a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Glad someone else remembered this old theater

CHARLEROI, Pa. – Despite having spent countless hours as a child in the seats of the old Coyle Theater in Charleroi, I have few memories of the place. That’s because I’ve always been a sucker for movies, and lost all sense of time and place after the credits rolled into the story.

Recognizing that at an early age, my parents probably knew they could drop me off at the Coyle in the late 1960s without a babysitter and that I’d stay safely in my seat until the movie ended.

Then I followed the crowd out the isle to the lobby and street and stood there under the lights of the marquee for a few minutes big-eyed, dazed and confused and still under the spell of Hollywood.

There were several other theaters in the Mon Valley at the time, including the Manos in nearby Monessen and the Liberty in Donora. But the Coyle was special because it always carried the best movies and had a mysterious balcony for adults only.

I didn’t know it then but the 999-seat theater at 331 McKean Ave. was built in 1895 for vaudeville and burlesque and originally catered to actors who came to town by paddle boat.

By 1999 the Coyle was shuddered, outsourced by television and mall theaters. The surrounding downtown lost its heart and soul without a theater, and businesses suffered even further from the loss of thousands of steel jobs in the region.

Along came Nancy Ellis, a local woman who had a vision to reopen the theater with a leaking roof and mounting debts from unpaid property taxes. Many people thought she was out of her mind, yet she kept her dream alive for nearly a decade, raising just enough money to repair the roof and stabilize the brick building.

Out of nowhere, Ellis has become a feel-good story drawn from the script of a Broadway musical about a stage lost, only to be resurrected by a song and prayer.

The nonprofit she formed, the Mid-Mon Valley Cultural Trust, was awarded $250,000 last week in proceeds from Pennsylvania’s new slots parlor revenues, those pulled from the purse of a casino that opened in 2007 at The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County. She now is seeking a project manager to oversee restorations and a local theater group to claim the stage.

Movies are expected to roll again, too, at the Coyle in the fall of 2009. I hope to be among the first in line to grab a ticket and fill in the blanks of faded memories of a downtown where crowds once gathered for a common purpose.


Photo: Observer-Reporter

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Asian dining on another level

So it was Feb. 8, the second day of the Chinese Year of the Rat, and there I was ordering dinner in one of New York’s trendiest Asian restaurants.

Tradition suggested that you celebrate by decorating your table with inexpensive chopsticks. The pair on my table at Tao Restaurant in the city’s theater district was pretty fancy. For a brief second, I thought about taking them home, and besides knowing that stealing would have been wrong, I have never really mastered the art of handling sticks to put food in my mouth. (I swear some people can eat broth with chopsticks)

Instead, I ordered a bottle of Tsingtao beer and began the New Year celebration in the same restaurant where Madonna has been known to dine. The place has a nondescript facade lit by a giant hanging wicker chandelier that looked like something a hypnotist would use to put someone under his spell.

A 16-foot Buddha served as the main attraction inside, just beyond a noisy and lively bar. After being seated among intimate tables in the second-floor lounge, I ordered sea bass and soft-shell crab rolls. The food was fantastic, as was the service. Don’t believe the nasty things people have been saying online about the restaurant, such as the food isn’t especially Asian, the waiters were rude and the menu's too pricey. My bill came to $58, far less than what I was expecting to pay in such a joint.

Another bottle of Tsingtao and it was time to visit the men’s room. Located inside the tiny room was one beautiful urinal, so pretty in fact that it was almost too nice to soil. A waterfall cascaded down a large pane of blue-green, back-it glass into a black granite troth filled with river rocks.

What a way to mark the new year………


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Credit, even for the departed

Yesterday, a new Sears credit card arrived in the mailbox for my dad, James R. Beveridge, even though he died a year ago.

So I called the 800 number on the back of the card and waded through several prompts before reaching a live person. She spoke clear English.

I told her the situation. She asked for my name. I supplied it, and then, she asked for the name on the card. I said: "James Beveridge."

"Can you put him on the phone?" she responded.

"Heee's DEAD," I said before she began to apologize profusely.

And then there was silence......

"Are you still there?" I asked.

"Yes. I'm sorry .. it'll just take a few seconds," she said in a hushed tone.
"The account is canceled."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Homespun jammers setting sail for fame

At first blush, Jugtown Pirates of Lake Champlain seemed to be on course for a shipwreck. The band's heroin-sheik dirty wardrobe also made its musicians look as if they needed a good scrubbing while following a Phish tour across the United States.

