end there.

So, just in case you’re the one human being without an opinion on Tuesday’s election, here are another ten things to consider all delivered in pithy no-details-needed meme format because, you know, this is the Internet.

Now get your keister out there and vote!

artistic rendering of Black Sabbath

Even witches at black masses deserve quality political representation. “Black Sabbath” by artist Jeff Owens.

gold painted war memorial, New Brighton, PA

Humanity and respect are on the ballot this year. War memorial, New Brighton.

model of movie theater interior

Yeah, Netflix is fine and all, but it’d be nice to have our feet stick the floor somewhere besides the living room. Movie theater interior from Carnegie’s Miniature Main Street by Walter Stasik.

sculpture of giant insect made from automobile and cement mixer at Schaefer's Auto Art, Erie, PA

… and I want science to figure out what to do. Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie

wheatpaste images of person in diving bell high-fiving person in space suit

Not to mention high-fiving other human beings. Images by Yara Saad (@yaasaad), Lawrenceville

custom van decorated with the message "Let the good times roll"

It’s been a rough four years. Let’s see if we can get this van a-rockin’.

mural of Antwon Rose, downtown Pittsburgh

There are NOT “very fine people on both sides” of some issues. Antwon Rose mural, Downtown.

Ovdje Počiva: Posthumous Portraits at Beaver Cemetery

grave marker with ceramic photo inset

Grave marker with ceramic photo inset of Rade Vujnovich, Beaver Cemetery

Like all those famous musicians, Rade Vujnovich was just 27 years old when he died in 1935. Unlike Jimi or Janis, we know very little about the man, but we do get to have one good last look at him. Dressed in an official uniform, hat cocked at a jaunty angle, Mr. Vujnovich stares right back at us with a goofy expression that suggests he’s holding back a laugh–or maybe just had one too many šljivovica some time between dressing up and saying cheese.

The information on Rade Vujnovich’s grave marker ain’t easy to work through. The cross-shaped granite stone was chiseled away in his native Croatian [thank you, Google Translate] and has had 85 years of harsh Western Pennsylvania winters eroding the details. But the mangled translation at least gets us the tidbit that young Rade was laid to rest here, in Beaver Cemetery, by his aunt Pipa and uncle Andja.

grave markers including black and white ceramic photo insets in Beaver Cemetery

Beaver Cemetery in October: fall colors, raised Cyrillic lettering, and grave markers with ceramic photo insets

Every fall we make the trip out to the town of Beaver and visit its eponymous cemetery. Trees are reliably reaching their glorious technicolor peak, headstones come engraved in beautifully modern raised Cyrillic, and the uber-oddball James P. Leaf mausoleum will always ask more questions than it answers.

All that said, it is the collection of early 20th century photo graves (that’s our term) that really sets Beaver Cemetery apart. Dozens–more like hundreds–of stone markers that include inset ceramic photographs of the departed fill whole sections of the 46-acre grounds. You’ll see these photo graves other places [we first flipped our nut over them at Loretto Cemetery], but not in this quantity.

collage of ceramic photos found on grave markers at Beaver Cemetery

Men in bushy, un-ironic mustaches; women in big-bowed, broad-necked pre-war fashions of the day. Ceramic photo gravestone insets.

The preserved photographs are fascinating and haunting; a disappearing history in both subject and context. They have all the curiosities of any old portraiture: men in bushy, un-ironic mustaches that actually look good on them; women in the big-bowed, broad-necked pre-war fashions of the day; the dour, flat affect of a population raised in humorless Victorian times. They also come with reliably great old-world names–you try finding anyone in America still named Žita or Cveta, Beniamino or Liberata.

More than that, the photographs are visually arresting in a way our image-oversaturated brains aren’t used to seeing. Without fail, the figures appear to look right through us with a ghostly, world-weary knowing from beyond. Beware, they seem to say, or maybe just enjoy it while you can.

gravestone with ceramic inset photograph, Beaver Cemetery

“Here lies…”

grave marker with inset ceramic portrait, Beaver Cemetery

Cveta Srzmac

That the black-and-white portraits are inset into the grave markers of the humans who sat for them gives the pictures a deep, added pathos. The typically-oblong ceramic discs have lived outside in the elements for decades and almost always show a predictable level of wear-and-tear. Some of the photos are completely gone, leaving awkward oval cutouts in the headstones. For the majority that are still intact, there are hairline cracks across their surfaces, washed-out bits of silver gelatin, insect and grass-cutting debris, and–thankfully, not too often–the gouged and scarred evidence of vandalism.

ceramic photo inset from grave marker

Ghost couple: Simone Riccitello + 1

ceramic photo inset from grave marker

Gone girl/gone guy: unknown couple

As if spending one’s free time in a cemetery wasn’t existentially-draining enough, try picking out the one photograph that sums up your entire life. And then consider it’s a picture that will eventually crack, fade, and/or fall out of the rock it was embedded in…or worse. Chipped out with a screwdriver by bored middle school kids on a sleepover jailbreak–what a way to go.

matching gravestones with ceramic photo insets for husband and wife, Beaver Cemetery

We’re nato, we morto, and in between we hang out in cemeteries. Berardino and Liberata Dipliacita

gravestone with ceramic inset photograph, Beaver Cemetery

unknown

The first wave of photo graves had a relatively short run. We tend to only see the old first-gen, black-and-white discs in the gravestones of those who passed in the 1920s through 1940s. At that point they seem to have gone out of vogue.

