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:

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.

Let’s Get Small: Parvaneh Torkamani’s Abstraction in Miniature

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

Stream of consciousness abstract art with no end.” Detail from one of  Parvaneh Torkamani’s “A Thread in the Night” paintings

Get in close. Even closer. No, I mean take your glasses off and push your schnoz right into the screen.

There, in tightly organized brushstroke rows are multicolor clusters of dits, dots, dashes, and squiggles; abstract shapes that appear like sentence fragments in the calligraphy of an exotic language; hieroglyphic messages encoded only for the in-the-know.

Pittsburgh artist Parvaneh Torkamani has been painting in this style of miniature “stream of consciousness abstract art with no end” for nearly thirty years. You’ve got a rare chance to see her work on display–with a dance performance, to boot–this Friday, during the monthly Unblurred art crawl in Garfield.

artist Parvaneh Torkamani with wall of paintings

Parvaneh Torkamani with paintings in her home studio

On a page of a pocket-sized notebook, Torkamani has detailed an elaborate painted storyline illustrated in just the smallest gestures committed in silver acrylic paint. It’s a setup that reads like ancient history–or mythology, perhaps–Slave and Queen abut Slave with Child and Husband King. The action really gets going when Kimono clad princess stands on the back of a servant being coached by head servant, supported by other servants.

Yes: there is a lot going on in this little space and one definitely needs to use her or his imagination to see it come to life. Is the first-time viewer really expected to get all of this? Torkamani explains:

The viewer will see whatever they will see. Sometimes they will experience what I was seeing, but the art is more abstract than not. The idea sometimes gets lost in the abstraction, but I try to create an atmosphere.

detail from notebook of Parvaneh Torkamani

notebook detail

Resident Persian, the title of Torkamani’s show–as well as her Instagram handle–is “an ironic reaction to being surveyed for being foreign.” It’s also a very literal description of the Iran-born, U.S.-matured artist who has one foot each in these two worlds. Fluent in the languages of both nations, Torkamani’s English is delivered in a soft-spoken voice with the gentlest of Middle Eastern accents. Bon mots on “the arch of an eyebrow, the bend of a shoulder” seem to echo the subtle, suggestive forms of each connection between tiny brushstroke and frizzled paper target.

To this curious outsider, it is the artwork that reads as the most obvious reference to Torkamani’s Persian heritage. The delicate brushwork is nonrepresentational, but in its ordered, linear presentation, it can’t help but resemble the beautiful curlicue scripts of handwritten Persian, Arabic, or Urdu. Iran has a long tradition of miniature painting, but, according to Torkamani, “I don’t have that training.” We’re not so sure she didn’t absorb it anyway.

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

detail from “A Thread in the Night” painting

While the tiny works of art in the “A Thread in the Night” series–each Cinemascope-shaped painting in the current show is around four inches wide by eighteen inches long–reward a very very close reading, they also work from farther back.

Torkamani might be insulted by the suggestion of these original pieces as purely decorative artwork, but it’s undeniable that they’d look fantastic in reproduction. In their linear patterns, interlocking script and ornament, alternating color and space there is a hypnotic quality that one can’t help but wish were blown up to wrap walls and make textiles, decorate pretty paper and hip upholstery, animate motion graphics across screens big and small.

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

detail from “A Thread in the Night” painting

Obvious passions for Torkamani are the intertwined causes of homelessness and food insecurity. For the the Boom Concepts show there will be an installation piece consisting of cardboard and brown paper. On one of these is a poem titled “On Homelessness” dealing beautifully and bluntly with that subject.

Blasting winds of winter / Breaths of Hades / Penetration beneath clothes under skin / You whisper death is about as harrowing an opening salvo as this poetry-curious blogger has ever tripped across.

detail of poem about homelessness painted on cardboard

detail from Torkamani’s poem/installation “On Homelessness”

Torkamani hopes to raise awareness for these issues with the show. “To do art is to have a cause; art in a vacuum is nothing but vanity. I hope people who care about these causes will come out and help me start something,” Torkamani says, “With the help of volunteers who would tell me about food insecure people they know and those who would carry the food to them, I plan to be there for this cause.”