But after few minutes of being drawn to this frantic, Appalachian-inspired sound, I was convinced that it was the result many hours of serious practice. The notched-up pace of otherwise slow hick tunes sounded something akin to bluegrass on LSD. The noise was addicting.

I happened upon this upstart band playing a street festival last spring along Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque, N.M.

The precision was remarkable on such homemade instruments as a washtub bass and washboard. They tossed in a regular stand-up bass and a kazoo and pulled together one of the most creative sounds that I have laid ear to in decades.

All the guys need to do is hit the Laundromat between gigs.


Friday, February 22, 2008

Donora is spooky without "TV tunnels"

DONORA, Pa. – A popular television thriller series about the “ghostly” otherworld is making a star out of Donora.

CBS’s "Ghost Whisperer” is set in the fictional town of Grandview, which is actually a section of Donora, and at least one plot line involved mysterious tunnels that are supposed to be under its downtown.

Most likely, however, the Donora underground exists in the vivid imagination of one of the show’s executive producers, Kim Moses, who grew up in the borough, locals say. She also was once married to professional football legend, Joe Montana, who grew up in nearby Monongahela.

“That has to be fiction,” said Donora photographer Chuck Muia, 75, who knows the borough inside and out.

Moses is an incredibly gifted woman who has often incorporated Donora in the plot lines of her productions, said borough council President Karen Polkabla.

“Ghost Whisperer” stars Jennifer Love Hewitt as the fictional Melinda Gordon, who communicates with spirits and ghosts that have unfinished business on earth. An earlier story line involved a war memorial in a town park that was inspired by one that existed in Donora.

Polkabla never heard of the tunnels, either, and laughed at the thought of a mysterious underworld in the borough.

“Cool. Maybe that’ll bring visitors,” she said.

Muia said many houses in the Mon Valley have tunnels in their basements where people used to mine coal to feed their home furnaces. Others were known to tunnel into basements to create a personal fallout shelters during the Cold War, he said.

There is a creepy old network of large sewers leading to the Monongahela River from the former U.S. Steel mill that once dominated the riverfront, Muia said. Those sewers were sealed, though, because children were known to climb into them, he said.

But as far as tunnels under the businesses, “There’s nothing to that,” Muia added. “If that were the case, (a bank) would have been robbed a long time ago.”
(Photo caption: A still night along Donora's main street otherwise known as McKean Avenue)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Another mill folds

Welcome to nowhere, chapter 13

By Scott Beveridge

Dad saw wicked times in 1972.

Jim Beveridge was fast approaching 50 and sweating the withdrawal from nicotine while kicking his long habit of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Worse yet, he had sworn off the Iron City beer after his physician warned him about his shrinking liver. This was a man who couldn’t stray five miles from our home in Webster, Pa., to pay a bill or pick up groceries without twice stopping at a bar. He spent more than a few long nights pacing the floors.

And then came the announcement from the steel mill in nearby Monessen, where he had worked since before World War II: The plant was shutting down for good on Feb. 17 of that year.

Our lives spiraled out of control, almost in an instant.

The Page Division of American Chain and Cable Co. furloughed its 250 workers because the 72-year-old factory was no longer profitable. Sure, there had been times when work was slow, and others when the union halted production during stalled negotiations. But this mill had woven wire to hold up the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge that opened in 1937 in San Francisco. There would always be a demand for Page’s products, the workers assumed, even though their numbers had dwindled from a record high of 1,100 in 1940.

J. Wallace Page of Adrian, Mich., constructed his blooming, rod and wire mills in Monessen in 1899. He was considered to be the “father of the wire-fence industry” in the United States, having developed the technique of hand weaving wire at his home. In no time, his Monessen operation was producing 3,000 tons of steel a month. Twenty years later, Page’s operation would be absorbed into the holdings of American Chain and Cable of New York.

But by January 1972 the demand had weakened for wire and fence to the point that members of United Steelworkers Local 1391 in Monessen took concessions to keep their factory churning. The agreement paved way for the company to reduce the workforce from 300 to 150. With his seniority, my father initially doubted he would lose his job as a pipefitter and union position of grievance man. Then the national union called a company-wide strike on Jan. 31, and within two weeks, the Monessen mill was history.

The five-minute announcement from the company was a shock and surprise to the workers. “It’s a black day for us at Page,” local union President Elliot Bianchi told the local newspaper. “I’m sick to the stomach,” he stated in an article in The Valley-Independent.

