The Tooth Shall Set You Free! Dental Art, Part 2

mural painted on brick wall for Smiles by Hart dentist office including Pittsburgh imagery, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and the banner message "Brush, Floss & Be Happy"

Brush, Floss & Be Happy, Smiles by Hart mural by Tim Engelhardt, North Oakland

We watched it go up, day-by-day over a couple weeks in November. The new mural, painted by artist Tim Engelhardt on the brick wall of Smiles by Hart’s Centre Ave. office, appeared like an Orbit photo fantasy. It’s got a little bit of everything: sports team logos, greatest hits from the Pittsburgh skyline, a trio of red Valentine’s Day hearts, floating red lips, and the not-quite-what-you-were-looking-for life advice to Brush, Floss & Be Happy.

While the new painting fits all these categories, the most powerful graphic expression comes from the dentist’s office-specific inclusion of a dozen toothbrushes and half as many oozing tubes of what appear to be cadmium white oil paint … but in this context, we can probably assume as toothpaste.

The whole collection is set just so, arranged to form the meta image of a pair of giant disembodied wings. The painting seems to suggest that through a healthy regimen of dental hygiene, we may all be lifted into the aether. The tooth, the mural seems to say, shall set you free.

orthodontist sign with stylized images of teeth straightening, Richard J. Dahar, Avalon, PA

Pop art orthodontist: Richard J. Dahar, D.M.D., Avalon

Who knew? Lurking amongst the quaint, prewar housing, protestant churches, and discount retail in the near western suburbs lies a hotbed of the dental arts. Mere blocks from each other along Bellevue/Avalon’s main drag, reside four different professional offices engaged in a kind-of arms race of the teeth.

The sign for orthodontist Richard J. Dahar’s Avalon office (above) features a four-panel sequence of technicolor abstracted lips, teeth, and braces that clearly apes the super-saturated, square-format repetition of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens.

Just down the road, Bellevue Dental Associates have opted for a more classical design featuring the odd image of five figures engaged in what feels like a pagan ritual (below). The multi-color people hold hands to form a wide ring surrounding a bulbous tooth the size of a Hyundai. While a regular visit to one’s dentist is certainly good practice, this level of tooth worship may be taking it too far.

ornate sign for Bellevue Dental Associates with people forming ring around giant tooth

Ring around the root canal: Bellevue Dental Assoc.

dentist sign with stylized teeth in multiple colors, Bellevue, PA

Micucci can clean dirty teeth, but not dirty minds. Micucci Family Dentistry, Bellevue

awning for dentist John Debonis with tooth-shaped logo, Bellevue, PA

Blue tooth: John Debonis, D.M.D., Bellevue

Beyond greater Bellevue, we located some more of the themes we explored in part 1: glowing, neon tooth outlines, giant graphic silhouettes, abstracted gestural teeth, and one kid-friendly, colorful teeth-cleaning collage.

front window for dentist James M. Eiben with large neon tooth

Neon tooth: James M. Eiben, D.M.D., South Side

neon sign with large tooth for Beaver Dental Arts, Beaver, PA

Neon tooth, too: Beaver Dental Arts

Smile! That’s an order! Advanced Dentistry, Oakdale

stainless steel sign for Three Rivers Endodontics with stylized tooth logo

Silver filling: Three Rivers Endodontics, East Liberty

Sometimes it can feel like a grim world out there–and no one likes going to the dentist–but hats off to all the dental artists making the world a little more colorful, neon-lit, and, yes, toothy. “Brush, floss, and be happy” may not end up a Bobby McFerrin lyric, but there are worse credos to base one’s life on.

logo for Brungo Dentistry including colorful letters made to look like teeth, toothpaste, and a toothbrush

Brungo Dentistry, West View


See also: Incisor Edition: Dental Art (part 1), Pittsburgh Orbit, Aug. 5, 2018.

Something Dramatic: The Orbit Interview with Monessen Mayor Matt Shorraw

four-story building mid-way through being torn down

“We need something dramatic.” Downtown Monessen building, mid-tear down, 2019

Even a broken clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. That’s true enough … unless one of the hands is missing.

It wasn’t until I was looking back at the quick couple of photos I’d taken last weekend that I realized the City of Monessen town clock–manufactured over a hundred years ago by the Brown Street Clock Company, right here in Monessen–had lost an appendage.