These are noble and ambitious goals–and it’s not entirely clear how they would come together. Sometimes, however, to go big, you need to get small.

artist Parvaneh Torkamani holding a painted canvas

Parvaneh Torkamani with a recent painting


Parvaneh Torkamani’s Resident Persian Project opens this Friday, March 1, at Boom Concepts (5139 Penn Ave., Garfield). The opening runs 7-10 PM with a special dance performance by Torkamani at 8:00. The show will be up for the month of March.

Lift/Off: Kirsten Ervin’s Air Portraits Take Flight

Passenger Portrait Project installed in glass case at Pittsburgh International Airport

Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project at Pittsburgh International Airport

The third floor of Pittsburgh International Airport’s “land-side” terminal is a single, high-ceilinged, wide-open space devoted exclusively to ticketing and baggage check-in. It hasn’t gotten the deluxe terrazzo floor re-do the “air-side” received a couple years ago, so you’ll still find a dated, early ’90s color scheme in the floor’s clickety-clack tiles.

Appearing like a glowing apparition rising from the dull gray is a an enormous illuminated display case that nearly spans the entirety of the north wall. Inside the glass is a series of hand-drawn, brightly-colored, chalk pastel portraits. The subjects are young and old, of all complexions and hair colors, smiling and noncommittal, dressed in business attire and printed t-shirts. Together they’re all part of the Passenger Portrait Project.

collage of 9 chalk pastel portraits created by Kirsten Ervin

Some of the 65 portraits created for Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project

From the late summer through mid-fall, Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin spent every Thursday at the airport. She wasn’t flying anywhere, nor was she there to drop-off or pick-up an air traveler. Ervin’s reason to make the trip each week was to meet strangers passing through the airway’s concourses. Those with an open mind and a few minutes to spare would have an original artwork created of them, right there on-the-spot.

“With passengers in a place like the airport you get such a wide cross-section of people, going different places, from many different cultures,” Ervin says, “It’s more diverse than, say, your average shopping mall.”

Artist Kirsten Ervin working on an "Air Portrait"

Kirsten Ervin in action at the terminal gate [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

The process began with three simple questions: Where are you going today? What’s the best trip you ever took? and If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? The participants’ answers to these are included alongside the final portraits.

From there, both artist and traveler/model were off on the brief but intense relationship that is a one-on-one, up-close drawing session.

“I really love the kinds of conversations that happen with people as you draw their portraits,” Ervin says, “You’re literally paying attention to every aspect of their face, their affect. You’re paying attention to every detail in a way that you don’t do with photography or other art forms.”

woman with dyed red hair holding partial portrait of herself

Passenger with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

Ervin is a multidisciplinary artist who’s worked in paint and collage, hooked rugs and embroidery, puppetry and theater, as instructor and consultant. In previous work drawing “furries” at Anthrocon and an ongoing project having her Lawrenceville neighbors sit for her, Ervin is not new to quick-study figure drawing, either. That said, the Passenger Portrait Project is by far the biggest of these ventures, so far.

“Drawing or painting a portrait is a very deep meditation on another person as a human being,” says Ervin, “You have a very directed focus on a person for a period of time.”

male/female couple with partial portrait of themselves

Newlywed passengers with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

The majority of the airport drawings were done in short 15-20 minute bursts when early-arriving passengers had some extra time at the gate before boarding. A photo was taken of each participant with their in-process sketch. Later, the 11″ x 14″ drawings received after-the-fact touch-ups, extra details, and filled-in backgrounds at home in Ervin’s studio.

The drawings preserve the rough, immediate energy in which they were created. They’re neither photo-realistic, nor cartoon or caricature. Instead, the subjects appear amused and disarmed, visibly pleased at the delight of this unexpected airport encounter and inevitably excited to be both engaging with a friendly face at the often-impersonal transit spot and embarking on a new adventure or returning home from a business trip.

Artist Kirsten Ervin with portrait subject at Pittsburgh International Airport

Ervin with portrait subject [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

You may have seen Tobey Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop and assorted other installations throughout the space, but that original artwork is created within the airport–expressly for exhibition there–may come a surprise.