Knowing his medical benefits would soon dry up, dad encouraged mom to check herself into Charleroi-Monessen Hospital to have a tumor removed in what proved to be a false cancer scare. She was on the second floor while dad’s mother was on the fourth, entering the throes of dementia.

While our hardships seemed unique to our family of five, they would prove to be just the beginning of what was about to happen to thousands of dependents of Pittsburgh-area steelworkers in a collapsing industry. Being the first to receive pink slips, the Page employees weren’t offered extended unemployment paychecks and free retraining as were the masses who would join the ranks of the unemployed in America’s rust belt by the mid 1980s.

With two sons about to enter college, dad took a low-paying job as a Pinkerton guard until something better came along. In the fall of 1974, I was off to Edinboro College near Erie, Pa., to study art on a free ride with government grants because my parents’ earnings fell below poverty guidelines. In my mind, I was forever turning my back on the Godforsaken Mon Valley.

Ironically, one the first things I did after finishing my degree was to apply for a job at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. in Monessen.



(Captions: An early postcard view of the Page wire mill in Monessen, top, and a photo taken by John Hurrianko in the 1960s of Webster from the ramp to the Donora-Webster Bridge. The images are courtesy of the Greater Monessen Historical Society)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Washington's troops died here

FLOREFFE, Pa. – Federal soldiers took viciously ill and died in the late 1790s while preparing to battle with militiamen who were bitterly opposed to a tax on the whiskey they produced in the hills above the Monongahela River.

A smallpox epidemic killed the soldiers after the Whiskey Rebellion was settled in a long-winded speech by then-U.S. Sen. Albert Gallatin to rebels in nearby Monongahela in August 1794. President George Washington’s troops were then buried in a mass grave in an area of Jefferson, Allegheny County, that came to be named Lobbs Cemetery.

The young West Jefferson Hills Historical Society hopes to use sonar to pinpoint the exact location of the soldiers' graves in the cemetery without a church or association to ensure its upkeep. In their spare time, society members have been working with a volunteer archaeologist to map the locations of other graves at the property along Walton Road, just off Route 837.

“We want to cut back the growth that is slowly encroaching the cemetery,” society member Deb Marinello said. “It’s really historic. There are veterans there from all wars, probably up to Vietnam.”

They know that two Virginia soldiers from the early federal encampment, Capt. Thomas Walker of Albermarl County and Lt. Alexander Bell of Berkley County, both 20, died of smallpox and were buried there in January 1795.

And so were at least 900 others over the years before the cemetery would find itself listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its ties to the rebels who launched the first protest against the U.S. government.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Angel needs healing

BROOKLYN, NY – Arthur Wood expects to return within a year to his freaky house that caught fire two years ago, if the city will let him.

The owner of Brooklyn’s infamous Broken Angel House needs to obtain building and occupancy permits from New York officials who believe his house should be torn down. Wood, 77, insists the city is violating his rights by evicting him from the retrofitted apartment house at 4 Downing St on the heels of the fire.

“This is America isn’t it?” he said, with a cup of coffee and blueprints in hand.

He bought the four-story building for $2,000 in 1979 and quickly set about to turn it into a work of art. A cock-eyed church-like addition pokes from the facade of the building that dates to 1864. Before the October 2006 fire, a four-story jumble of planks, decks and ledges had taken shape above the roofline. The artist also planned to cap off the peak with a whale created from a helicopter body before his art was interrupted.

The fire damage, and subsequent order to remove his rooftop additions, nearly killed his drive and left him worse than broken hearted.

“It did more than that,” he said two weeks ago, while watching a workman do little more than move a ladder around some scaffolding because of a stop-work order from the city. “I’m the site boss.”

But that didn't matter to the code enforcers who had Wood and his wife, Cynthia, arrested and taken away in handcuffs for refusing to leave their monstrosity shortly after the fire.

The house has been featured in many newspaper stories because it's so odd. Roadside America considers the building “mutant artwork” and likens the place to a “modern version of the Winchester Mystery House” in San Francisco.

However, some neighbors are not impressed, considering they live in historic brownstones along a quaint tree-lined street.

“I like edgy, non-boxy architecture too, but if everyone started taking it upon themselves to start building on top of their homes helter-skelter we would be living in a dog patch,” a person named Bren posted in July 2007 on a blog, “Brownstoner, Brooklyn inside and out.”

