a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, December 28, 2007

The search for plant life

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 11

By Scott Beveridge

The elementary school essay assignment sounded easy to some of my classmates who lived in neighborhoods with tidy lawns. Our schoolteacher instructed us to go into our yard, find something interesting growing there and write a short report on the plant. Surely, though, our teacher at Lebanon Elementary School in the village of Fellsburg, Pa., knew that the kids like me who hailed from over the hill in Webster during the mid 1960s didn’t live among rhododendrons, flowering dogwoods and azaleas. Looking back, she must have been playing a cruel joke on the handful of kids in the classroom from our poor village.

Practically everything in our town was coated with a black sheen, as it sat immediately downwind of the smokestacks at a sprawling American Steel and Wire mill in Donora. The coal furnaces that heated our houses left our porches, yards and family cars covered each cold morning with a layer of tiny black soot balls. The pollution, no doubt, had created enough sour air to suck the paint off houses and kill just about every blade of grass, ornamental bush and tree during the decades before my family arrived in the fall of 1960.

I can’t remember the name of the teacher responsible for the botany assignment at the country school, where farm kids received the foundations of math, English and brushed-over history beside those whose fathers were steelworkers. All the teachers seemed to form the same character of a stern woman wearing a proper cotton suit who was bored of reciting the same lesson plans year after year while pacing floors covered with a chessboard of green-and-tan asbestos tiles.

The teachers wouldn’t dare let you use the restroom until you peed your pants and then had to stand naked in a bathroom stall until your clothes dried on the steam radiator. They reddened your knuckles with wooden rulers if you giggled in class and sent you home with more respect for the classroom and better control of your bladder.

So off I went through our back door in search of a plant one spring Saturday afternoon, only to be reminded that there was little more growing from the ground around our house than a few clumps of crabgrass. Mom had managed to keep alive a red rose bush with yearly applications of store-bought peat moss. By then, the mills had been idled for nearly five years and the ground was beginning to turn green again. Honeysuckle vines sprouted from the parched earth along the front porch but I wasn’t about to turn in a report on flowers and looked to the ugly mountain behind our house for something green to study.

The first ledge rose nearly 50 feet straight up and was reachable from a dusty path around outcroppings of large, blackened boulders. A field of waist-high buffalo grass spread across what was once a farm with fertile soil. I doubted the teacher would believe such a thing grew in anyone’s back yard and continued, alone, toward a sparce forest of trees nearly 100 yards in the distance. It was a sickly group of sumacs and sycamores that kids once tried to climb but the branches were too frail to support their weight.

Ahead lay a ravine at least 30 feet deep and with a trail that cut diagonally to its base, one where you had to dig your heels deep into the ground to slow your slide through shale to the bottom. It took the strength of Hercules to make the climb out of the gully. This was a landscape that was avoided, even by the birds and whitetail deer.

There, above the rise, was a hillside of ducky stones covered with green moss tinged with orange, white and yellow that looked like miniature mushrooms from Mars. Later, a trip to the public library and an Encyclopedia Britannica would identify this plant as lichen.

Like it or not, my teacher was getting a report about this fungus that was taking over my “back yard.”


Chapter 12

(Caption: That's me in the top photo, standing in the middle of the third row and wearing glasses like those worn by President Lyndon Baines Johnson)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bird does no justice at courthouse

It’s time for a little makeover under in the rotunda of the courthouse in Washington County, Pa. For starters, the place would be less scary without the big dead black bird that is preserved under glass at the base of the grand marble staircase leading to the main courtrooms.

No one knows how the ugly bird got there in the first place, let alone its significance to jurisprudence. The thing sort of looks like a prop from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller, “The Birds.” The county bosses should instruct the custodians of history to move it to the attic of the local historical society to make the historic courthouse a friendlier place for prosecutors and criminals before they get to a judge.

The 107-year-old courthouse is a fine example of Beaux Arts construction, so much so that it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building and its ornate stained glass dome should also be on the list of places to stop for any tourist who is taking in the sites along the National Road through Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Isn’t their something better to greet these guests than a freaky so-called eagle after the visitors empty their pockets of metal at the security gate?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Not Jolly

Nutcrackers are the scariest part of the holidays.
This one that was found in one of those stores where everything costs a buck is particularly frightening.
The 8-inch monster was made in China and comes with a warning label under the base that states its paint may poison food.
Run for your life.........

Friday, December 14, 2007

A storm was brewing

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 10

By Scott Beveridge

We were too busy being kids to notice that Donora’s economy was crumbling during the summer of 1962 under the weight of its vanishing steel industry. My playmates across the Monongahela River in the village of Webster, Pa., were more interested in the great adventure that the barren hillsides offered our imaginations than whether our fathers would have jobs tomorrow.

Webster was known as the place where nothing grew on the ground that had been scorched for six decades by pollution from the upwind U.S. Steel mill.

But our dusty brown gullies became Army trenches for boys pretending to do battle with Nazis during World War II. Some days we were cowboys scouting a new trail to the West and dodging pretend arrows from Indians on the warpath. In short order, the war game would turn to real fighting between the kid who wanted to play John Wayne and those who were assigned to be the enemy. The Hollywood movies we watched had already told us who was going to lose the pretend battle. The losers quit and went home while the brave went on to explore the dusty mountain that lay ahead.

When storm clouds approached, it was time to run home. Heavy rain always caused flash floods that deepened the gullies because there wasn’t any topsoil for miles to absorb the water. Anyone was a sitting target for a bolt of lightening. And, to frighten us home, our parents had often told us a story about a kid who barely survived after being swept to the river one summer day by the runoff water that flowed like brown-water rapids. To scare us even more, the adults were always warning about a girl who forever went missing after falling into a well next to a house that had been demolished. There were ghosts of many houses on that hill.

The stories we didn’t hear then were being discussed by our parents behind closed doors. They argued about where they would go, or how to pay the bills, because the Donora steel production was being transferred to a $55 million plant under construction in Gary, Ind. Some adults turned to crime. There was a burglary at the Victor Emanuel Beneficial Society in Donora, followed by another at a local Eat ‘n Park. Adults whispered about a young Donora mother who was arrested for abandoning and neglecting her four small children in her cockroach-infested apartment. Proud parents worried about the shame they would face if they joined those who asked welfare that summer for new shoes for 118 children before school resumed in August.

Just about everyone was beginning to lose friends and neighbors as a cloud of depression settled over our valley. My pal, Ralphy, who taught me how to hit the head of a nail with a hammer, went to Fairless Hills, Pa., when his father was transferred to a job in a working steel mill. Kevin, who liked to play marbles with me during first-grade recess, relocated with his family to Chicago. And Lois’ parents took her family to Harrisburg, even though we were engaged by the age of 6. Those of us who stayed behind were going to have to get used to goodbyes. We would even say so long to the abandoned black houses that we used as playhouses. Some were torched while others were torn down by neighbors who were sick of seeing them next door.