In fact, Pittsburgh International Airport has an arts and culture manager (Rachel Rearick) and the Office of Public Art has a project manager (Derek Reese) who works in the space. PIT is among a very small group of international airports that support a full-time artist-in-residence program, complete with studio space at the terminal.

Ervin’s “air portraits” were created through the Art in the Airport program, which makes regular  calls for artists that provide visual art for several different display areas in the facilities as well as weekly live performances.

artist Kirsten Ervin looking at Pittsburgh airport's arrival information board

Kirsten Ervin at the estimated times of art board [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

Full disclosure: Pittsburgh Orbit has thrown out all journalistic integrity on this particular post. Kirsten Ervin is more than just some artist whose project we like. Over the years, she’s been a contributor, editor, and sounding board for the blog. Oh–and “Mrs. The Orbit” is married to one of our junior reporters.

That said, it’s safe to say we’d jump at reporting this story even if we weren’t living under the same roof. Kirsten’s excitement at engaging with strangers is infectious, as is her desire to skip the politics and get down to what’s really important–making connections between human beings. If that’s not what art–let alone air travel–is all about, well then maybe we should all just stay home.

Artist Kirsten Ervin in front of chalk pastel portraits of airport passengers

Kirsten Ervin with her Passenger Portrait Project installation

The Passenger Portrait Project will be up through late February, 2019. If you’re traveling by aeroplane between now and then, do yourself a favor and leave an extra few minutes early to check out the full display for yourself.


Follow Kirsten Ervin on Instagram @kirstenervinart and check out her web site kirstenervin.org

Will View for Work: Reviewing The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

A real American hero: Weird Paul performing live at the North Side Elks, 2017

We of a certain age are either condemned or privileged (take your pick) to live out our days with one foot each in the entirely separate worlds of pre- and post-Internet existence. Digital immigrants, for sure, but arriving on the beaches young enough to speak the native tongue with only a slight accent.

“Weird” Paul Petroskey, a Pittsburgh multi-media institution for three decades and counting, both anticipated present-day, social media me-TV and manages to reach back into the halcyon low-tech ’80s and ’90s in his current work. Paul is old enough to have begun recording on cassette tape and VHS video, but now obsesses over his YouTube subscriber count and FaceBook reactions.

The themes of a relentless, driven creator, desperate to make a living from an unconventional lifestyle and build a future from an awkward, videotaped past, are explored in the excellent new documentary Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul. The film debuts with a world premier this Saturday at Harris Theater.

video still of teenage Weird Paul from the 1980s

The “Original Vlogger”, a teenage Weird Paul on video, sometime in the 1980s [photo: Weird Paul]

Way before YouTube, FaceBook, or Instagram, teenage Paul Petroskey was recording his life and arranging music videos and sketches along with an extremely cooperative cast and crew of parents and young siblings. The crudely-shot VHS bits had a limited audience in 1980s suburban Pittsburgh, but have since been given new life on the Internet.

Today, Will Work for Views argues, these hours of videotape form a sort-of Dead Sea Scrolls for the Media Age, linking the ancient with the modern in an audio-visual archive that predicts YouTube-style “vlogging,” tributes, parodies, and “unboxing” videos. The film may suffer from one too many talking heads restating some version of “this guy was doing this stuff before anyone else,” but it’s an important point.

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton as patient

Still from Weird Paul’s “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

Weird Paul’s teenage to middle age audio-visual continuum forms the backbone of the documentary’s dual narratives. In one, we ride along with Petroskey’s life commitment to a certain kind of low-rent/high-reward entertainment through quick-cut video bits past and present. Paul was a cute, precocious kid with a lot of goofy ideas and an inexhaustible ambition to execute on them. The adult version is still mining the same deep vein, but now it’s intertwined with nostalgia and a mortgage payment.