Wood, a self-taught artist, doesn’t seem to care. And if you have the chance to meet him, he will ramble about a multi-million lawsuit he is waging to return to his castle. At least his will doesn’t need to be fixed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Our Miss Liberty was once dead in the water

NEW YORK – America wasn’t so united about France’s offer of a gift of the Statute of Liberty when it was time to raise money to give her a resting place.

People across the great land scoffed at the idea of raising money to pay for a pedestal for the monumental copper and steel sculpture because it was supposed to be, well, a gift.

“Ordinary citizens considered the colossus a rich man’s folly; many rich felt it a populist symbol,” a sign states at a museum inside the granite structure below Miss Liberty that we now consider a global tribute to independence.

But in 1876, after French artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi brought a 30-foot arm from his design of the statue to Philadelphia, U.S. newspapers criticized the nearly $300,000 cost of the statue’s underfunded base. Many believed that New Yorkers should be responsible for the price tag until journalist Joseph Pulitzer came to the rescue and urged subscribers to his newspapers to send money while also criticizing the rich for ignoring the call for donations. Pulitzer’s mission brought home the $100,000 that was needed to complete that 10-story base to support the statue that, itself, is 151 feet and 1 inch tall.

I felt like kicking myself with her big foot Saturday for not taking a tour of this island during my several prior trips to New York. It’s indeed a wonder of the world.

The million folks who tour the site each year are just permitted to climb to the base of the statue, up 154 steep steps, to peek into its frame through a Plexiglass window. After making the climb, I found an enthusiastic, young female National Park Service ranger who was well versed in trivia about the big lady above the observation tower.

The ranger said part of the $10 million restoration project that led up the 100th birthday party for the statue in 1986 involved the removal of 7 layers of asbestos coatings around its metal joints. The substance contributed to saltwater erosion that was damaging the sculpture. It was replaced with joints of stainless steel coated with Teflon.

The perch offers great vantage points to see Lower Manhattan, as well as weird ant’s-eye views of Liberty.

If you visit, plan to spend the better part of the day at the statue and nearby Ellis Island. A treasure of a museum over at Ellis walks visitors through the grueling process poor immigrants faced a century ago after they arrived on boats and tried to make their homes in a land of liberty. All the while, the rich passengers on the same steamships of the era were afforded free passage to America.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dock here matey

It’s easy to imagine a roomful of drunken sailors from a bygone era swigging back rye whiskey inside New York’s oldest dive bar, The Ear Inn.

And some women claim to have seen one named Mickey, whose ghost, they said, has crawled into bed with them in the apartment above the bar in the city’s Soho district.

The spirits have been flowing here since about 1850, when the brick house built by a black Revolutionary War veteran was turned into a waterfront bar.

His name was John Brown and his likeness was supposedly shown beside George Washington in the painting, “Crossing the Delaware.” Rumor has it, they were sailing buddies.

Having made a fortune in the tobacco trade, Brown built his Federal-style house in 1817 at the water's edge beside the Hudson River. Since then, it has been used for everything from a smuggler’s den to a speakeasy, and in between, a brothel.

Today, the house is owned by Rip Hayman, who once published a music sheet in the city named The Ear. To avoid compliance with a complicated and costly sign ordinance, he simply painted the outer edges of the letter “B” in the neon bar sign over the front door to make it an “E” and complete the word, ear.

A smaller sign at the door to the establishment at 326 Spring Street reminds patrons to pipe down and turn off their cell phones. Live music and poetry flow freely on certain evenings. The food is affordable, and the menu includes a fantastic bowl of cowboy chili with chopped onions and a dollop of sour cream.

The place is an antique in itself, with dusty old booze bottles behind the bar that were unearthed when the rear dining room was constructed. The wood floors sag and creak to create a warm and inviting place to belly up to the bar and make new friends.

Sad to say, I didn’t see Mickey, who was stabbed to death in the house during Colonial times. But then again, I wasn’t just off the water and three sheets to the wind.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A walk around The Rock

Tours of New York’s Rockefeller Center lead straight to Studio 8H, the celebrated set of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

There the audience parks themselves on seats borrowed three decades ago from Yankee Stadium when the show began and didn’t have much money. Today, the cast and crew can afford new, more comfortable chairs but are too superstitious to change anything lest the live show might stumble and fall.