Capter 11

(Caption: Relatives pose for a photo behind the Beveridge house in Webster)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The top 11 reasons to visit Pittsburgh

In light of the decision by the editorial staff of Frommer's to rank the unlikely city of Pittsburgh among the 13 hottest travel destinations for 2008, Travel with a Beveridge has come up with its list of places that make the region special. This list includes 13 offbeat journies rather than focus on such attractions as Fallingwater or the Carnegie Museums that helped to make Pittsburgh one of Frommer's fantastic cities.

In no particular order:

1. No other city in the world has a statue of the godfather of pop music, Stephen Foster, and his slave with a big bronze toe that people rub for good luck. The sculpture can be found on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section, right next door to the Carnegie Music Hall.

2. The Strip District is just a fun experience, even for the person who doesn’t like to go shopping. Here you will find Steelers merchandise galore along with the freshest meats and produce that are sold on the cheap in no frills shops with concrete floors and hand painted signs. If you love a fine cup of Joe, Prestogeorge Fine Foods sells so much Sumatra that the beans are still warm from roasting when you leave the tiny store on Penn Avenue. It’s deli sandwiches are the closest thing in the Burg to those sold in New York.

3. The South Side and its historic buildings along a level main drag known as Carson Street is a hip place to take in the Scottish parade. You will see all sorts of characters, ranging from oddball Goths to a bare-chested guy hanging out at a tattoo parlor.

4. Pittsburgh surely has the most Thai restaurants per capita in the Western world. The Silk Elephant on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill is the best. It’s a cozy little place with great coconut soup and rack of lamb.

5. The region’s rust belt along the Monongahela and Ohio rivers is a great place to take a driving tour through towns with severe blight that civic leaders have referred to as America’s Third World. There are crumbling buildings and decaying industrial sites from Aliquippa to Monessen that will tickle the senses of any photographer who likes to seek out such places.

6. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern – a party house with Polish food just south of The Strip – is dough heaven. You can stuff your belly to a bigger belt size with the best pierogis this side of Poland or select from steeping platters of klushki noodles and cabbage with kielbasa while listening to polka music blaring from the sound system.

7. Take a stroll through the narrow streets of city’s Mexican War Streets, where neighbors go out of their way to gussy up the doors and windows to their row houses. Dating to 1848, the area was initially used for raising horses, pigs, chickens and cows. Today it’s on the National Registry of Historic Districts because of its well-preserved Victorian architecture.

8. Tourists from across the nation swing over to the Borough of Canonsburg in Washington County to pay tribute to its native son and crooner Perry Como. There is even a statue of him outside the borough building on Pike Street, where Como songs continuously fill the air. Hey mambo mambo…

9. The Yough River Trail. We’re so lucky to have it in our backyard, even though a freaky semi-nude man is known to jog near an abandoned coal mine in Rostraver Township.

10. Take the four-hour and nearly 50 mile drive on Route 88 south of the city through at least 150 traffic signals to experience the thrill of Ferry Boat Frederick in the village Fredericktown. You can pull your car onto the little barge and ride back and forth across the Monongahela River. For added adventure, you could encounter a mad man who chases speeders on the Fayette County side of the Mon and yells at those drivers while they wait for the boat. They call him the troll of the ferry.

11. Your tour is not complete without a stop at the monumental Joe Montana Bridges along the road to nowhere otherwise known as the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Washington County. The 250-foot span was built a few miles from where the football legend tossed footballs through the ring of a car tire while growing up in Monongahela.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Antique Santa

This post card was found among the few belongings of my grandmother, Madge Sine Beveridge, after she died in a nursing home in 1989 at the age of 90. She signed her name on the back but never addressed it to anyone. She never accumulated much, having grown up poor in Mt. Morris in Greene County, Pa., and later moved around often during the Great Depression. She did not live an easy life.
But she left behind this beautiful card to remind us that Santa comes around once a year with lots of toys and games and nuts and candy.
Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hot blood in Donora

I dig this.....

The smog revisted

DONORA, Pa. – Over the years, Donora Mayor John Lignelli would cringe every time a historian, filmmaker or student called him to discuss the borough's infamous killer smog.

"Let it die," Lignelli said, repeating the phrase he used when people asked about the event that killed at least 19 people in October 1948 and became known as the nation's worst air pollution disaster.

But as the smog approaches its 60th anniversary next year, he said, it's time that Donora recognizes the importance of keeping the story alive.

"That is history right now. That's why there is so much interest in it," he said, while discussing plans to mark the anniversary with some kind of ceremony.

The smog was blamed on stagnant air that hovered over the region for several days, trapping U.S. Steel smokestack emissions in the Monongahela River valley.

The smoke grew so thick over that Halloween weekend that hospitals became crowded with the thousands of people who became sick. Others died while gasping for air in what became the impetus for the first national clean air legislation of the 1960s.

Dr. Charles Stacey, a retired Ringgold School District superintendent, said he would like to hold a scientific seminar in Donora to discuss the effects the pollution had on health and the reasons for the smog.

"I think it could be a good thing," Stacey said Wednesday.

About 30 people from Donora and Webster, including Donora Councilman Don Pavelko, met two weeks ago to discuss the anniversary. The organizers were also soliciting interest in creating a clean air museum in Donora, Stacey said.

Stacey said he would like to invite Devra Davis, an author and environmentalist who was raised in Donora, to speak at the seminar. He also wants to videotape oral histories of local residents who survived the smog.

"I think they could do a good thing here if they get it together," Stacey said.
(Caption: The U.S. Steel zinc works in a photo taken in Webster circa 1940)

Monday, December 3, 2007

This castle is dark and dreary

BROWNSVILLE, Pa. – Nemacolin Castle is a spooky old mansion in southwestern Pennsylvania where upwards of 10 ghosts supposedly roam its halls. It’s no wonder. The 22-room house, most of which dates to the 1850s, has creaky floors, cold drafts and dark furniture befitting of the eccentric Bowman family that lived there for three generations.

While most house museums have to purchase period furnishings unrelated to their occupants, Nemacolin is filled with artifacts that belonged to the Bowmans as far back as 1787 when Jacob Bowman built a trading post on the hill overlooking the Monongahela River in Brownsville.

The rustic trading post still exists, nestled deep among the rest of the rambling house built in the Colonial and Victorian styles of architecture. Tour guides will demonstrate an old iron contraption that puts ruffles into suit collars and a hand cranked vacuum cleaner that touched the hands of the Bowmans or their servants.

When the lights are turned on, you can actually see your aura in a giant diamond backed mirror above a mantle. In a bedroom, the image of the devil appears in the woodgrain on a headboard.

Docents tell ghost stories each Halloween as they lead visitors through the house that is surrounded by a thick stone wall with glass shards embedded the top to ward off visitors. Many children supposedly went home with brush burns and cuts after they ventured over the wall to peek inside the many windows that adorn the brick structure.