The other theme is more existential. Paul has the life goal of turning…something–sight gags, joke songs, thrift shop picking–into a career, or at least the occasional paycheck. What does the day-to-day reality of continuing to pursue this unlikely dream actually look like? In a social media landscape where everyone with a FaceBook account is turned into some combination of content provider, public figure, and narcissist, is The Internet the carrot or the horse? The gold mine or the shaft?

photo collage of Weird Paul Petroskey aping for the camera

Bowling for donors: the many faces of Weird Paul Petroskey today [photos courtesy of Interesting Human Media]

“We were looking for a subject for a documentary when we came across [Weird Paul’s] videos on YouTube,” says Joseph Litzinger, executive producer and co-director of Will Work for Views. The film is the first feature for his production company Interesting Human Media. “Our first thought was, ‘This is a great actor,’ but then it became clear Paul isn’t acting at all–this is who he really is. We were attracted by what a genuine, unique, and passionate person he is.”

That YouTube was the filmmakers’ entry point to the world of Weird Paul is evident as Petroskey’s vast musical catalog (some 700+ recorded songs over several dozen album-sized releases) and regular live performances are given a backseat to the video clips. If there’s a criticism of Will Work for Views, it’s that the Weird Paul Rock Band–his steady, hard-rocking, shenanigans-ready bass/keytar/drums backing group for the last decade–only appear in the film as (uncredited) talking heads and never seen, you know, full-on rocking[1].

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band [l-r: Pam Hamlin, Jon Dowling, Weird Paul, Ben Blanchard] in the last days of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, 2017

It’s a minor quibble, as the movie is really about Weird Paul. Or it’s Paul as surrogate for anyone who’s ever pursued his or her passion–however unlikely–way past the point where every voice of reason has tried to talk sense into them. The line between obsession and sticktoitiveness can be perilously thin, but Petroskey has walked it long enough to not look back.

“I’ve been in a mindset for a good part of my life where I’m ready to share everything with everyone,” Paul says of the filmmaking process. “From a young age I felt like being famous was important for me and that’s what people want from celebrities–people want to see bits of their life…Going into a project like this–you either give it your all, or don’t bother. Give your best–that’s how I look at it.”

video still of Weird Paul dressed as a doctor with inflatable skeleton choking him

Still from “This Guy’s Got a Bone Disease” music video, 2013

The portrait painted in Will Work for Views is supportive and respectful, but also honest in its portrayal of Weird Paul. The filmmakers are clearly rooting for this ultimate underdog of the underground–still struggling with the hassles of working a day job, trying to make enough money to fix his equipment, and fantasizing about having someone to mow his lawn.

It’s unspoken, but the story begs the obvious question: Is there really a (commercial) market for Paul’s brand of low-brow humor and lo-fi goof rock? Personally, I don’t know how any artist makes a living, but the movie has us all hoping Paul figures out the magic combination and is able to realize his dreams–or at least get the grass cut.

promo poster for documentary film "Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul"

“Will Work for Views” promo poster

Epilogue

Full disclosure: This blogger has known Paul, his band members, and entourage long enough that no opinion on a feature-length film about the guy could be legitimately objective–I’m a Weird Paul fan. That said, even if The Orbit didn’t have a personal connection to the subject–even if it wasn’t (largely) set in Pittsburgh–we’d recommend Will Work for Views for the simple reason that it’s a terrific documentary.

Co-directors Litzinger and Eric Michael Schrader know what they’re doing. The two have reality TV series producer/editor credits on American ChainsawBachelorette Party: Las Vegas, and Swamp Loggers–so we know they can film timber sports and Jell-o shots. The filmmakers have weaved the archival teenage Paul’s antics into his present-day realities with engaging dexterity and an improvised narrative arc that may or may not actually exist in real life, but plays great on the big screen.

We’ll be there on Saturday, cheering on Paul and the gang. We hope we see you there, too.

Will Work for Views: The Lo-Fi Life of Weird Paul premiers with a screening this Saturday, June 23 at Harris Theater.
Showtime is 7:00 p.m., tickets are $15, and the event includes a Q&A panel with Weird Paul and the filmmakers.

See also: “Recording Existence: Life-logging with Weird Paul,” Pittsburgh Orbit, June 28, 2015.


[1] This may, of course, have as much to do with the technical challenges of filming in dark, noisy bars vs. the unlimited buffet of already-extant video content available.