Now, that could happen anywhere and I’m sure it will be fixed soon enough, but this clock–not even right once a day–is about as perfect a metaphor for disjointed local government as you’ll find.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of downtown clock

Even a broken clock is right twice a day…unless the minutes hand has fallen off. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw and the town clock.

River City: We got troubles.
Monessen: Hold my beer.

With apologies to “Professor” Harold Hill and the gang, Monessen would love to have a new billiards parlor–or any other business, for that matter–set up shop in town. The small city, 30 miles upriver from Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley, has lost two-thirds of the population it had at its peak in the 1940s. The mills started closing a couple decades later and the real death blow came when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel finally pulled out in the mid-‘8Os.

Downtown Monessen, a nine- or ten-block-long by two-block wide stretch of what was once bustling Main Street America, is now a gap-toothed poster child for the fallout of big industry in the Rust Belt. The remaining storefronts are equal parts gorgeous late Victorian and between-the-wars brick-and-stone, crumbling with decades of neglect, and newer, obviously-out-of-place attempts at mid-century modernization. In between are gravel-filled vacant lots and collapsing sibling structures, biding their time until the city has enough money to tear them down.

large ornate building in bad condition

“We need something to spark a conversation.” The “HEALTH” building, downtown Monessen.

“This is a great place to live. I like it here,” says Matt Shorraw, the 28-year-old mayor of Monessen, midway through his first term in office. “A lot of family members have told me, ‘Get out–there’s nothing left here,’ but I’m not leaving. I feel like I have to be here.”

Say what you want about millennials–and believe me, Mayor Matt’s constituents are saying a lot about one particular millennial–but a young person committing to a life of service in the home town his own family is begging him to leave does not fit any negative stereotype of the generation.

Shorraw continues with a boundless optimism about the past-is-prologue potential of his home town. “It’s not an accident that Monessen was centrally located between five different county seats. We have easy access to I-70, rail lines, and we’re right on the river.” Shorraw also cites the low cost of living and the city’s location between metro Pittsburgh and the Laurel Highlands as virtues. “Eventually the success of Pittsburgh is going to make its way down through the Mon Valley.”

Monessen mayor Matt Shorraw's tattooed arm including image combining downtown Pittsburgh with flaming smokestack of Monessen

“I’m not leaving.” Shorraw’s left arm tattoo combines downtown Pittsburgh with the flaming stack of Monessen’s ArcelorMittal coke plant (and a certain starry night).

The last 30 days have been eventful for the young mayor. In December, he released an exhaustive 103-page document titled Monessen: A New Vision–The Mayor’s Strategic Plan. The comprehensive vision statement covers everything from nuts-and-bolts city issues like what streets to prioritize paving and park maintenance details to long-term, broad aspirational goals. These include the creation of a light rail transit link from The Mon Valley to Pittsburgh and a tech-focused “innovation district” downtown.

“I know it won’t all get done,” Shorraw says of the plan, “But we need something dramatic. We need something to spark a conversation. If we could only get the tax base, we could do incredible things.”

“We’re constantly doing damage control,” the mayor says of trying to keep up with the flood of maintenance issues in the city, “We’ve only been able to focus on paving roads and tearing down houses. We’re not looking 10, 20, 30 years into the future.”

row of identical wooden houses, all missing windows and overgrown with weeds

“We’re constantly doing damage control.” Empty houses on Sixth Avenue

So, Monessen has an enthusiastic young mayor, immersed in a hands-on crash course on public policy, realistic in the short-term and committed to a long-range vision of revitalizing the city he’s vowed to remain faithful to–what’s not to like? Well, the city doesn’t have a coffee shop, or a movie theater, or a bowling alley, but it does have a particularly large elephant residing in this Mon Valley room.

Immediately after taking office, in January, 2018, things “got real” with the Monessen city council. New Mayor Shorraw immediately spotted what he saw as “improprieties” with regard to how management of the city police pension fund was being conducted and responded by alerting the Pennsylvania state auditor general.

From there, it got real ugly, real fast. Shorraw details the council’s threats, attempts to force his resignation, and then impeachment. (Not sure that last one is really a thing.) The mayor responded by refusing to attend any council meetings for the next 20 months.

large ornate building in bad condition

Nature’s Pathway Taxidermy, downtown Monessen

While Mayor Matt wasn’t at the official meetings, he didn’t stop, you know, mayoring. Shorraw was still out in the community and maintains that he was fully available, just a phone call or email away. Part of the ongoing work was authoring a series of essays, posted publicly on Medium.com, detailing a level of local government chicanery and sausage-making that most of us lay folk are never exposed to.