Fayette County bought the estate at the west end of Front Street in 1965 after the deaths of the last occupants, Charles and Lelia Bowman, and turned it over the Brownsville Historical Society.

Society members also offer candlelight Christmas tours each December. But, with the lights dimmed low at those times, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the place and all of its splendor.

Before the sun sets, you can see a lot of chipping paint around the windows and shutters that suggests the historical society needs money for restorations. In some ways though, the neglect makes the place seem all that more spooky and weird.

Click here for more information about tours and events.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The original embedded photographer

Mathew Brady became the father of photojournalism in the United States for the large collection of horrific battlefield images that he amassed during the Civil War.

Among the most gruesome were those that were captured by two of his photographers who were dispatched to the Battle of Antietam, following the Sept. 17, 1862, fighting that became known as the bloodiest single day of the war.

The photos were later displayed at Brady’s New York studio. A line of people stretched around the block to see the them, and many walked away shocked and dismayed by their first view of dead bodies scattered about a battlefield. The nation had been used to just seeing glorious woodcuts of battle scenes that tended to romanticize the war. For the first time, Americans began to look at photography as something other than staged portraits. It was almost as if Brady had dropped off the corpses at the front door of American houses, The New York Times reported. While Brady didn't shoot most of the shots, he "brought home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," the newspaper suggested.

Brady, who also photographed President Abraham Lincoln, thought there was money to be made in the project that cost him nearly $100,000 but left him penniless. The photos were just too hard to digest at the time. But Brady didn't regret his decision to document the war.

“I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went,” Brady has been quoted as saying.

Eventually, the Brady collection was purchased for $25,000 by the U.S. government. It is now considered to be a priceless account of the war.

This story is among many included in an audio tour of Antietam Battlefield, a beautifully manicured National Park just outside of Sharpsburg. For $20, you can purchase a self-guided tour at the gift shop, pop a CD into your car’s CD player and drive around park at your leisure. The Travel Brains tour comes with a hand-held field guide and sound affects like canon fire and actors with different accents to add to the drama. While I prefer to interact with real-time tour guides, this is a great alternative, especially if you want to duck out early and listen to the story on the way home. Besides, a personal tour of the battlefield comes at a price of $50 at the gift shop.

The park, unlike Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, hasn’t changed much since the battle waged by 40,000 Southern troops and 87,000 federal soldiers that killed 23,110 men. Unlike Gettysburg, there are no McDonald’s arches on the horizon. With the Brady photos in hand, it’s not hard to imagine the fighting, especially along the hotly contested Sunken Road where nearly 5,000 soldiers met their deaths during four hours of fighting.

The north was victorious in what was the first of two efforts by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to fight the war on northern soil. Before the photographers went to work at Antietam, one general who was there took the time to pen the following observations:

“In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before,” Major Gen. Joseph Hooker of the Union Army of the Potomac noted in his journal. “It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”

(Captions: Mathew Brady, top, and one of his battle scenes from Antietam, photos that are in the public domain. The Sunken Road as it appears today in a photo by Scott Beveridge)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Those funny balloons

The creative staff at The Warhol in Pittsburgh has been doing some redecorating.

The small gallery on the first floor now has a cool timeline that walks visitors through the interesting life of Andy Warhol, from his 1928 birth into a working-class Rusyn immigrant family to his untimely death from heart failure in 1987.

The condensed biography running the length and height of four walls, however, leaves out the motive for a shooting that nearly left Warhol for dead in his studio. For those with inquiring minds, Valerie Solanas, a founder of the Society for Cutting up Men (SCUM) who also acted in a Warhol film, shot him in 1968 after she was turned away from the his studio, The Factory. (I'd have slammed my door in her face, too, for coming up with such a group)

The artwork that used to hang there can be found scattered among The Warhol’s vast collection that consumes seven floors of an old building at 117 Sandusky St., the largest museum in the world for a single artist.

Thankfully, they didn’t mess with the Silver Clouds Installation, a replica of a 1966 exhibit of helium filled balloons that dance with the wind from forced air. Warhol, it seemed, was put off by stuffy museums where visitors were not allowed to touch the art. Today, people can’t help themselves from smiling or letting loose and acting like a kid inside the room.

Through the end of the year, a collection of minimalist paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe is on display. The seven watercolors were completed in the 1970s when the artist was going blind in her 80s.

Click here for a related story...
(FYI - that's my incredibly talented niece Casey Beveridge in the photograph)

Saturday, November 24, 2007


The Romanian Room in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is among many ornate ethnic classrooms that can be found on the first two floors of the landmark. The rooms are especially interesting to see during the holidays when volunteers dress them according to holiday traditions that are celebrated in the countries that funded their construction. Here is a story pulled from the archives of the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.:

OAKLAND, Pa. – The knoll was little more than a scrappy plot of land where circuses set up camp during the summer when it caught the attention of a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor.

As the school’s 10th leader in 1921, John Gabbert Bowman envisioned a building so grand on the hill that it would inspire young men to remove their hats upon entering its doors. He then went looking for wealthy benefactors to underwrite his plan, many of whom thought he was out of his mind.

“The Mellons said: ‘We’ll buy the plot, but don’t ever mention the tower,” said E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms at what became a monumental Gothic building named the Cathedral of Learning.
Storm over Pitt
The high-style rooms, which have been decorated each December according to the appropriate Christmas, New Year’s or Jewish holiday traditions since they opened, have helped to make the university famous around the globe, Bruhns said. But to build the cathedral, Bowman was forced to turn to working families for the money. He realized that the sweat of immigrant workers had built Pittsburgh into an industrial giant of his era.

“Once they have a room here, they will stay and go to school here,” Bruhns said, quoting the chancellor.

The different ethnic communities responded with remarkable determination to find the money to afford only the best adornments to show off their heritage. The host of the Sunday afternoon Ukrainian radio program on WPIT put out a call for listeners to send money to honor their ancestors when the Ukraine room was being designed in the 1980s. Nearly $15,000 in donations poured in the first day, with many from women wearing babushkas, or kerchiefs, on their heads, Bruhns said.

“These mothers would cry in their kitchens with their Ukrainian music on the radios,” she said.

An artist was sent to Ukraine for a month to study how ceramic tiles were crafted to cover the stove and chimney of a nobleman’s reception room. Re-created on the third floor of the 42-story cathedral, the richly paneled Ukraine room boasts sculpted copper panels that tell the story of how the country’s culture was developed.

Eventually there would be 26 Nationality Rooms in the 535-foot tower, which took a decade to build with money coming from 17,000 adults and 97,000 schoolchildren who gave the university as little as a dime. Local industries provided the steel, heating and plumbing, concrete, glass and elevators for the steel building covered in Indiana limestone that turns 80 next year.

The rooms continue to serve as working classrooms, where visitors might encounter a cranky professor if they knock on a door and interrupt a lecture.