We have to wonder if this has something to do with the increased prevalence of photography. At the point where every household had a Kodak Brownie and every drug store could process film, it probably just didn’t feel that special to have a framed portrait on the mantle–or one’s headstone. But maybe, in the post-war modernist ’50s, tastes just changed away from early-century sentimentalism and toward sleek, down-to-business grave markers with little ornament and even less personal detail.

collage of ceramic photos found on grave markers at Beaver Cemetery

Cracked, faded, and washed-out, but still hanging on. Ceramic photo gravestone insets.

gravestone with ceramic inset photograph, Beaver Cemetery

Stephen N. Burich

A trip to the cemetery is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s morbid, they say, or depressing. I’ve got plenty of time for the graveyard when I’m dead.

That’s hard to argue with. But cemeteries are also fascinating repositories of history that one can enjoy with all the fresh air, chirping birds, and fall colors of a nature hike. The arrangement of artifacts is haphazard and their current state has so many random influences–from the whims of the family that organized burial to nature and weather–that the experience is more that of browsing a junk store than visiting a curated collection.

It appears to be another gorgeous day in run of them we’ve had in this, our greatest season. If you want get out and see some people without any risk of the plague, there’s no better place than Beaver Cemetery.

grave marker with ceramic photo inset, Beaver Cemetery

Teresa Ulizio


Getting there: Beaver Cemetery is right on 3rd Street, the town of Beaver’s main drag and just past the downtown area. It takes 40-50 minutes to drive there from downtown Pittsburgh. You’ll find the photo graves throughout the cemetery, but a good place to start is at the very back (nearest the McDonald’s).

Message from Big Pink: Breast Cancer Awareness Dumpsters

dumpster painted bright pink with downtown Pittsburgh skyline in background

One of Boyd Roll-Off Services breast cancer awareness dumpsters, South Side

Admittedly, it’s an unlikely way to be honored in the afterlife.

Aretha Boyd was young, just 46-ish*, when she passed away three years ago. And while she may not have the (local) celebrity-level name recognition of, say, Mr. Rodgers or Franco Harris, you’ll find tributes to Ms. Boyd all over the city in ever-changing locales. In fact, the Boyd name may appear around town more often than those of Carnegie or Clemente, Mellon or Warhol.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of cemetery

Lawrenceville

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in large parking lot

Strip District

It may be a little harder to tell this year, what with that other health affliction getting all the press, but Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here. Just like the arrival of pumpkin spice, crisp mornings, and the first turning leaves, the nation’s pink-out begins right on schedule every October first and stays strong for the next 31 days in a branding and awareness campaign that makes all other diseases drool with envy.

The proliferation of pink ribbons and pink t-shirts will abound, as will coordinated group marches along the river trails, billboard advertisements, and public service announcements on broadcast media. In what is both absurd and lovingly allied, hyper-masculine football players will suit up in eye-popping “mangenta” gloves and cleats when they take the field–the black, gold, and hot pink color scheme is a little daring for most fashion runways, but hopefully gets the attention of Steeler fans.

large dumpster painted bright pink in front of office building

Downtown

dumpster painted bright pink in front of large brick building

South Side

In a move no one saw coming, Boyd Roll-Off Services, a McKees Rocks-based waste disposal business, upped the ante considerably when their fleet of big 30-yard construction dumpsters  started appearing a couple years ago to spread the gospel. Each dumpster, painted in breast cancer awareness electric pink, contains a custom placard featuring the campaign’s trademark pink ribbon and the simple message In Loving Memory of Our Sister ARETHA BOYD, 1970-2017.

large dumpster painted bright pink in front of apartment building

Lawrenceville

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of large stone building

Oakland

While they’re a little goofy, the pink dumpsters may end up being the awareness campaign’s greatest ambassadors … at least, here in metro Pittsburgh where you’re likely to encounter them on the street. The Boyd dumpsters aren’t painted pink just during October. No, they’re out there putting in the work and being visible 365 days a year. They can also be found anywhere and everywhere: at any job site or corporate office building, on downtown street corners and in neighborhood back-alleys.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of under-construction building

Downtown

pink dumpster in front of hospital entrance

Bloomfield

The need for public education around the disease is obvious; statistics for breast cancer in America are grim. According to the site BreastCancer.org, one in eight U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, hundreds of thousands of new cases are detected every year, and we’ll lose around 40,000 women in the U.S. to breast cancer in 2020. The disease also disproportionally affects Black women.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster behind large building

Downtown

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster by highway overpass

Chateau

The street-side dumpster is a part of urban life we see all time. Its role as a big trash can for construction projects is pure utility with no expectation that it will ever be the object of attention. It will disappear into the night as soon as the job is done.

