Headless Boys and Two-Tone Stones: An Allegheny Cemetery Scavenger Hunt

detail from marble cemetery monument of carved family whose features have eroded
From grieving family to alien beings in just 150 years. One of many intriguing details in Allegheny Cemetery.

The family is gathered together in grief. Their roles are not entirely clear, but it appears we’ve got a husband and wife, several school-aged children, and a nanny tending to the youngest of the lot. There is also another, larger, man dressed formally in the kind of double-breasted coat-and-tails popular among the well-to-do of the mid-19th century. Even if the patriarch hadn’t quite literally lost his head (and portions of both arms) it’s probably safe to say he’s the reason the gang is all here.

The figures, intricately carved into an elaborate marble cemetery monument, don’t appear as they originally did 150 years ago. Like her father (or maybe it’s her father-in-law), mom is also sans-tête, but even more striking is the way the facial features of the entire group have been worn away, leaving a strange alien-like cadre–gaunt, ghostly, and zombified–but awkwardly dressed in Sunday-best human clothes with an out-of-place Greek temple in the background. It’s the perfect setup for a gothic sci-fi story.

large cemetery monument colored half black and half white
Breaking up is hard to do. The two-tone stone.

If you’ve spent any time at all within the beautiful boundaries of Allegheny Cemetery, you know its greatest hits: the rolling landscape, gangs of deer, and gaggles of geese; the Winter mausoleum, resplendent in faux-Egyptian glory, complete with a pair of guardian sphinxes; elegant–if, endangered–stained glass; the hokey Jaws-inspired “shark grave”; Orbit favorite Steelers stones; final resting places of famous (at least, Pittsburgh famous) people like Stephen Foster, Josh Gibson, Lillian Russell, and Stanley Turrentine. The list goes on …

But for those of us who spend enough time in the cemetery to, you know, “check the pulse,” there are so many more fascinating details to this 177-year-old burial park that we thought we’d put together a scavenger hunt for those who might be looking for an excuse to get out and poke around.

Below is a collection of favorite oddball, accidental, and unexpected elements from Allegheny Cemetery’s 300+ acres that we offer up as a fun, we-still-need-to-be-Covid-safe outdoor hunt for the curious. Much like an office visit with Dr. Love, there are neither bills nor fees for participating. There is also no time limit and the only reward is the satisfaction of getting out there, stretching the legs, and doing the thing–but that’s a fine way to spend a sunny spring afternoon.

Happy hunting, y’all!

grave monument statue of boy, whose head has been severed
The headless boy

We’re four photos in, and already down as many noggins. The ornate colliding with the real world never fails to generate interesting anomalies. Statues carved from stone that have lost fingers, whole limbs, and yes, their entire cranium are always something to see–and Allegheny Cemetery has plenty of these–but we thought we’d call out two evergreen favorites.

The headless boy (above) sits among a circle of similar–but still intact–statuary in a glorious part of the cemetery, reliably basking in fine views and peaceful tranquility. By contrast, the bird’s nest monument (below) is always a hive of activity as a family of sparrows almost always take up residence under the structure’s partial roof, atop the cloth-draped column by the headless woman. Yes, again with the science fiction, but it’s almost as if the lady’s brain has been transformed into a bird’s nest that her decapitated body must now lean in close to communicate with.

intricate stone cemetery memorial including a female figure missing her head and a real bird's nest
The bird’s nest monument
cemetery memorial featuring fireman's hat and hose carved from stone
Get hosed: the fireman’s memorial

Hat ornaments! There are many markers that incorporate iconography of the service their occupants pursued, but we particularly like the fireman’s memorial (above) with its old-school pointy hat-helmet and large firehose nozzle.