Visitors are reminded that SNL has made history for such odd reasons as singer Sinead O’Connor did on Oct. 3, 1992, when she ripped a photograph of the pope in a protest over sexual abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. The controversy all but ended her career in the United States.

The actors also have left us with some of the funniest moments in TV Land, especially the hilarious skit in the early 1990s featuring a stoned Christ Farley wearing black Spandex pants and pretending to be a Chippendales stripper.

The tour isn’t always as interesting as a walk around the Art-Deco center and its 19 commercial buildings dating to 1929. Yesterday, I bumped into this guy named Joe:

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In this corner

Mark Rockage, shown at right, and Tom Brennan take a break from their studies at California University of Pennsylvania to butt heads in a game of Wii boxing.

They demonstrate the skills required to compete in the wildly popular Nintendo "sport" for a feature story in an upcoming edition of the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

This bridge is a hottie

PITTSBURGH – This is one sexy truss bridge across the Monongahela River.

One half of the Hot Metal Bridge opened in 2000, giving motorists better access to the club scene in Pittsburgh’s hip South Side district, which sits across the river from South Oakland.

The other half opened in November 2007 after the completion of a $9.7 million deck for walkers and people on bicycles to connect two popular trails that straddle the river.

The upriver span was built in 1887 for the Monongahela Connecting Railroad as part of its railroad line along the Mon. The sister span was built in 1900 for Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. to shoot crucibles of molten steel from its blast furnaces to the finishing mills.

The hot metal portion was over engineered to ensure that a car carrying bubbling steel didn’t drop into the river and cause a catastrophic explosion.

City leaders say the rehabilitated bridge is a sign that Pittsburgh has been reborn from a smoky city to a center of technology. And heck, this babe from the steel era is something to show off to visitors.

(The downriver view of Pittsburgh)


Sunday, February 3, 2008

A burger and fresh carp

NORTH VERSAILLES, Pa. - Bill Balsamico was in a somber mood Saturday and so was that famous sign above his bar and restaurant, Casa D’Ice. Usually he posts his angry thoughts about the war in Iraq or immigration in bright lights outside his business, and sometimes they include obscenities below the special on the menu. That night, it indicated he was about to announce his support for an independent for president.

While talking to customers inside, Balsamico said he was bummed out to celebrate his 62nd birthday while a relative was in poor health. Usually, he blows out the candles with a live band. At the last minute Saturday, he settled for a disc jockey to entertain a handful of people who stopped by to sign a petition to support Pittsburgh native U.S. Rep. Ron Paul for president in advance of the Pennsylvania primary.

Balsimico gained national attention with his banter after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks prompted him to put his angry thoughts on his signs. Even the Washington Post sent a reporter two years ago to his establishment on Route 30 beside a Kmart. You couldn’t miss the building at night with its blue neon lights in the shapes of icicles dripping from the roof line.

For his youtube.com video, Balsamico read from a script, in a monotone voice, his suggestions for President Bush to return all troops from across the globe to stand guard at the U.S. border with Mexico and “protect our nation from within.” It's dead wrong for a Mexican woman to "jump a fence" to give birth and assure her child U.S. citizenship, Balsamico said, even though he traces his heritage to Italian immigrants.

When I stopped by, the conversation across the bar went from a dislike of career politicians to Balsamico boasting of drinking several cases of Corona beer and bottles of Sambuca during one of his Christmas parties before his wristwatch stopped dead. Yet, to everyone's surprise, his bitter heart kept beating.

He might as well keep drawing customers to the bar with those signs because his food doesn't make a bold statement. My hamburger and fries came plopped on a layer of tin foil spread across a plastic serving tray. The food wasn't so hot.


Friday, February 1, 2008

stranded, stripped and stupid

It’s always a funny scene in a movie when a car is stripped of its parts in five minutes in a bad neighborhood. But it’s kind of unnerving when it happens in plain view in what is supposed to be one of the better neighborhoods in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

This car has grown smaller by the day along Van Dei Cas Highway in Rostraver Township, where the average family has a median income of about $50,000 a year and climbing.

It's become a roadside attraction for those who regularly drive the road. On Tuesday, there were two tires on the ground in front of the hood. The next day, they were gone.

Sometime before yesterday, the rear windshield was broken, probably to get inside the vehicle that has prompted several local residents to complain to Rostraver police. Officers have yet to say how the car became stranded or if anyone is planning for its funeral.

Frank SINATRA -New York New York

Coming soon