By painting the normally drab skiff bright pink, Boyd Roll-Off has turned the everyday into activist statement: breast cancer is for real, and it’s as omnipresent as the city’s concrete sidewalks and brick façades. And, of course, let’s remember Aretha Boyd and all the other women we’ve lost to this most heinous disease. That’s the message from Big Pink.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of apartment building

Strip District

dumpster painted bright pink

North Side

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of old stone building

North Side

Additional resources:


* The dumpsters clearly give 1970 as Boyd’s birth year, but Boyd Rolloff Services web site lists it as 1971. We were unable to locate an obituary for Boyd.

Onions and Rabbit Ears: Pulling the Strings on The Dragon of Polish Hill

puppeteers Dave English and Will Schutze

Puppets of Masters: Dave English and Will Schutze, co-creators of the new puppet film “The Dragon of Polish Hill”

The only constant, “dark” philosopher Heraclitus was wont to say, is change. This prescient statement–issued a couple thousand years before anyone thought about a designated hitter, Kardashian regime, or beer sales in Pennsylvania grocery stores–is proven true over and over again. From macro tectonic shifts of global climate change and computer technology wiping out entire industries to weeds breaking through pavement in the back alley, we are all powerless against the gale force winds of change affecting things big and little, anywhere and everywhere.

That basic tenet–times will change and so do the people and places that exist within them–forms one of the themes running through The Dragon of Polish Hill. The puppet play-turned-puppet film experienced its own radical reimagining as the global coronavirus pandemic shut down a just-getting-started theatrical production and eventually spawned a no one-planned-it-this-way feature-length movie.

The story is very Pittsburgh: it’s got polka, old timers clashing with punk rockers, at least one urban legend, and of course it’s set in perhaps Pittsburgh’s most Pittsburgh of neighborhoods–Polish Hill.

In lieu of lots of busy schedules, we were limited to an electronic Q&A with co-creators Dave English and Will Schutze in advance of the film’s debut (online) screenings this week. They graciously answered The Orbit’s questions and provided all the great behind-the-scenes photos included here.

Full disclosure: publishing The Orbit is a labor-of-love; we pay the rent by scoring puppet shows. Orbit staff were involved with creating some of the music used in The Dragon of Polish Hill.

puppeteer with marionette on stage set including city buildings and smoke

Smoky city [photo: Renee Rosensteel]

Tell me about The Dragon of Polish Hill. Where did the idea come from? Is there a dragon in Polish Hill? How has the story changed since its original conception?

Dave English: The Dragon of Polish Hill is a 120-minute puppet movie based on a play written by Dave English and co-produced with collaborator Will Schutze. English a native of Pittsburgh and planted the roots of this show almost two decades ago in doodles of old Polish Hill residents, then further developed the concept as a Brew House Distillery Resident Artist back in 2010. The story combines reality and fantasy to create a post-industrial folklore where an old man made from onions and a rabbit-eared hipster punk get into a fight in coffee shop and then become buddies. The story has evolved over the years to include the pre-existing character, Willy James, a product of Schutze’s imagination and a puppet with his own life prior to playing the antagonist in this show. It also began as a play for a live audience but was canceled due to the pandemic. Now it has since been reimagined as a film. Yes: there was once a dragon in Polish Hill. The last time anyone saw it was 1964.

Will Schutze: The idea came from Dave. I believe that at its conception–years before I met Dave, Stanley Onion wasn’t an onion man. He was a regular guy who ran a livery service. The story was more focused on the end of a neighborhood. Now Willy James, a puppet I made gets to play the antagonist (in a way). Dave completely blew my mind when he sent me the script.

puppet stage set including four model buildings

Old Pittsburgh. Polish Hill street set.

The story deals with the sometimes ugly subjects of generational clash, gentrification, and displacement. Is there hope for the future?

DE: The story touches on gentrification, elder neglect, racism, and other typical power distortions because that’s what I saw everywhere. I wrote this whole thing years ago and revised it in 2017. It’s weird how many things in the play gained new relevance since then. What a time to write a play with a pandemic reference in it … before the pandemic happens.

Is there hope? Yes. I think the play ends hopefully. I am a hopeful person. I study history and I see trends and cycles. I see examples of the world being worse off than where we are right now. I have hope because I work with kids and I’m giving them the message they need to be better people than me. I have hope also because I believe in magic and miracles. Not as a nerd or a lunatic, but because that shit is real. Me and my buddy make little creatures come to life. We make people laugh and live insane lives. We’re lucky. We pulled off a puppet movie during a pandemic. But I shouldn’t be surprised because puppetry has already survived many plagues, so we’ll survive this one.

WS: Definitely. People get real with each other. They are forced to communicate just to make it through the day. We gotta figure it out.

puppeteers Will Schultze and Dave English costumed as butchers

Puppetry ain’t pretty–but it sure tastes good. Schultze and English butchering “The Dragon of Polish Hill.”

Why puppets? Why polka?

DE: We’re puppeteers because it is in our DNA to make puppets. Both of us have some underlying evolutionary motivation to make inanimate objects come to life. Puppets are fantastic and allow you to tell stories that go to stranger places.