There are plenty of military veterans buried at Allegheny Cemetery, but few got the Union soldier’s hat + crossed cannons and cannonballs treatment of this fellow (below).

detail from Civil War soldier's gravestone featuring hat, cannons, and cannonballs
Union soldier’s hat, cannons, and cannonballs
detail from cemetery monument featuring chiseled gears/machine imagery
Modern Times: a stone age machine

Most of the big cemetery obelisks are pretty plain. Shaped like mini-Washington Monuments, their whole thing is to be big and simple. But we love the detail on this one (above) where a stonemason has carved an incredibly intricate fantasy machine full of gears, engine belts, flywheels, an anvil, tools–you name it. Its an abstracted imagination of what a fully-mechanical factory might look like. It probably bears little resemblance to real life (even the real life of a hundred years ago) and more to the satire of Chaplin’s Modern Times vision of innovation-run-amok.

handmade grave sculpture of young boy's head and torso
The bronze toddler, avec tête

Orbit whisperer Paul Schifino pointed this one out to us, and we’re glad he did. While including statuary of a young child isn’t all that rare (especially when the deceased died young), this one appears to be a bonus, add-on stone to a much more traditional marker. The bronze (?) head and bust was clearly handmade by an artisan and features the flat back of a piece that had previously been mounted … somewhere else. Who’s the kid? Where did he come from? We don’t know!

large family grave marker carved to look like tree trunk
The Wilkins family tree

One of the holy grails for American taphophiles are the monuments created by the Woodmen of the World. That mysterious fraternal order/life insurance society provided stones carved to look like tree trunks with severed limbs for just a few decades at the turn of the 20th century.

The Wilkins family tree (above) is not one of these (at least, it doesn’t bear the WOTW insignia)–nor are there any in Allegheny Cemetery as far as we can tell. We have reached full-on obsession with finding some–heck, finding one. [Side note: if you know of any Woodmen of the World markers in greater Pittsburgh, please let us know and we’ll be on the road faster than you can say Dum Tacet Clamet.] Regardless, the Wilkins didn’t skimp when it came to ordering up this extra-large trunk with a dozen or so names carved into the severed limb stumps.

grave monument featuring two large books, opened to middle pages
Pick up a couple good books

We love this pair of open book memorials. It would be interesting to know the title of a couple good books (above). History would suggest they’re probably two matching Bibles, but with all detail worn away, they could as easily be Lincoln in the Bardo and The Lovely Bones. Let’s hope it’s something good, because they’ll be here a while.

No mystery with this one, though. The square and compass insignia tells us a Freemason planted this stout stone dais with an open book and the two aforementioned tools acting as bookmark. Around the base (not pictured) is additional iconography–a Star of David, cross, etc.

stone memorial featuring a book with the Freemason's square and compass symbol
The square and compass: the book of Freemasonry.
detail from George Hogg's grave monument, colored green by oxidized copper in the stone
Going green: George Hogg’s multi-hued monument

Cemeteries–all cemeteries–are dominated by the color gray. Grave markers, large monuments, cenotaphs–they all live somewhere in the very limited spectrum of dirty white to not-quite black. It’s why the larger environment looks so great among the turning leaves of fall and against the green grass of spring; it’s why they look so stark within the equally monotone grays of winter.

Green also appears every once in a while in the stone itself. The Orbit doesn’t have a resident geologist/chemist, but our understanding is that this is the result of some mineral (copper, probably?) oxidizing over its decades exposed to the open air.

Many individual markers and statuary have streaks of iridescent green in their surfaces, but none moreso than the big memorial for George Hogg (above), which has completely mutated into a psychedelic light show of rich, emerald greens, electric neon blues, and washed-out pale cornflower.

stone grave marker that appears to appears to be melting
Hello, Dali. My Angel Lilla, the melting monument.

A couple oddballs here. My Angel Lilla (above) is nothing special but for the way time and tide have created this weird distortion in the lid. Did some imperfection in the stone cause it to … melt? Does that really happen to rock?

What the artist of the salt and pepper shakers (below) was going for might have been more obvious when it was installed and the details were sharp, but by now it’s a total mystery. Are those columns? cannons? some kind of industrial product? And what is binding them–vines? rope? chains? Heck, we’ve got today’s writing prompt for you right here.

cemetery monument with unusual design featuring two columns connected by other material
The salt and pepper shakers: twin columns of mystery.
grave marker with custom design depicting the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville as cartoonish line drawing
Lawrenceville in line

