The Secret Marys of Lawrenceville

statue of Mary in front window of row house
Our Lady of the Heavenly Skies. Front window Mary, lower Lawrenceville

Long in the shadow of her uphill, Mary-loving sister neighborhood, Lawrenceville may be seen as but an also-ran in the adoration of The Blessed Virgin. Bloomfield has such an overabundance of public Marys that we’ve reported on it not once, but on two separate occasions–and are well aware we’re still missing so many quality Marys in the tiny backyards we’ve not (yet!) been invited into. [A note to those with secret/hidden Marys, wanting a portrait: call me!]

In Lawrenceville, the Mary-obsessed blogger must put away the soft shoes and put on the gum shoes as locating The Mother of All Mothers is more back-alley, debatably-sleazy, detective work than the more casual sidewalk tourism one enjoys in other locales. Mary is well-acquainted with the ‘Ville–and in no small number, mind you–but is usually only found in repose. She peeps shyly from street-facing windows, prays in flower pots, and takes cover in backyard grottoes. She’s coyly turned-away among the bric-a-brac of an overloaded front porch and (almost!) out-of-view but for a neck stretched over fences and hedges. In one case, a tiny Mary stands guard over a grave marker at, yes, St. Mary Cemetery.

To Mary with her arms outstretched and forgiving, a kindly face welcoming to all in her presence, we salute you! We’ve all had a rough year and can use your grace now more than ever.

statue of Mary in a flower planter
Flower planter Mary
statue of Mary and frog figurine in backyard
Mary and frog
statue of Mary leaning against stone foundation of house
Foundation Mary
statue of Mary in front window of house
Window Mary
statues of Mary, an angel, and other religious figure on pedestals in back garden
Pedestal Mary and friends
gravestone with added statue of Mary
Grave marker Mary
front porch with multiple statues
Porch Marys (and friends)
statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot
Concrete shoes Mary
statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard
Up-on-blocks Mary
statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA
Alley-facing Mary
statue of Mary in grotto located in residential backyard
Backyard Mary
statue of Jesus in backyard of row house
Blessing of the green grass [Note: *probably* Jesus with that gesture, but we’re going to count it]
statue of Mary painted silver
Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit

A note on the photographs: Pittsburgh Orbit takes pride in its quality of image, but the necessity of observing our neighbors’ private spaces and therefore zooming in–often from great distance–resulted in a number of grainy, not-ideally-composed photos. Hopefully, however, this fact adds evidence to the narrative that searching out Marys in Lawrenceville is no easy task.

Terrorism In Overtime: “Sudden Death” Turns 25

scene from "Sudden Death" with actor Jean-Claude Van Damme against the Pittsburgh city skyline

Jean-Claude Van Damme, Pittsburgh fire marshal. What could go wrong?

By Matty B.

The city of Pittsburgh’s acting resume isn’t terribly long, but it is memorable. Best known for  character roles, the Steel City portrays a backdrop of industrial grit to Jennifer Beals’ welder-turned-dancer in Flashdance and lays out thrilling rivers and hillsides for Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker in Striking Distance. There is one other city-set film from the era that doesn’t quite carry the same name-brand recognition and didn’t generate a “Take Bigelow!”-like catchphrase, but should exist in everyone’s short list of iconic Pittsburgh movies.

Sudden Death isn’t just “Die Hard on ice.” No, the big-budget karate and terrorists, bombs and hockey action thriller caught the city of Pittsburgh on a post-Stanley Cup high with the Penguins back-to-back victories in 1991 and ‘92. It places the old Civic Arena (aka “The Igloo”) front and center as the playing-itself real-life home of the Penguins and an unlikely target for home-grown terrorism. Despite all this, Sudden Death rarely gets mentioned as a great action movie, let alone a great Pittsburgh one. Here, on its twenty-fifth-ish anniversary, we attempt to right that wrong.

film poster for "Sudden Death"

Original film poster for “Sudden Death”

Sudden Death took Die Hard‘s guy-alone-against-terrorists action movie playbook and made it darker and French-Canadian … by-way-of the lower Hill. It was also the only “Die Hard in a [fill in the blank]” movie set in and around a sporting event. These films typically play out over the course of one day or one night, so the end is always finite. This makes the stakes that much higher.

The film also continued the trend of making the hero an unassuming, smalltime, meat-and-potatoes guy. In the opening scene, we learn that Frank McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) was once a Pittsburgh firefighter who failed to save a young girl from a wrenching blaze. Presumably, that’s why he’s been demoted to fire marshal at the Civic Arena.