Why Polka? As a style and a theme polka is generally associated with an older population who largely moved away from urban ethnic neighborhoods in the mid to late 20th century. I live in Polish Hill and my neighbor blasts polka radio shows every Sunday afternoon. I also grew up going to polka events with my parents and their friends when I was a kid, I genuinely like polka.

WS: I think I can speak for Dave a bit as well and say that it’s what we are passionate about. We’ve chosen/been chosen by the puppets. It’s a mysterious thing. I actually gotta leave it at that.

puppet performance areas in large theater

“The Dragon of Polish Hill” film set at New Hazlett Theater

This started as a theatrical/live-action puppet show and has necessarily turned into a puppet movie (because of the pandemic). How has the transition between media been? Has anything in the story substantively changed?

DE: Some things have changed but nothing major. The butcher shop scene and the intro music were going to be a pre-show delight for a live audience finding their seats, That doesn’t work any more. The introduction of the dragon is very different. Overall we had to rethink a lot of things and continuously remind ourselves that the format is changed. It wasn’t easy but it happened surprisingly smoothly. I have to credit the talent around me.

WS: The story is the same, and actually, there was already a video element Dave wrote into the show early on. Dave and I had done some shows in the past using video projection behind live marionette performance. Dave included that technique in the script and Joe Serkoch and I both captured many video elements for the first installment of this show. I had already edited all the pre-recorded audio, which included amazing original music created by The Upholsterers. Dave wrote all the lyrics. I did some songs. So much stuff was prerecorded and, although intended for a live theatrical performance, it actually is going to totally work out in the filming and editing process.

It’s weird–like really strange that in the show, a central part of the plot is Stanley’s story having the potential of being turned into a movie. I could go on and on and on discussing the super deep meta-ness of this show and the way it’s coming together, but I’ll hold back. We are so grateful for the recorded voice work that was done on this show at such early stages when we were just beginning to put the pieces together. I was blown away by coming to this town from Texas and seeing the communal support friends, artists, and creators of all kinds engage in to make beautiful things happen. It happens in other places I’ve lived, but I have now had the privilege of collaborating with someone, Dave, who has put in the work to really know how to bring people together for a positive experience that is hopefully enriching for all involved. I’m so glad we’re at this point.

detail of puppet stage with marionette sitting in home setting

Sometimes a banana is just a banana

Is there anything else you’d like Orbit readers to know about the show?

DE: If you want to cancel culture us that’s fine but you shouldn’t have waited until the world was ending.

WS: It’s really good. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing has for anyone recently. It has definitely been fun and rewarding, and we hope that our puppet/music/theater/video alchemy yields something rewarding for all who watch.

puppeteer Will Schutze working on computer

Schutze at work, video editing “The Dragon of Polish Hill”

What’s next for the show? For each of you as puppeteers/artists?

DE: It is hard to say what is next for anyone these days. Our lives hinge between a global pandemic, a new social revolution, and a madman election that could lead to the end of our democracy. A puppet show like ours is a feather in the wind against these forces. We’re magical weirdos who feel damn lucky and privileged to even be doing any of this right now. So many other people had shows canceled and that was it. Too bad. But we got to finish the damn show and somehow ended up with a full length puppet movie. Our plan was to shop it to theaters all around the country and do a tour–the whole thing is built to fold up and be transportable–but theaters are closed. Audiences are reluctant. I don’t blame them. So now we don’t have a live show to shop around. Now we have a movie and for me that is new territory. So we’re shopping a movie around.

WS: This show has already gone through so many stages and permutations. I will be extremely happy once we complete the film and share it with folks. I truly believe it is going to have a good life. I definitely look forward to more adventures with Dave and I am so glad to be making these connections with all yinz too.

stage shot of marionette on film set

The outlaw Willy James

To watch any of the upcoming free (donations accepted) screenings of The Dragon of Polish Hill, register ahead of time here: https://www.crowdcast.io/newhazletttheater

There are three scheduled screenings:

  • Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8 PM
  • Friday, Sept. 25 at 11 AM
  • Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 PM

All photos courtesy of Dave English and Will Schutze, except where noted.

Black-and-Gold: Steeler Party Wagons

large RV with airbrush portraits of Steelers football players, Pittsburgh, PA

Third and loooonnng. Luxury Steelers party tour bus, Heinz Field

It ain’t like it was, let me tell you. Twenty years ago, a duck down any side street or upriver saunter and one was almost guaranteed to encounter a 1970s-era Econoline or decommissioned delivery truck, battered and weather-worn but still unmistakably decked-out in the colors and insignia of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Club. Invariably, these vehicles were hand-painted by one or more fanatics who one imagines would otherwise never pick up brush and paint can in what anyone would consider art.

Sadly, in the pre-camera-in-your-pocket era, these fascinating objets d’art went largely undocumented–not just by your author, but by the world at large. This unlikely intersection between obsessed sports fandom and a kind of naive folk art was one of the prime inspirations for creating the Pittsburgh Orbit.

Chevy van decorated in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

classic Steelers party van, North Side

Why, I remember a few specifics–a van on North Ave. in Millvale, just down from the Hardee’s; another on Rt. 51, just before you get to West Elizabeth; still another at a bend in a curve just uphill from the Bloomfield Bridge.