Generally the newer-style, glossy black headstones with etched-in details just look too shiny and too computer-generated for these old blogger’s eyes. But we love this view of ninth-ward Lawrenceville–the 40th Street Bridge and Heppenstall mill in the foreground, the chock-a-block row houses rising above–as seen from the top of the hill, across the river in Millvale. Maybe it’s just because we like the art better or because this was obviously a Lawrenceville (after-)lifer, but this speaks more about the person than all those clip art shovels and Steelers emblems and musical notes we see on its sister stones.

grave marker featuring odd, round, ball-like stone
Have a ball with Bailey Balken’s big brown ball

Bailey Balken went rouge when s/he went out (above). Not afraid to mix media or typefaces, Balken’s marker includes a pair of flat marble stones inside a brass plaque laid atop a just-a-size-larger granite slab. That alone won’t get you in the Orbit scavenger hunt, but the volleyball-sized round rock inserted into the middle will. Looking like a rising loaf of rustic Italian bread, it’s unclear what Bailey was after … unless it was some kind of play on ball/Balken. Who knows?

We imagine Thomas Bowater (below) must have been an engineer, or a machinist, or something in that world. That seems the most likely explanation for including a rolling axle/cog/gear as the prominent feature in a gravestone that looks like it came right off the shop floor. This rock rolls.

stone grave marker featuring large spinning machine part
Rock and roll. The Bowater rolling axle/cog/gear grave.
ornate gate-like entrance to empty cemetery plot
The Gates to Nowhere

These gates don’t really lead to nowhere–there’s actually a nice, circular plot back there–but the family clearly didn’t get the buy-in they were expecting from the rest of the crew, which left the space largely uninhabited. The result is a pristine little plateau with a great view across the river, down and over the rest of the cemetery, and up to Garfield–all with the ornate decorative blackened stone portico that says to the world you’re here–but we don’t know why.

Let’s Put the X in Six: The Graphics of Coronavirus

stickers and sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
Six feet by two feet: some of the ubiquitous six-foot social distance waiting markers found on sidewalks

One day this will all be over. With vaccines going into arms as we speak and new alternatives arriving from just-approved sources, it’s not that unrealistic to see a day in the near-ish future when we’ll be able to see friends again, to go out to theaters and rock-and-roll shows, to have the freedom to travel, throw a party, or just quaff a beverage at the tavern.

Along with this, it’s easy to predict “after times” celebratory events that ritualistically destroy the physical reminders of the year+ we’ve all lived in some level of coronavirus lockdown. Mass bonfires of face masks seem like the most obvious expression, but outworn sweatpants and pajamas, abandoned first novels and knitting projects are likely targets in the same group exorcism.

sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
animal tracks

The collective scar on the nation’s forehead signifying the half a million (and counting) human lives lost will not be forgotten any time soon–nor should it. The shuttered storefronts of businesses of both the mom & pop and big box varieties will ultimately be rented to new merchants, but unswept sidewalks under For Lease signs will be with us for a while.

One of the most obvious visual elements of the coronavirus pandemic is the stencils applied to sidewalks, stickers on retail floors, and makeshift duct tape delineations to mark pedestrian traffic flow and spaced six-foot waiting points. These ubiquitous graphic additions to the landscape all popped up overnight early in the pandemic and then seemed frozen in time after this single application.

Despite the obvious advertisement for the incredible adhesive tenacity to survive a very snowy Pittsburgh winter, these markers are, by definition, temporary. When bars and restaurants are allowed to open at full capacity and mask orders are finally lifted, shop stewards will peel back the big round decals and scrape off the gaffer’s tape once and for all. [Pro tip: forget GameStop–invest in Goo Gone now!]

collage of six foot markers made from black tape on cement sidewalk
six feet/two tone

It is this moment when historians should be alert to these soon-to-disappear markers of a time we think we’ll never forget. Fear not: we will. Humans have famously lousy memory and we’re hardwired to move onto the next thing. Your author has been laughed-at for still using a five-year-old iPhone–you think this society is going to be thinking about six-foot distance markers in a few years? A new generation of Covid deniers will inevitably force the narrative that the whole thing was a collective fever dream. Heck, in ten years we’ll probably have no one left that can still bake sourdough bread.

collage of tape markings on sidewalk in multicolor duct tape
the colors of coronavirus
collage of Xs made with tape on sidewalks
let’s put the X in six
stickers and sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
six feet [includes photo contributions from Michele Timon]
arrow made of black duct tape on cement sidewalk
this way out

When Orbit readers Alyssa Cammarata Chance and Michele Timon submitted photos of some of the big round floor decals we see all over, we first scoffed at these as “corporate coronavirus.” No, they’re neither as creative or interesting as original stencils, nor as randomly oddball as the tape directives. But with a little reflection and a whole lot more re-examination, they make for their own unique experience worth documenting. We’ve included the best of them here.

collection of coronavirus six feet distance markers on pavement
please stand here [includes photo contribution from Michele Timon]
collection of social distance markers on brick sidewalk
Condado Tacos: winner of corona-variety award [includes photo contribution from Alyssa Cammarata Chance]
collection of coronavirus social distancing decals on sidewalks and retail floors
and even more! [includes photo contributions from Alyssa Cammarata Chance, Lee Floyd, and Michele Timon]
coronavirus decal advertising hand washing
wash up!

Special thanks to The Orbit’s co-executive assistant to the mailroom intern Lee Floyd for suggesting this fascinating topic.

If you’ve got some good photos of six-foot separator markers–or anything that speaks to the last year in lockdown–let us know and maybe we can include it in a follow-up story.

Skyline Fine Time: The Pittsburgh Skyline in Seventh Heaven

shop sign for Pittsburgh Beauty Bar including silhouette of the city skyline

Beauty City. Pittsburgh Beauty Bar, South Side

Last fall, we watched with disbelief as a tenant finally moved into the empty retail space at Penn & Main and opened its doors for business. That prime corner had sat unoccupied for at least two decades*, and El Sabor Latin Kitchen inexplicably added another Mexican restaurant to the same block as Los Cabos during a global pandemic. Let’s just say the whole thing was front page news at Chez Orbit. But when those big Penn Avenue windows came dressed in a decal with an original logo of the Pittsburgh skyline embedded in a hot pepper, well, let’s just say it made the last twenty of years of head-scratching make a lot more sense. The landlords were just looking for the right tenant all along.

logo for El Sabor restaurant with the Pittsburgh skyline inside a hot pepper

Hot Pepper City: El Sabor, Bloomfield

The downtown Pittsburgh skyline–spiky towers at PPG Place, Highmark’s pointed angle, the big block of the USX (neé US Steel) tower, a couple of bridges if we’re lucky–just won’t be contained. Here it is, the Orbit‘s seventh trip down this particular road and we’ll no longer be foolish enough to think we’ve bagged them all. You get a new restaurant today and there will always still be an untapped pizzeria, plumber, real estate agency, or left-in-the-woods slate stencil art tomorrow.

It is a beautiful (and sunny!) day out there. Go out and find your own Pittsburgh skyline.

[Special thanks to Greg Lagrosa who is working the micro-beat of food trucks with the Pittsburgh skyline temporarily parked in Verona hard.]

Pittsburgh Sandwich Society food truck with Pittsburgh skyline made from sandwiches

Sandwich City. Pittsburgh Sandwich Society food truck, Verona [note: skyline made of *sandwiches*!] [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

 

PGH EATZ food truck logo including silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline

Eatz City. PGH EATZ food truck, Verona [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

 

Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic logo including the Pittsburgh skyline inside an animal's paw print

Paw City. Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic

 

Pollack Real Estate sign including outline of Pittsburgh skyline

Sale City. Pollack Real Estate sign, South Side

 

sign for Your Town Realty including the Pittsburgh skyline

Your Town City. Your Town Realty

 

for rent sign including the Pittsburgh skyline

Big A City. Arkham Realty & Property Management

 

logo for Pops & Son Pizzeria including Pittsburgh city skyline on crust of pizza slice

Cheese City. Pops & Son Pizzeria, Brighton Heights [photo: Kristen Sarver]

 

downtown Pittsburgh skyline as part of Shop'n'Save's Downtown Deli sign

Deli City. Shop’n’Save, Lawrenceville

 

sign for bar including silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline

All Day City. Alioto’s, Etna

 

stencil of Pittsburgh skyline with word "Peace"

Skyline stencil on piece of slate left under a mysterious Christmas tree along Emerald View Trail City. Mt. Washington

 

window painting including Pittsburgh skyline inside rainbow heart

Pandemic Rainbow Heart City. Key Bank, Downtown


* There was a brief (like, maybe three months) period in the mid-oughts when someone had set up the space for phone-banking or telemarketing or something involving folding tables and cheap landlines–this hardly counts.

Walk This Way: Millvale’s Art Crosswalks

crosswalk mural of woman with wild multicolor hair

Wild hair. Crosswalk mural at Sedgwick Street and Grant Ave., Millvale

While no one wants to be a doormat, we might all wistfully hope to be a crosswalk. At least, we would if we were rendered this lovingly.

Standing on the corner, the woman in the street is quite the vision. With a plain face and porcelain skin, she is more antique doll than real flesh and blood. It is her hair, though–a psychedelic swirl of curled pinks, mauves, and orange locks spread out across a technicolor rainbow backdrop–that gets the well-deserved focus here.

The mural is painted across Sedgwick Street, in Millvale. It is one of a couple dozen similar murals painted last summer directly on top of existing crosswalks in the borough’s great little downtown business district. We don’t know who the individual painters are [artists: please get in touch so we can credit you!] but various reports have the murals loosely associated with the group that puts on the annual Millvale Music Festival. That free weekend turn-every-business-into-a-music-venue hootenanny, along with everything else, just couldn’t happen last year.

street crosswalk mural of large fish in water

Something fishy (Grant & Sherman)

street crosswalk mural of books on a shelf

BIG free library (Grant & Sheridan)

While the show wasn’t able to go on, Millvale’s civic spirit continued unabated. The murals are 100% focused on the community, with almost all of them containing unnamed but sly references to the small businesses that exist in the immediate proximity.

There are a pair of collections of disembodied haircuts near Shear Timing and Salon 22; a lineup of dancing tacos, hot peppers, and salsas by Baby Loves Tacos’ North Ave. location; a firehose dowsing a raging flame in front of the fire department. A row of books is just down from the public library; stacks of Pamela’s glorious crepe-like pancakes at the P&G Diner; happy kids and chocolate bunnies by Yetter’s Candy Shop.

As waistline-watching, model-building, music fiends, we’re wondering how Jean-Marc’s French bakery, Esther’s Hobby Shop, and The Attic Record Store slipped through cracks here, but perhaps those are all in the works for this coming summer.

details from different murals painted in crosswalks, all of haircuts or scissors

Curl up and dye (details) (Grant & Sedgwick; North & Lincoln)

street crosswalk mural of fire and water hose

Firehouse (Lincoln & Sedgwick)

At present, Millvale’s downtown community is at a real high point of healthy livability. Its storefronts are occupied with businesses from the mundane to the sublime: there are a couple fancy things, a lot of nice-to-haves, and plenty of nuts-and-bolts. Those of us looking at (and regularly walking across the bridge to) Millvale from across the river in Lawrenceville can tell you all about the slippery slope from this zenith of sensible sustainability to drowning in condos, Thai rolled ice cream, and weekend partiers arriving by the Uber-load.

The crosswalk murals that celebrate Millvale’s community point all this out beautifully, without ever needing to rub your face in it. This little borough with its candy shops and laundromat, diners, dive bars, and videotape rental, church-turned-concert hall and ex-Moose Lodge to trattoria Sprezzatura, has so much to offer right now–even in the depths of Covid-induced ghost towns everywhere–that we should appreciate what we’ve got and how we can keep it just like it is.

street crosswalk mural reading "Millvale"

Gateway to Millvale (North Ave.)

details from murals painted in street crosswalks

Happy kids! Beer-making icons! (Grant & Sedgwick; Grant & Sherman)

street crosswalk mural of Mexican food

Taco town! (Grant & North)

street crosswalk mural of stack of pancakes

That is a LARGE stack (detail) (North & Lincoln)

street crosswalk mural of bubbles

Tiny bubbles (Grant & North)

crosswalk mural of garden scene

Garden scene (detail) (Grant & Butler)

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.