The seven-part (and counting) series, all under the title Fighting City Hall From Within, offers a brutally-frank, unfiltered insider’s view of city government–and the corrupt actions of its members–the likes of which you’re unlikely to see anywhere. The posts are thick with first-hand details and Shorraw is not afraid to name names–of council members, legal entities, business partners, and the like.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building

You *can* fight city hall … if you’re the mayor. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building.

Now, your author is not a constituent of Shorraw’s, so he has no “skin in the game,” as they say. But I can imagine a very strong two-sided reaction to this whole thing if I were. On the one hand, it is incredibly refreshing to see a young, inexperienced politician come into an old-boys we’ve always done it this way environment and both start asking hard questions and then actually do something when he sees real governmental corruption. In this case, report it to the authorities and let the citizens know what’s going on.

On the other hand, you just can’t walk away from the office and expect to either affect change or earn the trust of your constituents. “Eighty percent of life is showing up,” they say, and it’s really hard to imagine anything in that elaborate city plan getting done from the couch at Chez Shorraw.

roofline of Foodland grocery store with flaming smokestack behind it

Foodland Fresh and the eternal flame of ArcelorMittal coke works, downtown Monessen

That absence ended dramatically the week before last as Shorraw returned to a calamitous city council meeting that included the abrupt firing of the city administrator and solicitor. The proceedings, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, devolved into a gavel-banging group shouting match. “I had to scream or nothing would get done,” Shorraw says. You can YouTube the whole thing if you’ve got the stomach for it. “I’m back. For good.” Shorraw told us.

Let’s hope that’s true. There are a whole lot of reasons why The Orbit makes the hour-long drive down to the Mon Valley again and again. As an outsider, it’s an incredible place full of lovely people, deep, important history, terrific old-world culture, and a brutal, tragic beauty. We’ll add that’s it’s also got some of the best pizza on the planet–well worth the trip for that reason alone. We wish the absolute best for Monessen (and its sister Mon Valley ex-steel towns) and really just hope that everyone can find a way to get along.


Links:

A High Five for the Skyline

mural by Baron Batch depicting cartoonish, colorful version of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Real skyline above, fantasy skyline below. Dirty Franky’s Laundromat, Beltzhoover. [mural by Baron Batch]

You’d think the city would eventually run out of artist depictions and graphically deconstructed interpretations of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. But … you’d be wrong.

No, four years on and five posts into the series, it feels like we’re just getting started cataloging every time we see clustered renderings of PPG Place, US Steel tower, the Highmark needle, bridges on either side, etc. That first story, from January, 2016, had a mere five examples in it. Looking back, our editors hang their heads low at this naively pathetic early offering–nowadays, we can bag that many skylines in a good weekend!

P*Town Bar sign including the Pittsburgh skyline

Silhouette city. P*Town Bar, North Oakland.

We must have walked/driven past the provocatively-named P*Town Bar on Baum Blvd. a zillion times, but have you ever really looked at the backlit, multicolor sign out front? It’s a perfect silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh’s tallest buildings forming an artful lineup against a pure white background. While it’s questionable that you’d get a vantage point to see these tall buildings in this exact arrangement, P*Town clearly gets an A+ for showing off city skyscrapers in all their glory.

It’s not alone. From Tow-tegrity’s giant hauling hook about to decapitate PPG Tower to the ambitious cyclist scaling the roof of Gateway Center for Bike the Burgh Tours, this batch of Pittsburgh city-scapes is almost entirely commercial in nature. Hey–it still took a (graphic) artist to put them together.

logo for Tow-Tegrity towing service including the Pittsburgh skyline and giant hook

Hooked on the skyline. Tow-Tegrity, Inc. “Towing with Integrity,” New Brighton.

If you’re going to include skyline imagery and call your business or organization Pittsburgh this or Steel City that or River City the other, you might as well go all-in with a patriotic color scheme.

This time around, there are plenty of signs rendered in Pittsburgh no-brainer black-and-gold.

logo for Pittsburgh Sheds N'At including the Pittsburgh skyline

Skylines N’At. Pittsburgh Sheds N’At, Gibsonia

black and gold logo for Steel City Cutting & Coring including city skyline

Pixelated Picksburgh[1]. Steel City Cutting & Coring.

black and gold logo for River City Church with three iconic downtown Pittsburgh buildings in silhouette

Skyline reduced to three buildings. River City Church, Swissvale.

logo for 412 Properties including the Pittsburgh skyline

412 Properties, Lawrenceville

sign for Bike the Burgh Tours with a bicycle rider on a silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline

If you thought the complaining about bicycle lanes was bad now, check out this new plan. Bike the Burgh Tours, downtown.

waste bin plaque including the Pittsburgh skyline

A most livable skyline. City waste bin plaque.

