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.

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.

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

Walk This Way: Jeremy Raymer’s One-Man Arts District

mural of Andy Warhol and peeled pink banana by artist Jeremy Raymer

Peel slowly. Warhol/electric banana mural by Jeremy Raymer, Mulberry Way, Lawrenceville

We can still go for a walk.

These are–take your pick—strange, scary, stressful, uncertain, even apocalyptic times. But we all know a daily dose of leg-stretching and fresh-air-breathing is crucial to both our physical and mental health during even the best of days. Make no exception now; you need those things more than ever.

The daily constitutional also happens to be one of the few things we can still do–outside of the home–that is just as freely available now as it was a month ago, before the plague set in.

mural of cartoon horse wearing suit by artist Jeremy Raymer

Log! Mulberry Way

Don’t look for any streets signs marking Raymer Way; you won’t find it on any maps. That’s just our name for it. But there exists a three-block stretch of lower Lawrenceville that fully deserves one of those ceremonial placards, like the zoo’s One Wild Place or Amazing Kids Way in Squirrel Hill.

It’s there, on two long stretches of Mulberry Way, an alley running parallel with Butler Street, plus another short block of 35th Street, where rock-and-roll mural artist Jeremy Raymer has created a one-man, open air arts district. It’s yours for the perusing any time there’s enough daylight to read the (often very dark) wall surfaces–and you won’t encounter enough other people to worry about social distancing.

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

The house that started it all. Chez Ray, 35th Street

Jeremy Raymer, over email, describes the evolving process:

The entire thing started from the previous owner of the warehouse at 35th and Charlotte seeing me painting my house [across the street] and asking if I wanted to paint on his warehouse. I said yes and started covering the [35th Street] side with the heart, eyes, and Hedy Lamarr murals first, then wanting more space and moving into the [Mulberry Way] alley.

Once this was covered I did want more space, so a few months back, I approached the owner of Morcilla and asked about doing a small piece on the alley entry to the restaurant, so I did that and then I wanted to see about more space, so I approached the Perlora warehouse and after a little bit of convincing (from me and some of their employees who are fans), they agreed to give me free reign on the alley portion of their warehouse. The initial intent was just a practice space for me and its just organically grown into what it is now.

mural of man's face on service entry to restaurant

David (?), Morcilla back entrance, Mulberry Way

If you’ve spent any time in Lawrenceville, the Strip District, or central North Side, you know Raymer’s work. Think of the giant image of (super hero) Magneto along AAA Scrap Metal’s Penn Avenue building and fence, the full wall Roberto Clemente on Verdetto’s Bar in Spring Garden, or the big Deutschtown Sasquatch. There are also a ton of smaller pieces–of sports figures, wild animals, and art references–that turn up on commercial storefronts, restaurant interiors, and pocket parks around the city.

If those are the final, big marquee commissioned pieces, Raymer Way is the sketch pad, the studies and scribbles. “I am basically allowed to do whatever I please,” Raymer says of his agreement with the Lawrenceville property owners, “I am given permission, but no sponsorship and it has all been on my accord and at my own cost.”

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple heart, 35th Street

Raymer’s murals fall clearly in the world of pop art. They’re big, over-saturated with electric color, using spray paint–the medium of choice for street art–that often has a certain airbrushed quality, and focus on subject matter around celebrity, movie characters, cartoons, and visual puns. He also has a particular affinity for the color purple.

At their best, Raymer has an incredibly deft hand and soft touch with a can of Krylon. He’s got a great color sense for what’s going to pop from a cinderblock wall or read through the roll-up mechanism of a retail security door. His portraits of real people are arresting, vivid, and fill the walls with an obvious holistic vision that treats the space as a broad canvas to be considered in toto. Raymer’s goofier stuff shows that he’s got a sense of humor and doesn’t take any of this too seriously–something altogether missing from so many artists.

Jeremy Raymer mural on cement block wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple Hedy Lamarr, 35th Street

mural of large mouth in purple by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple mouth, 35th Street

mural of man's face by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purpleish man, Mulberry Way

mural of purple witch painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purple witch, Mulberry Way

mural of purple bunny by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple bunny, Mulberry Way

mural of block of blue cheese painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Blue cheese blues, Mulberry Way

Now, I’ll be the first to say I don’t love all of Raymer’s murals. Do we really need wall-sized portraits of the green Ghostbusters slime monster, Simpsons characters, or–sorry, Star Wars fans–Yoda? A matched pair of Buffalo chicken wings with a halo is kind of funny … kind of.