No Room for Squares: When the Pittsburgh Triangles Were Golden

members of 1976 Pittsburgh Triangles World Team Tennis, 1976

All smiles. [l-r] (trainer) Paul Denny, Danny McGibbeny, Bernie Mitton, Mark Cox, 1976

All sports fans, no matter how much they may deny it, suffer a common delusion. These devoted optimists assume their acts of ritual loyalty in the stands, parking lot tail-gates, and even back home on the sofa, will somehow compel their team to victory on the field of play.

These fantasies range from the relatively credible–filling a stadium with a fired-up crowd makes home field advantage a very real thing–to completely ludicrous acts of superstition. We’ve all known someone with a ridiculous game-day habit: the requirement of a particular team jersey; the arrangement of beverages on a coffee table; a tiny bird-sized Steelers helmet the pet parakeet must wear during the playoffs. It’s goofy, but it works…some of the time.

crowded locker room following Pittsburgh Triangles tennis championship, 1975

Clint Burton (right) with Triangles player Peggy Michel and team owner Frank Fuhrer, 1975

Tennis star Betty Stöve needed to use the crapper–bad. It was right before her match at the old Civic Arena and teenage Clint Burton was the kid on the bench with the key to the locker room. The only thing was…he couldn’t actually find where he’d put it. It was a simple mistake–Clint had switched sideline assignments with another boy who’d failed to hand over the most important thing Clint needed to do the job.

Stöve lost her set–likely in some level of discomfort–and her San Francisco Golden Gaters fell to the Pittsburgh Triangles on this particular summer night in 1976. It’s not how the average fan would choose to tip the scales for his or her team, but sometimes things just work out the way they do.

Pittsburgh Triangles tennis team in the 1970s

The Pittsburgh Triangles at home on a WTT multi-color court

In 1974, American professional tennis was on a tear. A year earlier, Billie Jean King had defeated Bobby Riggs in the much-celebrated, prime-time “Battle of the Sexes” match. King’s then-husband Larry, along with three other financiers, rode the wave to a completely new concept in the sport: convert the traditionally staid, solo/duet tennis match into a raucous team sport with streamlined rules, heavy crowd involvement, and a rock-and-roll atmosphere.

On the strength of Billie Jean King’s involvement, along with that of Wilt Chamberlain and Arthur Ashe, the new World Team Tennis league was able to attract a who’s-who of mid-’70s professionals in the sport. King was a player herself, as were Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg, and “Nasty” Ilie Nastase.

tennis player Ille Nastase hitting a ball behind his back

“Nasty” Ilie Nastase of the New York Sets/Hawaii Leis, some time in the 1970s [photo: the Internet]

World Team Tennis games were played on a multi-color court, the advantage rule was dismissed to speed up play, and scoring simplified to 1-2-3-game[1]. Matches consisted of five sets where teammates switched off for one set each of women’s singles, men’s singles, women’s doubles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Scores of individual games were accumulated across the entire match. If you were lucky, a close match might be decided with something called a “super-tiebreaker.”

Breaking all rules of team sports, nearly half the clubs took references from the mechanics of the game into naming their franchises. There were no mere Lions or Spartans in World Team Tennis. Instead, the Chicago Aces, Cleveland Nets, and New York Sets did battle with the Phoenix Racquets, Indiana Loves, and L.A. Strings. [Aside: there is no doubt in this blogger’s mind that “The Baltimore Balls” was suggested at some point.] These were complimented by a collection of very of-their-era team names: the Houston E-Z Riders, Minnesota Buckskins, and Hawaii Leis. Most impressive were the double-entendres delivered in naming both the San Diego Swingers[2] and Boston Lobsters.

Danny McGibbeny on telephone at World Team Tennis match in the 1970s

Danny McGibbeny [on phone] and Daniel James McGibbeny

“I was the little stats guy,” Clint Burton says today, “I was always a math geek.” At just 13 years old, it was an unlikely move to put a middle schooler on the Triangles payroll as assistant statistician, but it helps to have your uncle Danny running promotion.

The year prior, a fresh-out-of-college Danny McGibbeny would charm his way into the fledgling Triangles organization–one of the league’s original 16 teams–as its first public relations director. McGibbeny was responsible for numerous promotions and activities, including writing copy for the local version of the league’s magazine/game program Super-Tiebreaker.