Pittsburgh skyline on side of Ford truck with the message "the Official Truck of the Pittsburgh Penguins"

Pucks over Pittsburgh! Ford, the Official Truck of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

window painting of Pittsburgh skyline

Skyline looking south. Northside Community Development Fund, Deutschtown.

Of course, not every establishment felt the need to go with the de rigueur color scheme. Pittsburgh skyline logos also come in green and white; red, white, and blue; teal and violet; and green and blue.

No judgement here. These businesses are staking their claim as hometown products of Pittsburgh and should be rewarded for their effort. Hats–and in the case of The Cricket, lots of other garments–off to all of these places. This fifth time around, they all get a high five for the skyline.

painted sign for Cricket Lounge including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh

Even naked ladies like the Pittsburgh skyline. Cricket Lounge, North Oakland.

sign for Pittsburgh Community Services including the Pittsburgh skyline

Sci-Fi Sky. Skyline meets triangle + boomerang modern astral ring. Pittsburgh Community Services, Inc., Oakland.

logo for Pittsburgh Cares with caricature of the Pittsburgh skyline as fingers in a hand

Skyline as helping hand. Pittsburgh Cares, Lawrenceville.

blue and green logo for Greater Pittsburgh Real Estate Services featuring stylized version of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Skyline as bar chart. Greater Pittsburgh Real Estate Services.

painting of downtown Pittsburgh at night

Skyline as public art. Irwin.

sticker on urinal with image of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Hygiene City. Enviro-Master Total Hygiene Systems[2]. [photo: Lee Floyd]

neon sign for Welcome Pittsburgh including part of the downtown skyline

Neon skyline. Welcome Pittsburgh, downtown.


[1] While Steel City Cutting & Coring wears their hometown bona fides right in the company name and color scheme, this heavily-abstracted graphic may be a true Pittsburgh skyline, but it could also just be some generic city-like thing. We have to include it, though.
[2] Enviro-Master is a national company, based in Charlotte, NC. It’s unclear whether the small logo, featuring three buildings and an angled gesture, are part of the corporate identity or local branding. [I couldn’t locate the same image–or any company logo–on their web site.] Regardless, it looks enough like a nod to downtown Pittsburgh and the Point that we’re counting it.

The Orbit 2019 Year in Review

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

Lights out: one of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden

If it’s the end of the year, you can reliably expect amateur journalists and armchair prognosticators to be looking back, making Top 10 lists, and recounting the themes accrued since January.

At Orbit headquarters, the end of December is when the bean counters in the back room run the numbers and find out what actually got read over the past annum and devote the week to a no-new-reporting victory lap on the year’s well-read stories. Interestingly, this year’s top three–covering a defunct shopping mall in Beaver Country and two extraordinary Mon Valley pizzerias–all came from outside the city proper.

We also take the opportunity to do some additional promotion for other favorites published during the last twelve months. It’s unfair to call these “sleepers” as we have in past, so we’re just going with staff favorites.

 

The Hits

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

former Chinese restaurant, Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden

1. Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center (March 10)

The sad, quintessentially-American story of Northern Lights Shopping Center arrived on our doorstep in that most Orbit of ways. There was no research or planning involved; the location wasn’t known or targeted; it wasn’t anywhere on our radar. And yet with one wrong turn leaving the little Beaver County borough of Conway we fell ass-backwards into the ghost strip mall that devoured the Main Streets of Ambridge and Rochester ahead of its own drawn-out peril at the dual clutches of the fall of Big Steel and the rise of e-commerce.

However they got here, the readership for this one was off-the-charts. The result was a total number of page-clicks that equals a significant double-digit percentage of everyone in Beaver County. We don’t know who actually read the story, but it sure brought out the memories … and the squabbling. Hopefully Northern Lights will shine again, somehow.

exterior of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, Monessen, PA

Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe, making the same simple pizza in Monessen since 1952.

2. The Pizza Chase: Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe Ain’t Monessen Around (Nov. 24)

If there is a pizza heaven, it may well be thirty miles southeast of Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley. For folks who haven’t spent much/any time in the old upriver steel towns, it can be a shocking reality check that not all of the greater region has enjoyed the same level of post-industrial prosperity Pittsburgh has.