The vehicles dating from the Chuck Noll regime are all gone now. Rusted through, probably, but also possibly banished by a household that can no longer justify the second mortgage required for season tickets, or given-away when all those game-day sausages and Iron City pounders caught up with him or her … but let’s be honest: it was probably him.

old school bus decorated in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Blitzburgh Bus, Lawrenceville

old RV painted in Steelers black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Northside

Steeler Party Wagons are, of course, not entirely a thing of the past–we’ve got a pretty good set of closer-to-present-day photos right here. But man, it took this blogger six years of patient reporting, trips directly to the source–game days at Heinz Field–and slamming the breaks any time we crossed paths with one in the wild just to bring this meager assemblage to market. One photo never happened because I wouldn’t accept a beer bong challenge from a Lou Ferrigno dopplegänger, hopped-up and out-of-his-mind by 11 AM on game day.

cargo van painted in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Wanted Fine Art Steeler party van, East Liberty

cargo van painted for Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Wanted Fine Art Steeler party van, rear

The party wagons you see today are of an entirely different character. Often, they more resemble the kind of luxury vehicles touring musicians take on the road or fancy private airport shuttles. They’ve almost always been professionally painted with photo-accurate Steelers logos and player decals. Tricked-out with upholstered seating and tinted windows, they’re a far cry from the DIY minimal transport that once hauled die-hards into the city to see Bubby Brister and Walter Abercrombie in disappointing 7-9 seasons.

large Ford passenger van painted black and gold with Steelers logos and logo, Charleroi, PA

Charleroi

former delivery van now painted in Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold

Heinz Field

This year the region’s Steelers party wagons have a lot lighter schedule. Instead of the grueling 10 to 12 Sundays they might put in during a normal campaign, most will inevitably be idled by a COVID-stifled season. The games will go on (at least, that’s the plan) but spectator attendance is drastically limited.

But maybe we’ll still manage to see these black-and-gold hulks out and about. Perhaps the party busses will be rerouted to game-day celebrations outside taverns or to right there in the big pavement of Heinz Field’s many parking lots, where tailgating is presumably still allowed even if you can’t get in the gate. Maybe a few lucky wagoneers will even get into the limited seating for real human beings. We’ll see.

former school bus decorated with "Steelers", Pittsburgh, PA

Northside

former ambulance decorated with Pittsburgh Steelers team logos

Emergency! Heinz Field

collapsable camping trailer painted black and gold, West Elizabeth, PA

Steelers camper trailer, West Elizabeth

pontoon boat decorated with for the Pittsburgh Steelers docked in river

Steelers party boat, Allegheny River

airbrush painting of football players on side of large RV


See also:

Bugging Out to Schaefer’s Auto Art

large outdoor sculpture of yellow and black flying insect made with recycled parts

“The Bumblebee,” one of a dozen large sculptures created from recycled parts at Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie.

A giant bumblebee, the size of a garbage truck, is perched and ready to strike. Canted forward on bent legs, two enormous antennae reach out into the thick air. A conical stinger stands alert like a warning beacon. From this vantage point it could plug directly into the telephone wires running overhead.

The big bee is a work of art living in the green grass of a large private yard. Its head is made from the fore-section of an old Saab; the thorax looks like the tumbler from a cement mixer. Spindly legs, delicate wings, and all the insect’s other features have been similarly fashioned from junkyard effluvia. It’s one of a dozen or so works at Schaefer’s Auto Art.

outdoor sculpture of fantasy flying machine created with recycled parts

flying machine

sculpture of giant multicolor spider with Volkswagen Beetle as the body

“The Spider”

It’s a stretch to consider the city of Erie within Pittsburgh’s orbit. Lying a hundred miles due north of us, “The Flagship City” is well outside the about-an-hour’s-drive metric we usually use for such classification and it has a history and population great enough to warrant its own speculative, hyper-local blog of regional ephemera.

That said, especially this time of year, Pittsburghers of many persuasions routinely find themselves trundling up I-79 to sink bare feet into the closest patch of warm, sun-soaked beach sand available, make the long loop around Presque Isle, get some Greek sauce at a dinor (sic.), and gaze out across the great lake. Orbit staff, in need of the safest of getaways in this summer of isolation, are no exception.

large outdoor sculpture of a rocket made recycled parts

“The Rocket”

sculpture of man created with auto parts

“Automan”

The next time you’re headed on that Lake Erie trip, get hip to this kindly tip. Mere minutes from the interstate highway is a magical space well worth the slight detour. On an enormous front yard, just outside Erie city limits in McKean Township, is a sculpture garden/outsider artist environ of fantasy flying machines and movie monster creatures, a welcoming “auto man” and evil eye-in-the-sky tree robot.