By 1975, McGibbeny had assumed the role of general manager, while still acting as P.R. director. There, he had the freedom to bring on his friends and family in a variety of support roles for home games. “Danny got everyone a job,” Burton says, “his friends from college, kids in the neighborhood. My father ran the scoreboard and my sister was a ball girl.”

tennis player Syd Ball talking with a young ball girl

Clint’s sister and Triangles’ ball girl Karen with the aptly-named Syd Ball, 1976

Burton’s early interest in sports, statistics, and “math geek” mind made the 13-year-old an easy fit as assistant to official stats man Drew Ondik. Clint went beyond the standard league-assigned stats sheet to develop a unique set of custom numbers based on additional play factors he would track during matches. At the end of the night, all of Clint’s work was typed-up and sent via an early Xerox fax machine to the league office in New York.

cover of 1976 Super-Tiebreaker magazine with tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis on the cover

Triangles star Vitas Gerulaitis on the cover of a 1976 Super-Tiebreaker magazine/program [photo: funwhileitlasted.net]

The Triangles didn’t have any players with the lasting name recognition of Chris Evert or Jimmy Connors. That said, Pittsburgh’s two biggest stars, Vitas Gerulaitis and Evonne Goolagong, led a group that would go on to win the 1975 WTT championship over Betty Stöve’s Golden Gaters in a home court match at the Civic Arena.

Gerulaitis, with his purple Lamborghini, monster stereo system, and on-court antics, was the undeniable crowd favorite. Vitas was so popular that he had his own rollicking “G-Men” cheering section at the top of the arena and occasionally paid for these super fans to travel to nearby away games.

Clint was there see Evonne Goolagong hoist the 1975 WTT championship trophy and–anticipating the winning coach Gatorade dumps of a generation later–there in the locker room for team owner Frank Fuhrer as he was hauled into the showers, fully clothed.

tennis star Evonne Goolagong-Cawley holding a trophy for the World Team Tennis Cup, 1975

[l-r] Danny McGibbeny, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, and coach Vic Edwards after winning the WTT Cup at the Civic Arena, 1975

Typically, when a sports team wins a championship, they try to change as little as possible–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But World Team Tennis was not a typical sports league. “It was ahead of its time,” Burton says, “it gathered momentum, but couldn’t sustain itself.”

The 1976 season was one of highs and lows for The Triangles. There were player moves–fan favorites Rayni Fox and Kim Warwick were replaced by Sue Stap and Bernie Mitton–coaching changes, and a roller-coaster ride in the win-loss column.

large seated crowd watching tennis match

Triangles fans watch a sold-out match with the Civic Arena roof open, 1976

Most radical was the elevation of McGibbeny to his third job with the organization in as many years–this time as skipper. Danny replaced player/coach Marc Cox midway through the season while still maintaining general manager and public relations duties. Though untrained in the sport, the McGibbney-led team ultimately succeeded, going on a winning streak that took the Triangles back to the playoffs. “He didn’t know anything about tennis,” Burton says, “but he knew just how to talk to the players. Once he took over, they all started having fun again.”

Bill Winstein comic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Danny McGibbeny taking over as coach of the Triangles, 1976

Bill Winstein comic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Danny McGibbeny taking over as coach of the Triangles, 1976

After the 1976 season, both the Pittsburgh Triangles and World Team Tennis were in rapid decline. The league would limp along for another few years, but the Triangles day had come and gone. First subsumed in a one-season, combined Cleveland-Pittsburgh “Tri-Nets” team that never gelled, by 1978 professional team tennis had left Pittsburgh forever.

More painful than the fate of this oddball sports experiment was the parallel loss of its absolute heart in Danny McGibbeny. Suffering from quickly-declining physical health, Danny wouldn’t have had the strength for the 1977 season, even if the team had soldiered on. McGibbeny developed cancer that came on ruthlessly fast. He died on Sept. 6, 1977 at just 26 years old[3].

two young men look at the camera

“He was my hero,” Danny McGibbeny and Clint Burton, Christmas, 1975

Clint Burton’s career in professional sports statistics ended there, before he ever got out of high school. But the same analytical mind propelled him into the world of old-school “big iron” computer programming–FORTRAN, COBOL, and the like.