Monessen is as good an example as there is of the fallout that occurs when the mill shuts down and all the jobs–and most of the people–leave town. Some things survive, though, and the mind-bogglingly-good single product of Nuzzaci Pizza Shoppe is one of them. Going on 67 years, the little take-out operation in a basement on Knox Avenue makes a pizza that’s like biting into a cloud. It is unlike anything you’ve ever had and it’s absolutely divine.

pizza cooked Mon Valley red top style from Anthony's Italiano, Donora, PA

Mon Valley Red Top: an Extraordinary pizza from Anthony’s Italiano, Donora

3. The Pizza Chase: Mon Valley Red Top at Anthony’s Italiano (March 17)

Literally right across the river from Monessen is the sister used-to-be-steel/forever-in-infamy burg of Donora. The little city has plenty of its own struggles, but none of them are a lack of good pizza.

Anthony’s Italiano has been operating for over 40 years and their basic product is a pie whose crust will blow your mind with its ciabatta-like chewy/airy ecstasy. That said–when you’re ready to leave this planet entirely–step up to the double-decker, cheese on the inside/sauce on the outside “red top.” It’s no mere novelty–the subtle structural switcheroo flips everything you’ve ever thought you knew about taste, sensation, and the meaning of life. Get one as soon as you can.

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

4. Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way (July 21)

If you want to point to a reason why The Orbit exists, this document of a set of freshly-painted and redecorated concrete steps leading up the alley side of a blank row house wall is pretty much right on target.

The term Thomasson comes from Japanese conceptual artist Akasegawa Genpei and arrived in our ears via the great 99% Invisible podcast. Ever since hearing that episode we were after bagging a Thomasson of our own, here in Pittsburgh. We did that once already, but this one, from a back alley in Bloomfield, is about as perfect an example as you’ll ever encounter.

tiny candy shop–one of several “tiny doors” temporarily installed downtown last summer

5. Let’s Get Small: Big Ideas, Tiny Doors (June 16)

Arriving as part of last summer’s Three Rivers Arts Festival, the limited art installation of three “tiny doors” on downtown buildings were a terrific hide-and-go-seek during (and after) the festivities.

Anything that combines ludicrous absurdity, urban egg-hunting, and, you know, little things is OK in our book. Hopefully (organizer) Stephen Santa and the gang will keep the tiny spirit going with a new set of doors on another collection of sidewalk-level foundation walls … sometime.

 

ORBIT STAFF FAVORITES

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Union Jack tribute to Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti (March 3)

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls. Some of these precious original anthropological traces from hard rock’s golden age survive … if you know where to look.

elaborate diorama of Easter bunnies at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Rabbit rabbit. Big bunnies at Kraynak’s, Sharon.

Animatronically Correct: Hopping Down Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane (April 21)

Flowers pop in full bloom way ahead of schedule as fairies mingle with enormous fuzzy caterpillars. Giant Easter eggs dangle from tree limbs while an array of butterflies lift off in a spectacularly-coordinated squadron. An indoor forest is filled with the world’s most cuddly cavalcade of bunnies and geese, pigs and lambs, bears, owls, and raccoons.

Existing somewhere between the topsy-turvy psychedelic overload of the Wonka Chocolate factory and the kind of über-wholesome family entertainment one would see in a Christian cartoon program, Easter Bunny Lane–an annual technicolor fantasia set up in Kraynak’s outdoor superstore in Sharon, PA–is worth the Easter-season trip.

Kathie Hollingshead’s “Peep All Night” from Art All Night 22

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22 (May 5)

Art All Night, the community empowerment project-masquerading-as-(literal) all night art happening celebrated its twenty-second annual event in April. For anyone who’s been on the inside (ahem), you know that’s an amazing achievement for an all-volunteer “organization” with no permanent leadership, no guaranteed location, no board, no funding, and no profit motive.

The once rag-tag, shoe string, is this going to work? event has morphed into something incongruously expected, routine, and arriving like clockwork while continuing to be radically inclusive, completely nonjudgemental, and absolutely vital. Perhaps the biggest feat of all, Art All Night still manages to find available, unused real estate in a Lawrenceville that has way gentrified itself past the event’s original environs.

KISS super collector Bruce Gleason in his New Kensington home

The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (June 23)

American glam/hard rock group KISS has been strutting, licking it up, and shouting out loud constantly since the band’s inception in the early 1970s. In that time, they’ve also been the most product-placed and merchandised musical act to ever debit your Visa or Mastercharge.