They’re all the work of one Richard Shaefer who, the web site informs us, “is an Erie native who first became interested in ‘auto art’ in 1988. He utilizes welding and fabricating techniques and basic automotive knowledge learned from his father.”

sculpture of dinosaur with two heads made from recycled auto parts

“The Two-Headed Dinosaur”

sculpture of cannon made from wagon parts and bowling balls

patriotic cannon

Schaefer’s Auto Art is clearly a work-in-progress–and hopefully it always will be. While the big front yard/display area has a dozen or so final, completed works, it runs directly into a collection of other … source material? works-in-progress? A motorcycle sits atop a tall elevated pole that must have at one time held a billboard or seen-from-the-highway road sign. The front halves of two 1970s-era Lincoln Continentals have been fused together, but not yet decorated or placed into the collection. An older pickup truck appears to be in cold storage, just waiting for the Schaefer treatment.

mailbox painted with insects and the words "The Buzz Box"

The Buzz Box

sculpture of robot-like orb hanging from tall pine tree

tree robot/eye in the sky

The finished pieces are a hoot. They’re fun, imaginative, and glow with their creator’s unique vision. The collage of junkyard auto parts and bound-for-the-scrap heap metal bits and bobs have been granted an incredible new life no one would have expected. Together, they paint a fantasy portrait of the world that’s equal parts Godzilla and Buck Rogers, Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka.

Needless to say, Schaefer’s Auto Art is well worth the day trip. You’ll probably be headed up that way soon enough.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car

“Two-Face” Lincoln Continental and motorcycle-on-a-pole

sculpture of man's head made from car parts

Automan (detail)


Getting there: Schaefer’s Auto Art is at 3705 Hershey Road in Erie, PA, 16506. Note that this is a large front yard of a private home and while guests are encouraged and invited to visit the artwork, one should respect the private property. Parking is available via a small pull-off area right in front on Hershey Road. Don’t use or block the private driveway.

Also: this story can’t help but remind us of the terrific Meadville Penn-DOT road sign sculptures. They are right on the way to Erie and make a great two-fer auto(-related) art road trip to points north.

A Secret Sanctuary, Seldom Seen: Pittsburgh’s Secret Greenway

train trestle through woods covered in graffiti

Seldom seen but oft-graffiti’d. The “secret place” graffiti trestle at Seldom Seen Greenway, Beechview.

It’s not an easy thing to do–hiding a 22-acre green space right in the middle of a city. But that’s just what seems to have happened here.

On the one hand, Seldom Seen Greenway seems incongruously named. The medium-small park is at a collision between the steep wooded hillsides on southwest side of the city and a criss-crossing of old urban infrastructure. What remains has been graffitied and tagged-up; footpaths are littered with the broken glass of a hundred beer bottles. Go there on a sunny Sunday, like we did, and you’ll encounter casual hikers canoodling and doobie-smokers cave-huffing. In short: enough folks have managed to visit and leave their traces that this place is at least somewhat seen.

wide creek through woods

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

By any other measure, though, Seldom Seen is legitimately a secret among its peers in the city parks system. There’s no signage to point you to an entrance and getting here is neither either easy nor obvious. A placard near the tiny parking lot states Est. by the City of Pittsburgh, 1985 and Given by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy but neither entity wants to claim it.

The CitiParks web site lists several dozen–maybe a hundred–different parks in city limits. These range from gigantic Frick, Schenley, and Riverview down to individual basketball courts and corner-lot playgrounds, but it makes no mention of Seldom Seen. The Greenway is just as invisible on the WPA Conservancy site.

Technically in Beechview, Seldom Seen is really nowhere–off-road along an anonymous stretch of Rt. 51, downhill from Mt. Washington, and just east of the West End. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for 24 years and yet I don’t know anyone who’s been there. It was time to go check it out.

stone arch over creek and footpath

The Seldom Seen Arch, 1902

Acting as both entrance gate and its most prominent single feature, the Seldom Seen Arch, a creek-spanning stone-and-brick railroad bridge, is worth the trip all by itself. A Pittsburgh History & Landmarks plaque informs us the arch was constructed in 1902 and features the kind of masonry craftsmanship one worries has been banished from this earth.

The particular design has a series of tiered, stair step-like half rings that are each offset from the previous layer by a width of two bricks at the base. At the point directly overhead, everything flattens out; by the opposite wall, the layer order has reversed. It’s really a remarkably beautiful construction for something as mundane as the underside of a small railroad bridge in the woods. I’m afraid no single photograph will do it justice, so if you like this kind of thing you really need to go see it in person.

detail of intricate brickwork in arched stone and brick train trestle

Detail, Seldom Seen Arch brickwork

Infrastructure around train tracks is something of a theme at Seldom Seen. There are at least three different trestles the visitor walks under/around in the relatively short span of a hike here. Neither of the others are as spectacular as the arch, but they all offer great thing-in-the-woods scenery, dramatic shadow forms, and opportunities for exploration.

underside of old steel and wood train trestle

Trestle-view

cement and steel train trestle in the woods

Shadowplay. Train trestle and walking bridge.