But let me say this: I have tremendous respect for anyone who goes out there and does their thing and gets this much stuff done, over and over again. To spend one’s free time–not to mention money–on materials, in negotiating with landlords, and decorating the alley backsides of anonymous buildings, is a tremendous gift to Lawrenceville and the city at large.

… and that gift is yours, whenever you’re ready to take that walk.

mural of Yoda painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Hrmmm, on walls he paints. Yoda, Mulberry Way

mural of green monster by artist Jeremy Raymer

Bustin’ makes me feel good! Mulberry Way

mural of chicken wings with an angel's halo painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Chicken wings/halo, Mulberry Way

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Mulberry Way

mural of multicolor skull by artist Jeremy Raymer

Skull, Mulberry Way

Getting there: The Raymer Way murals are on Mulberry Way, lower Lawrenceville, between 34th and 36th Streets, as well as 35th Street, between Mulberry Way and Charlotte Street. There are plenty of other Raymer murals in near walking distance throughout Lawrenceville and The Strip District. There’s even a map of locations on his web site.


Follow Jeremy Raymer on Instagram at @jeremyMraymer or @raymerarttours. For contact information and a map of his Pittsburgh murals, see jmraymer.com.

Related: see also “An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Dec. 12, 2015.

Art Walk: The Pipe Cleaner Fern Frames of Lawrenceville

pipe cleaner fern frame

Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.

pipe cleaner fern and moss frame

Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.

popsicle stick fern frame

Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.

pipe cleaner moss frame

We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?

Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.

It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.

pipe cleaner weed and moss frame

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22

artists from Creative Citizens Studios, “Pittsburgh,” (detail) mixed media

There she is: perhaps the most famous character the Brothers Grimm brought to world. Most of us came to her doe-eyed, perfectly-behaved acquaintance care of Walt Disney Studio’s classic animated film.

Only here the princess is no angel. She’s accessorized in rock-and-roll sunglasses and huffing a cloud of gray smoke through a makeshift pipe. It’s a scene that would leave Cheech and/or Chong gasping for fresh air. The crudely-painted artwork is titled Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple.

lildoodoobutt, “Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple”

Through the years, we’ve seen Art All Night grow up. We were there when the very literal all-night, anything-goes community event masquerading as art show learned to crawl, built its first set of plywood S panels, and went from a four-month planning cycle to an incredibly-efficient four-week execution. [Full disclosure: this author was neck-deep in volunteering for Art All Night for at least ten years; this year he just pulled a late-night, keep-your-eyes-open shift.]

So it is with strange comfort that we see this onetime oddball event grow up to be the same kind of goofball grass-roots institution we might have hoped for. The longevity of this all-volunteer event–last weekend was its 22nd yearly happening–and the continued commitment to no jury / no fee / no censorship is about as resolutely pure and accurate as one could hope from an organizational constitution.

Paul Feight, “4 Nudes Walking with Koi fish,” acrylic on canvas

Alexander Sands, “Diablo Blanco,” acrylic on canvas

There are a few other nos we could tack onto the Art All Night credo: no curation, no restraint, and no questions asked. These are, of course, 100% in the spirit of the event and give it a great I don’t need your rulesstick it to the man vibe–but that can present its own set of challenges for both participant and spectator.

Like being the introvert at a raucous New Year’s Eve gala or a vegetarian at a pig roast, the more subtle artworks are absolutely invited and welcome to be there, but may have a hard time feeling like they came to the right party.

Petey Miceli, “The Red Death,” acrylic on canvas

Exhibition at Art All Night favors big and loud, jokey and profane–that’s just the reality of an environment where the hanging is a shotgun blast of random collisions on dull fiberboard. There’s no way a sensitive portrait in graphite, delicate fabric embroidery, or miniature collage can compete side-to-side with a painting like The Red Death (above). That three-foot acrylic-on-canvas fantasy by artist Petey Miceli stars a giant demon-creature in flowing red cloak walking through turbulent seas with an enormous coffin under his arm.

Steven Walker, untitled, mixed media

Steven Walker’s untitled mixed media (self?) portrait of a young man staring straight back at the viewer (above) features actual barbed wire looped around the painting and a molded plastic eyeball exploding through the canvas in a gruesome bloody mess. It’s a lot to take in.

Ditto that for Universally fucked (below)–a kind of stoned joke come to life in the form of an orgasmic scary clown rogering a duck against a backdrop of the swirling psychedelic cosmos. There are elements of Jeannine Weber’s pen/pencil/acrylic artwork that I like–but I’m not going to hang this in the living room.

Jeannine Weber, “Universally fucked,” pencil/pen/acrylic

Kailee Greb, untitled (detail)

Kathie Hollingshead’s Peep All Night (below) takes the created-for-the-occasion approach to a whole new level. As one of the organizers of the event, her insiders-view recreation of Art All Night in miniature–with leftover Easter peeps standing in for attendees and volunteers–is a kind of meta joke-within-a-joke that blew this blogger’s already fragile noggin.

The piece–complete with faithful models of the plywood exhibition panels in cardboard and popsicle sticks–has so many great nods to Art All Nights past that we really have to salute this as some kind of high-water mark in art history. The tiny Etch-a-Sketch? The little Three Sisters bridge photo? Portraits of peeps? If you’ve been to Art All Night–any Art All Night–you’ll recognize these tropes. That’s it, man–game over.

Kathie Hollingshead, “Peep All Night,” mixed media

There’s long been a debate in Art All Night’s inner circles as to whether the work of younger artists should be segregated into a safe zone. The proponents argue that this way junior’s finger painting doesn’t end up hanging next to something really offensive; those opposed feel like it puts the kids in the often looked-over ghetto of “children’s art.”

Personally, I love to be surprised when the piece that pops out from a full panel has Age: 14 (or whatever) on the info tag. But I’m not a parent and don’t have to answer not-ready-for-it-yet questions like “why is that man doing that to that lady?”

Regardless, the under-18 panels always yield great stuff–too much to include here–but we loved Faith Little’s Daniel Ceaser, a mixed-media bas-relief in cut cardboard with stray scattered phrases like “Japanese Denim,” “Death & Taxes,” and “Street Car” that must be meaningful…but we can’t make the connection.

Faith Little, “Daniel Ceaser,” mixed media

Elias Grim, “Building a Wall”

As always, Art All Night is a place for some folks to, as Mrs. The Orbit says, “get their freak on.” From the days of The Rubber Men, The Cardboard Cowboy, and Sailor John Art All Night always brings out a who’s-who of where are these people the rest of the year?

The event has been around long enough for some of these folks to now be exhibiting in the great gallery in the sky. Rest assured, there’s a new crew of regulars–that guy with the electric blinking lights fuzzy jacket, Most Wanted’s crushed art cars, too many costumed characters to name, a naked lady!

We also enjoyed this too-late-for-the-party-but-I’m-showing-up-anyway tribute collage to the Golden Girls (below) which appears to just be a drop-off/leave-behind. We don’t know what Blanche, Rose, Sophia and the gang would have thought about Art All Night, but they’d be welcome here too.

anonymous drop-off art, “Golden Girls” collage

They’re not the only ones. If Art All Night teaches us anything, it’s that the human spirit to create, delight, surprise, and humor is deep and wide, strong and alive. That behind every row house awning and within every apartment bedroom there may be an artist, paintbrush in hand, shoving a fake bloody eyeball through a canvas just because he or she wanted to communicate…something…to the world.

lildoodoobutt, the artist behind the Snow White piece, would likely have a hard time finding gallery sponsorship elsewhere. We might assume the same for the vast majority of Art All Night contributing artists. That said, Ma and Pa doodoobutt can rest assured their kid will always have a home at Art All Night.

Katy Dement, papier mache/chia seed

Row House Romance: Christmas Window Roundup

window decorated with many winter scene buildings, Pittsburgh, PA

winter scene diorama, Lawrenceville

Keep on truckin’. The ’60s-era catch phrase of hippie can-do optimism was popularized by R. Crumb’s iconic cartoon of an easy-striding, big-shoed dude. Here, a sticker that’s appropriated both the slogan and image decorates the side panel of a model 18-wheeler. The little big rig has been put on display in a street-level front window of an Upper Lawrenceville row house.

Though it doesn’t explicitly say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, with a backdrop of picturesque snow-covered small town buildings, circled by carolers and snow people, colored lights and a tiny train, it’s impossible not to read the truck’s red cab as a modern update to Santa’s sleigh–those 400 horses a well-deserved upgrade to yesteryear’s eight tiny reindeer. Forget that other Snowman, if anyone’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, it’s Ol’ Saint Nick on his yearly delivery run.

detail of winter scene including "Keep on Trucking" 18-wheeler, Pittsburgh, PA

Keep on Trucking (sic.): winter scene diorama (detail), Lawrenceville

Christmas. For some, as the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” full of decadent–if generally wholesome–holiday parties, comforting tradition, and good cheer. To others, Christmas is a loathsome six weeks of commercialized sentimentality, forced mirth, obligation, and disappointment.

Here at The Orbit, we fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit it: I like the smell of a real spruce tree and the warm glow of colored lights; time off to do jigsaw puzzles, visit with friends, and sleep late; the collective goofiness of stuffed antlers added to minivan rooftops, white elephant gift exchanges, and a full movie house crowd gleefully roaring at Hans Gruber’s entrance in Die Hard.

But then there’s the dark side. The first time those jing-jing-jingling tunes preempt Casey Kasem on oldies radio–absurdly starting before Thanksgiving–it invokes such crushing, foreboding dread that it makes the whole holiday almost not worth it. Almost.

cat sitting in window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candles, snowflake, attack cat, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

winking Santa, Lawrenceville

Love it or hate it, Christmas 2018 is over. But you wouldn’t know that from the residential streets in Lawrenceville. Say what you want about the neighborhood’s gentrification, but the Christmas display scene was (and still is) earnest and ample. Walk down any block and it can feel like every other house has got something up for the holiday: garlands on stoop railings, Santas on the front steps, and–most of all–decorations in the big front street-facing windows.

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa and Mrs. Claus, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

two Santas, Bloomfield

When you live in a row house–and I’m speaking from a couple decades of experience here–you get used to people looking directly into your life. It’s not weird or creepy or nebby–pedestrians and neighbors just can’t help but look in when the sidewalk is mere feet–often inches–from the front of the house.

That so many people end up using their street-facing windows as makeshift display cases for curated collections of figurines and little artworks, sports fandom and tchotchkes is perhaps something we could expect. But when our friends and neighbors orient their collections outward–specifically for the enjoyment of the world passing by on the sidewalk–well, that’s a beautiful thing and one that should not be taken idly. [Side note: Kirsten Ervin wrote a whole piece on this subject for Pittsburgh Orbit back in 2015.]

Krampus holiday decorations in row house window, Pittsburgh, PA

Gruss vom Krampus! Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

carolers, Troy Hill

One of the great pleasures of a daily constitutional around the neighborhood is getting to watch these window displays grow and evolve, get put away for the year and replaced in anticipation of the next turn of the calendar. Soon enough, the cotton-laden carolers and dangling snowflakes will be packed away to make room for Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s clovers, Easter eggs and bunnies.

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow owl, Bloomfield

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow scene vignette, Bloomfield

If it’s not obvious, we went a little nutso with the Christmas window shopping this year–and, believe me, there are plenty more where these came from. This weekend is likely your last decent chance to catch any of these until the next Christmas season begins. Get out and walk around, take in what you can.

Anyway, Merry Christmas! (again)

windows decorated with Christmas stockings, Pittsburgh, PA

teddy bear stockings, Lawrenceville

window decorated with snow people and Christmas wreath, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people window, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

deflated snow person, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink snow, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candy canes, snow flakes, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas’ greatest hits, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

manger scene, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas stickers, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

bells, candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Claus family, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated with Christmas dolls, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas automatons, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa window, Bloomfield

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

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

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

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

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

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

Lawrenceville

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

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

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

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

Look Both Ways: Trafficking in Warhol Eye Cones

wheatpaste image of Campbell's Soup can on traffic cone with eyeballs

Lawrenceville

Ask anyone–they’ll tell you. It was a cold, ugly, brutal winter. Unrelenting weeks down in the ten degree range. Our thoroughfares were so pockmarked with crater-sized potholes the streets are only now becoming navigable. The Prince’s prophesy about snow in April–late April at that–was a little too true. And then into May (yes, May!) with the freezing rain and timid buds too scared to peek their tiny compressed flower heads out of protective branches. Oy!

That’s all behind us now, but weren’t we embarrassed to learn those cold north winds also blew in the most wonderful city-wide surprise right under our hunkered-down noses.

wheatpaste image of Andy Warhol wallpaper on traffic cone with eyeballs

Rachel Carson (neé 9th Street) Bridge

The first one we spotted was on the Rachel Carson Bridge. A likeness of a traffic cone, maybe 18 inches tall, wheatpasted to one of the vertical bridge supports. The image was full color, but not in the blaze orange you’d expect to see running wild in the street. Instead, the cone appears in one of Andy Warhol’s wallpaper designs–a repeating pattern of a maroon cow head against a brilliant yellow field. The piece is further decorated with eleven disembodied eyeballs, scattered loosely across the shape.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with Andy Warhol design and eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wooden board

Downtown

After that, a two-tone Campbell’s Soup design on an unoccupied Lawrenceville storefront and then another on some temporary plywood against the old Kaufmann’s building, Downtown.

A query to Orbit Nation rewarded us with the news that we weren’t alone–nor were we imagining these inscrutably arch street offerings. “I’ve seen them too,” from one, “What do they mean?” another. Most useful, a direct tag to the Instagram account of the apparent leaver of cones.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on spraypainted retail window, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

That photo stream–a series of unspecific pictures from Downtown Pittsburgh and a few near neighborhoods–Lawrenceville, The Strip District, the North Shore–was all it took to send Team Orbit on an obsessive egg hunt for all the eyeball-soaked, wheatpasted traffic cones we could handle.

We got a clue here and there–a location description like Downtown Pittsburgh or a recognizable detail from the Chinatown Inn–but this was no “gimme.” No, we spotted most of these just taking the old Orbitmobile out, in-and-around, and keeping the peepers primed for action. We didn’t find them all–that’s for sure–but bagged a pretty good collection.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on retail storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

ornate Chinese portico design over restaurant kitchen doors, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

We’re calling them Warhol Eye Cones for hopefully obvious reasons. [We have no idea what–if anything–their creator has named them.] The Orbit asked for an interview but, like The White House’s weekly rejection of National Public Radio, we were politely told to get bent…or, at least, no, thank you. Sigh. We’re here, if and when you ever want to talk.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste image of traffic cone with eyeballs on brick wall

Downtown

The Instagram photos all date from March of this year and that seems like a pretty believable timeframe for their original installation. As we made our way around town looking for the eye cones’ tell tale triangular shape and somebody’s-watching-me exterior, it was already clear the clock is ticking on chances to catch them.

A number of the pieces have already suffered under the scraper, the aforementioned cruel winter, or, in one case, a die-by-the-sword instance of duct tape-on-wheatpaste parking variance lifting the face right off one of the Lawrenceville pieces. The account’s most easy-to-locate piece was on a parking sign for the Andy Warhol Museum, but it had been scraped clean by the time we got there. Sigh.

wheatpaste images of traffic cones with eyeballs on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste traffic cone on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

The inevitable question: what do they mean? It’s got to come up because someone always needs an explanation.

The short answer is we don’t know. As mentioned, the eye coner prefers to let their eyeballs do the talking, which leaves our fingers to do the guessing. It’s hard to draw any obvious line between this mundane, utile object, eleven arhythmic floating eyeballs, and the nods to Andy Warhol’s greatest hits.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wall with Pirates baseball mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

exterior wall of PNC Park with wheatpaste traffic cone, Pittsburgh, PA

PNC Park

The latter is probably the easiest to divine. Our wheatpaster appears to have been but a temporary visitor to the city–moving on/back to Chicago and San Francisco, based on their Instagram trail. Acknowledging Pittsburgh’s most famous locally-born artist, they’ve worked reproductions of Warhol silkscreens, early paintings, and decorative designs into the pieces. For the rest of it…who knows?

For our part, we’ll say it again: The Orbit loves a good egg hunt. Any excuse to take another look down the alleys, under the bridges, and by the electrical panels is enough to make this effort a rewarding one. The thrill of nabbing one more eye cone is something no discerning Pittsburgher should live without. Those eleven eyeballs may stare at you with the force of five-and-a-half infants, but they’re really whispering in your ear: come find me, I dare you.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on electric panel

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on construction trailer, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field, Pittsburgh, PA

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field (neé Dean’s Field), Bloomfield. Johnny Unitas’ Bloomfield Rams practiced here in the 1950s.

Editor’s note: Back in April, we wrote a piece for our cross-continental sister blog The Portland Orbit[1]. In exchange, Orbit poobah David Craig offered to file a story for us during football season. Here you go.

by David Craig

When I think about Johnny Unitas, I think Colts football, his battle against Namath, and the Super Bowl victory that cemented his reputation. The Colts’ overtime victory in the ‘58 league championship is known as “the greatest game ever played” and helped pro football gain its immense popularity. I didn’t know he was born in Pittsburgh and was surprised to find out that he initially broke into the league when he was drafted–and then cut–by the Steelers.

book cover for "Pro Football Heroes" by Steve Gelman

Cover star Johnny Unitas perfects the hand off. “Pro Football Heroes” by Steve Gelman.

It was a 99 cent purchase made at a Goodwill Store that led to another Unitas discovery. How I came to own the book Pro Football Heroes by Steve Gelman escapes me, but the book opens with a chapter on Unitas describing the detour on his road to football glory after the Steelers released him in 1955:

“Convinced now that he couldn’t get into pro football until the next year, Johnny took a job as a pile driver on a construction gang. Meanwhile, to stay in shape for his next pro football tryout, he began playing with a semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams.”

From my knowledge of Pittsburgh I recognized this as a city neighborhood. Reading more confirmed this:

“The Rams played every Thursday night at the Arsenal Street School playground in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.”[2]

Arsenal Middle School in Pittsburgh PA with a large green playing in front.

Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville. The Bloomfield Rams played their home games on this field. Now more grass than glass.

It intrigued me that Unitas began his storied career in Bloomfield before becoming “pro football’s last hero,” as Lou Sahadi called him in his book Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback. From an early age, Johnny lived for football. In Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan, Unitas’ mother talked about returning from the funeral home after his father died to find her then five-year old son throwing a football with friends. It seemed especially poignant that he sought comfort in the game after the loss of his father.

childhood home of Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh, PA

Unitas family home, Mt. Washington

Unitas confided in a substitute teacher at school that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His sights were set on an athletic career but after failing the entrance exam to the University of Pittsburgh and being turned away from his hometown school, Unitas knew his professional chances would be nonexistent if he didn’t play in college. Another failed entrance exam found him starting his college career at the University of Louisville on academic probation. He did what he had to do to keep his dream alive.

Getting sacked by the Steelers was tough but he had been in a no-win situation. There were three other quarterbacks in camp that year, the most notable being Ted Marchibroda, who had better job prospects as a coach than a quarterback. Unitas was never able to show what he could do in preseason. Cut too late to join another team, he was forced to sit out a season and remained in Pittsburgh working construction to pay the bills.

At Steeler training camp, Unitas conducted a lesson in the “Hail Mary.”

When his old friend Fred Zangaro asked Johnny to join him on the Bloomfield Rams, Unitas had concerns about getting hurt. The team needed a quarterback but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of playing professionally. Unitas conceded, and played what he described as “sand-lot ball.” Explaining in a 1959 Look magazine article, “it was football and I was able to keep in practice.”

In the books by Callahan and Sahadi, the authors emphasized subpar playing conditions. The field was more dirt, rock and glass than grass and had to be sprayed with oil and water to keep the dust down. The equipment was ratty. Unitas had to search through piles of old gear to suit up. Players wore army boots instead of cleats. Unitas faced derision for being a college boy, a Steeler’s draftee and someone who dared dream of playing in the NFL. In his ebook The Best There Ever Was, Roland Lazenby describes a team, like Def Leppard, playing without a full set of limbs:

“…a roster loaded with steel-mill workers, many of them disabled. The offensive line alone featured just seven arms.”

Unitas in a rare Bloomfield Rams photo when he played both offense and defense. Courtesy Chuck “Bear” Rogers.

Later in the Look article, Unitas described an improvisational game plan that sounded like plays were diagrammed in the dirt as the team huddled.  “You had to take punishment,” was his simple description of the challenge of receiving pass protection from 140 pound linemen. Unitas led the Rams on an eight game winning streak and a conference championship. He experienced the satisfaction of winning–something that hadn’t happened much in his college years. The Bloomfield Rams offered him a sense of championship football he brought to his NFL career.

The Rams played in the Steel Bowl Conference against teams like the Pittsburgh Cubs, Arnold A.C., and the Nanty-Glo Blackhawks, along with teams from Shaler and McKeesport. The financial aspects of the league were small by today’s standards[3]. Unitas was paid $6 a game–money he was happy to turn over to his wife for groceries. By the end of the season, his winning ways earned him a pay bump of $15 a game. Opposing teams liked playing the Rams at Arsenal Field because the games there attracted crowds of anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 people, each paying a $3 admission which meant a $500 pay out. After expenses, Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers had a budget of about $350 to pay Ram’s players. His policy of fining players $3 for missing practice meant some guys had to play for free.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

In considering Unitas as the father of great Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, I wondered if the others had idolized him. An obiturary/tribute to Unitas written by Chuck Finder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the always quotable (Beaver Falls native) Joe Namath had considered Unitas “my football inspiration, my hero.” I imagine that the other western Pennsylvania quarterbacks knew enough about Unitas to think that if he could make it, they also had a shot. Lou Sahadi made a case for the western Pennsylvania quarterbacks describing the mentality that fueled them:

“John was first of those lunch-bucket quarterbacks to come out of western Pennsylvania. Later on came Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and Dan Marino. They were all the same. Guys who didn’t have anything. Guys who knew it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn’t get the job done.”

historical plaque honoring Johnny Unitas that reads "(1933-2002) Pittsburgh native & Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, 1979. Here Unitas quarterbacked semi-pro Bloomfield Rams to a Steel Bowl Football Conference championship, 1955. Signed with Baltimore Colts, 1956, leading them to an NFL championship, 1958.

historical plaque in front of Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville

At this point this post should have the feel of a very late night AM radio sports talk broadcast. Imagine bursts of static and a distant echoing theremin whine as I sermonize about the early playing days of the great Johnny Unitas. I focused so much on his brief time in Bloomfield that I never got around to exploring the rest of his playing career. My sense is, if only on a subconscious level, his brief foray in semi-pro football offered a foundation that made him the player he became. No matter the pressure, weather, or game situations he faced, he could always draw on the challenges of his primitive Bloomfield days.

The experience must have given him an appreciation for quality teammates, decent equipment and reasonable practice facilities but it’s important to remember the Bloomfield Rams were there when Unitas needed them. He expressed this in Lou Sahadi’s book explaining that what had mattered most about playing for the Rams had been the feeling that there was a football team that wanted him.

I’ll leave it up to the Pittsburgh Orbit‘s head honcho Will Simmons to track down the Bloomfield Rams old 1955 Steel Bowl Conference trophy. I’m imagining his relentless pursuit in knocking on doors as he looks up players from the ’55 Ram’s roster, guys like Jim Deglau, Jacko Cray, Red Celender, Fred Zangaro, or even Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers, if he’s still around, to get the full story of what it was like to play football with Johnny Unitas in Pittsburgh. That will have to wait until next season.


[1] “The Louie Files: The Greatest Moment in Rock-and-Roll,” Portland Orbit, April 6, 2017.
[2] Of course, this was actually down the hill in Lawrenceville at what is today Arsenal Middle School on Butler Street. There’s a historical plaque there to prove it.
[3] Editor’s note: This pay rate may actually not be that different from present-day. If any members of the [currently-active semi-pro teams] Passion, Rangers, Colts, or Wildcatz would like to comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Bibliography:

Tom Callahan, Johnny U The Life & Times of John Unitas, Crown Publishers
Lou Sahadi, Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback, Triumph Books
Roland Lazenby, Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was, Triumph ebooks
Steve Gelman, Pro Football Heroes, Scholastic Book Services