One of the best shots in local movie history comes just a few minutes in. It features McCord walking to pick up his kids for Game 7 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. McCord, now divorced, cautiously approaches his ex-wife’s house as he sees the step-dad and his son Tyler playing street hockey. The shot only lasts for a few seconds but it features Tyler shooting the puck on steep Fritz Street in the South Side slopes. The sun is beaming down on the city in the background, a slither of which can be seen in the shot, along with the churches and redbrick buildings of the South Side, below.

scene from "Sudden Death" featuring steep Pittsburgh street with city skyline in the background

Pittsburgh at its Pittsburghiest: steep hills, rivers, bridges, and a kid playing street hockey. Scene from “Sudden Death.”

This scene’s refusal to “ooo-ahh” you is what makes it stick. You can tell it’s either late spring or early fall and includes a what’s-what of Pittsburgh scenery: hilly streets, bridges, and an eclectic mix of downtown skyscrapers. Aside from a few other establishing shots, Pittsburgh’s daylight coverage vanishes as game-time approaches and night takes over. Peter Hyams, who served as both director and cinematographer, lit the film’s few moments of light with such unpretentious flair that one can’t help but revel and soak it in.

Sudden Death saves its best lines for scene-stealing villain Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), a bitter ex-CIA officer-turned-mercenary who’s out for revenge against the country he allegedly sacrificed so much for. He too, like many other ’90s action foes, was a disgruntled, home-grown foot soldier gone rogue. Like McCord’s break with the fire department and his inexplicable Belgian-French accent, Hyams spares viewers from any pesky character development so we never actually learn what went south between Foss and the government he feels wronged by.

scene from "Sudden Death" with villains in a catering kitchen

Revenge is a dish best served … ON ICE! Powers Boothe as mysterious villain Joshua Foss

Most of McCord’s screen time is spent on the periphery of the action, lingering among pipes, maintenance rooms, and power generators of the Civic Arena. In a matter of hours, McCord wills himself to become a bomb-disarming expert, seeking out explosives distributed throughout the arena. Peter Hyams was shrewd enough to let “the muscles from Brussels” focus on his dexterous ability to kick ass, but McCord finds enough spare time to speak French with former Penguin and (future) Hall-of-Famer Luc Robitaille.

The action in Sudden Death comes at the viewer fast, hard, and absurdly dressed as Iceburgh, the Penguins mascot. There are preposterously over-the-top situations that call for Van Damme suiting up as goalkeeper for the Penguins, zip-lining through the arena, crashing through plate glass, deploying both deep fryer and commercial dishwasher as tools of self-defense, and finally–inevitably–up through the old Civic Arena’s retractable roof to a bazookas-and-helicopters finale that will have the explosions-and-smoke teenager in you hoisting your fists in the air.

still from film "Sudden Death" of Jean-Claude Van Damme fighting with Iceburgh, the Pittsburgh Penguins mascot

Van Damme v. Iceburgh

Perhaps more implausible than some of the fight scenes is the fact that Sudden Death was conceived as a story by Karen Elise Baldwin, the daughter of then-Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, who was a producer of the film. It is wild to realize the owner of a major professional sports franchise championed a film that involves terrorists taking hostages in the middle of a Stanley Cup Final game, where the city’s mayor perishes, and his own team’s mascot is basically beheaded. The history of originally-scripted action movies by women has a short history in Hollywood but this is one hell of a film to have your name attached to.

"Sudden Death" author Karen Elise Baldwin at Academy Awards ceremony

Original “Sudden Death” story author Karen Elise Baldwin with the Oscar she *should have* won

“I was an actress and then I started writing and producing. We had the Penguins, we had access to the Civic Arena, and the building was unique in that the roof opened up,” said Ms. Baldwin in Sports Illustrated’s oral history of the film in 2015. She was right: Civic Arena was singular for its of-another-era, simple design and retractable roof. Hyams thought there was no way to pull off directing this film in the Arena until he realized the story was concocted by the owner’s daughter–then it was game on.

Likely capitalizing on JCVD’s Street Fighter prowess from the year before, Sudden Death was a modest box office success and a film whose long run of cable replays cemented its place, at worst, as a cult favorite. As if having a high-octane sport set among a brigade of bomb-setting terrorists wasn’t enough, the game does eventually head to sudden death overtime. The Jumbotron reads as such in big bold letters for several seconds. The cinematic angles Hyams captures early in the film and the circling police helicopters that swivel their way over the arena and downtown expertly set the stage for what a hockey night in Pittsburgh actually feels like. Though the game itself, in the movie, feels secondary to what takes place on the margins, casting real-life Penguins broadcasting duo Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald as themselves was a thing of beauty. Lange’s archetypal “Scratch my back with a hacksaw” and “call Arnold Slick from Turtle Creek” catchphrases are sprinkled throughout.

Scene from "Sudden Death" with overhead shot of former Pittsburgh Civic Arena

90 minutes until face-off, but the ass-kicking starts *now*. The old Civic Arena. Sigh.