Bruce Gleason was a first-wave KISS fanatic who bought the records–along with posters, toys, and games–as they were released during the band’s “in paint” heyday and never stopped. This story of one man’s devotion–some might say obsession–to collecting the memorabilia and ephemera of “the hottest band in the land” was one of our favorites of the year and made us think long and hard about all the oddball stuff inhabiting space at Chez Orbit.

Perhaps the world’s finest “off hole,” bus lane, downtown Pittsburgh

Waiting to Go Off: In the Street, On Target, and Under the Bus with Off Hole (July 14)

A warning: once your eyes begin to train on “off holes,” you’ll never be able to unsee them. The phenomenon of manhole covers, striped with lane markings and crosswalk paint, and reset askew from their original alignment is something that exists everywhere. Just try to walk a commercial block or drive any through-street and not encounter a few specimens.

Like so much in life, the subtle variances in angle and texture, placement and accidental design make every one of these random occurrences unique. This is the story of one man’s quest to document them all–or, at least, share the ones he and the Off Hole community have tripped across, in Pittsburgh and way beyond.

The truth is out there … but it’s probably not at the Kecksburg UFO Festival

Out of Orbit: Falling to Earth at the Kecksburg UFO Festival (August 11)

Little Kecksburg, a rural community 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, was the perfect spot for a UFO to crash land. Far enough in the country to have few eyewitnesses but close enough to city resources for federal authorities to swoop in and make off with the evidence before anyone could figure out what had happened.

Some will tell you that was exactly the sequence of events in the little Westmoreland County town on Dec. 9, 1965. Whether it’s true or not, paranormal and unexplained phenomena “experts,” truth-seekers, and the like have made “Pennsylvania’s Roswell” a crucial destination ever since. That devotion spawned the annual Kecksburg UFO Festival held every August. The Orbit finally made it out there this year and filed a report with a lot of green, man.

 

That’s it. Good reading and we’ll see you in 2020. Happy new year, y’all!

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Wigged-Out on Tumbleweave

No turning (back). Loose tumbleweave on the street in East Liberty.

There’s more to hair
Than real hair

George Willard, “Wig Store”

Over the years, we’ve lost a lot of things–some of them important, others just weirdly memorable. Printed photographs from a pre-digital era; a 10-speed bicycle left on the back porch in 1997; melodies of songs sung, but never recorded. The names and faces of people known, went to school with, drank beer next to, or played music around–all gone.

Once, embarrassingly, thirty-five cents–the exact change required and the only coins available–awkwardly falling from the pocket into a traffic lane at the Nickel Bridge tollbooth in Richmond. Still wondering what happened to my marching band hat. Sigh.

Cubist coiffure collage, Oakland

All that said, it’s safe to say this balding-the-old-fashioned-way/losing-his-mind-like-everyone-else blogger has never misplaced an entire head of hair–real or not–right out in the street. Clearly, not everyone has been so lucky.

So many questions! How does one lose an 18-inch braided pigtail? Are these the result of a hair-grabbing confrontation? Cruel prank? Street-borne fiasco? One imagines the most riveting of dramas, but the real stories may be much more mundane. Sadly, we’ll likely never know.

Regardless, when God tosses a fraying tumble of jet black hair weave loosely across the directional marker of a turn lane or dumps two-tone black/white curl on the sidewalk in front of Subway, we don’t question it. Even this atheist recognizes diving intervention when a curly brown coif is caught in the wind and takes life scurrying across Penn Avenue.

Tumbleweave,* your time on The Orbit is here.

braided ponytail hair lying on street surface

Crack that whip, Oakland

portion of leaf-covered black wig laying in street

Wigged-out, Bloomfield

bundle of hair lying on wet pavement with fallen leaves

Fall color, North Oakland

Dye hard, Larimer

lost hair in pile of fallen leaves against curb

Dead leaves and the hairy ground, Marshall-Shadeland

The post-Halloween special, Shadyside

mass of hair lying in street

The tail wigs the dog, Bloomfield

bundle of fake fur flattened on road surface

Hit-and-run/flat top, Hazelwood

The “Polamalu,” Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]


* The term “tumbleweave” may go back to Orbit Uber, Uber Doober, and Pooper Scooper Paul Schifino. Whoever gets the credit, you’ll not find a more perfect name for the phenomenon than this.

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.