Today, Clint maintains the terrific Brookline Connection web site and FaceBook page. There, he works to document, digitize, and connect various aspects of the site’s namesake South Hills neighborhood. We thank Clint for all his help opening up to tell us his story and providing us with so many great photographs.

All photos courtesy Clint Burton, except where noted.

printed invitation for pajama party hosted by Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Vitas Gerulaitis, 1976

Always a party. Invitation to Goolagong/Gerulaitis pajama party, 1976.


[1] Traditionally, tennis games are played with an arcane scoring system of 15/30/40 and then a series of “deuce”/”advantage” points with the requirement to win a game by 2.
[2] The Swingers apparently never actually played a game, but their proposed team name is good enough to warrant a mention. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_TeamTennis.
[3] Clint Burton has a great tribute page with many more stories about Danny McGibbeny on his site brooklineconnection.com.

The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi

9 photos of Billie Nardozzi in a collage

The People’s Poet. Billie Nardozzi at home in Green Tree.

Editor’s note: at the time this story was first reported and published, in January, 2018, Rachel Ann Bovier was still going by her birth name of Billie Nardozzi, as evidenced in the included poems and Bigelow Blvd. billboard. The transition to the new name and gender pronoun happened over the ensuing year.


You see poetry is open
For the whole world to see
And you can make it into anything
You want it to be
– Billie Nardozzi, “What Is Poetry”

 

Call him Bard of the Back-Pages or maybe the Classified Chaucer. Lamar Advertising came up with Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet and that’s hard to argue with. Around The Orbit water cooler he’s “The People’s Poet”–you can use that one too.

If you don’t know Billie Nardozzi, you haven’t been paying attention…or maybe you just don’t get the paper. For the last twelve years, the image of Nardozzi’s familiar schnoz, deadpan stare, and business-in-front, party-in-the-back haircut has appeared weekly in the “Celebrations” section of the Post-Gazette’s classified ads, along with short original poetry and contact information.

“I got the idea from the sports pages,” Nardozzi tells us, “each column would have a picture of the writer along with the name at the top and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do that?'”

In 2006, Billie Nardozzi did exactly that. He began creating new poems-of-the-week that have run consistently–with the occasional couple months hiatus–ever since. Along the way, Billie has earned a devoted following who commission original works for special occasions and invite him to read at events.

“I try to keep it basic,” Billie says of his writing style, “I go through the same things as my readers…so many times someone will tell me ‘I would swear you were writing that poem about me.'”

This past December, Billie’s invitation for Christmas cards drew a whopping ninety-seven different holiday letters from fans. He’s so fond of these that a batch of favorites have been professionally laminated and were close-at-hand during our interview.

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

Recent Nardozzi: “I Love ‘Shop ‘n Save'” / “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” / “‘The 3 Bees’ (Bell, Ben, Brown)” (2015-2016)*

If you’ve ever put pen to paper and tried to convince anyone to read it, you know what a pain in the ass it is. This literary dilettante has dipped his quill into the worlds of short and micro fiction, comedy, theater, poetry, and songwriting. All of these came with their own unique forms of rejection and heartbreak…and ultimately led to the immediacy and answer-to-no-one world of high stakes blogging.

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine an academic poetry journal or glossy magazine printing one of Billie’s odes to Olive Garden, the Ellen DeGeneress Show, or his local Hyundai dealership; sentimental reflections on holidays, family, and friends probably wouldn’t fare much better.

So it is with tremendous respect–one writer to another–that we appreciate how Nardozzi found a way to self-publish his own original work and distribute it to the 300,000 or so circulation size of the Post-Gazette. Like the Bolsheviks and punk rockers before him, Billie Nardozzi took the means of production and found a way to do it himself, getting his expressions of positivity, fun, and the human experience out into the world…and kept on doing it for going on twelve years now.

Billie Nardozzi in front of a closet full of colorful women's blazers

Blazer light show. Billie Nardozzi in the world’s most organized closet.