I feel proud knowing that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s last great movie was made in Pittsburgh. Like the actor himself, Sudden Death has a propulsive energy and is centered around one of the things that makes Pittsburgh so special–its fanaticism for athletes in black and gold. Sudden Death, in its muscle-flexing eye-winking self-reflection, is the city’s most iconic. It’s small-time, blue collar, but full of big and brash ideas all at the same time. Even if JCVD’s accent gives off a man-from-somewhere else vibe, he stands tall, undaunted, unashamed, and ever surprising as the underdog ready to be a hero.


Matty B. is a self-described “lawyer, Alanis Morrissette enthusiast, avid card player, East End Pittsburgh native, and cinephile/writer whose work can be found at TheThirdTake.com.”

Going Nativity: A Crush on the Crèche OR Blown Away by the Manger

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men AND Three Stooges. Full-on residential nativity scene, Ross Township.

We’re not too proud to admit it: we’ve got a crush on the crèche, make major maneuvers for the manger, and take any opportunity to go nativity when the opportunity arises. That occasion presents itself early, often, and with no remorse on any trip around Bethle…ahem–metro Pittsburgh.

‘Tis the season for plastic lawn decor, strings of dollar store lights, and more baby Jesuses than you’d think a monotheistic society would care to advertise–but that’s what we do. For the atheist, it’s a weird internal conflict–I don’t believe any of this hokum, but man do I love it. If only this country had more wise men, myrrh out the yin-yang, a livestock petting zoo by every newborn and a kneeling camel in every cul-de-sac. Heck, we can dare to dream.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a spine-tingling Krampus to all and may The Orbit‘s diaspora have the good frankincense to stay safe until Santa can hook us up with the vaccine.

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cinderblock crèche, Polish Hill

Christmas nativity scene missing baby Jesus

Wait…where’s the kid? Millvale *

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Forget the frankincense and myrrh, who brought the 24″ Weber? Monessen

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Major manger, Reserve Township [Note: bonus cracked Mary!]

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men, two nutcrackers, AND Troy Polamalu (+ “A Christmas Story” sexy leg lamp!), Reserve Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

White Christmas, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Christmas behind bars, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene in row house window

Row house crèche, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

That’s not the baby Jesus! Marshall-Shadeland

Christmas nativity scene in retail store window

O Hummel town of Bethlehem, Merante’s Gifts, Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene in front of small factory

Diamond Wire Spring, Ross Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cement circle crèche, Glassport

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Front porch crèche, Lawrenceville


Orbit Instagram user @danko_pgh explains this as “The Baby Jesus figure should never be displayed until very late on Christmas Eve.” That certainly makes sense once’d you think about it, but clearly isn’t followed universally.

Row House Romance: Odd Couples Edition

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

The holy grail! Side-by-side row houses of different width, height, design, color, and modernization, Bloomfield

If there is a high–the dragon, if you will–that the  hardcore romancer chases, it is this. A pair of stout row houses, butting right up against each other like books on a shelf, but otherwise as unrelated as chalk and cheese.

He with the faded green aluminum siding, splotched with decades of not-quite-matching touch-up paint; she with a prim new black-and-white scheme on her brick façade, ready for the town in never-going-out-of-style two-tone. He made the regrettable decision to turn his windows into port holes; she’s left the nice big double-hung two-paners intact, and has the afternoon sunlight to prove it. He’s still lugging around the same set of heavy-lidded awnings he picked up after high school; she’s newly trimmed her detail work–all clean lines, tight accents, and graceful ornament.

We could go on about how he’s put on a few pounds from all that sitting around, but that would just be cruel. No, we’re here to celebrate that great accident of residential architectural history–the side-by-side odd couple pairings one finds in Pittsburgh’s many row house blocks. Each evinces an anthropomorphic reaction to the unlikeliest of subjects: old-school worker housing.

There was enough commonality in some of these to group them into loose themes. Really though, this one’s all about the visuals, so we’ll quit yappin’. Whether you live in one (guilty!) or are just a drive-by wanna-be, happy row house romance to one and all!

To Peak or Not to Peak?

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

3-story brick townhouse adjoining 2-story frame row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Big Buddy/Little Buddy

large brick row house next to small row house with aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

South Side

pair of row houses of different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Brothers From a Similar—but Definitely Other—Mother

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick and frame row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

exterior of wooden row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Brighton Heights

Mixed-Media

Victorian-era brick row house next to modern metal and glass row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

older brick row house next to under-construction house, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

pair of row houses with very different siding treatments, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

brick row house with flat roof next to wooden row house with peaked roof, McKees Rocks, PA

McKees Rocks

row house with collapsed roof next to row house with new siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Marshall-Shadeland

ornate brick Victorian row house next to plain designed row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Mexican War Streets

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: