Failing Media! SAD! The Fourth Estate, Six Feet Under

former offices of The Daily News, now with boarded up, downtown McKeesport, PA

The Daily News, McKeesport (1884-2015)

Walk by the old Post-Gazette building, on the very last block before Boulevard of the Allies terminates at Point State Park, and you’ll likely be the only one on the sidewalk. It’s a surprisingly desolate section of our otherwise healthy and lively downtown. Boxed-in by highways and a complete lack of any retail nearby, this hulking, ugly building sits alone and empty at one corner of downtown.

At street level, there are giant windows that used to look straight into the busy printing floor of the newspaper. Here, for more than 50 years at this location, you could stand on the sidewalk, peer straight in, and watch the incredible synchronicity of massive printing presses spinning at full speed, cranking out the daily news. It was quite an operation.

former printing floor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

former printing floor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1927-present)[1]

You can still peer through those big windows, but you won’t see any equipment filling the space today. That’s all been removed–sold off, presumably–with the Post-Gazette‘s upgrade to a brand new suburban printing facility a few years back. The subsequent relocation of the news office to the near North Side followed. On the bright side, the P-G‘s current crew of journalists, editors, and the like need only head downstairs for a fill-up on No Joke Mac ‘N Cheese or a flight of shooters at Tequila Cowboy.

entrance to the former News-Tribune office, Beaver Falls, PA

The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls (1928-1979)

If you’re on Boulevard, grab a gander while you still can. What’s left is a fascinating view into a work space once pumping with activity. Floor mounts for all the heavy machinery are still intact; blank walls are scarred with the gouges and pockmarks of a half-century’s hard physical abuse. One visible section of below-street-level wall still contains taped-up news clippings, notes, employee graffiti, and torn photos of women in bikinis. All surfaces appear blackened with a spray of printing ink that one imagines hung in the air like thick fog.

The Burgettstown Enterprise (1878-1999)

For now (at least), the Post-Gazette is still very much alive–although it continues to try to figure out how many days a week it can actually afford to print and deliver a paper.

The same cannot be said for many of the region’s old news sources. Head out of town in any direction and each Main Street will almost invariably offer up the spent carcass of a former local newspaper.

eight-story stone Victorian office building in downtown Pittsburgh

The Pittsburg (sic.) Times, 1880-1906

Jeannette Dispatch (1889-1918) [2]

With banks being the notable exception, newspaper offices erected a century-or-so ago seem uniquely confident in their place in society among private businesses[3]. A huge number of papers have the original masthead built right into the brick and granite framework of their headquarters buildings.

You can’t always tell from these photos, but trust that it was the engraved crowns on the Jeannette Dispatch (above) and Leader-Times (below) that gave them away; no pre-research was necessary to find them–we just looked up and read the rooflines.

Simpsons’ Daily Leader-Times, Kittanning (1921-1961)

brick building with sign reading "The Times Publishing Co.", Duquesne, PA

The Duquesne Times (1918-1960)

For this piece, we decided to only include photos of newspaper buildings where the passer-by can still read the original mission of its previous host. If we were to do all the forensics on every old paper in the region … well, we’d never get back to weird pizza and sad toys.

That said, the great all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a terrific post on the various former locations of the Daily Citizen. They’ve done an amazing job of tracking and showing then-and-now pictures of the five different Ambridge buildings the Citizen occupied during its 55-year run (1904-1959). None of the current photos give any hint to their past life in media.

Valley Journal/The Green Sheet, Millvale (1941-2019)

The latest casualty! Yes, even The Green Sheet (aka “Ye Olde Green Sheet”) has fallen victim to cheap/free Internet classifieds announcing their closure over the summer. No longer will you see the once-ubiquitous piles of pale green newsprint stacked by the door at Shur-Save, Kuhn’s, and Shop’n’Save. If you want to swap cemetery plots or trade for guns, that business will have to be conducted elsewhere.

former office of Butler Eagle newspaper, Butler, PA

Butler Eagle (1903-present)

Rest assured, the Butler Eagle is still publishing–but they’ve moved their news office to a more modern, large scale printing operation on the edge of town. That consolidation has vacated the c. 1924 art deco-lite building, just off Main Street, where you’ll now find the unique property listed for sale. For our purposes, we think that counts too.

former office of The Valley Indpendent newspaper, Monessen, PA

The Valley Independent, Monessen (1926-2015) [4]


[1] As the name implies, the Post-Gazette was created by a merger of two much older newspapers, The Pittsburgh Gazette (first published 1786) and The Pittsburgh Post (neé Daily Morning Post) (first published 1842). The papers were merged in 1927 and moved into the building on Boulevard of the Allies in 1962.
[2] The Dispatch merged with another local paper in 1918, forming The Jeannette News-Dispatch, which continued publishing through 1981. Sometime in there, the office moved around the corner to Fourth St. We didn’t get a picture so we’re not sure if there is still a visible marker of it’s life as a news office.
[3] It is extremely common to see government buildings, schools, libraries, etc. with this kind of confidence in its future, but much less so with businesses.
[4] The Valley Independent has stopped printing, but lives on in the Mon Valley Independent.

Hollers to Doughnuts: Cycling the Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Beaver Greens Park and Ohio River on a sunny fall day

Picture perfect. View of Beaver Greens Park, Bridgewater Crossing, and the Ohio River from River Road, Beaver

[Breathes deeply, sighs wistfully.]

If only it was October all year long. This…err, last month’s magic powers are almost too numerous to name. Golden, low-angle sunshine fans through dappled multicolor leaves. Crisp morning air yields to warm, t-shirt weather afternoons. Decorative gourd fantasias tell us the aroma of pumpkin spice and mulled apple cider is wafting somewhere nearby as the whimsical array of dismembered body parts, sadistic clowns, and sprays of blood spatter signal the most wonderful of holiday seasons is fully upon us.

elaborate Halloween decorations on house and yard in Monaca, PA

The most wonderful holiday season, Monaca

Give this blogger a day off and a blue sky and you’ll inevitably find him on a bicycle, worldly cares dismissed for the afternoon. This particular October day (it was Saturday, two weeks ago) was just such an occasion. Maps were consulted, timetables checked, and the S.S. Orbit charted a course downriver.

The goal for this particular journey was to construct our own custom bicycle-based tour through a series of nearly-contiguous river towns. We’re calling the route The Beaver Valley Six-Pack. If you get the chance and you’re so-inclined–there is still time–we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous autumn day.

Below is the path we took along with some highlights. That said, as long as you get the interchanges right, it’s pretty much choose-your-own-adventure on this one. Stay off the busy roads–that turns out to be pretty easy–and you really can’t go wrong.

rooftop decoration of Santa with 10 reindeer made from toilet bowls, Monaca, PA

Santa and 10 tiny reindeer-toilets, Monaca

Monaca

We started in Monaca and went north. There’s a good argument to go the other direction, but we’ll get into that later. In any case, one can safely park a car on anywhere around 9th Street and the vehicle should remain unmolested as long as you like.

Don’t be too quick to get across the river! An easy trundle through the longer residential streets  (Washington, Indiana, and Atlantic Aves.) is well worth the poke-see, as are the dramatic river views from Monaca’s pair of waterfront parklets.

View of the Ohio River and train bridge from Monaca, PA

View of the Ohio River from the Monaca riverfront

Right now, the city is well represented in holiday decoration with an ample supply of front yard witches, skeletons, and gravestones. You’ll also not want to miss the Christmas-all-year display of Santa and his ten tiny reindeer toilets (photo above) on the roof of a garage behind the Japanese steakhouse.

ghost sign reading "Monaca Business Block," Monaca, PA

Ghost sign, Monaca

Whenever you’re ready, the giant bridge over the Ohio River awaits. It comes straight off 9th Street and there’s a protected bicycle/pedestrian gangway on the north-bound side. Newish signage states this will part of a future, more formalized Beaver County bicycle trail–but we can’t wait for that.

We saw no other non-vehicles on our crossing and while the views up and down the Ohio River are spectacular, we didn’t manage to get a photo worth sharing. Maybe you can do better.

large elevated sign for DeAngelis Donuts, Rochester, PA

DeAngelis Delightfully Different Donuts, Rochester

Rochester to Bridgewater

Arriving on the north bank of the Ohio, you’d swear the municipality was named DeAngelis for the size and placement of the enormous welcome sign. It’s not. No, Rochester just happens to begin (or end) at DeAngelis “Delightfully Different” Donuts which somehow commandeers the enviable location where the little city’s downtown intersects with the bridge and Routes 51/65 highway through-traffic.

A dirty secret: The Orbit has been to Rochester a dozen times on various field trips and never stopped for a DeAngelis donut (sic.). We’ll rectify that one of these days.

Rochester has a cool–but, sadly, vacant–old downtown just downhill from where you are now. There’s also a riverfront bowling alley whose exterior you’ll recognize from Kingpin the next you see it. This is all well worth exploring–but we didn’t do it this trip. Instead, it was through the roundabout, arriving at six o’clock and getting out at 11, down Brighton to Madison and crossing the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Beaver River between Rochester and Bridgewater, PA

Rochester (right), Bridgewater (left), and a whole lot of blue. View from the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Bridgewater and Beaver Borough

You’ll pass quickly through Bridgewater–so quickly, you might not even realize it was its own place. That said, if you’re looking for lunch, there are a handful of establishments right there at the base of the bridge that all look welcoming and convivial.

A quick left on Market Street, following the road around to Wolf Lane, will lead you directly to a bike/ped trail up under some railroad tracks by the old train depot and into Beaver Borough.

Now, Beaver gets all the name recognition out here and that’s in no small part because it cornered the market on the three W’s: wealthy white WASPs. If you’ve never been there, Beaver is totally out of place among the rest of the area. With its wide streets, well-kept fancy homes, and main street full of boutiques and frivolity, Beaver feels like a tony commuter suburb was plucked out of Connecticut and dropped in among the old mill towns of Beaver County. Don’t let that stop you from checking out the good stuff.

Halloween decorations at home in Beaver, PA

Halloween at Thunberg Acres, Beaver

The bicycle ride around River Road is just terrific. A wide street with no traffic and long views down to Beaver Greens Park, the Ohio River, and back across to Monaca on the other shore. (See photo, top.) River Road also includes numerous park benches, historical markers, and assorted other points of interest along the way.

At the far end, you’ll come up close to Thunberg Acres (our name). Orbit fans know this as the 3rd Street home of Gary Thunberg and his always-in-rotation holiday displays. [See photo above; we’ve reported on Gary’s homemade Halloween and Independence Day displays in years past.] Whatever the time of year, see what Thunberg Acres has in the queue of full-yard displays and please sign Gary’s guest book in the front box–he’s got a collection that goes back 20 years and would love for you to add to it.

fall day in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Dappled sunlight, fall colors, Cyrillic picture graves at Beaver Cemetery

It is hard to overstate this how devastatingly beautiful Beaver Cemetery is–especially this time of year. The cemetery sits directly across 3rd Street from the Thunberg house and basically forms the western end of the town’s business district–you won’t miss it. We’ve reported on the off-its-rocker Leaf Mausoleum already, but there is so much to see here–and it colors so beautifully in the fall–that you don’t even need that.

As an unrepentant taphophile, I can tell you that Beaver Cemetery’s collection of mid-century photo gravestones is the largest we’ve seen in these parts. We first got the bug with the amazing weathered grave markers at Loretto Cemetery, but the town of Beaver bought into the little photos-turned-ceramic insets big time. At some point, we’ll go back for a big story there. For now, you’ll have to go find them yourself.

World War I memorial featuring doughboy statue painted gold in Townsend Park, New Brighton, PA

The golden doughboy, Townsend Park, New Brighton

New Brighton

Fun fact: Beaver Falls (we’ll get there in a minute) was originally called Brighton, which makes the name of the borough right across the river more sensible and explains the prominence of Pittsburgh’s north-west-heading Brighton Road. Once the name change to Beaver Falls, you’d think New Brighton might consider becoming Regular-Old Brighton, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Bicycling to New Brighton is the trickiest of the lot. From Beaver, you’ll make your way across town, down Leopard Lane, back into Bridgewater, and north up either Market or Riverside. There’s a quick little run on the sidewalk and then across the bike/ped lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. From here, you want to go straight across Rt. 65 to 3rd Avenue, which will skirt the through traffic almost all the way to New Brighton.

dark beer in glass on rough wooden table

Ein dunkel, Petrucci Brothers Brewing, New Brighton

The pairing of cycling and a malty quaff go together like…well, basically like anything else where one of the two things is drinking beer. That’s certainly true on the Six-Pack and Petrucci Brothers Brewing served up a rich dunkel that was qualified to satisfy the thirsty rider. In addition to the requisite combined brew/drink space, mismatched seating, and thrown-together bar, the Petruccis are big on games with shuffleboard, ping pong, air hockey, pool, and a big stack of board games all available to play for free.

Before leaving New Brighton, take a gander at the terrific collection of churches in town. There are too many to either discuss or include photos of here, but suffice to say for a small town it ended up with an amazing array of holy architecture.

First Baptist Church, New Brighton, PA

First Baptist Church, one of several beautiful churches in New Brighton

Beaver Falls

You’ll be tempted to ride with the traffic across the 7th Street Bridge because that’s the most direct way to where you’re headed. This stay-off-the-busy-streets cyclist didn’t feel that safe with the handful of speeding cars greasing my hip, so the recommendation is to get across the road and take the safer–if underused–walkway on the south/downriver side of the bridge.

This drops you on 7th Avenue, Beaver Falls‘ Main Street. Like a lot of its fellow old mill towns, Beaver Falls has seen better days and will demonstrate that to you with a certain level of vacancy, empty lots, and underused storefronts up and down.

river, trees in fall colors, and train bridge in Western PA

The Beaver River and train bridge between New Brighton and Beaver Falls

That said, there’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink in town–even if you’re just passing through on two wheels.

The Beaver River’s eponymous falls do indeed break alongside Old Brighton’s eastern shore and there is the shortest of bicycle paths, connecting 2nd Ave. to 6th Ave., to see them from. Don’t get your hopes up: it’s a little tricky to actually get a decent viewing spot, and when you do…well, maybe they should have called the town Beaver Rapids. The gorgeous giant waterfalls of Ithaca or the Columbia River Gorge, these ain’t.

map with bicycling route between six different towns in Beaver County, PA

One suggested route for The Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Yeah, that’s a lot to take in. For anyone who’d actually like to recreate the Beaver Valley Six-Pack, we created a Map My Ride route that should get you through.

One final note: it was mentioned above that departing from Monaca may be the wrong way to do the trip. The argument for the opposite (start/end in Beaver Falls) is that you could bag (literally!) Oram’s Donuts at the start of the journey, do the rest of the ride in reverse, and then be back for the late opening time of Beaver Brewing Company. But then you’re probably getting to DeAngelis too late–what a dilemma!

Whatever you do, an exploration of Beaver Valley’s river towns is well worth the effort–even if you don’t do it on a bicycle. We’ll be back again, for sure, and maybe we’ll see you on the Six-Pack.

exterior of Oram's Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls, PA

Oram’s Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls


Getting there: To get anywhere in Beaver Valley will take you around 40 minutes drive west from downtown Pittsburgh.

Lest We Forget: One Year On

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Portrait of Bronia Weiner (b. Romania, 1919). One of 60 large-scale photographs of Holocaust survivors in Luigi Toscano’s “Lest We Forget” project, Oakland

It is almost what you might call a Mona Lisa smile. The face on the canvas is warm, but contains a hundred years of ups and downs, tragedy, triumph, and vigor—at least, that’s what we’re seeing. The woman’s emerald green eyes stare straight back at you. Her white hair is cut short and styled—or maybe it just goes this way naturally—in a loose wave that would look fashionable on a woman a quarter her age.

But it is the upturned curl at the corner of the woman’s mouth that gives her away. This cheshire grin suggests no matter how much heartache she may have experienced, there is an indomitable human spirit alive, well, and ready to release an outrageous tall tale with joyous laughter.

Bronia Weiner is a Holocaust survivor and it is no accident that her portrait is on public display here in Pittsburgh, now.

Robert (Bob) Behr (b. Berlin, Germany, 1922)

A partnership between The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh has brought German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano’s project Lest We Forget (or Gegen das Vergessen in the original German) to Oakland.

The installation features 60 large-scale color photo portraits mounted on semi-translucent screen. Designed for outside exhibition, the photos, stretched on big wooden frames, line the broad walkways between The Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel. Additional portraits are indoors at The Carnegie Museum and Chatham University library.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Shulamit Bastacky (b. Vilnius, Lithuania, 1941)

Up close and in person, the photographs read as the kind of opaque, hiqh-quality prints that one might find on art gallery walls. From any distance, however—especially on a bright sunny day—the fine mesh of the media allows background elements to bleed through the images.

The lush green of the Cathedral lawn colors a sun-dappled face. Eyeballs pop out from university infrastructure. Cloud-like white hair disappears into arching tree limbs, autumn leaves, and blue sky.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Sofija Goljand (b. Perejaslaw-Chmelnyzkyj, Ukraine, 1924)

We have no idea if this was the intended artistic effect or just a simple accident of the medium. Either way, the result is a beautiful and haunting way to portray these elder survivors and simultaneously address the mortality all of us inevitably wrestle with.

Toscano’s subjects range in age from their late 70s to 100 years old. Their time here—like all of ours—is limited. As these rich, detailed photographs dissolve into the wider landscape, it’s impossible not to think of the dust-to-dust return to the earth that will claim us one way or another.

large portraits of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

“Lest We Forget” portraits near Heinz Chapel

As of today, it’s been exactly one year since a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue and committed an act of hate-filled violence that will forever affect every Pittsburgher.

With the Lest We Forget portraits, it is impossible not to see the sad irony that the 60 individuals pictured here survived Nazi concentration camps—not to mention everything else life throws at a person over eight or nine decades—and yet eleven of our neighbors were murdered at a Shabbat prayer service in Squirrel Hill.

large portraits of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

“Lest We Forget” portraits on Cathedral of Learning lawn

Whatever you end doing today—be it attending the Tree of Life vigil or just parked on the couch with a bowl of popcorn—please keep all of these folks in your mind. Better yet, take a walk over to the lovely Cathedral lawn to see the installation for yourself. This remarkable collection of faces, each containing more life experiences than we could possibly know, will help you remember just what you have—and what we all lost exactly one year ago.

large portrait of Holocaust survivor mounted on exterior display at the University of Pittsburgh campus as part of Luigi Toscano's "Lest We Forget" portrait series

Elena Anfimowa (b. Smolensk, Russia, 1923)

Swinging for DeBence’s: Pipe Dreams and Piano-Playing Robots at the Antique Music World

antique calliope at DeBence Antique Music World

These pipes are smokin’! A deluxe calliope at DeBence Antique Music World in Frankin, PA.

Close your eyes and imagine what a robot looks like. Chances are, you might conjure up a blocky sci-fi stereotype–all shiny metal, wires, and blinking lights, rolling around assisting space forces in a stilted computer voice. Others may envision the kinds of already-in-the-real-world robots currently zipping through assembly plants and fulfillment centers with lightning precision, or the pure artificial intelligence powering high-tech interactive devices everywhere.

Whatever you’re thinking of, it doesn’t look like this.

wooden piano attachment to mechanically play a standard piano at DeBence Antique Music World

80 (or so) fingered mechanical piano-playing robot

A large, handmade wooden cabinet–maybe six feet long, four feet high, and at least 18 inches deep–is placed directly in front of a full-size upright piano, rendering the instrument completely inaccessible to any human hands that might wish to tickle the ebony and/or ivory. The add-on unit takes input in the form of elaborate scrolls and translates the paper’s precisely-cut notches to the mechanical operation of eighty-some wooden fingers, one placed on each (almost) of the piano’s keys*.

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion at DeBence Antique Music World

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion

DeBence Antique Music World has one of these piano-playing appliance-attachment-robots on display and ready to crank up for a mini concert on your next visit. DeBence’s collection also includes elaborate coin-operated mechanical music machines, calliopes, band organs, and more evolutions of disk-playing music boxes and phonographs than you ever knew existed.

The museum, located 80-some miles north of Pittsburgh in the über-quaint “Oil Country” town of Franklin, is a little out of our typical reach. But DeBence–and the region’s other many out-of-the-way attractions–are well worth the easy day trip from home.

metal musical disk on antique player at DeBence Antique Music World

Regina music disk and player

brass horns attached to elaborate band organ at DeBence Antique Music World

band organ horns

It’s probably safe to say musicians, record collectors, and those excited by domestic history and the development of America during its boom years will have an extra special interest in DeBence. The sheer volume of intricate, hand-cut music disks and elaborate, room-filling multi-instrument machinery is awe-inspiring and humbling to anyone who’s already dabbled in the media, fiddled with sound, or rocked the wheels of steel.

But you don’t have to be a music freak to appreciate DeBence. Just experiencing all the little gears clicking in metric time, wooden mallets tick-tocking stacked xylophone blocks, and the hair-blown-back blasts of dozens of brass pipes squonking in unison is a fascinating spectacle. The objects–polished metal disks, dark hardwood cabinetry, hand-painted decorative details–could stand alone in a design museum without ever hearing them play.

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display at DeBence Antique Music World

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display

painted detail on band organ frame at DeBence Antique Music World

painted detail on band organ frame

But, oh–you know where this is going–at DeBence, you do get to hear them perform. The collection is no mere array of historical objects entombed behind glass. No, they really don’t make them like they used to–and part of that means you can still hand crank the coil spring of a c. 1890s disk-playing music box and hear its metallic tines ting-ting-tingling out the popular music of the day. Try seeing if your 10-year-old Zune is still up to the task.

Our crew was fortunate enough to have an excellent volunteer guide who not only knew his stuff, but took us on the full tour even when we slipped in the door just before closing time. We don’t know how many of DeBence’s machines are still in working order, but an enormous number of them got cranked-up, switched-on, or otherwise sprung to life for the tour–each full of beans and with a song to sing.

costumed figures playing bells inside Victorian music box at DeBence Antique Music World

Dumb bells. Jesters ready to strike in a 19th century music box.

gold-colored pipes of a home pipe organ at DeBence Antique Music World

organ pipes

It takes a whole lot of mind-bending technology to enable the history of recorded music to be beamed instantly through one’s digital device and straight into their psyche. That’s great and all, but there is an intangible loss in this convenience.

Maybe it’s an extreme rationalization from a part-time blogger and full time record collecting junkie, but something otherworldly happens when the black lacquer spins up, a tone arm adjusts over and drops down into place. There’s an electric moment of heightened sensation when we get just the barest static sizzle of a stylus in dead wax before the Side A, track 1 music kicks in. Sure: by any objective measure, it’s low-tech, obsolete, and patently nostalgic. But there’s a magic here you just don’t get with a Spotify stream.

wooden dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

handmade wooden Victrola dancer attachment

ceramic and textile dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

ceramic Victrola dancer attachment

If it seems like that today, imagine what the technology must have felt like to the Victorians–pre-radio, pre-motion picture, probably before most had ever talked on a telephone. Those early adopters, who first plunked-down an entire paycheck for a Victrola and then had to send off to Sears for a couple two-and-a-half-minute songs to play on them, must have lost their minds at the variety of voices and sounds coming to them from far, far away.

To see these old machines whir to life, sound spilling out–yes: creaking, wheezing, groaning, and, as Randy Jackson would say, “a little pitchy, dog,” at times–is a beautiful, transformative, and, yes, magical experience. I don’t know whether there’s a chance that gets your keister to dust off the phonograph and back in the record store [we’re rooting for you!] but it should at least get you up to Franklin.

Regardless, we can cross our fingers, hope the bellows push air, the paper score feeds the tickling digits, and the beautiful sound of magical music fills the air around you.

novelty decoration of real frog, stuffed with sawdust, holding a guitar at DeBence Antique Music World

Frog fantasy. Among DeBence’s novelties are many “real frogs stuffed with sawdust.”

exterior of DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, PA

DeBence Antique Music World, downtown Franklin, PA

close-up of pump organ keyboard and stops

All the stops: Vox Humana, Gemshorn, Dulcissimo, etc.

Getting there: DeBence Antique Music World is located at 1261 Liberty Street in Franklin. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Pittsburgh. DeBence has regular hours through the warmer months, but slows down over winter, so check the museum’s web site to make sure you’ll be able to get in.


Almost. The unit doesn’t quite reach the full 88-key range of a standard piano keyboard. If you want to hit those super low notes, you’ll have to do that yourself.

Q: Who Can Take a Rainbow and Make the World Taste Good? A: The Randyland Can

elaborately painted former storefront, now Randyland, in Pittsburgh, PA

All the colors, all the time: Randyland, Arch Street, North Side

Even on one’s second, third, or fourth visit, there is still a lot left to take in. Dangling fruit and topiary flora; psychedelic pattern-over-pattern detail and wooden animals spinning their wings in the breeze; funhouse mirrors elongate space and disembodied mannequin heads make sure someone’s looking out for you at all times.

With all these competing attention-grabbers, what will stay with you most are the colors. The phrase “every crayon in the box” comes to mind–but it’s not quite accurate here. You’ll find no dour grays or bland beiges, nor any ugly browns or heavy black. The colors are more like an exploded rainbow dipped in a dream: big, bright, and bold, fully saturated with no restrictions on theme or palette.

wooden backyard arbor decorated with plastic fruit at Randyland

Arbor fruit and psychedelic stairs

By now, Randyland needs (almost) no introduction. The North Side house of many murals, its open-to-the-public garden art environment, decorated fences, adjoining buildings, and extending-to-the-street pole art have been featured in travel sites, airline magazines, city visitor guides, and a zillion Instragram selfies.

That level of publicity usually takes a location out of our purview … usually. But Randyland is also such a special place–so individual, fun, giving, personal, positive, and, yes, colorful that we also can’t not include it in The Orbit‘s broader map of Pittsburgh’s you need to see this cultural high points. Plus, we’ve been negligent on including a Mexican War Streets story and it’s high time we right that wrong.

map of the North Side of Pittsburgh rendered as 3-D mural at Randyland

3-D Central North Side map (excerpt)

However it happened, Pittsburgh’s North Side ended up with an outsize share of the city’s big name cultural and tourist attractions. The Andy Warhol Museum, National Aviary, Children’s Museum, and Carnegie Science Center are all within (long) blocks of each other, as are the ball parks for both The Steelers and Pirates. The North Side also hosts slightly less name-brand amenities like The Mattress Factory, St. Anthony’s Reliquary, The Hazlett Theatre, Bicycle Heaven, and the newish (but terrificish) Alphabet City. It would be negligent to not mention that that the city’s only casino also ended up on the far “North Shore.” (Sigh.)

direction signs outside Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

All roads lead to Randyland

So it is entirely fitting that Randyland is right here, on Arch Street, at the absolute geographical center of The North Side. This place–both visionary and as grass roots and down-to-earth as they come–seeks to be a welcome beacon to all of Pittsburgh’s disparate citizens, as well as all of her visitors. Those who come to our fair city and ignore the Land of Randy in favor of a roll on the slots or pre-game beers in a parking lot do so at their own peril. You’ve been warned.

handmade welcome signs in many different languages at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Section of “The largest international welcome wall in America”

Whether The largest international welcome wall in America can really claim that honor is probably up for debate. Regardless, Randyland has the interior of the Arch Street fence fully decked out with hand-painted arrows that bienvenidosmurakaza nezaüdvözöljük, and haere-mai visitors from around the world into Randy’s little corner of it.

The property’s side shed is well-stocked with shelves full of blanks ready for visitors to decorate with new welcome messages. A sign by the project mentions the creator’s welcome message  “must be your ancestry,” suggesting a United Nations-like visitor count has already made Randyland a stop on their American adventure.

wooden painted cutout of a musician playing a horn at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, baby, play … and then dream big

Around the east and south sides of Randyland, facing Arch and Jacksonia Streets, are big sections of wooden picket fence. It’s likely the first thing you’ll see after the Randyland pseudo-storefront right on the corner. Like everything else on the property, these are decorated in multiple layers of swirling psychedelic bubbles, little round fish eye mirrors, and spinning whirligigs on off-kilter poles.

Atop all this are a series of life-size, 2-D wooden cutouts of musicians and dancers. Wearing fabulously groovy patterns, caught mid-stride and in full blown-out jam mode, they seem to all be at a swinging good-time party no one would want to miss. Among all the eccentric oddball entries scattered about Randyland, these painted cutout figures are a really incredible collection of work that would stand on its own in any environment.

hand-painted cut-out of man playing long trumpet at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, smile, laugh, dance, love, believe, grow

Messages painted directly on the figures’ body parts, clothes, and instruments are a not-too-subtle thesis for Randyland writ large. Dream Big, reads the bell of a saxophone; Believe U Can, the inscription on a dancer’s necktie. A cubist trumpeter with a punk rock hairdo implores us to Play, Smile, Laugh, Dance, Love, Believe, Grow. The message on a frenetic dancer’s long flowing dress is simply Be Happy.

metal letters spelling L-O-V-E in sand at Randyland

We IOVF Randyland! Love letters in the sand.

That kind of relentlessly earnest optimism and you-can-do-it positive encouragement is both a rare thing in this age of cynicism and easy to dismiss as hopelessly naive. It may also be a tough nut to swallow for those suffering from a blues that can make tossed-off statements like “be happy” feel like either an insufferably shallow temperature reading or an insurmountable obstacle to achieve in a real world outside the boundaries of Randyland.

art robot with outstretched arms

HUG-BOT 2.0

But…that’s why Randy created the HUG-BOT 2.0–and a garden’s worth of oversize art flowers, goofy takes on where to hang one’s lawn furniture, and how to look at the sky in its mirror opposite. If you can manage to visit Randyland, take your time speculating on the preposterous occasion of a suit of armor with a necktie, giant flies on telephone poles, mannequin heads in sunglasses and lip gloss and still not feel any better about the state of the world, well, you may just need to turn around, look at that wall of arrows one more time, and know that this is a place where you’re always welcome to try again.

collection of mannequin heads wearing sunglasses at Randyland

Here’s lookin’ at you! The future’s so bright, even the mannequins gotta wear shades.


Getting there: Randyland is located at 1501 Arch Street in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of the North Side. It’s free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to dusk pretty much every day.

Man-Sized Bird or Something: An Orbit Primer on The Mothman of Point Pleasant

statue of The Mothman in Point Pleasant, WV

Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something. Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, WV. [photo: Candice Northcut Tomon]

When Candice Northcut Tomon told us she was headed to Point Pleasant, West Virginia for the 18th annual Mothman Festival we were initially both jealous and irate she was scooping us on this important regional event–so we put her on the payroll. Here’s Candice’s first story for Pittsburgh Orbit.


Couples see Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something

This was the front-page headline readers of the Point Pleasant Register woke up to on November 16, 1966. Over the course of the following year, many residents of the greater Ohio River Valley reported seeing this same ominous creature, said to have glowing red eyes, a sculpted, helmet-like cranium, and the tattered wings of a giant moth. Other news outlets picked up on the story and the legend grew.

sandhill crane with its wings spread

A red-crested sandhill crane–possible dupe for the Mothman? [photo: Omaha World-Herald]

What was messing with the television reception and causing dogs to disappear in and around Point Pleasant? Was it a large sandhill crane–a bird described as the size of a grown man with red eyes–out of its migration pattern? Or possibly an otherworldly moth-like creature? During that year, over a hundred reports were logged and paranoia ran rampant in the small town.

postcard image of the former Silver Bridge connecting Point Pleasant, WV to Ohio

old postcard showing a pre-collapse Silver Bridge

On December 15, 1967 the Silver Bridge that connected Point Pleasant, WV to Gallipolis, OH, collapsed during rush hour traffic. A single eye-bar in a suspension chain failed and the Silver Bridge fell into the Ohio River, killing 46 people that evening. Two of the bodies have never been found. After the tragedy, for the most part, the Mothman seemed to disappear from the area. But there have been reported sightings in other parts of the world. In 1975, John A. Keel wrote the book The Mothman Prophecies which later spawned the 2002 movie of the same name starring Laura Linney and Richard Gere.

book cover for "The Mothman Prophecies" by John A. Keel

book cover for John A. Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies” (Saturday Review Press, 1975)

The book has led many to believe the Mothman was a prophet of doom, a figure arriving in Point Pleasant to warn residents that harm was to come their way. Fifty-two years later, the Mothman is a cottage industry, but now he is a harbinger of cotton candy and curly fries. Every September for the last 18 years, the town has hosted a festival to honor this spooky doom-predicting winged creature. Even though the event is light-hearted, after speaking to a few residents, I get the feeling they do not find humor in the myth.

One local antique shop owner described to us the feeling of isolation that was felt in the town after the bridge collapsed. You were stuck here until they finally borrowed a ferry boat from a neighboring town, he said. For better or worse, they seem to believe their fellow townspeople saw something that petrified them. However, if they did not take this marketing opportunity someone else surely would. Thus, the Mothman Museum and festival were born.

storefront window display featuring novelty items associated with the Mothman, Bigfoot, and zombies

Keep on Squatchin’. Mothman souvenirs in Point Pleasant. [photo: Tim Tomon]

At the festival, you’ll find no shortage of t-shirts, mugs, stickers, badges, taxidermized gewgaws, and sweet treats. There are also local enthusiasts costumed as superheroes, Ghostbusters, and Star Wars characters. One can mingle with an elected court of royals, musicians, and expert speakers in all things paranormal. You want to know more about Sasquatch and eat your weight in ice cream? Come to Point Pleasant and enjoy the sites.

stuffed toys of Flatwoods Monster and Moonlight Mothman for sale at the 2019 Mothman Festival, Point Pleasant, WV

The Flatwoods Monster meets Moonlight Mothman [photo: Tim Tomon]

Point Pleasant is a throwback to a different time with its functioning Main Street, a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and an old timey hotel, the Lowe, which is said to be haunted (of course). If you’re staying, ask for room 314, “the Pi Room,” a local shop owner advised. The town also offers the opportunity to take in the history of the region at nearby Tu-Endie-Wei State Park. The location is integral to the tragic story of Shawnee Leader Chief Cornstalk, as the place where he was both defeated in battle in 1774, murdered in 1777, and interred for at least the third time in 1954.

sign for Tu-Endie-Wei State Park in Point Pleasant, WV featuring large cut-out model of stone monument

You can say that again: Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, Point Pleasant [photo: Candice Northcut Tomon]

I have to say that while I wish I were a Mulder, I am a Scully. I did not see anything that would make me believe that the Mothman was real, however, I do believe that the people who reported seeing the creature believed. If possible, the residents of Point Pleasant have managed to find a silver lining in such a sad event. Overall, I thought it was a perfect weekend road trip and I recommend the festival to anyone who wants a touch of the weird in their street fair.


Getting there: Point Pleasant is around three-and-a-half hours drive from metro Pittsburgh, so yes–it’s debatable whether this counts as “in orbit.” The Mothman Festival is held annually on the third weekend of September.

The Scoop on Poop OR Hill Street Doo Doos: On Patrol with The Dog Police

Dog Police beat poetry: “Shit No / Dog Shit Shit / No Dog Shit”, Friendship

The brick structure is two stories tall, three car-widths wide, with a barn-like gambrel roof. It’s been painted in a striking color scheme of deep black and vivid red. The legit c. 1900 carriage house faces the back alley of one of Friendship’s many stately manses. Across the building’s three sets of big wooden folding doors are a collection of crude, self-administered graffiti publicizing a wild set of existentialist free verse:

Shit no
Dog shit shit
No dog shit

metal rail painted with message "Curb your dogs!"

“Curb your dogs!” Shadyside

Title Six, Article III of the City of Pittsburgh’s Code of Ordinances deals with citizens’ conduct around the ownership of dogs, cats, and other animals. It’s a lengthy tract full of minutia on the expected behavior for pet owners on predictable topics like spaying and neutering; the conditions of kennels and catteries; food, water, and bedding; off-leash exercise areas.

Section § 634.09 deals with sanitation. The first paragraph is as close as we get to detailing the conduct around expectations for dog (and cat) poop:

(a) Excreta shall be removed from primary enclosures and exercise areas on a daily basis. Feces and soiled litter material shall be removed from all litter pans on a daily basis. Absorbent litter and/or any other litter material used to absorb urine shall be changed when it becomes thirty (30) percent saturated with urine.

No! Lawrenceville

Setting aside any comments on whether cat owners (ahem) ever let Mr. Peeper’s litter box get “thirty (30) percent saturated with urine,” this finely-worded requirement has more gray area than one may think.

Is a dog owner, taking the pooch out on a stroll, required to clean up Fido’s dookie or not? Is every block a dog walks his or her “exercise area”? And if so, “daily basis” suggests a person has a fair window, perhaps as much as 24 hours–or at least until Midnight–to clean up anything left behind on the jaunt.

With no law in sight, the city’s homeowners have become vigilantes of a sort–the sidewalk and front yard their beat; dog crap the contraband flooding the beaches and temping youths into a an amoral lifestyle of loose peeing and rampant defecation. These are The Dog Police.

“Clean that shit up,” Bloomfield

The city’s web site offers a little more information on the For Pet Owners page. Without any specification of repercussions, the site defines the following (among other actions) as “nuisance violations”:

  • Allowing a dog to “go to the bathroom” on school grounds, a City park or other public or private property (It is not considered to be a nuisance violation if you immediately clean up after your dog – called “Poop-Scoop” laws in most communities).
  •  Allowing your pet to scratch, dig or defecate on any lawn, tree, shrub, plant, building or any other public or private property other than that of the owner or person in charge or control of the animal.

“Please clean up after your dog,” Lawrenceville

One might assume that Rover’s, uh, solid waste would be the primary source on contention here–and that probably is the case–but one would be underestimating the full jurisdiction of The Dog Police.

Dog urine kills flowers reads one dinner plate-cum-public service announcement and it is true that canine pee–in enough quantity–can kill flowers, grass, and other foliage. This seems to be a result of the combination of alkaline pH of dog urine, its nitrogen load, and enough repeated applications–i.e. one or more dogs hitting the same spots over and over.

That said, it’s unlikely that a neighborhood dog passing umpteen tempting bushes, lamp posts, grassy lawns, and, yes, flower patches are really going to lay waste to mother nature. But … maybe.

plate with message "Dog urine kills flowers. Please curb dogs." in garden flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

“Dog urine kills flowers. Please curb dogs.” Shadyside

If killing the petunias and turning the grass brown wasn’t enough, The Dog Police work another urban scourge–disposing of Scout’s crap in someone else’s private receptacles.

Take dog poop home with dog reads a hand-painted brick holding down the lid of a garbage can in Friendship; another sign, just a few blocks away, demands Do not throw dog wastes in garbage can or driveway.

brick painted with message "Take dog poop home with dog" on outside garbage bins

“Take dog poop home with dog,” Friendship

One would think that having the “dog waste” disposed of in the rubbish bin would be vastly preferable to … just about any realistic alternative. But this gets into the “broken window” theory of dog policing–you let them put Ranger’s shit in your 50-gallon Rubbermaid today, they’ll be soiling that tall fescue, asking who’s a good boy? and laughing in your face about it tomorrow. Let’s nip this (quite literal) shit in the bud right now.

Sign posted on garage wall reading "Do not throw dogs wastes in garbage cans or driveway,"

“Do not throw dogs wastes in garbage cans or driveway,” Friendship

It’s a cruel world out there. In the face of global environmental catastrophe, absolute political corruption–not to mention each of our own worries about health, economics, and mortality–a patch of stray dog poop or some browned grass can seem mighty petty.

BUT–with dogs, there’s always a big butt–if I was the homeowner repeatedly waking up to a minefield of crap on the sidewalk or my black-eyed Susans murdered in the night by a spray of Fido whiz, well, I’d be pissed-off too. One has to assume you don’t go to the lengths of painting your garage over just one or two stray incidents.

That’s when ordinary citizens feel the need to take the law into their hands. That’s when we call The Dog Police.

handmade yard sign reading "Please be a good neighbor!!! Clean up after your dog"

“Please be a good neighbor!!! Clean up after your dog.” Shadyside

“Clean up after your dog please! Yuck!” Bloomfield