Of course, the real attraction of a place like this is the open nature one gets to explore and Seldom Seen has that in abundance. Little Sawmill Run flows slowly on a crooked course through the venue. Here in Pittsburgh’s dry season, it’s obvious the water is at a low point, allowing easy walks out into the middle of the slow creek on various stone patches. Likely the full width of the creek spreads out considerably in rainier times.

woman standing by creek in woods

Mom of Orbit (MOO? OK, maybe not)/Orbit Mom (OM? better) in the stone-filled, low water Sawmill Run

While north of the creek is relatively flat land where a couple short hiking paths lead through the woods, the other side tells a different, more dramatic, story. Rising up from the water’s edge is a steep hillside that appears to go straight up for at least a hundred feet–all of which is covered in a thick wood.

layers of graffiti on cement wall

Layers of graffiti

Together, Seldom Seen Greenway is a beautiful collection of elements that feel uniquely Pittsburgh: steep hillsides, lush deep green overgrowth, industrial history, a kids-in-the-woods/troublemaker paradise, and nature-without-man benign neglect. Its status as no one-wants-to-claim-us park/not-a-park only makes it moreso.

It took me 24 years to make it here–heck, it took me 20 years just to hear about the place! You know about it too (at least, now you do) and there’s never been a better time to check out a place where you’ll encounter few other humans and lots of fresh air.

salt dome by busy two-lane highway

Getting there: turn at the Rt. 51 salt dome!

Getting there: The first rule is don’t rely on Google’s directions! If you do, you’ll end up at a small industrial drive surrounded by the wares of an apparent flag merchant. This is interesting in its own right, but it’s not the Seldom Seen Greenway.

Sadly, you do need a car* because one has to drive on the highway. There will be no road signs for the Greenway. You can only get there from the south-east-bound lane of Rt. 51/Sawmill Run Blvd. Just before you get to Woodruff Street, there’s a BP station and then the tell-tale DPW salt dome. Take the little turn-off and there will be a small parking lot with a little sign telling you you’re in the right spot. You won’t miss the arch.

* Perhaps one could walk from the back side of Mt. Washington (Woodruff Street), but it ain’t recommended.

wooded hillside and creek

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

Cut Up: The Secret Collage Work of Artist Mark 347

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including comic book characters, the devil, and patterned background

“Archie Gets Some Strange,” Detail of collage by Pittsburgh artist Mark 347.

If you’re headed uphill, in the evening, through Central Lawrenceville, look up. There’s one particular well-kept brick rowhouse where the light in the third floor window is reliably lit–its occupant compulsively at work with a stack of discarded magazines and product packaging, comic books and office supplies, an X-Acto knife and bottle of glue.

It is refreshing to know an artist like Mark 347 (not his given surname–“That’s my nom de Arte…from my pretentious, ’80s industrial roots”). In the me me me world of Internet self-promotion, Mark has been quietly making art–specifically collage–for decades, with next-to-no interest in anyone ever seeing it.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with strange face mask

“(Un)Consciousness”

It took well over a year of badgering before Mark showed up in my backyard one evening with a surprise gift-wrapped package containing dozens of his postcard-sized paper collages. The pieces are funny and beautiful, poignant and absurd. One can read a little or a lot into any of these little artworks and every one of them tells a story–maybe even a few.

We’re honored that Mark is letting us share his work with Orbit readers and that he agreed to discuss his background and method with us. As he says below, the work is entirely personal–both “therapy” and “self-medication,” so not generally for wider consumption. We also learned the word sigil from this piece. What started as a Q&A turned into Mark delivering a fully-realized process statement. We’ve to chosen to present that in toto here.

All original collage artwork and the text below by Mark 347, with permission of the artist. Mark has, reluctantly, entered the Internet age, so for more of his work or to get in touch, you can follow him on Instagram at @arbuswitkin.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including colonial-era figure with glass of milk and fez hat

“The Invention Of Headphones”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with giant megaphone and crazed cartoon head

“Killing the Messenger”

Collage began as a childhood game. Bored at Grandma’s, you grab some old magazines and start cutting. No one cared that you had a pair of enormous scissors in your hand, your mouth was shut and that was enough. I don’t remember actually gluing these things together, but moving the pieces around, making strange creatures and odd scenes morph into a soup.

Later on, my interest in art expanded with a voracious exposure to books, music, and film. The pre-Internet searching revealed a true web where threads connected and one artist led me to a film that influenced their work or a book that they read several times or an LP that changed their lives.

Complicating my education was my attraction to dark, underground outsiders, whose works were harder to get my paws on. The lesson learned was that truth and purity lie beneath the surface. What’s under the rock I find far more interesting than the qualities of the rock itself–no offense to rocks. Words for these abstract thoughts came from Kurt Schwitters, who proclaimed EVERYTHING is Art and William Burroughs’ declaring life to be a cut-up.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including three disembodie mouths, each with a cigarette, and the word ENJOY

“Enjoy”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including faces of Archie comics characters, crucifix, and Godzilla

“Juggie’s Bum Trip”

I believe everything is art and the constant stream of more and faster, bombarding every sense with stimuli is the cut-up, aka collage. We take every second and create memories of perceived reality that are, in fact, collages.

Dilettante that I am, I’ve been more or less cooperative with drawing, painting, sculpture, and assemblage, but I compulsively return to collage. I can’t stop accumulating raw material to play with juxtaposition, perception, and the complete destruction of context–and it is play. It’s also quite serious.

Collages are practical sigils, charged with enough energy from their creative process to manifest the will of their creator. (Be careful, kiddies. You get exactly what you want.)