Brett Yasko is a graphic designer and Billie Nardozzi fan who has archived the poet’s contributions to the Post-Gazette almost since the beginning*. He has a similar appreciation for the unorthodox approach to publishing:

I started clipping his poems out of the paper in early 2008. I read the poems but I was more interested in how [Nardozzi] was using the newspaper to put his work out into the world. I know some poets and I know how hard it is to get “published” and then once you do, the audience is often limited. He was sort of gaming the system and I dug that. The photo he used was great and I loved his freewheeling ways with quotation marks. I said to myself, “I don’t know what will ever come of this–if anything–but I’ve got to start saving these things.”

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

“If I Met Jesus” (1/26/2010) / “What Is Poetry” (4/10/2012) / “The Turkey Bandit” (11/23/2015)

The story took an interesting turn this past fall. On a whim, Nardozzi walked into a local Lamar Advertising office and booked a billboard for personal use. If you’ve driven to Bloomfield, the upper Hill District, or Polish Hill recently, you know what I’m talking about. The big sign on Bigelow Blvd.–at the awkward five-way intersection with Herron and Paulowna–is unmissable. It features Nardozzi’s name, home phone number, the premier poet tag line, and one of Billie’s “one-liner” aphorisms (which change month-to-month).

What’s likely to catch your attention first, though, is the photograph of Nardozzi. In it, Billie’s top-heavy rock-and-roll hair has been teased into a curlier feminine incarnation, his nails are painted pink, and he’s wearing a decorative blouse and a pair of big rings. For those of us used to the black-and-white jacket-and-tie Nardozzi from the newspaper or his appearances on The Fetko Zone, this change in style was a bit of a surprise.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's photo and the text "Put the 'freeze' on hate, and the 'heat' on love," Pittsburgh, PA

“Put the ‘freeze’ on hate, and the ‘heat’ on love,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, November, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to do anything creative and put it out there in the world–the human race is not always kind to artistic expression. Attaching one’s real name and home telephone number ups the ante considerably. For an old-school Pittsburgher to address a cynical world with messages of love, peace, and good cheer, cross-dressed in ladies clothes, hair, and makeup on a twenty-five foot wide roadside billboard is about as daring a move as we can imagine.

As one might expect, not all the messages left on Billie’s answering machine are kind. He gets plenty of crank calls, along with a recurring lecture from a retired English professor on his use of quotation marks. None of these have ever been a problem, though. Nardozzi tells us the calls are “never threatening,” “I’m laughing along with them,” and “the good outweighs the bad.”

To underscore this last point, while we were talking in the kitchen, a nice-sounding caller named Jennifer left a lovely, heartfelt message of support and appreciation “from one artist to another.” Hearing the message clearly had Nardozzi beaming.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's picture and the text "I wish you great cheer in the coming new year," Pittsburgh, PA

“I wish you great cheer in the coming new year,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, January, 2018

Ultimately, Billie Nardozzi would like to publish a book of his work. He already has the pink and black design picked out as well as a to-the-point title, Poems and One-Liners by Billie Nardozzi. When the time comes, I’m pretty sure we can find him a book designer.

“I wouldn’t be mad if I never made any money,” Billie says of his investments in the Post-Gazette and Lamar, “If my words can make someone happy, that’s worth all the money in the world.”

There is absolutely no question that Billie Nardozzi’s words, spirit, and energy have brought joy to many, many people already. You see it in the handwriting on his Christmas cards, hear it the messages left on his answering machine, and feel it in the adoring comments on his FaceBook page.

Keats, Yeats, or any of them guys, Nardozzi ain’t. But then again, Robert Frost never wrote “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” or “The Turkey Bandit.” Whether it’s more or less traveled, we don’t know, but here at the Orbit we’ll take the Nardozzi Road any time we get the chance.

Bonus video: Billie (neé Billy) Nardozzi performing “Super Bowl Steelers” with T.C. The Peanut Vendor on The Fedko Fone Zone, 2010.


* Reprints of Billie Nardozzi’s poems come from Celebrations, Brett Yasko’s archive of Nardozzi’s poetry as it originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is used with permission of both Nardozzi and Yasko. Yasko also designed and published a printed book of selected Nardozzi poems of the same name. For more information, see: brettyasko.com/self-initiated/celebrations.