Typically, it takes a decade to plan and complete one room at a cost, today, of nearly $500,000. While the rooms are ornate, the holiday decorations in them are kept to a minimum and must represent traditions true to the culture.

And, while the Greeks do not mark Christmas, they honor St. Nicholas, and housewives typically bake bread at this time of year and cover it with frosted decorations that represent the family’s occupation. In the marble Greek room, a loaf of bread decorated with seashells sits on a table beside the celebrated patron saint of seaman.

Ukrainian families put candles in the loaves of bread and set them by windows as a sign that wayfaring strangers – like Joseph and Mary – are welcome in their homes.
While nearly 40,000 people tour the rooms a year, tourism promoters have called the building one of Pittsburgh’s best-kept secrets.

“We’re known abroad more than we’re known here,” Bruhns said. “People in Paris don’t go to the Eiffel Tower.”

She said new visitors with strong ethnic ties are grateful that there is someplace in the world that “perpetuates, authentically” their culture.

“It’s important to the people who grew up with the traditions,” she said.

Following is a sampling of the traditions across the globe that are celebrated in the Nationality Rooms at Pitt:

In Japan, it’s customary to place evergreen sprigs and bamboo, or kadomatsu, at the gates to homes at New Year’s. The arrangements were believed to serve as temporary shelters for the deity Kami who delivers longevity and wealth at the start of each year.

Germany claims to have started the tradition of celebrating the holidays around a Christmas tree. It began in the 720s after St. Boniface decided to take on pagan rituals by chopping down a large oak tree where people worshipped Thor, the god of thunder. It was Christmas Eve and the eldest son of a chieftain was to be sacrificed. The saint invoked a miracle by causing the oak to fall with one stroke of an ax. He pointed to a nearby evergreen and bid the hostile tribesmen to take one home as a symbol to the Christ child. He claimed the branches represented endless life.

In Scotland, it’s considered back luck to fall asleep before midnight on Christmas Eve. According to legend, people also are warned to keep a fire alive all night to keep elves from sweeping down the chimney and dancing in the ashes. To this day, most churches perpetuate the tradition by holding watch-night services on Christmas Eve.

In Ukraine, people decorate their windows with homemade spider webs. The tradition stems, in part, from the belief that the first thing the Christ child saw when he woke up in the manger were bits of dew collected on spider webs. It was his welcome to the world, according to the myth. They also decorate with didukh, or a sheaves of oats or wheat shaped with four legs to symbolize prosperity for the new year.

After Christmas Eve dinner in Sweden, the Tomte, or Christmas gnome, appears dressed like Santa Clause. The Tomte supposedly lives under the floorboards and rides a straw goat named Julbok. He passes out gifts to the well-behaved children while the goat bumps the bad kids.

In Lithuania on Christmas Eve, the house must be painstakingly cleaned before the evening meal. Fine hay is spread across the table as a reminder of the manger and it is covered with a fine white tablecloth. After dinner, the children take turns pulling out a strand of the hay. The child with the shortest straw will be the first to marry, while the sibling with the longest will enjoy a long life. The Christmas tree also is decorated with simple ornaments woven with straw.

In ancient Ireland, a winter wren was driven from a bush, killed and its body hung on a holly bush over beliefs its song betrayed a Christian hiding from his persecutors. Today, boys dance to homes carrying a stuffed wren and sing for Christmas treats.

(The German Room)

Friday, November 16, 2007

D.C. from behind bars

There is a way to an awesome birds-eye view of the nation’s capitol without having to wait in long lines at the beloved Washington Monument.

First, duck into the basement of the Old Post Office Pavilion, where a glass elevator departs every five minutes for free tours of a giant tower, which makes the building the third largest in the city.

“It’s kind of like a hidden gem with a great view of D.C.,” National Park Service ranger George McHugh said on a chilly Dec. 12 afternoon when there were just three people on the top deck of the 315 stone tower.

The massive building stands on Pennsylvania Avenue about halfway between the U.S. Capitol and White House. It was constructed between 1892 and 1899 in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, which was popular at the time in American cities. But 15 years later, the post office with a massive glass-covered central courtyard had become obsolete because the volume of mail in the United States had increased at a rapid rate.
The last postal workers were relocated from the building in 1934 and it was quickly abandoned prior to its pending demolition, a plan that was stalled as the government fell short of money heading into the Great Depression.

For decades, the landmark fell into disrepair while preservationists debated the building’s fate with those who considered it an eyesore and wanted it erased from the landscape.

Lawmakers eventually earmarked money for demolition in the 1970s but their plan drew protest marchers to the sidewalks in a movement to save it from the wrecking ball. The publicity helped to spur restorations on what is now considered a classic downtown monument worthy of exploration.

The elevator, which offers a dizzying view of the offices and street-level mall, lets off passengers on the ninth floor.

Signs guide them around a tiny museum and a room where volunteers periodically ring the The Congress Bells, which were a bicentennial gift from Britian. They ring out a pitch and tone similar to bells in Westminster Abbey in London.

A second elevator whisks visitors to the observation deck on the 12th floor that overlooks office buildings with lush rooftop patio gardens, the Washington Monument and the city’s sprawling blocks of buildings, none of which are taller than 120 feet. City official in 1910 limited the height of buildings because the fire department’s ladders were no taller than 120 feet.

The 555-foot Washington Monument is the tallest structure in D.C. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is just 16 feet taller than the old post office.

The pavilion tower, meanwhile, is enclosed in bars of thin cables and plexiglass to keep the pigeons out and “the people in,” McHugh said, while thanking the visitors for stopping buy.

Nancy Hawks, the woman who led the 1970s protest to save the old post office, said it best, “Old buildings are like old friends … They encourage people to dream about their cities, to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

They still cry at the wall

WASHINGTON, DC – The walk downhill to the foot of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial takes you 10 feet below ground to a place heavy with grief.

The Wall, at its base, has become the Vietnam generation’s symbol of great sorrow for the 58,256 veterans who were killed or missing in the war.

It’s a special place for the people who go down there, a tour guide said Sunday to a handful of tourists who were about to take that walk on Veterans Day. By design, the walk back to the surface offers a chance for them to bury their sadness in something akin to a tomb.

Hundreds of thousands of people tried that Sunday when the nation marked the 25th anniversary of the black granite monument. By nightfall, there were nearly as many mementos leaning against the list of war dead, everything from flowers to heartfelt poems.

A large silver foil sculpture of a deer was among the many wreaths that stood attention on the lawn opposite the memorial. It was the work of Joel “Artist Bohmeal” Paplham, who calls himself a compassionate non-veteran from West Allis. Wis.

Someone else took the time to put together a framed collage of photographs and other such images associated with the war as a marijuana leaf and peace sign. A portrait of President Bush with red drops of paint across his forehead was even included in the design.

Vietnam War veterans, some wearing old war uniforms, stared silently into the names, only to see their reflections between the letters. The mirror affect makes it impossible to look at the names without reflecting on your own thoughts about war, the tour guide said. The experience sends a chill down the spine, tightens the muscles around the throat and puts a tear in the eye of most who make the journey.

Anyone who was alive and paying attention when Maya Ling Lin’s design was chosen for the $9 million memorial would remember the public outcry over her being a daughter of Chinese refugees living in America. People were angry because her family came from a land whose government had backed the enemy North Vietnamese Army.

Regardless, Linn has given us something incredibly special in our nation’s capitol, an honor roll that still brings together our collective sadness about what happened in Vietnam. But the guide was dreaming today when he suggested that the Vietnam generation has been able to drop off its pain over the war at the base of a wall.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Mr. Stewart, your table is waiting

Actor and regular nice guy Jimmy Stewart preferred this table at Chasen’s, the once-popular celebrity hideout in Beverly Hills. It’s not immediately known, however, if this was where the lanky star sat during his bachelor party in 1949 when two midgets dressed in diapers entertained the crowd.

But the booth where Stewart and his wife, the former Gloria Hatrick, regularly dined on Thursday evenings can be found in a museum dedicated to the late movie star in his hometown of Indiana, Pa. To add to its collection of everything Jimmy, The Jimmy Stewart Museum purchased the booth after the restaurant closed in 1995.

Located on the fourth floor of Indiana’s public library, the museum has a fantastic collection of black-and-white photographs that were shot on the sets of some of his films in a career that spanned seven decades. One especially cool photo shows a young Stewart wearing a suit with a loosen tie from the 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” about a junior senator who tries to clean up corruption in the nation’s capitol. The gray, sweat-stained hat Mr. Stewart wore in seven films, including “The Man from Laramie,” is so special that it is kept in a Plexiglass box.

Also on display is a granite stone that marks the May 20, 1908, birthplace of James Maitland Stewart. The museum was given the marker when it was recovered years after it was stolen from the actual site where the Stewart family home once stood about a block down Philadelphia Street, Indiana’s main drag. “There’s another one there now,” my tour guide said today.

Stewart is still cool 10 years after his death, especially in the town otherwise famous for having Indiana University of Pennsylvania. So much so that nearly 10,000 stop by his museum each year.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Light to lower bills

A better light bulb has been replacing those old standard bulbs by the millions as American households grow greener.

The bulb otherwise known as a compact fluorescent lamp has become the darling of the environmental movement because of its energy efficiency, and a favorite of consumers who want to save money.

“There are very few people who will argue about cutting down on their electric bill with no real sacrifice,” said Jeff Schmidt, director of Pennsylvania’s chapter of the Sierra Club.

It seems that, almost overnight, consumers have become turned on by greener products as more and more people buy into arguments for global warming, he said.
Homeowners now want organic solutions to beautify their lawns or clean the scum off the kitchen counter. Some people in exclusive neighborhoods have even taken to using old-fashioned clotheslines to do their part to lower greenhouse gases.
Better Homes and Gardens magazine announced Friday that it will embark on a 15-city tour in March to promote the launch of Green Works, a new line of household cleaners made from plant-based ingredients.

“Our customers are passionate about … everyday practices for living green,” Gayle Butler, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, stated in a news release.
Anyone who has walked down the lighting department at big-box retail centers can’t help but notice the growing assortment of fluorescent bulbs on the shelves.
“Call your local Home Depot and ask them to compare their sales,” Schmidt said.

The compact lamp was actually developed at General Electric during the oil crisis in the early 1970s. But the product was kept secret for a time because of the high cost of production. Other manufacturers began in the 1980s to market the lamp, but consumers didn’t buy them in great numbers because they didn’t emit a lot of light and were too bulky for most lighting fixtures. In the past year or so, the bulbs have become more compact to the point where they are about the same size as the traditional incandescent lamp, technology that dates to the 1800s.

The fluorescent lamp is particularly attractive to consumers because it lasts longer, and just one bulb can reduce the average electric bill by more than $30 over five years. But the growing greener movement doesn’t end with one light bulb.
California University of Pennsylvania has been recognized by the state for its energy management program that has gone as far to require switches in dorm rooms that turn off the air conditioning if a student opens a window.

Peters Township attempted to copy nature when it built a new $5 million recreation center in 2004 with two wings at the entrance that are supposed to make the building look like a hawk. Fluorescent lighting is used exclusively in the gymnasium, which has windows that help to warm the building and provide enough light so people don’t need to turn on the lights when it’s sunny outside.

“We were looking at it more from the standpoint of cost effectiveness than the green aspect of it,” said Michael Silvestri, township manager in Peters.
But now, he said, township supervisors are in the early stages of developing a broader green program, one that may introduce the use of biofuels for the township’s fleet of vehicles, he said.

There are communities across the nation that are doing far more than Peters to save the planet. As many as 800 municipalities, including Pittsburgh, have joined the Sierra Club’s “cool cities” program, Schmidt said. Westmoreland County, meanwhile, is looking into the concept.

The cool cities make a pledge to purchase some electricity “off the grid” from such sources as wind generators, he said. They also agree to buy hybrid vehicles rather than gasoline-guzzling sport-utility vehicles.

“It’s kind of an alignment of the planets,” Schmidt said.

(Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Trail to a tragic story

People who walk or bike the Yough River Trail through Rostraver Township find themselves surrounded by tranquility along the former Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroad.

Many pass through the area near Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County without ever knowing that the tunnels under the path are part of an old coal mine with a story that is anything but peaceful.

Nineteen miners were will killed there in a methane gas explosion in June 1901, even though a company boss had posted a danger signal before the disaster. The warning, however, was ripped down by another boss who apparently was more concerned about coal profits than the employees. That boss would also perish inside Port Royal Mine No. 2.

Crowds were kept back from the portal by ropes. Relatives and friends of the missing miners were warned that the gas could set off another explosion that would rock the area like an earthquake, according to a story published at the time in The New York Times.

But that didn’t hold back the Rev. Carroll of nearby Smithton who volunteered to lead a search party into the portal. The company warned him against going into the mine about the same time that a second blast took the lives of 10 or more rescuers, the newspaper reported.

Seven bodies would be recovered before the mine was flooded and sealed four months after the initial explosion. The bodies were found side-by-side in what the reporter referred to as the “death chamber.” Some men were still holding their lamps or mining tools when they died. Other bodies were forever entombed inside the deep mine.

The Rostraver Township Historical Society has erected a new memorial to these mining victims alongside the popular hiking and biking trail. For more information on mining history in Westmoreland, check out Ancestry.com. It just may startle you to find out how many other miners met their deaths there over the years.

(Captions: An unidentified man strolls along the Yough River Trail in the area above the abandoned Port Royal Mine No. 2. A new memorial to the mining disaster in Rostraver Township that has been placed beside the trail. Please note that the Beveridge name was spelled wrong on the honor roll, and that the victim was not related to the author of this blog.)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Not your MOMA

The art of James Turrell at Pittsburgh’s peculiar Mattress Factory doesn’t contribute much to global warming. Save for a few purple and red lights, the permanent exhibit has visitors feeling their way around several pitch-black rooms to experience “a blurring of the boundary between what is seen outside oneself and what is seen in the mind’s eye,” the museum's brochure guarantees about the installation.

Personally, I would rather gaze at the bold brushstrokes of a Monet or Van Gogh in a well-lit gallery than bump into complete strangers and black walls to experience the Los Angeles-born Turrell’s vision of spiritual awakening. But you have to give the Mattress Factory high marks for creating this brand of hip museum space for a contemporary artist to express himself.

Located in the city’s historic Mexican War Streets district since 1977, the museum in an old Stearns and Foster warehouse was developed as an experiment by a group of rebellious artists. Over the years, the place has earned the respect of art critics from around the world. The latest issue of GQ magazine even included the Factory as a must-see destination along the “Great American Art Drive” through such unlikely rust belt cities as Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

There are 14 more months to breathe in The Tom Museum in Pittsburgh before it becomes an altogether different hybrid house for a new visiting artist. Pittsburgh puppeteer Tom Sarver, at times, guides people through the colorful and cluttered spaces where he cooks dinner, beds down at night and hangs thought-provoking art that speaks to everyday living. He might even play with miniature boats in an ornamental pond in his basement. And the best part – there is enough light to take in his weird show.

(Caption: The Tom House entrance at Pittsbugh's Mattress Factory)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Swept out the door

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 9

By Scott Beveridge

U.S. Steel Corp. delivered the news on a muggy July 1962 morning that its Donora works was shutting down forever, leaving the borough’s fate in the hands of its citizens. The company was sweeping its nearly 3,000 Pennsylvania workers out the door as if they were dust bunnies that had been allowed to collect for too many years in the corners and under the beds of an unkempt house. In keeping with tradition, the Donora Herald-American newspaper showed itself as a mouthpiece for the corporation and took sides with management. Never was it more evident than in the lines of an editorial that was printed in bold letters under the front-page story about the mill closing that July 24:


A Time for
United Decision

American Steel and Wire Division’s announcement today that the steel making and the obsolete Number Three Rod Mill operations will be discontinued permanently in Donora is not, or should not have been, a surprise to Donora and the Monongahela Valley.

Those who have read carefully the annual report of United States Steel Corporation who have followed the development of technological changes in steel-making in this country and abroad, and who, indeed, watched only yesterday the European television networks showing steelmaking operations in the industrial Ruhr Valley of Germany know what has happened.

As a woman housecleans her home and discards articles which have outlived their usefulness, so steel companies, or any other industry for that matter, must also houseclean for efficiency of operation.

Donora has been without these operations for more than two years now, and has continued to survive, as already has been proved, but it also can and must go forward. Progress, however, will depend more than ever before on an intangible commodity which Donora has in abundance – good people, working together toward a common goal.

The Telstar broadcast yesterday pointed out that the world is becoming more highly competitive daily. Today’s worker produces products which must compete, not only with products of immediately surrounding industries and the country, but also with products on the common world market. No longer may he be satisfied with “good enough.” He must produce highest quality goods or see the goods he has produced unsold in a highly competitive market.

He also must compete to keep the very industries for which he produces these products. No longer may he be complacent and content to let his community remain a one-industry town.

Donora, therefore, would be wise to heed the ancient Biblical handwriting on the wall, “Mene, mene, tekel upharsin.” Translated freely it reads, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” It is time now for Donora’s people to weigh the situation in balance and determine that Donora shall not be found wanting, and that its united people are ready to begin rebuilding for the future – starting today.

Strangely, the folks in Donora didn’t believe the company was telling the truth, said John Lignelli, who was a grievance man in the blooming mill and would go on to serve as mayor of Donora three decades later.

“We all thought it was nothing but a threat,” Lignelli said last week.

U.S Steel, he said, had just overhauled the blast furnace at great expense. Nearly everyone was praying that the announcement was a ploy to sucker the union into giving back benefits or wages. But the company wasn’t attempting, that time, to manipulate anyone in Donora.


Chapter 10

(The photograph and editorial were published with permission of the Observer-Reporter, Washington, Pa., which owns the rights to the old Donora newspaper.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Doctoring the dead

The nation’s first crematory, built on Gallows Hill in Washington, took shape because of a country doctor’s disturbing work with exhumed bodies, some of which went to their graves still breathing.
Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne would argue that his crematory was an experiment in improving public health, but he really built the oven because he feared waking up six feet underground after his own funeral, a professor theorized.

“He built it for his own reasons,” said Stephen Prothero, chairman of religious studies at Boston University and an expert on the history of cremation in the United States.

The venerable physician would become the third person to be reduced to ashes at his crematory following his death at 3 p.m. Oct. 13, 1879. Upon LeMoyne’s death at 82, his body was placed in a plain rosewood coffin and carried by his sons and grandsons to the crematory amid speculation that he had more bizarre plans for his funeral.
His demise, however, would be forever overshadowed by the first cremation on the steep hill overlooking Washington and its many staunch, conservative Presbyterian families.

The decomposing body of Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm arrived in Washington on an especially frigid Dec. 6, 1876, to become the first cremation in the New World.
De Palm paraded himself as an Austrian nobleman when he joined the ranks of New York’s Theosophical Movement, whose members wanted to create an equal opportunity society and investigate the mysteries of nature.
De Palm died penniless, but had expressed a desire in his will to be cremated, plans that were executed by another modern thinker from New York, Col. Henry Steel Olcott.
De Palm’s body was packed in “potter’s clay and crystallized carbolic acid” in an attempt to preserve his corpse before better embalming techniques were invented, Prothero found. But it took six months between the time De Palm died and LeMoyne completed his crematory before the body arrived in the backwoods town of Washington, followed by curious newspaper reporters from across the United States and Europe, scientists and physicians.

“It wasn’t like it was in New York City, some cosmopolitan city,” Prothero said in a telephone interview. “The reaction was something you would expect in Middle America; it was un-Christian, shocking.”

Prothero included a chapter about the cremation in his book, “Purified by Fire,” which revealed LeMoyne as a man of many contradictions.
At Washington County Historical Society, which makes its home in the historic stone LeMoyne House on East Maiden Street, the physician is revered as a tireless advocate of the unfortunate. He was a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement, and had opened his home to slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.
He believed in equal rights for women, too, and founded the Washington Seminary long before he got the idea to build the crematory on the hill, which also had been the site of public executions.

But Prothero uncovered reports that some Washington folks had looked upon LeMoyne as a filthy, unkempt old fool who had been excommunicated from First Presbyterian Church for his unconventional beliefs.
It was true that LeMoyne had the notion that soap and water not only removed the dirt, but it also washed away the “spiritual essence of the body,” Prothero said.
To mask his scent, LeMoyne splashed himself with cologne he made from roses and herbs that grew in his garden, said Jim Ross, director of the LeMoyne House, which keeps De Palm’s ashes in a jar in the physician’s office.

“He was way ahead of his time,” Ross said.

Rather than focus on LeMoyne’s fears of a premature burial and worries about the theft of bodies at Washington Cemetery, everyone at the historical society refers to him as a brilliant visionary.
But LeMoyne had no way of predicting the high jinks and farce that would accompany De Palm’s cremation, Prothero said.
Hundreds of people were standing outside the simple, one-story, two-room crematory when the baron’s body arrived. The affair resembled a public execution at a time when people were still fascinated by “macabre entertainment,” Prothero said.

There was nothing fancy about the reception room, which was furnished with two bentwood chairs, a hand-carved table for the coffin, a hutch and cast-iron heating stove. Its walls were whitewashed. There were no curtains on the window. One side door led to the furnace room in the 20-by-30-foot building that was built for $1,500 and designed by LeMoyne, who tested the oven with dead sheep from his farm.
It was a man named John Dye who did the construction and maintained the coking coal that fueled the oven, Ross said.

“Everything was plain, repulsively so, one might say,” Olcott wrote in his book, “Old Diary Leaves,” about the De Palm cremation. “Just a practical corpse incinerator, as unaesthetic as a bake-oven ... with none of that horror of roasting human flesh. The corpse simply dries.”

At least 100 people crowded inside the red brick building, where one person lifted the shroud covering De Palm’s body, which had shrunk from 175 pounds to 92 pounds, to examine the condition of his loins.
The body was then dusted with herbs and spices and outlined with pine branches to add a sweet scent to the smoke that was about to rise from the chimney. The body was placed head-first on an open grate into the 3,000-degree oven in such a manner that it didn’t touch the flames.
Some took turns looking through a peephole in the heavy, cast-iron oven door before the cremation was over, two-and-a-half hours later.
One observer, Prothero noted, remarked that the evergreens and De Palm’s hair were the first to catch fire like a “crown of glory for the dead man.”
Another claimed to have witnessed De Palm’s left hand rise up with three fingers pointing to the heavens in what a physician dismissed as involuntary muscle contractions, the professor’s research showed.

At the time, LeMoyne had also begun to wither; his aging body so pained by arthritis that he witnessed the events while hunched over in a chair.
And the spectacle that accompanied the De Palm cremation apparently haunted the physician until the time of his death, which was followed by a funeral that was anything but spectacular.
Before he died, LeMoyne dictated to a secretary his final arguments for cremation while “under the embarrassment of infirmities of old age, and under the depressing influences of a fatal disease.”

He believed that a body was of no use to God once its soul was removed, and that burials were the most “barbarous and disgusting” methods to deal with the dead.
As for science, LeMoyne knew that decomposing bodies polluted the ground water and made people deathly sick if they drank from wells near cemeteries.
The physician also said cemeteries were resting places for the vain and rich to be remembered in the sinful custom of marking graves with expensive, magnificent monuments.

Jan Pitman of Cincinnati, Ohio, agreed with LeMoyne. Her corpse became the second body to reach his crematory on Feb. 15, 1878, and she was recorded as the first woman in the United States to be cremated. The wife of Benjamin, who designed a phonograph system, wished that her ashes be buried and transformed into a rose for her husband.
In all, 42 bodies were cremated at LeMoyne’s crematory, where a prince was treated the same as a pauper before it closed in 1901.

The LeMoyne Crematory survives in remarkable condition and is identical to the way it appeared when the first cremation took place there in 1876. To this day, the building on South Main Street in Washington has no electricity or heat.
The simple building is maintained by the Washington County Historical Society, which offers limited tours of the building on the second Saturday of each month, between May and September. Special school tours can be arranged by calling 724-225-6740.

Taken from the pages of the target="_blank">Observer-Reporter

LeMoyne Crematory

Built in 1876, the LeMoyne Crematory in Washington, Pa., was the first such facility in the United States. It was the result of country doctor Francis Julius LeMoyne's fear of being buried alive after his unpleasant experiences with exhumed bodies.
The first creation, that of the Baron De Palm of New York, created a media sensation in was then a backwoods town.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The burger beautiful

Kenny’s Grocery still has an old icebox with a beveled mirror along the back wall, an oak chest that was converted to electricity but rarely gets plugged into a wall socket. There are photographs of school kids behind the counter, too, between pictures of deer kill and women in skimpy bikinis. Dusty boxes of candy seem to be calling out to the kids who live here in sleepy Scenery Hill and along Pennsylvania’s stretch of the historic National Road, North America's first interstate.

Customers do stop by, though, for the hamburgers that Rick Mowl cooks on a cast iron skillet the same way they have been fried since 1949. He said the flavor comes from the old Griswold skillet that “is probably worth a lot of money” to collectors of cookware. The pan and special spices, including a little garlic and onion powder, come together to create a beauty of a burger that keeps people coming back for more. They are always served on a paper napkin with a dose of Mowl’s dry humor.

Mowl would have to kill you if he told you what is in the shakers that he uses to dust his patties that do not appeal to everyone in town. The thin lady up the road is a naturalist, he said, who must “eat berries” because she never orders one of his burgers. "She's Euell Gibbons," he says while flipping what is about to become my lunch.

This is downtown country living in North Bethlehem Township, which is home to less than 1,800 people who must drive about 10 miles to the nearest gasoline station and even further to a big box supermarket.

And the best part – Mowl’s juicy quarter-pounders sell for $1.75 apiece. Add a quarter to the bill if you want cheese, lettuce and tomato.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where Bobby Vinton cut his chords

Sammy Davis Jr. did not set the house on fire the last time he was booked at a once-famous Mon Valley supper club.

That's because his appearance was canceled by a second mysterious blaze within hours that destroyed the Twin Coaches on the first day of Fire Prevention Week in October 1977.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said Mike Godzak, 46, of Rostraver Township, who was among the first firefighters on scene when the fire was burning out of control.

Godzak said he and others "scrambled off the roof" as it was collapsing into the ballroom, and were fortunate to avoid injury.

Hours earlier, they had doused a small fire among linens stored too close to a hot water tank. Embers from the second blaze smoldered for a week at the Westmoreland County business. The damage was so severe that it apparently prevented investigators from determining the cause of the blaze that brought down the curtain on one of the most famous stages east of the Mississippi River.

"It was 35 miles from the big city and it was packed all the time. That was the beauty of it," said Cassandra Vivian, chief executive officer of Monessen Heritage Museum, recalling the nightclub where every big name in the 1950s and 1960s except for Frank Sinatra had wooed audiences.

Meanwhile, crooner Bobby Vinton was a big draw, even before his signature song, "Roses are Red," shot up the charts in 1962.

"It was one of the highlights of my early career," Vinton said in a telephone interview.

The Canonsburg, Pa., native was often in the audience as a fan while studying music at Duquense University in Pittsburgh.

His favorite memory there was meeting John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, in 1959 during the then-Massachusetts senator's campaign for the White House.

"He shook my hand and said, 'Hello.' Here I was, just a young kid from Canonsburg," the 70-year-old Vinton said.

The club's owner at the time, Rose Calderone, wanted to give the Kennedys the royal treatment, and instructed her kitchen staff to prepare them lobster. It was a Friday and the future Roman Catholic president could not dine on steak for religious reasons, said Ron Paglia, a former newspaper editor in the Mon Valley.

"He said, 'No, Rose. Give me some scrambled eggs and a beer,'" Paglia said.

Calderone ushered Kennedy to her private kitchen, seated him on a step-stool and served him eggs and a bottle of Stoney's, a local label produced in Smithton by the family of actress Shirley Jones.

Kennedy was not the only big-name politician to visit the Calderones. President Harry Truman, the nation's 33rd president, spoke at their club in the 1950s, as did untold other prominent Democrats.

Calderone and her husband, Tony, had purchased what was a run-down bar in need of a more-refined clientele in the 1940s. He had taken a gamble on what amounted to two rusting Pullman railroad cars parked side-by-side, the 91-year-old Rostraver Township woman said, discussing her famous career in October at her kitchen table.

She said she stood at the bar's front door and barred men from entering if they were not wearing a coat and tie. She kept a baseball bat behind the bar in case of trouble.

In 1950, her husband added the 250-seat Rose Room to the establishment and booked television celebrity Al Morgan to perform.

"He had vision. He really did," Calderone said of her husband.

Three years later, he built the Butterfly Room, adding 1,000 seats to the club, making it the largest nightclub in the Pittsburgh region. Pop singer Tony Martin opened the room with four black-lit butterflies on its ceiling, along with Alan King, his warm-up comic.

"It just grew, and Rose came along, and she booked the best," said Warren Sheppick of Fallowfield Township, who played tenor saxophone in the house band. "It was the place to play."

Sheppick said he performed for Liberace, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney.

"They had all the big names," Paglia added.

However, Rose Calderone took center stage when her husband died unexpectedly in 1960.

"It was either sink or swim," she said. She befriended the stars and traveled to New York or Las Vegas to haggle with the top booking agents.

Her hard work also provided well-paying jobs for women who lived in the small coal towns that dotted the region.

"Some of the waitresses, ladies in the 1950s, were making $100 a night in tips. That was good money then," Vivian said.

The club was on the national radar screen because guests on the Tonight Show often mentioned it when host Johnny Carson asked them where they would be performing, Vivian said. Calderone was even profiled in 1969 in Cosmopolitan magazine because of her Hollywood friends and success in the male-dominated show business.

She later sold her club to a group of investors, not long after supper clubs were losing their popularity, and she had converted hers into a dinner-theater. She decided to invest in a Holiday Inn across the highway.

The nation's nightclub trade began to die with the arrival of the Beatles in February 1964, Vinton said.

Rock and roll demanded much-larger concert halls, the size of which, Calderone said, she could not compete against.

"Entertainment changed," Vinton said.

"The time was up for the big supper clubs," he said. "You had TV. People didn't go as much ...."

(Captions: Bobby Vinton in a promotional photo for his orchestra when he played at the Twin Coaches; Club owner Rose Calderone with a young Johnny Mathis; and actress Shirley Jones at the supper club, flanked by its owner, Tony Calderone, and Jones' then husband, Jack Cassidy.)


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Divine intervention with a punch

CHARLEROI, Pa. – The New York-based Guardian Angels is looking for brave men to conduct foot patrols in drug-infested neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and even in the tiny borough of Charleroi.
Members of the nonprofit crime fighters are touring such neighborhoods as Pittsburgh’s Hill District and McKees Rocks soliciting members to help police rid the communities of crime.
“Rather than think of us as Hells Angels or vigilantes … we’re the biggest (police) cooperators, the biggest rats out there,” said the group’s founder, Curtis Sliwa, while speaking to a crowd of nearly 70 people at a town meeting Friday in Charleroi.
Sliwa founded the group in 1979 to attack crime and violence in New York’s subways. It has since grown to include chapters in 11 countries and 86 cities. A new chapter was being trained Friday in Mexico City.
But the visit to Charleroi, at the invitation of Mayor Frank Paterra, had caused a rift between council and the mayor over concerns that advertising a drug problem might hurt local businesses.
“We have a crime problem like everyone else,” said Paterra, whose borough is home to just 4,800 residents.
After Sliwa finished speaking, one middle-aged man stood up and announced that he would “be the first to volunteer.” Retired Charleroi police Chief Armand Costantino, meanwhile, announced his support of the Guardian Angels. Donn Henderson, a supervisor in neighboring Fallowfield Township, said he wondered how a local chapter might be formed.
Sliwa said he would need a professional who is trained in self-defense to head up a local chapter. If local police cooperate, they would perform background checks on applicants before new members undergo three months of training.
The volunteers would then dedicate 8 hours of their time a week to patrol in groups of four outside crack houses or bars where fights often break out. The angels carry no guns, he said, but get physical when necessary, Sliwa said.
“This is all on the cuff for free,” he said.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On better days....

Tombstones that carry photographs of the people below them have always freaked me out.

While that is one handsome couple buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Monaca, Pa., most of the photos that I have seen at cemeteries did little to flatter the dead. There is one corpse buried in Indiana, Pa., below a marker that bears a headshot of the dead guy with an ugly comb-over head of hair. Why on Earth anyone would want to be remembered in the afterlife on a bad hair day is beyond me.

Just think - your dear old uncle Rupert might, at this moment, be scanning his photo album to find the perfect pose to put on his grave.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Muffler Man is "The Man"

Motorists entering Uniontown from the south are once again greeted by a giant roadside attraction known as the Muffler Man.
The Paul Bunyan lookalike, which stands 20 feet, 6 inches tall, reappeared last month in the Fayette County, Pa., county seat after spending nearly six months in the repair shop.

“He’s back in service,” said Dave Thomas, an employee at Import Export Tire Shop, where the landmark lumberjack stands alongside Route 51. “He looks brand new,” Thomas added.

The fiberglass statue was among many that popped up in the 1960s outside muffler shops across the United States. But last year, the one in Uniontown had begun to look a bit tipsy because its steel skeleton was rusting away.
“He was starting to lean over,” Thomas said.

Originally, these odd advertisements gripped mufflers and tailpipe in their muscular hands instead of hatchets. As those shops closed over the years, their “men” would take on as such appearances as a cowboy, Indian, pirate, Viking and spaceman, according to Roadside Magazine.

The Uniontown Muffler Man has a fresh coat of paint, and retains much of his original, tough-guy style. Somehow, he pulls off the look with his pant legs tucked in his boots. But without a muffler, this Muffler Man resembles a jiggy redneck rapper.