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including photograph of Jackie Kennedy and man with skull head

“Camelot”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including disk jockey with a horse's head

“Music For Horses”

At the beginning of 5th grade, OCD came to stay and it feeds on control, order, and perfection, which, unfortunately, aren’t on the menu. I believe I do collage compulsively because it supplies control and order and…precision, but not always perfection. Two out of three ain’t bad. It’s therapy. Self-medicating with paper, scissors, and glue. (Digital collage can kiss my ass.)

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including checkerboard, Ace playing card, and woman listening through headphones

“Unorthodox Methods”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including patterned background, three-legged devil, skull, candle, and the letters IMI and E

“Witchdoctor Saturday Night”

Source materials come from anywhere and everywhere: junk mail, old comic books, vintage porn, true crime journals, advertising, trash, cereal boxes, and random packaging…anything. If it appeals to me on some expressive level, into the morgue it goes.

A two-drawer filing cabinet stuffed with various files holds my archive of appropriated ephemera. Categorized generally, for instance Heads or Medical, it reflects the chaotic puzzle with no box that might be created, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or, it’s just a collection of bits and pieces to manipulate like a dictator.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including woman's hand holding a flower and packaging label reading "As Seen on TV"

“Not Available In Stores”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with red dots on his bare back

“Affliction (Catholic Guilt)”

I spend anywhere from minutes to hours every day starting, working on, or finishing a collage. No matter what else I’m doing at the time, scraps get fiddled with. While working on one, I’ll get an idea and start another. Some itch is being scratched and it relieves pressure like a martini after work…or three. I have no processes beyond chaos, chance, and magick. I’m anti-equipment and anti-technique, largely from ignorance, preferring to use discards and junky supplies to the finest canvas and a $300 spatula.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including alien figure and the word REVOLT

“The Future Is Revolting”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including crosses, wooden figure, and abstract painted background

“Tent Revival Love Affair”

I never plan ahead. but let my fingers do the walking, starting in any direction. It may lead somewhere illuminating or to a high cliff. Meaning and message create themselves. I’ve never sat down to create a specific, themed, or intentionally didactic piece, but if that’s what results, the means and the end can fight it out. Some, ultimately, present purposeful ideas, but I make things for me in my own time. If this were my job, it would lose all it’s goofy charm and I’d live for weekends.

portrait of artist Mark 347

Mark 347 at home [photo: Paul Schifino]

paper collage by artist Mark Janicko including layers of overlapping shapes and patterns

“Rock, Paper, Scissors”

If viewers enjoy my work, terrific, but most of it has never been seen and probably never will be. For them to be amused, intrigued, confounded or disoriented by its presence would be the highest compliment, but I’m not fishing. I just can’t help myself.

If there’s anything else to glean from collage, I’d stress that nothing is what it seems to be, head scratching is permitted, and, as Austin Osman Spare so aptly put it, “What does not matter, need not be.”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with chicken head and the word OFF

“Off”

Deflated and Kicked to the Curb: Sad Toys, Balls to the Wall Edition

worn medicine balls left in alley

medicine balls, Strip District

It’s unfair to call the big balls lonely because, after all, there are three of them bound in this particular predicament–but they’re definitely sad. A trio of old-school medicine balls, each a different circumference and weight, has been left out in the alley behind a small Strip District gymnasium. The leather (?) bound skin of the two larger objects is ruptured at the seams from an excess of exercise, revealing loose fabric like blood gushing from a knife wound.

street football, Oakland

green play ball on the curb of highway

green ball, kicked to the curb, North Side

In the world of Sad Toys, there are a clear pair of winners in the sweepstakes of human pathos. Nothing can really touch the head-shaking, waterworks-inducing reaction to a beloved teddy bear or perfect princess dress-up doll dropped from a stroller, dismembered and/or face down in roadside mud. Nevertheless, we persist in a pursuit of those lesser, sleeper categories of lost playthings.

In this quest, one should not discount the intangible loss experienced by what could have been. Consider a group of playground kickball teammates, the outcome of their match against cross-school rivals forever in limbo when a dramatic home run is kicked over the fence and down the hillside. Alternately, imagine bragging rights at an annual family reunion volleyball showdown left unresolved for an entire year as cousin spikes against uncle, jettisoning the ball deep into the surrounding woods; the contest abruptly ended before barbeque chicken and potato salad ever makes it to festooned picnic tables. Oh, the humanity!

yellow rubber kickball in storm drain, California-Kirkbride

flat volleyball left in dried leaves

volleyball, Mt. Washington

So, in this time when next-to-no sports are happening, either at a professional or recreational level, and children are forced to limit their playtime to backyards and rigidly-regulated playground trips, we salute these strange vestiges of a pre-Covid-19 world: the sad toy balls of an earlier, more free and open era that existed as recently as just this past winter.

blue toy ball left on curb of brick street

blue ball, McKees Rocks

yellow ball left in dried leaves

yellow ball, Mt. Washington

green ball left in alley

green ball, Lawrenceville

deflated toy ball left on street

discarded and deflated: purple spiky ball, Shadeland

flat basketball on empty macadam

basketball, Lawrenceville

tiny soccer ball and downspout, Lawrenceville